When it comes to test driving a new car or truck, there's one component that few drivers consider: the audio system. If it's considered at all, it's to pull it out and replace it with an aftermarket unit. But the modern factory-installed sound systems offered on cars and trucks are integrated into the navigation unit and DVD player (if so equipped), and performance is tailored for a specific vehicle's interior. Most have redundant controls on the steering wheel so that you can adjust the volume or change a radio station without taking your hands off the wheel. That's why many buyers make do with whatever radio is installed.
The quality of a sound system is not a make-or-break item for car shoppers. But for those who find it hard to spend a moment without music, the quality of an audio system can be one of the major factors in a purchasing decision.
And while you may not be a connoisseur of sound, it helps to know if the audio system in that new car or truck is worthy. With that in mind, here are a few quick pointers.
First, remember that modern music is made up of compressed digital files. The more they're compressed, the lower the sound quality. Exhibit A: SiriusXM satellite radio once boasted impressive sound quality, but as the company has compressed the signal in the past few years, its sound has deteriorated markedly. A bit better than satellite radio is iTunes, although it's still not on par with a compact disc. Another good choice is HD Radio, which can be found in an increasing number of vehicles. HD Radio is free, like ordinary broadcast radio, except that its broadcast signal is digital and a special receiver is needed. HD Radio sound quality is close to that of a CD and is offered by many area radio stations. (A complete list can be found online at http://www.hdradio.com)
Regardless of which medium you prefer, when test-driving a car, bring along a CD with different genres of music so that you can get a clear appreciation of an audio system's quality.
Once you decide to put an audio system to the test, make sure to set the bass, treble, balance and fade to zero or normal to ensure accurate sound. Next, take your sampler and play each track for 20 or 30 seconds to get a quick feel for the system's quality.
If it's a good system, vocals and instruments will have a deep, rich nuance with a defined separation. It shouldn't sound muddy, hollow or dull. There should be spaciousness to its sound. If a track sounds flat, like an old AM transistor radio, the system is of lower quality.
Next, listen to the tracks at various volumes. At high volume, the system should be crisp, clear and powerful, but not boomy. The bass should be heard, but not felt. The music should envelop you. During quiet passages, there should be tranquility without static, hissing, buzzing or whirring sounds. There should be uniformity to the bass, mid-range and treble. Each should be balanced and maintain their quality no matter what the volume.
The instruments should be distinct and have a spatial quality, as if you're actually listening to the music live and the musicians are riding shotgun. Instruments should seem as if they're spread around the cabin, with the vocalist naturally centered.
Finally, if you're not sure how good the stereo truly is, try this. Boost the bass all the way and decrease the treble all of the way. This will reveal the quality of the low end. Next, do the inverse to hear if the high end is any good.
By sampling different systems using this method you should be able to detect a difference.
Keep in mind that a good audio system makes the many hours spent in a car or truck more enjoyable. Given that many audio systems are custom-engineered to that vehicle's interior, it's worth taking the time during a new car test drive to consider the various audio choices offered.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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