Name-brand sound systems have become nearly synonymous with luxury vehicles, and now well-known audio logos are appearing even in low-cost cars. But for the budget-conscious car buyer, the decision of whether it's worth upping the price of a vehicle to include the premium audio option is perhaps even more vital.
And even if a sound system is from a well-known brand, just how good is the premium audio in budget cars? To find out, we gathered six cars under $30,000 (all but one were under $25,000, and one was less than $20,000) with premium audio options and put them through an extensive audio evaluation.
The cars and systems are listed below in worst-to-best order. We assigned scores from 1 to 10 in seven sound quality categories: clarity, tonal balance, timbre, tonal accuracy, soundstaging, imaging and dynamics. We then averaged each car's points to determine total scores ranging from 1 to 10, with 1 being headache-inducing and 10 being the best sound we'd expect from a budget vehicle. (For more on our methodology, see the article "Sound Advice.")
While our goal is to give you a basis for making a more informed buying decision, don't just take our word for it. Trust your own ears. Before paying for premium audio, bring along your favorite music and give the sound system a serious listen. Also while shopping, note that in most cases you can't pick the premium audio system separately since it's often part of a bundled option package.
2010 Scion xB
Price of car as tested: $16,700
Price of audio system: $449
Audio Brand: Alpine
Audio specs: 6 speakers, 160 watts
The price for the Scion xB's Alpine premium audio system is the lowest among most of these options by a long shot (except for the Dynaudio system in the VW Golf TDI, a vehicle that costs over $12,000 more). The option consists of an upgraded Alpine head unit and six speakers: a full-range unit in each of the four doors and a tweeter in each front door.
The Alpine head unit adds features and looks great, but a system's sound quality is largely determined by the speakers. And in this case, they aren't very good. The bass was anemic and had an unmusical, thumpy quality. Vocals were clean, but the high frequencies were crunchy. That, combined with the weak bass, resulted in cold, thin sound.
2010 Toyota Corolla XRS
Price of car as tested: $20,050
Price of audio system: $1,010, requires Power package
Audio Brand: JBL
Audio specs: 8 speakers, 440 watts
Checking the specs of the Toyota Corolla XRS's JBL system, it's easy to see why it bested its Scion cousin: It packs almost three times as much power, driving eight speakers. But the system wasn't three times better sounding, and still settled into second-to-last place. Plus, it's part of a pricey option package.
The bass response lacked any punch, but it still caused trim-panel buzzes even at moderate listening levels. The midrange lacked clarity and exhibited some unwanted response peaks, causing coloration in the vocals. With the tweeters in the front doors, the soundstage was narrowly confined. Much like the Corolla itself, this system will get you down the road, but don't expect a concert hall on wheels.
2010 Nissan Sentra Spec V
Price of car as tested: $23,650
Price of audio system: $2,200, as part of the Spec V package
Audio Brand: Rockford Fosgate
Audio specs: 8 speakers, 340 watts
Unlike Rockford Fosgate systems we've heard in other vehicles, the brand's visual presence in the Nissan Sentra Spec V was uncharacteristically subtle. We couldn't find a single logo to announce the presence of a Rockford system. And like the nonexistent badging, the system's sound quality didn't aggressively stand out either.
The Sentra's system has strong up-front presence and uses minimal processing to deliver good sound, while the woofers in the rear package tray provided a bit of bass punch. The midrange had reasonable clarity, but vocals were a bit pulled back in the mix and there was some audible distortion on electric guitars.
High-frequency response was clean, and the tweeters placed close to the windshield helped provide a wide and high soundstage and a plausible "phantom" center channel image. Even if it's far from the best, this system delivers good performance that's more than listenable.
2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI
Price of car as tested: $28,753
Price of audio system: $476
Audio Brand: Dynaudio
Audio specs: 8 speakers, 300 watts
As the scores indicate, the VW Golf TDI's Dynaudio system edged out the Sentra's Rockford setup for 3rd place. It wasn't that it was clearly superior-sounding, just a bit better in individual scoring categories. Whereas the Sentra's system was well-mannered (if a bit bland), the Golf's Dynaudio system had more bite and better bass. In fact, the solid bass response imparted a warm sound to the entire system.
On the other hand, the upper bass had some coloration, and when we cranked it there was some trim buzz. The midrange was transparent, but with a bit of edginess on electric guitars. The high-frequency response was clean and clear. Soundstage and imaging were both reasonably good. With a score at the midlevel — and with a reasonable, stand-alone price — this system produces quality sound that's satisfying and worth every penny.
2010 Mini Cooper Hardtop
Price of car as tested: $25,000
Price of audio system: $4,500, as part of the Camden package
Audio Brand: Harman Kardon
Audio specs: 10 speakers, 480 watts
The Harman Kardon system in the Mini Cooper was quite good, but had to settle for 2nd place. Even without a dedicated subwoofer, it delivered plenty of bass from the odd-shaped speakers in each side panel next to the rear seats — so much so that we spent time looking for a separate sub.
But power also requires restraint and this system lacks it. While the bass kicked, it also boomed and could become overpowering when we cranked the volume. The midrange was as warm as wool yet surprisingly transparent on both vocals and instruments. The soundstage was wide and high (thanks in part to the high dash), and although a center-channel speaker would be welcome, imaging was good.
Sound-quality snobs (like us) might not like the Mini's boomy bass, but the car's target buyer might disagree. If you don't really care if it's sonically correct, this system will certainly not deny your urges to rock out in style.
2010 Mazdaspeed 3
Price of car as tested: $25,840
Price of audio system: $1,895, as part of the Tech package
Audio Brand: Bose
Audio specs: 10 speakers, 242 watts
The Mazdaspeed 3's Bose system was easily our favorite and the best-sounding of the bunch, in part because it benefits from an enclosed subwoofer cleverly mounted in the small car's spare-tire well. The system designers avoided the temptation to overhype the low-frequency response. Instead, the sub provides bass that's punchy and tight and can be cranked without complaint.
The rest of the system is just as solid. The midrange was generally clean and smooth, with no obvious distortion. Instruments were natural-sounding, but there was a touch of veiled coloration on some female vocals. Staging and imaging were easily the most accurate of the six systems, with no need to engage the pseudo-center channel processing, which negatively affects timbre.
Not all Bose sound systems are good, but this one really delivers the goods, especially given the budget (but stylish) sheet metal around it. The Tech package — which you must have in order to get the audio system — is a potential budget-buster, though.