2011 Subaru Tribeca Limited: Audio Review

2011 Subaru Tribeca Limited: Audio Review

When you think of Subaru, what comes to mind? AWD, of course. Maybe WRC as well. Good value, and loyal, rabid fans. I also think of New England and the Pacific Northwest, areas that have more than their fair share of Subis.

What I don't think of is great audio and the latest bells and whistles, since Subaru has been slow on the uptake of in-cabin tech. But as branded stereo systems, iPod integration and Bluetooth have quickly spread to almost every car make and has trickled down to even budget models, Subaru has finally jumped into the fray and hooked up with Harman Kardon to supply premium audio. And the 2011 Tribeca Limited I tested is the better for it.

The Setup
The standard Harman Kardon system in the 2011 Tribeca Limited consists of 10 speakers powered by 385 watts. The speakers include a 2.5-inch midrange in the center stack (below the in-dash display), a 1-inch tweeter and 6-inch woofer in each front door, a two-way speaker in each rear door with a 1-inch tweeter and 4-inch midrange and an 8-inch subwoofer in a sealed 0.7-cubic-foot enclosure.

The Sound
As with every sound 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 on these tracks range from spacious jazz to spare folk to full-on rock and bass-saturated rap. 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, click on the Edmunds.com article Sound Advice.

I was pleasantly surprised by the sound of the Harman Kardon system in the 2011 Tribeca, partly because I was unimpressed with a similar H/K system in a 2011 Outback that I soundchecked weeks earlier. Whereas the Outback system sounded dull and easily distorted, the Tribeca setup was smooth and much more accurate.

The spectral-balance skew typical of most systems -- namely, overbearing midbass and shrill high frequencies -- was also the weak point of the Tribeca system. Tracks like Red House Painters' "Cabezon" and Luka Bloom's "Cold Comfort" feature acoustic guitars with deep, resonant lows and steely highs that cause most systems to distort and shriek. And although the sound of the Tribeca system was far from perfect with these tracks, it reproduced them better than many others I tested.

Despite these deficiencies, the instruments were largely lifelike and the music had a layered presence. The intricacies of the individual instruments were particularly pronounced on another Red House Painters' track, "San Geronimo," which usually sounds like a jumbled mess on lesser systems, but had good detail on the Tribeca's.

Bass was also impressive on Joan Armatrading's "In Your Eyes," which starts with the deep drone of an electric bass, and it was equally forceful in reproducing the synthesized low-end of Outkast's "Ain't No Thang." Not bad at all for an 8-inch subwoofer way back in the rear cargo area.

Where the system suffered most was in creating realistic imaging. Soundstaging was good --wide if not deep -- but imaging was severely side-biased, which was surprising given the presence and prominence of the center-channel speaker. The system also failed both non-musical imaging tests: three voices mixed so that they appear in the left, center and right portions of the soundstage, and seven drum beats that are supposed to be spaced at precise intervals across the dash. The center voice came from the left and right channels, while the drums beats barely budged from either side.

The system scored extremely well in the linearity tests, a measure of how well the sound holds up at low and medium volume levels. It scored a fair-to-good rating at low volume and a rare excellent rating at mid volume. It also easily passed the absence-of-noise/zero-bits test.

The Sources
The sound of the Harman Kardon system in the 2011 Tribeca Limited shows that Subaru is finally taking audio seriously -- but the sources available do not. There's an old-school six-disc CD changer in the dash with an AM, FM and XM tuner, and only an aux-in jack in the center console. No USB for iPod hook up. No Bluetooth audio. And no excuse for not having at least one of these in a $32,000-plus vehicle.

You can get a USB port for iPod integration and plug in USB drives by adding a dealer- or port-installed iPod Interface accessory. It's a $175 add-on, although according to the Subaru website the price doesn't include installation, it's set by the dealer and subject to change. The website also claims that once aniPod is hooked up through the USB port, menu items include songs, artists, albums, playlists, podcasts and audiobooks, and control is through head-unit and steering-wheel switches.

What We Say
A standard feature on the Tribeca Limited (and on the top-of-the-line Touring trim), the Harman Kardon system is a giant step forward for Subaru in terms of audio. Gone are the tinny-sounding non-branded systems in previous models, as well as the gimmicky Circle Surround processing and (in our test car with the navigation system) the outdated dot-matrix display. Add the iPod Interface -- which Subaru should include at this price anyway -- and the largest Subi SUV finally has decent sound and sources.

The Scores
Sound: B
Sources: C-
iPod Integration: D
Cost: A

To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.

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