2011 Chevrolet Volt: Audio Review
July 16, 2011
The Chevy Volt is a unique vehicle, right down to its audio system. The Volt's Bose Energy Efficient Series Sound System was designed to be 30 percent smaller, 40 percent lighter and use 50 percent less energy than "systems with comparable performance." Bose claims that technology such as High Motor Force speakers and "switching technology" amplifiers give the Volt's sound system high performance with less heft.
But the proof is in the listening, so I put our 2011 Chevy Volt through its audio-evaluation paces. And for a seven-speaker system that comes standard with the car, the much-hyped plug-in hybrid sounds pretty impressive on the inside.
The seven speakers that make up the Bose Energy Efficient Series Sound System include a 1-inch tweeter in each A pillar, a 6.5-inch woofer in each front door, a 4-inch "mid/high-range" speaker in each rear door and a 4.5-inch woofer in an 8-liter enclosure in the spare-tire well. Bose doesn't provide amplifier power specs, and only says that the amp provides eight channels of output and equalization.
As with every system I test, 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 and sparse folk of Luka Bloom to the full-on rock of Red House Painters and bass-heavy 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.
The Volt's Bose Energy Efficient Series Sound System is a good example of how car audio performance isn't necessarily a numbers game. While luxury automakers are locked in an audio arms race to see who can add the most speakers and amplifier power to their premium systems, a simple setup like the one in the Volt -- while it can't deliver the audio firepower of a mega-watt system with a double-digit speaker count -- can still be sonically satisfying.
The Volt system's weaknesses are in the typical areas and the most difficult to reproduce: low, midbass and high frequencies. With most musical passages, the high end was bright and brittle and low and midbass parts were boomy and at times distorted. One surprising exception was with the rap-bass boom of Outkast's "Ain't No Thang," which the little 4.5-inch woofer and the 6.5-inchers in the front doors did a decent job of reproducing with power and oomph.
Despite these deficiencies that dragged scores for clarity, tonal balance, timbre, tonal accuracy and dynamics down to just above average, the system had a spacious and detailed sound. The Bluesiana Triangle track "Shoo Fly Don't Bother Me" is a go-to cut for determining soundstage width and proper image placement since the song has a very open and airy mix, with quiet passages that make it easy to pick out individual instruments. The track's percussion hung in distinctly separate parts above the dash the way it's supposed to, while the flute solo that starts at about two minutes in imaged as close to the middle of the dash as a system without a dedicated center-channel speaker can get. Likewise, soundstaging and imaging in the short instrumental track "The Blues Walk" from the Lyle Lovett and his Large Band LP were way better than I'd expect from a system of this size and makeup.
The two non-musical tracks I use to test staging and imaging -- one with voices recorded so that they appear in the left, center and right of the soundstage, and seven drumbeats that are supposed to move across the dash at precise intervals -- confirmed these listening impressions. The Volt's system failed the voice test -- but just barely, and I had to listen very intently to determine that the center vocal was detectable in the left channel. It easily passed the seven-drumbeats test. With linearity, a measure of how well the sound holds together at low- and mid-volume levels, the system scored poor and good, respectively. It also passed an absence of noise/zero-bits test.
The Volt has an in-dash CD/DVD player that will show DVD movies on the in-dash display when the car is parked. It also has AM, FM and XM radio with a Time Shift feature that can store up to 20 minutes of a broadcast.
iPod integration is through either an aux-in jack or USB port. You can use an iPod's 30-pin computer-sync cable to connect the device to the car. Menu items include the usual suspects of playlists, artists, albums and songs, and the more atypical genres, composers and audiobooks (but not podcasts). Access to an iPod's content is pretty painless using the Volt's touch screen or a center knob in the dash -- but I can't say the same for the PITA center-stack buttons for basic audio functions. Arrows on the left side of the screen let you scroll through menu items, although the system takes its sweet time doing so. And GM forces you to eject your iPod each time or risk losing data.
If you prefer to be entertained by literature rather than Lil' Wayne, the system is specifically designed to play audiobooks downloaded from Audible.com and then burned onto either a CD or loaded onto a USB thumb drive. Music files on USB drive can also be played, and menu items include playlists, artists, albums, songs and genres. Music files can be ripped to an onboard 30GB hard drive from a CD, but not from a USB. The system also doesn't offer Bluetooth audio, which should be a no-brainer considering many other GM cars do.
What We Say
The Chevy Volt has been an unqualified win for GM coming out of the company's post-bankruptcy period, and it's also a much-needed affirmation that Motown can still deliver technologically advanced vehicles that can compete on the world stage. It's doubtful that anyone will buy the Volt because of the Bose Energy Efficient Series Sound System, but it's a nice bonus -- and standard equipment.
Plus, while it's debatable that the Bose Energy Efficient Series Sound System is on par with the rest of the car when it comes to cutting-edge technology, at least it can be enjoyed in a very quiet cabin -- while the car is running just on juice, that is.
iPod Integration: B-
Doug Newcomb, Senior Editor, Technology