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Why your car stereo sounds lousy

Three things to know when buying a new car or upgrading the audio in your current one.

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brian-cooley-9612
Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and The PHM HealthFront™. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
2 min read

Be thankful for your car stereo. Can you imagine sitting in traffic without it, relegated to a silence that focuses your rage or tempts you to ill-advisedly play with your phone? 

But car audio is a miracle in other ways, grappling with a very challenging listening environment. When you select a system while buying a new car or upgrade the system in your current car, you should be aware of the three major hurdles and some technologies that can solve for them.

Compression

The scourge of our age is the fact that most popular audio forms are highly compressed. We want it all, now, and in the least amount of space possible. That means MP3s, streams or satellite radio, all of which have had the life squashed out of them. You may not notice without and A/B comparison, but your subconscious notices in the form of listening fatigue.

One of the major new trends in car audio is to use predictive AI technology that listens ahead of the source and makes an educated guess as to what's missing, putting it back just before the signal goes to the amp and speakers. Startup Bambu and behemoth Harman are among those using this technique to overcome fried ear syndrome.

Speaker Placement

Today's car has speakers everywhere - almost all of them in the wrong place. Its just the nature of a car, where occupants must sit on one extreme side and at one end or the other of the listening room. That almost never happens in other listening situations (unless you have really crappy tickets to a show).

The idea that more speakers, and amps to drive them, can solve this is a bit of wishful thinking. One of the key elements that is missing from most systems is a center channel speaker like is crucial to any home theater. Some THX, B&O and other high end car rigs have that and its worth looking for.

Noise

The car is a noisy place where road noise is constantly mixed with your music for a cacophony the studio engineers never intended. Some cars have active noise cancellation that samples road noise in real time and injects the inverse of it into the audio system to cancel it out. It can help, but is still a form of sound adulteration that is at odds with the clean, quiet background your really want for music to sound good and fatigue you less.

Bottom Line

Look into the new technologies that repair the damage of compression, try to get a system with a center channel speaker and realize that the louder and sportier-sounding your car is, the more it makes listening a pain in the brain.