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Tested: Kia Has the Best Audio System Functionality

With a unique interface and simply designed controls, Kia's audio system is a winner

Kia Soul
  • Kia vehicles include well-designed audio interfaces with an intuitive combination of physical and virtual controls.
  • Retro-style graphics set the brand apart
  • Straightforward controls give Kia the edge over some of its rivals

In-car audio is all over the map when it comes to functionality. While some automakers go all out with high-end speakers and systems from Mark Levinson, Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufson, and Burmester, not all of them are paired to an infotainment system with the streamlined ease of use that would make the overall experience great.

I recently drove a Kia Soul, and after a week of daily driving, I think the audio interface is one of the, if not the, best on the market. Kia chose unique retro graphics and a volume and tuner knob for easy flipping, and selecting a favorite station is as simple as touching the star button (or pressing it again to unfavorite it).

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Here’s how it all works together.

The evolution to touchscreen: Not always effective

After testing many, many infotainment systems over the years, I’ve established a number of concrete likes and dislikes. If music is a must-have when you drive (as it is for me), you’ll want to know which interfaces are the best. And for those of us who hold onto the quaint ritual of scanning through channels on a road trip to see what the musical culture sounds like in different towns, knowing that a car's controls can do that easily is key.

Now that nearly everything control point seems to have moved to a touchscreen, some automakers have done a better job than others of laying out the virtual buttons in a logical fashion. Teslas have always been almsot completely buttonless since the beginning (not counting the Roadster), and Volvo did away with many of its physical controls with the new EX30 EV.

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Although it's a fact that a touchscreen reduces overall cost and the number of potentially breakable parts, it brings its share of concerns. I'm not the only one feeling uneasy about the touchscreen takeover. Several outside parties (including AAA) have conducted studies on the impact of touchscreen versus button controls. AAA sounded the alarm, citing previous research that shows that removing eyes from the road for just 2 seconds doubles the risk of a crash.

I think that Dodge, Jeep and Chrysler do a great job with their behind-the-steering wheel controls for channel changing and volume control. The toggle switch is out of the way but readily accessible and requires no lapse in driver attention. Stellantis is a close second to Kia’s setup, but Kia has the edge.

Kia’s audio edge

As soon as you press the start button in a Kia Soul, the touchscreen blinks to life with the numbers displayed in what looks like Nixie tubes. In case you’ve never seen one, PC Magazine says a Nixie tube is “a vacuum tube filled with neon that contains 10 wires formed in the shape of the digits 0 through 9.” Developed in the 1950s, the Nixie tube prevailed until the 1970s, when the technology was replaced by LED lighting. Kia pays homage to the classic look of the vacuum tubes represented as digital graphics in the infotainment system, and the result is a display unlike that of its competitors.

Beyond the screen's eye-catching design, however, the interface is immediately intuitive. The volume knob, while on the small side, is below the left bottom corner of the screen and the tuner is under the right bottom corner. Both are within reach even for those with average-length arms.

Choosing favorite stations is also straightforward. While many other systems use some sort of press and hold sequence to save a favorite and often require toggling back to the main screen, Kia came up with a better option. Tune to a station you use often and touch one of two star buttons (one virtual, one physical) and — presto! — it’s saved. Change your mind? Press it again and it’s banished from your favorites list.

Bonus: The Kia Soul is equipped with a six- or 10-speaker Harman Kardon system that’s well matched for the size of the car. Sounds great, works well, excellent balance between physical buttons and touchscreen functionality. It's a winner.

Edmunds says

Even if the design of the quirky Kia Soul doesn't interest you, the automaker offers several other models with the same (or similar) audio interface.