So what's new in the world of stereos? A lot. The good news is that we continue to see advancements in the area of sound reproduction in automobiles. Virtually all the major automakers, and even most second-tier players, continue to pay increasing attention to this area of the marketplace. That's great for the consumer and great for our eardrums, which get to listen to all that beautiful music.
The bad news? Actually, there is no bad news. One trend, though: we see more and more name-brand autosound manufacturers (Alpine, Boston Acoustics, Rockford-Fosgate and Sony, to name just a few) offering their products in vehicles right off the production line. Another trend: the continued emergence of satellite radio. Almost all of the systems in our test can be ordered with either XM- or Sirius-compatible head units, which, at roughly 10 bucks a month for 60-plus channels of commercial-free music is a real steal.
Although we test well over 100 new cars and trucks every year, we can't cover every vehicle, so this "Top 10" list represents what we believe are the best out of what we've driven. And as it sometimes comes down to splitting hairs, there is no ranking in this list.
1. Audi A4 (Bose)
While neither the loudest nor the most powerful system in this competition, the Audi A4 exudes German class and distinction throughout. Designed in conjunction with the engineers at Bose, this system boasts 10 speakers throughout the cabin, including a centerfill tweeter-mid up front and a generous Bose Neodymium Iron Boron high-efficiency subwoofer in the rear. Coupled with an ample 215-watt amplifier, these speakers sing pure and true on a wide variety of source material. Aided by Bose's AudioPilot noise compensation, this system will have you singing louder than in the shower. Be sure to order it with the satellite radio option: Option PXM (XM Radio) or Option PSR (Sirius Satellite Radio).
2. Dodge Magnum (Boston Acoustics)
We're not sure if it was the Dodge badge on the steering wheel or the fact that we were driving a family wagon that had us so surprised, but this system's sound quality is exceptional. From the distortion-free bass to the excellent spread of the soundstage, this system makes any music sound terrific. Other systems may list higher-powered amps (this one tops out at 288 watts), but the clean, smooth sound of this system never stops no matter how hard you crank it. Bass-heavy tracks can get the speakers a little off kilter, but this is a minor shortcoming in our view. We also like the fact that rear-seat passengers don't get cut short thanks to full-range drivers in the wagon's cargo area.
3. Dodge Durango (Infinity)
Creating a good soundstage in a large cabin is more of a challenge than it is in a small one, and many sport-utility vehicles suffer from subpar sound quality as a result. But not the Durango. This nine-speaker Infinity setup puts out a total of 384 watts, and it's standard on Limited models and optional on the SLT. (Additionally, SLT buyers can opt for a less expensive eight-speaker, 288-watt setup.) The subwoofer produces strong bass that remains crisp and clean at all reasonable listening volumes. The rest of the speakers do their part to envelop the occupants in sound. Vocals and strings come through with lifelike warmth. All in all, an unusually good sound system for a midpriced sport-utility vehicle.
4. Ford Focus (Sony)
The stereo in the Ford Focus is another perennial favorite of ours. Upgraded for 2005, the new setup offers more power and better features. We're a little mystified as to why Ford opted to move away from the class-leading ergonomic feel of the first-generation head unit. That aside, this system more than makes up in performance what it loses in the touchy-feely department. Commandeered by a Sony AM/FM head unit with a built-in six-disc CD changer, all three Foci trim levels boast MP3 capability, four cabin speakers and an 8-inch Rockford subwoofer in the trunk. Be sure to order Option 584 (a steal at $455) to get this sound system.
5. Ford Mustang GT (Visteon)
Loudest. This is one beast of a system. Whether you like your music loud or louder, the Mustang GT audio system is designed to deliver mucho ear-blistering musico directly to your supplicating eardrums. Heck, it's like sitting front-row center at an AC/DC concert, watching little Angus scamper around in his schoolboy shorts — only louder. But it's not limited to AC/DC. Def Leppard, Guns & Roses, Motley Crüe, Led Zep, Metallica, Limp Bizkit — any of the standard attendees at the Headbanger's Ball will suit this fire-breathing mastodon just fine. Do we like it? You bet. Will it fry your auditory nerves? Every one of them. If your parents go away for the weekend and you decide to throw a party, don't bother with that ancient Kenmore all-in-one in the den with the broken record changer. Instead, slam this puppy into reverse, screech it to a halt in the driveway, jack on the parking brake and fling open the doors. You'll hear music both outside and inside the family domicile, even with the house sealed tight. The system comes in three flavors: 80 watts (a few steps above clock radio sound quality), 500 watts (ear bleed) and a bodacious 1,000-watt Shaker Audiophile system (total deafness). It may not be subtle, but remember what the German poet Goethe said: "Boldness has genius in it!"
6. Mini Cooper (Harman Kardon)
Considering the relatively reasonable sticker price on this roller skate on steroids, it's amazing how much they're able to pack into this vehicle. Case in point: the audio system. Yes, we admit the interior of the Mini is just slightly larger than a pair of AKG headphones. Still, this eight-speaker Harmon Kardon setup is one for the ages. In addition to its bounteous digital amplifier, the system boasts a built-in Digital Sound Processing (DSP) unit, speed-sensitive equalization and a really cool feature called "driver acoustic setting," which, at the press of a button, optimizes the sound for the driving position. The built-in equalizer offers four preset modes for customization of the sound, which, in conjunction with the DSP, should leave no user wanting. Order Option 674 for this kickin' little ground-pounder.
7. Mitsubishi Galant (Infinity)
Standard on the high-line GTS model and optional on ES and LS trims, this Infinity system is extremely well suited to this midsize sedan's cabin. The system plays loud, and bass tones are strong and crisp with no distortion. Highs are clean and refreshingly devoid of the trumped-up artificial sound present in some of today's systems. Even with the system's reliance on do-it-all full-range speakers, the separation is excellent — strings are distinct and warm whether you're listening to an orchestral score or hard rock. Electronics consist of a 270-watt amplifier that feeds power to eight speakers, including a pair of dash-mounted tweeters that fire upward into the glass. You'll also find a six-disc CD changer along with large, easy-to-reach controls, including oversize volume and tuning knobs and a double-sided seek button. You'll also find the industry's best satellite audio controls (borrowed from Chrysler) mounted on the back of the steering wheel — you can't see them, but they sure are easy to use.
8. Nissan Altima (Bose)
We just had to include this one. The stereo in the Nissan Altima has been another perennial favorite of ours since it first appeared in 2002. Upgraded for 2005 from 100 to 150 watts, the Bose Premium Audio System in the Altima will easily outperform (in fact, runs circles around) comparably priced Accords, Camrys or anything else in its class, well everything except the Galant's superb Infinity system. Already a screamer, it has gotten even louder, if that's possible, for 2005. Fact is, Nissan either cares more about audio, figures it's a good way to attract young buyers or both. In addition to the substantial 150-watt amplifier, this Bose songstress comes with eight speakers and optional XM or Sirius Satellite Radio. The system comes standard on SL and SE-R models, and is available as an option on the S and SE models. Our recommendation: don't buy this car without the upgraded Bose Premium Audio System. It's that good.
9. Nissan Sentra SE-R (Rockford-Fosgate)
Best Value. Alright, so this one may not breathe as much fire as the Mustang GT. Neither did Mount Vesuvius. Still, it pounds the heavy fantastic. Without question, this little pavement-pounder is the best value in the test. Measured strictly on a watts-per-dollar basis, you get 300 thundering Rockford watts for a mere $550. And that's not all. In addition to the Rockford amp, you get an in-dash CD player, a vehicle security system and nine audacious speakers, one of which is a Rockford-Fosgate sub-box in the trunk. It may not be pretty, but it's loud, fun and cool. Careful, though: the amplifier distorts above half gain, and if you don't back off the volume knob, we guarantee you'll fry your speaks. But as Robert Duvall said in Apocalypse Now, "I love the smell of voice coil in the morning."
We've long been fans of Volvo's efforts in the auto sound arena. Hailing from the frigid North Atlantic, the company simply has a different way of viewing auto sound, and we almost always find unique and unusual features in its vehicles. This optional system is no exception. Boasting a generous 288 watts and 12 speakers (including a 25-watt centerfill speaker in the dash), this system would be impressive if that alone were offered. But that's not the best part. This European expatriate offers a feature rarely found in any factory sound system in America: Dolby Pro-Logic II Surround Sound (Volvo was the first automaker to offer this feature to the U.S. market in 2001). As a result of this circuitry, the soundstage in this vehicle is nothing short of astounding. In fact, it sounds better than many home stereos we've heard. An in-dash six-disc CD changer and steering wheel controls round out the system.