2007 Acura RDXClick to enlarge picture

The 10-speaker, 410-watt ELS system is standard equipment on the Tech version of the Acura RDX, which also includes XM Satellite Radio, navigation and HandsFreeLink Bluetooth capability.

It used to be that if you wanted really great sound in your vehicle you had to drive to a car stereo shop, pick out the individual audio components and then have the shop install it all.

But now automakers are offering audio systems that sound great right off the lot by partnering with prominent names from the home and car audio world: Bang & Olufsen, Mark Levinson, Rockford Fosgate and others. And longtime premium-audio suppliers such as Bose and Harman have also stepped up their car stereo game of late.

Below, we take a look and listen to six of the best stock audio offerings currently available. To help you decide whether it's worth popping for the premium system at the time of purchase, each system is rated on sound quality and ergonomics on a scale of 1 to 5. And while each of the six systems surveyed have their good and bad points, each one represents a sound design that will please almost any music lover.

2007 Acura RDX Tech—$34,495
The in-dash six-disc changer in this second-generation ELS Surround Sound System plays DVD-Audio and DVD-Video discs as well as CDs, and Acura provides an aux-in jack and 12-volt plug in the center console to connect an MP3 player. The 10-speaker, 410-watt ELS system is standard equipment on the Tech version of the RDX, which also includes XM Satellite Radio, navigation and HandsFreeLink Bluetooth capability at no extra cost. The system sounds best when playing DVD-Audio discs, and Acura has greatly improved the sound for rear-seat passengers thanks to the placement of the rear speakers on the C pillars. CD playback is also excellent. But with all music formats, the bass from the subwoofer in the rear of the vehicle sounded somewhat out of balance with the rest of the system. It was also one of the more difficult systems to operate on the fly, since Acura's multi-function dial in the dash isn't always intuitive to use, although the convenient steering-wheel controls and reliable voice recognition system make up for it.

Sound Quality: 4
Ergonomics: 2.5

2007 Audi S8—$110,170
As easy on the eyes as it is pleasing to the ears, the Audi S8's Bang & Olufsen Advanced Sound System includes tweeters that rise up out of the dash and cool aluminum grilles in the doors and rear deck. And at $6,300, the 14-speaker, 1,000-watt system should give you something to show off. But at times I felt that the system looked better than it sounded. I noticed that when I moved my head to one side the sound changed, likely due to the position of the tweeters on the dash. You can optimize the sound of the system so it's best for the driver, front or rear passengers or for all the occupants in the vehicle, as well as vary the amount of surround-sound. But the occupant modes gave the music an unnatural sound, and I preferred listening with the surround mode turned off. The system was easy to operate thanks to Audi's Multi-Media Interface in the center console and the bold graphics on a small screen that slips into the dash when not in use. I also liked the rotary volume knobs on the center console and the steering wheel, but stashing the six-disc CD changer in the glove box seems so 20th century.


Sound Quality: 3.5
Ergonomics: 3.5

2007 BMW 335i Convertible—$57,225
It's easy to think of the Harman Logic7 system in the new BMW 335i Convertible as the "Ultimate Sound Machine." Befitting this topless twin-turbo road rocket is an equally high-performance 13-speaker, 300-watt audio system that cranks out great tunes whether the car's hardtop is up or down. In fact, after driving the same roads and listening to the same music with the roof open and closed, I'm convinced that BMW has set a new standard for auto sound in a convertible. Whether it was low-key jazz or hard-driving rock, the detail and impact of the music was rarely lost in wind and road noise, and the sound was nearly identical in top-up and top-down mode at all but the highest speeds. Plus, the 335i has one of the most realistic and non-gimmicky surround modes of any of the vehicles covered here. While the system didn't have the fancy controls of some of the other cars, it was nonetheless simple to operate, although an in-dash CD changer and a larger display would make great additions.

Sound Quality: 5
Ergonomics: 3.5

2007 Infiniti G35 Sport—$36,800
The Bose Studio On Wheels system in the Infiniti G35 Sport represent both the best and worst aspects of high-end OEM audio: The system sounds amazing with just about any type of music, but the controls are amazingly frustrating to use. The 10-speaker, 374-watt system features 24-bit Burr Brown digital-to-analog converters for a stereo sound that is among the best available. Whether I was spinning jazz, rock, folk or hip-hop CDs in the in-dash six-disc changer, the Studio On Wheels system brought out the best in the tunes. But controlling it brought out my worst. The iDrive-like controller is located too far away in the center of the dash, and the steering-wheel audio controls for track up/down work the opposite of most others: You toggle down to skip forward and up to skip back a track. And the aux-in in the center console uses RCA connections instead of a standard mini-jack as in most vehicles and is better designed for adding an external DVD player rather than an MP3 player.

Sound Quality: 4
Ergonomics: 2

2007 Lexus LS 460—$71,480
When Lexus added Mark Levinson sound systems to its vehicles in 2000, it raised expectation for all carmakers' premium audio offerings. The Mark Levinson Reference Surround Sound Audio System in the 2007 Lexus LS 460 sets a new standard. The 19-speaker, 450-watt system not only plays DVD-Audio and DVD-Video surround-sound discs and CDs, but also incorporates a 8-gigabyte hard-disc drive that allows creating a personal music library of up to 2,000 songs. It's one of the best sounding systems available today, and the LS 460's ultra-quiet interior makes for a perfect venue. The system is also easy to operate thanks to the large touch-screen in the dash and one of the best voice-recognition systems on the road. One minor quibble is that with the steering-wheel audio controls at the 8 o'clock position, they aren't as easily accessible as others at 3 and 9 o'clock.

Sound Quality: 5
Ergonomics: 4

2007 Mitsubishi Outlander XLS 4WD—$28,815
This version of the Outlander is proof that you don't need to spend big bucks on a vehicle and a premium audio option to get good sound. The nine-speaker, 650-watt Rockford Fosgate Punch system is part of a $1,580 XLS Sun & Sound package for the Outlander that also includes Sirius Satellite Radio, an aux-in jack and a power sunroof. Rockford Fosgate built its reputation in the crank-it-up world of aftermarket car audio, but the Outlander's Punch system handled subtle acoustic music as well as it blasted rock and hip-hop. And if you want your system to be seen as well as heard, prominent logos on both the subwoofer and its enclosure in the rear cargo area and on the silver-highlighted tweeters in the front doors make sure that it stands out. Too bad the tiny in-dash display isn't as visible, making it difficult to read at a glance. And if you want to plug in an iPod or other MP3 player, you have to almost climb in the backseat since the aux-in jack is positioned on the back of the center console.

Sound Quality: 4
Ergonomics: 3

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