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Stock car stereos offer more bang for your buck

There’s never been a better time to get great sound in your car and a good deal on an audio system.

By Douglas Newcomb Nov 5, 2012 7:16AM

Subaru Harman Kardon stereoIf you like listening to music while driving -- and who doesn’t -- there’s never been a better time to get great sound and a great deal on a car audio system.

A decade earlier, this would have required driving to a car audio shop to replace the stock stereo system with thousands of dollars worth of aftermarket gear. But with most of today’s factory audio systems, that’s either impossible or irrelevant. Modern factory stereos give you the best bang for your buck right out of the dealership.

While luxury automakers have offered high-end audiophile brands for years, I’m routinely impressed by the sound systems in several mainstream vehicles, some of which come as standard equipment.

One of the best examples is the Boston Acoustics system in the Camaro SS Convertible. The system isn’t impressive on paper: It consists of only eight speakers powered by 245 watts. But it's one of the best I’ve heard in a convertible -- from an automaker or aftermarket -- which is even more impressive because it’s difficult to get great sound in a thinly insulated soft-top. The system is standard on the 2LT and 2SS models and is a $495 option on the 1LT and 1SS.

Another stereo that stands out with great sound and excellent value is the Alpine system available on many Jeep Grand Cherokee models as standard equipment. It includes 10 speakers powered by 506 watts. Unlike most branded systems, logos aren't prominently displayed on the speaker grilles, but this low-key system in a large SUV is better than some prominent brands in high-end sedans.

Yet another example of how far automakers' audio has come is the optional Infinity system in the Kia Optima on SX and EX models. It’s a simple setup that consists of eight speakers powered by 550 watts. Unfortunately, the price isn’t so modest. To get it, you have to pay for the $2,950 Premium Touring Package, which bundles in a panoramic sunroof, heated and cooled seats, a heated steering wheel and other electronic accoutrements.

A brand name doesn’t always guarantee good sound. Bose practically invented branded car audio, and while some of the company’s systems are top-notch, such as the Studio Surround setup in the Infiniti M, others are disappointing, such as the Studio on Wheels system in Infiniti G models. Even buying a very expensive vehicle with a high-end audio brand doesn’t ensure top-quality sound; I was extremely disappointed in the Bang & Olufsen system in the Aston Martin DBS Volante when I heard it several years ago, for example. The exhaust note of the car, however, was music enough.

If you want to make sure you get the best sound for your dollar, that’s easy: Trust your ears. Bring your own music and audition the audio system while you test-drive the car. Although the audio system may not be a make-or-break factor in your buying decision, you have a much better chance of finding a car with good sound at a good price -- without ever taking it to a car stereo store.

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.


Nov 6, 2012 8:36AM
Back when I was a lad it was not difficult to buy an aftermarket system that out performed a factory radio but I think it is safe to say the gap has closed significantly since then.  When I would sell my car I used to keep my stereo and move it to the next one.  You can't do that today without totally disfiguring the dashboard in the process.   I can't complain about the factory systems in my last few cars.  They sounded decent and I didn't have to climb under the dash to install them.  Besides, who wants to go to all of that trouble to install something that will only sound marginally better just so some thug looking for drug money can butcher up your car trying to steal it?
Nov 6, 2012 6:32AM
Pssh… I haven't met a system yet that can match an aftermarket system for quality.  And remember, that isn't $500, that's a $500 ADDER!!!  And for $3000, you could install a system that would smoke anything offered by any car manufacturer.
Nov 5, 2012 12:27PM

"If you like listening to music while driving -- and who doesn’t --"


With the rare exception of being out in the middle of nowhere on vacation, I DON"T.


It's too distracting and any distraction is the last thing you need while commuting here in SoCal trying to dodge others who ARE distracted.  When I drive, I drive.  If I want to listen to music, I'll do it at home where I can relax and enjoy it.


Besides, there are enough morons in cars who blast their "music" loud enough that the whole world can "enjoy" it!

Nov 5, 2012 9:29AM
Strange that the picture is a Harmon Kardon speaker, and the article doesn't mention a single car with a Harmon Kardon system.  Why not mention the 440 watt, 9 speaker Harmon Kardon system available in the Subaru Legacy?  Or use a different picture?
Nov 5, 2012 8:28AM

To say that one of these systems will sound good in one car and therefore will sound good in another acr is fasle. It is overlooked that the dimensions and shape of the interior contibute to the performance of any sound system install in the car.

Question: Are you buying a car or a sound-booth?

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