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Car audio rocks the New York auto show

People pay big bucks for optional car audio systems, so how good are they? Mostly not so hot, but sound quality varies greatly from car to car.

The Rolls Royce Ghost sound system wasn't as impressive as its grille
Steve Guttenberg

I went to the 2010 New York International Auto Show to listen to car audio systems. Weird, yes, but I'm the audio guy, and a lot of cars have expensive audio systems. It's not hard to drop more than a couple of thousand dollars on a car system, which is probably more than most folks spend on their home hi-fis. I thought the same thing last year.

I get it; if you spend a lot of time in your car, it's easy to justify the expense, but dollar for dollar, car systems are pretty lame compared to home audio of the same price.

Does your car system cost more than your home system? Steve Guttenberg

One thing's for sure, car audio systems make bass, lots of boomy, bloated, and overdone bass, even when the controls are set to "flat." Most systems are no better than a $200 boombox. Sure, the systems play nice and loud, but they lack the finesse of a good, $1,500 home system.

I started out listening to a 5.1-channel system in a Smart Passion Cabriolet (convertible). Nice car, bigger on the inside and more comfy than you'd think, but the sound was cramped and lifeless. I didn't stick around too long to try to get it to sound much better by tweaking the controls.

The Smart car's sound didn't have a high IQ Steve Guttenberg

The sleek new Jaguar XF sedan, with a B&W sound system, was a big step up from the Smart car. The sound was more like a home high-end system, possibly because B&W had tweeters perched up high, giving a more direct path to the driver and passenger's ears than most car systems.

The Bose audio system in the Nissan Skyline GTR supercar wasn't bad, but it didn't rise above the fray.

Ah, but the Mark Levinson audio system in the Lexus L5 460 sedan was really nice. It has a center-channel speaker, so vocals were centered, just like a home system would. Most car systems splash sound all around the cabin, without any focus or localization cues you'd get from a decently setup home hi-fi. The Mark Levinson system's bass was also distinctly tighter and more tuneful than most.

The B&W system aims its tweeters to your ears, midrange at your knees. Steve Guttenberg

The BMW 550i Gran Turismo's sound system topped them all. It had a more "open," less boxy sound than other car systems. The sound was lower in distortion, had clearer treble, and more accurate bass than any other car at the show. Really impressive, but I never figured out which company designed the sound system for the 550i. Kudos to the design team, whoever they are.

The 2010 New York International Auto Show runs through April 11 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.