On The Dial: All I Want is to Listen to The Music!

The automobile is a fantastic piece of engineering. It can be as simple as an engine, suspension, steering, brakes and a seat. Or, it could be more complicated than that.

Once automakers welcomed the arrival of the in-car audio system, they knew that the lives of motorists across the country and around the world would soon be changed. From early radio broadcasts to today’s multiplexed, multichannel and connected content delivery, the complexity of even audio inside of a vehicle has matched the level of complexity of the vehicle itself.

Content playback is one thing. It is the expansive ways to deliver that playback throughout a confined space – the interior. One speaker no longer did the job. Nor did basic stereo playback. Four speakers? Six…eight…? Nowadays, more advanced systems offer a dozen or more speakers dotted around the cabin. Each speaker now has a specific function and range that is further connected onto the complex audio system.

To have many speakers, how does the sound travel? Can it be filtered or enhanced? We are far from the days of higher powered amplifiers and Dolby noise reduction. The lid has been removed to simulate concert halls, recording studios, and movie theaters inside of a vehicle. It is not because they can, but because of a combination of hardware and software that enabled the clearest, cleanest sound from a plethora of speakers.

Perhaps today is a great day for audio playback. We are indeed spoiled today with many options supplied by both the OEM and in aftermarket applications. The sky is the limit when it comes to playback of broadcasts and recordings. You can also add video and gaming content, too! The imagination towards creating the ultimate audio – and visual – experience for a vehicle has never been given a wider berth than ever.

For those of us who love music, we may have won.

What did we win, though? That depends on how you view audio/visual systems inside your vehicle.

When I review vehicles, I pay attention to how I am able to motivate myself behind the wheel. Music and sports programming are what you will find if you happen to drive with me. It is mostly music – either fed through my iPhone or from the radio presets. Depending on whether SiriusXM is active on a particular vehicle, certain channels take priority over others. If there is space, I might add a local radio station. One would hope that broadcasts in HD Radio.

This reliance on technology is indeed a massive change over these past five years. These playback options serve as litmus tests for the audio system to perform. Some frequencies – not the actual channel frequencies, but playback quality – are certainly better than others. The sound quality of SiriusXM actually fit between analog FM and digital HD Radio on the FM band.

With better quality, the ears get a chance to let the brain process the playback better. There are certain songs that will challenge the ears and brain to process the music deeper. For example, Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks" is a great example of how you can distinctly hear all four members of the band and how much each member has broken down the track with minimal continuity. Jimmy Page's guitar is playing one progression, while Robert Plant sings against it. Meanwhile the rhythms of John Bonham's drums and John Paul Jones' bass simply do not match. Each one is playing or singing their own way. Together it sounds magnificent.

The kicker to the playback of this song was two-fold. The actual playback was done via the FM band’s HD Radio signal. Secondly, it came through superbly in a 2015 Volkswagen Golf S 5-door hatchback. A basic car with a basic audio set-up offering superb music playback? Today’s audio technology has made it possible.

Yet, we want sound quality excellence, right? Or, do we care? Two examples – I found no difference in the sound quality of the Mark Levinson audio system inside various Lexus models, than I do the standard "Premium" sound system – even in the same car. It would make people think before committing a thousand or more dollars for the audiophile-level upgrade. Whereas, Volvo’s offering of the Bowers & Wilkins audio system in the XC90 and S90 are indeed worth the extra money. The quality of these systems rank as the best I ever experienced from an OEM audio system.

Today’s audio systems are definitely a far cry from the system I had installed in my old 1991 Acura Integra RS coupe. Instead of paying top dollar on an Acura-supplied Alpine audio system, I went across the highway to an electronics superstore to buy a Sony pull-out cassette system – with Dolby and a strong internal amplifier – and a set of four coaxial Infinity speakers. This set up was designed for what I call a "jazz" sound – clean playback from an analog cassette and lockable signals from the FM signals.

As I stated before, today's audio systems are much more complex and technically advanced. CD playback is becoming rarer than ever. We have thrown away our MP3 and iPods for our smartphones and loaded up on music files into its storage. Once you connect your phone – poof, the front end of that phone is now on your infotainment screen!

That word – "infotainment" – is the norm these days. The complexity of audio systems enabled multiple information systems to be integrated, such as satellite navigation, telematics programs, auxiliary controls for interior and vehicle functions and the back-up camera. The location where a radio used to sit has become a multifunction nerve center that could almost control the entire vehicle, if it wants to.

Still, all I want is the music to flow. I want certain songs to help keep me entertained on long journeys. The big win is a music experience that envelops the cabin and makes the miles float away. Ideally, this would be perfect. Reality tells us to do one thing: Just listen to the music.

Photo by Randy Stern

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