You spend a lot of money on your car — and a lot of time driving it — but while people pay for fancy spoilers and larger wheels and upgraded interiors, your car’s audio system is often an afterthought.
Considering the amount of time we spent in our cars though — almost 11 hours a week, according to a study commissioned before the quarantine — it may be time to rethink your car audio system. Whether we’re listening to music while stuck in traffic, or turning up a playlist for a road trip, the best car audio systems can deliver a concert-like experience in the safety and comfort of your car cabin. Like a pair of luxe audiophile headphones, the best car audio systems these days can create an immersive cocoon of sound, whether you’re behind the wheel or seated in the backseat.
They call the sound system the “emotional engine” of a car too, and for good reason: a good car audio system shouldn’t just play music, it should also enhance the songs you’re listening to, pulling out all the tiny details and arrangements that contribute to a track’s feeling.
These days, a number of top car manufacturers are putting the same thought into their audio systems as they do the overall car design, partnering with big audio brands to create surprisingly powerful sonic experiences within a vehicle, whether it’s a six-figure sports car, or a family SUV. Here are some of the best car sound systems we reviewed this year.
McLaren Automative x Bowers & Wilkins
McLaren, the high-octane British sports car brand, is no stranger to thrills on the roads and racetracks, but the company has turned up the power on its sound systems as well, with a new partnership with Bowers & Wilkins. The venerable audio brand has long been known for its suite of luxe headphones and speakers, the latter of which you can now find in the brand new McLaren GT.
The car features a slick 12-speaker, Bowers & Wilkins premium audio system with available carbon-fiber sub-bass woofers and Kevlar mid-range drive units. Bowers & Wilkins speakers have been used in some of the world’s top recording studios, including the iconic Abbey Road in London, and coupled with McLaren’s performance-driven heritage, the audio system in the McLaren GT roars and rumbles with sound that’s as impressive and dynamic as the sports car’s superior handling.
McLaren and Bowers & Wilkins worked closely together to create an audio system that integrates seamlessly with the car’s interior, mirroring the sleek lines and curves of the cabin architecture. Speaker placement is thoughtfully-considered, with the “tweeter-on-top” technology that the company says helps to minimize “acoustic reflection” from the windshield, while also reducing coloration — a term used in the audio industry to describe dull or distorted sound.
The acoustic housing creates a surprisingly quiet and immersive listening experience too, especially considering the engine is in the back of the car (yes, it’s a trunk in the front and engine in the back). McLaren says that’s intentional, with the 12 speakers placed to ensure the “clear passage of sound.” What you get: a heightened acoustic experience that feels like you’re in a listening booth, getting a steady stream of highly detailed, crisp, pure sound.
Of course, this is a bold and powerful sound system so you can really turn up the beats too if you want to really feel the music. What we like: the speakers are loud, but not so loud that you can’t hear the purring of the engine. This is a McLaren after all, and that what you really want to hear when you accelerate off the line.
Chevrolet Corvette Stingray x Bose
When Chevrolet wanted a new car audio system to go along with its re-designed Corvette, the company turned to one of the best audio brands in the business: Bose. The result is a stunning 14-speaker Bose Performance system in the Corvette Stingray, that delivered one of the most impressive listening experiences we’ve had in any car.
First unveiled in the eighth-generation Corvette, the new system continues a tradition of collaboration between Bose and Chevrolet that dates back to the 1984 fourth-generation Corvette. For the latest model, engineers from both brands not only worked to expand the soundscape within the car cabin, they also had to rework the entire layout of the sound system, as the Corvette moved to a mid-engine design from the more conventional front-engine layout.
The result is a perfectly-positioned acoustic housing, with a mix of neodymium speakers across the dashboard, along the top of the doors and in the rear of the cabin. Two 10-inch Bose woofers add the bass, with one integrated in each door. With 14 precisely-placed speakers in total — the most Bose has ever put into a two-seater — both the driver and passenger experiences well-balanced, wide-ranging sound.
You may think a sound system in a sports car like the Corvette would be ringing with bass (and not much else), but you’d be wrong. The custom Bose audio system delivers true studio-quality sound, letting you hear a track the way the artists intended. All the highs and mids are incredibly well-mixed, while the bass purrs rather than rumbles, adding to the soundscape without being domineering. The placement of the speakers replicates 360 degrees of sound too, so sound seems to “float” all around you, rather than being directed straight on you from the front or back.
A bonus: Bose designed the sound system to automatically adjust your tunes when you take the top off the car. Even as your hair is whipping in the wind, your tunes still sound full, smooth and crystal clear.
Jaguar F-TYPE x Meridian
Let’s face it: you’re really behind the wheel of the Jaguar F-TYPE to take it around tight corners and bends and really experience the thrill of the lean and mean sportscar. And indeed, the car’s superb handling and aerodynamic body handled the sweeping curves of Mulholland Drive and the plains of the Malibu canyons beautifully. But we were equally impressed with how well our driving soundtrack sounded as well.
That’s thanks to Jaguar’s partnership with Meridian, which offers three different car audio setups for the brand new F-TYPE. We tested a car with 14 speakers, delivering a total of 380 watts of big, bright sound, with duals subwoofers in the back to really bring out the bass. But Meridian’s Jaguar car audio systems can go up to a whopping 26(!) speakers on select F-TYPE models, with a massive 1300 watts of power. That’s all to say this is a car with sound as thrilling as its performance.
Music in our car was finely-tuned for clarity and contrasts, and the thoughtful speaker placement meant that sound really resonated throughout the cabin. The soundscape was wide and expansive, and felt larger than the car itself, as if we were listening to music at a concert hall or — at least when we had some Def Leppard blaring — like we were at a big stadium show.
While the songs were loud and boisterous, the cabin was surprisingly quiet, thanks to Meridian’s “Cabin Correction technology,” which works to remove any unwanted noise interference, whether the roof is up or down.
We also like the thought put into the design of the sound system, which is tailored to blend seamlessly with the car’s luxurious interior. Meridian says its car audio systems also use a unique algorithm to “tune” the songs to autocorrect or compensate for the different car interior surfaces and textures. What that means: music always sounds lively and crisp, bouncing off the walls rather than sounding like it’s being muffled or absorbed by the seats and padding.
Acura TLX x Panasonic
Acura has partnered with Panasonic on its car audio systems since 2004, and the fruits of the partnership are on full display in Acura’s new ELS STUDIO 3D Sound System. We tested out the ELS STUDIO 3D system on the 2021 Acura TLX, and couldn’t believe that a system of this quality and caliber comes standard on most of the new TLX models (in addition to many of the new Acura vehicles).
The 16-channel, 17-speaker system is a game-changer for luxury sedans, and creates an incredibly immersive 3D soundscape, with the ability to play tunes in true 5.1 surround sound. The addition of four overhead, ceiling-mounted speakers is what helps to produce the three-dimensional audio image, and really fills the cabin with sound, whether you’re sitting in the front or back.
Acura says its car audio system was tuned by Elliot Scheiner, a Grammy-winning producer/engineer who’s worked with everyone from Foo Fighters and Nine Inch Nails, to Fleetwood Mac and Queen. Coincidentally, we had “Somebody to Love” playing through the speakers on our test drive, and you can really hear a producer’s hand in optimizing the audio system for the car. Everything was rich and vibrant, and the speakers picked up even the tiniest details, from the gentle swishing of drum brushes, to the lush tones of a guitar or keyboard. Most importantly, vocals were kept front and center, allowing songs to really resonate throughout the cabin.
Land Rover x Meridian
Land Rover is synonymous with luxury, and that extends to the sound system inside its vehicles. The luxury SUV brand has partnered with Meridian on a state-of-the-art sound system with a focus on music clarity and authenticity. What that means: songs sound more true-to-life, and closer to how they were recorded in the studio, as they blast through powerful speakers in the car.
Meridian has been making high-end audio systems since 1977 and the British brand excels at customizing the aural experience inside the cabin. The 2021 Land Rover Sport that we test drove had 13 speakers that collectively delivered up to 380 watts of pure, detailed sound. A dual channel subwoofer added heft on the low end of things. (Worth noting: the Meridian “Signature Sound System” package gets you up to 29 speakers and 1700 watts).
Meridian’s “Trifield 3D” technology, meantime, is billed as the world’s “first 3D in-car surround sound system,” using the addition of dedicated height channels to create an illusion of a fuller, more expansive cabin soundscape.
Land Rover has been a champion of music not only in its vehicles, but live music as well. The company held its first-ever 4xFAR Music and Adventure Festival in 2020, with performances by Anderson .Paak and The Free Nationals, Mark Ronson, Q-Tip, Sofi Tukker and other, to coincide with the launch of its 2020 Land Rover Defender.
Lincoln Corsair x Revel
Lincoln is no stranger to good music, having been a sponsor of the Grammy Awards, in addition to numerous music festivals and concerts. The venerable car company has brought the concert experience into its new fleet of vehicles too, with a 14-speaker premium Revel audio system, which delivers warm, spacious sound into the luxe two-row SUV.
Inspired by the Latin word “cursus,” meaning journey, the Corsair is a great road trip car (we drove it through the city streets and country roads of Nashville) with well-placed speakers that are tuned to ensure the highest audio quality for the cabin size and acoustic housing. Both the interior design and speaker design look handsome and high-end, like a window seat on a private jet, or your favorite chair in your library or den.
Lincoln also pays tribute to its Detroit roots, working with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra on custom “symphonic chimes” that work as car alerts. The instrumental tones alert you to things like your door being left ajar or if your keys are still in the vehicle, and are a subtle nod to the musical legacy of the Motor City.