2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo: Audio Review


  • 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo Picture

    2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo Picture

    These wheels look best when moving. | March 25, 2011

2 Photos

When I first read contributor Terry Miller's review of the Infinity audio system in a 2011 Kia Optima EX, I had to make sure this was the same guy I've known and worked with almost 20 years. The one that's a hardcore aftermarket audio guy who made a name for himself in "sound-off" circles back in the day, first as a top-notch stereo installer/sound-quality competitor, then as respected car audio competition judge and later as promoter of some of the most popular and respected shows in the South.

Could he have really liked the 8-speaker premium Infinity system in the Optima EX that much? Although I obviously trust Terry's opinion and expertise enough to hire him as a regular contributor, I still approached listening to the identical setup in our long-term 2011 Optima SX Turbo with skepticism. And while our reviews differ, our opinions on the Infinity system don't.

The Setup
The Infinity audio system in our 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo consists of eight speakers powered by 550 watts. The speakers include a 4-inch midrange in the center of the dash, a two-way speaker consisting of a 1/2-inch tweeter and 4-inch midrange in each corner of the dash, a 6-inch midrange in each front door, another two-way that includes a 1/2-inch tweeter and 6-inch mid in each rear door and a 8-inch dual-voice-coil subwoofer in the center of the rear deck.

The Sound
As with every system I evaluate, I listened to 10 musical tracks that I've heard in literally hundreds of vehicles to gauge clarity/lack of distortion, tonal balance, timbre, tonal accuracy, soundstaging, imaging and dynamics. The music ranges from the jazz of Bluesiana Triangle to the folk of Luka Bloom to the rock of Red House Painters and rap of Outkast. I also use several non-musical tracks to further test soundstaging, imaging, linearity and absence of noise. For more details on this testing process and the tracks used, check out the Edmunds.com article Sound Advice.

In large part I agree with Terry's positive appraisal of the Optima's Infinity system, particularly that small tweaks of the tone controls could make the system sound even better. (We do all stereo evaluations with bass, treble, fader and balance controls at the center/flat setting and with any equalization turned off -- sorry 06scooby -- to level the playing field). I also found that the strong points of the Infinity system were its above-average clarity, timbre and tonal accuracy, although tonal balance was skewed due to the high-end harshness and midbass boom that's endemic among all but high-end OEM systems. But that's what tone controls are for, and these sonic anomalies could be somewhat tamed with a few knob twists -- or, in the Optima, with a few taps of the touch screen.

The 8-inch sub pumped out powerful bass while bumping to Outkast's "Ain't No Thang." But when fed the more musical (and challenging) low-frequency depth charge that kicks off Joan Armatrading's "In Your Eyes," the deep bass was too boomy. Plus, the interior was plagued by panel rattles, which always makes me want to just turn down the volume in disgust.

The soundstaging had good depth and height but was constricted width-wise to well within the car's A pillars. If there's one point where mine and Terry's opinion's diverge, it's on imaging. With both music and technical test tracks, the system failed to produce a convincing center image. Linearity, a measure of how well a system maintains sound quality at various volume levels, was good at low volume and excellent at mid volume, the latter being a rare occurrence for systems in this vehicle segment.

The Sources
The Optima SX Turbo comes standard with a single-CD head unit with AM, FM and Sirius satellite radio. An aux-in jack and USB port are at the bottom of the center stack, inconveniently located in a recessed area behind the gear shift. And to integrate an iPod with the audio system, Kia makes owners pay extra for an accessory cable that plugs into both the aux jack and USB port. But you can circumvent this by using the car's Bluetooth audio option or by plugging in a USB flash drive loaded with tunes, although with both of these functionality and features are limited compared to when an iPod is connected.

Once you buy Kia's optional proprietary cable and plug in your Apple portable, you get reasonably good access to the contents. The touch screen interface is pretty painless as automotive iPod-integration schemes go. The fast forward/reverse icons on the touch screen aren't the swiftest way to scroll through a long list of menu items, but a small icon above the FF/RW tabs shows the page you're on for a reference.

I prefer a feature like Chrysler's List Jump or, better yet, voice activation a la Ford Sync to quickly get me to the track, artist, album or whatever I want to hear. The Optima's voice activation works well, but control is restricted to common commands like play/pause and next track. The system also includes audiobooks and podcast as top-line iPod menu items in addition to the usual suspects of playlists, albums, artists and songs.

What We Say
A backlash has already started to haunt Hyundai and Kia as the scrappy Korean automaker gains ground on other Asian and domestic brands. Notwithstanding issues with the driver's seat, interior lighting and backup camera, we've found lots to like with 2011 Kia Optima SX Turbo, and the Inside Line editors named the model an Editors' Most Wanted Award winner for 2011.

My only gripe is with the price: To get the Infinity audio you have to spring for the $2,000 Technology Package with a navigation system and backup camera. A better alternative would be to make it a separate sub-$500 option, like the Pioneer system in our long-term Cruze. But if you want the other bells and whistles in the Tech Package, based on my experience -- and on Terry Miller's solid second first opinion -- I wholeheatedly recommend the Kia Optima Infinity system if you also want good sound.

The Scores
Sound: B+
Sources: A-
iPod Integration: B
Cost: B-

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