The last 30 years have seen a revolution in car audio design. Beginning in the '70s with four- and eight-track players, and continuing right on through to the present day, innovations in cassette, CD and now even MP3 technology have given today's car audio consumer a wide range of choices.
We decided to take a closer look at the stereo systems available in today's cars, and subsequently put together a top 10 list of the best tunes on wheels for your car-purchasing buck. To make this information more accessible to our readers, we've separated it into two lists vehicles with an MSRP below $30,000 and those with an MSRP above $30,000. For more reasonably priced vehicles with impressive sound systems, see our companion article, Top Ten Sound Systems in Cars Under $30,000 for 2002.
Please note that this list deals only with sound systems installed at the factory. The aftermarket is another beast in and of itself, with a myriad of choices to suit various tastes, and we've refrained from delving into it here. Remember, too, that aftermarket gear frequently requires alteration of a car's cosmetics, one of the chief complaints made by owners of luxury vehicles. What could be more irksome, after all, than a $100,000 Mercedes with a cheesy aftermarket CD player in-dash? Automakers have gotten wise to this objection, and now design gear that matches the vehicle's interior cosmetics. Furthermore, in many cases, as in vehicles with built-in navigation systems, the stereo's functions are routed through a touchscreen display, making it difficult, if not impossible, to mate aftermarket equipment with the existing electronics.
With that said, here's our list of the top 10 factory-installed stereos in cars where price is no object:
1. 2002 Lexus LS 430 (Mark Levinson)
This sound system, which was introduced in 2001, is unquestionably the best on the market. In fact, if we could give it an 11, a la Spinal Tap, we would it's that good. It comes with 11 speakers, 240 watts of clean RMS power and sound quality second to none. The power rating itself is an indication of the quality of the system, since most car stereos are rated by the manufacturers with "peak power," a figure roughly double the RMS power rating, which essentially allows them to fib about the vehicle's true performance. Mark Levinson uses the true RMS rating, which legitimizes this system's quality. ML systems are available in various flavors across the Lexus product line, in every vehicle except the IS 300 and RX 300 (but this could change, so check current listings).
Mark Levinson is a high-end home stereo manufacturer owned by Harman International (the same company that brings you Harman-Kardon, JBL and Infinity). Several years ago, the company dispatched its engineers to Japan to work with the Lexus folks on a truly integrated sound system. The results are stunning. Although this system comes in several configurations, we like the sound in the LS 430 best. Oh, and one other thing. If you can live without it, consider purchasing the vehicle without the navigation system. In such a configuration, Lexus routes most of the stereo controls through the touchscreen display, a setup we found unnecessarily cumbersome.
2. 2002 Mercedes-Benz S500 (Bose)
Leave it to Mercedes to charge another two grand for an option package just so you can get a CD player in your vehicle. The company's reasoning and far be it from us to doubt it is that a Mercedes customer will pay the difference. That's probably true. But what a difference a CD player makes, transforming this so-so stereo into one of the best on the market. The Bose setup in the 2002 S500 rocks both soft or loud, and with many steering wheel-mounted controls, as well as an ergonomic head unit, it's a snap to use.
A Volvo near the top of the list? You bet your sweet lutefisk. Several years ago, the Volvo sound engineers introduced the first Dolby Pro Logic circuitry for the car. The results were and continue to be phenomenal. To be honest, this system (available as an option) sounds better than anything Mercedes/Bose is putting out, but the ergonomics are quite poor, so we've knocked the score down a bit. In sound quality alone, though, this system ranks second only to the Mark Levinson setup in the Lexus. Unfortunately, user-friendliness is hampered by a rotary dial in place of the normal radio presets you find in most American cars, a real pain in the keister. To tune in a station, you have to dial in each station number individually. We can only guess that Swedes have a lot of spare time on their hands something to get through those long winters. This ergonomic faux pas, plus the availability of a CD changer that holds only four CDs, brands this system as a little behind the times. But it sounds awesome particularly with the Dolby Pro Logic circuitry kicked in.
4. 2002 Infiniti Q45 (Bose)
With a generous 300 watts of total system power, eight speakers and a six-disc CD changer all coming standard in the Infiniti Q45, it's no wonder that this system sounds as good as it does. Loaded with a hefty 12-inch Bose subwoofer in back and an array of three tweeters across the front, it not only plays loud but elegantly. Also, as an extra sideline, it comes with a Voice Recognition system, so you can control many of the stereo's functions through spoken commands.
5. 2002 Land Rover Range Rover (Alpine/Harman-Kardon)
An SUV in the top five? Pass the tea and crumpets and crank up the volume this is one great-sounding audio system. With 460 watts of unadulterated Alpine juice powering 12 Harman-Kardon speakers throughout the cabin, you'll think you're at the Royal Albert Hall when this thing kicks in. The system includes an in-dash six-disc CD changer, a 10-inch subwoofer in back and something we rarely see a separate volume control for the sub. Pass the Grey Poupon and the opera glasses, bloke. Now if they could just fix the funky cosmetics and ergonomics. Oh, wait. They did that (with BMW's help) for 2003.
6. 2002 BMW M3 (Harman-Kardon)
BMW has finally begun to put it together in the autosound area. The optional sound system in the M3 boasts 12 Harman-Kardon speakers sprinkled throughout the cabin, including a bounteous pair of 6-by-9 subwoofers along the back deck. Also of note: a pair of well-positioned tweeters in front, plus an elegant, simple no-nonsense head unit, which is the essence of German functionality and design. This system breathes BMW class and distinction.
7. 2002 Acura TL (Bose)
This pleasing system from Bose has classic Honda styling and ergonomics written all over it. Coming as standard equipment on the TL, it has only five speakers (one of them a very generous 8-inch sub along the back deck), but it puts out surprisingly good sound. And, as with most Honda products, we suspect it will wear well as the cars age.
8. 2002 Cadillac Escalade (Bose)
This 250-watt system, which comes standard on the Escalade, boasts 11 total speakers (including a smallish sub in the rear), a cassette player, an in-dash six-disc changer and a head unit loaded with features. Although bass could be improved and ergonomics are a bit of a puzzle on the head unit, it sounds great otherwise and definitely makes the list.
If all were right with the universe, a Porsche 911 Carrera would have the best stereo known to man in its dashboard. Even though it doesn't, this one still makes our list for one very particular reason: It has the best top-down system we've ever listened to. Similarly appointing it in both the 911 and the Boxster, the Porsche designers took a page out of Sound Engineering 101, mounting a pair of midrange-tweeter drivers directly on top of the dashboard, firing upward into the windshield glass. As a result, the sound doesn't get lost in the wind, but instead stays front and center. It sounds fantastic with the top down, even at 100 miles per hour (not that we'd go 100 mph in a test vehicle, but if we did go 100 mph in a test vehicle, we know it'd sound good). One word of caution, though: With the top up, this system is a little too "in your face" for most listeners. And the dinky little preset buttons on the radio! Will someone at Porsche get a clue?
10. 2002 Hummer H1 (Monsoon)
This system is so strange, we decided to put it on our list just for the bizarro factor. If you like your music mean and loud, this one's for you. Not for the faint of heart, the Monsoon system in the Hummer has heavy metal stamped all over it. With an array of six 4-inch coaxial speakers in the headliner and a thunderous sub in back, slam in the Judas Priest or Metallica, and take it away, boys! "Party on, Wayne!" "Party on, Garth!"