Surround sound smackdown: How does car audio sound best? | Autoblog

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Linda Ronstadt shouldn’t sound like her head is in a bucket.

Reneé Fleming must not seem to have wandered to the back of the orchestra.

David Gilmour’s guitar should not sound weak.

But depending on how your car stereo is set up, they could all be like this.

Most cars today offer brand name sound systems, usually as an upgrade. It’s a trend that has expanded from mass consumer brands like Sony or Bose to more esoteric audiophile choices; we recently learned that the venerable English speaker maker is pairing KEF with the venerable English automaker Lotus. The collaboration that caught everyone’s attention is Jeep and hi-fi legend McIntosh, with the great result you would expect.

Vehicle sound systems now pump out hundreds of watts through a dozen or more speakers. (The new BMW 7 Series B&W setup has 36!) So why does car noise sometimes sound… a little meh?

You may have “surround sound” enabled.

I first realized this years ago when I owned a 2014 Toyota Highlander. Music through the JBL Entune system sounded mushy. Deep in the menus was a surround sound checkbox. Uncheck the box and a veil was lifted.

Until I discovered that hidden setting, I hadn’t realized the car had surround sound. And you may not be aware either.

Let’s take a moment here to explain that what is called ‘surround sound’ or in some cases ‘3D’ sound is not the same as the 5.1 or 7.1 surround of your home theater. Movie soundtracks are actually recorded in surround and your home A/V receiver can mimic that. But music, with rare exceptions, is recorded in stereo.

Surround sound in a car is something else. It’s signal processing – where a stereo recording isn’t reproduced in two channels from two speakers (or left-right sets of woofers-tweeters-midrange) as the recording artists and engineers intended.

A more immersive sound is the intention.

The problem is that signal processing can compromise clarity. Voices become diffused, shifted away from a clear focal point on the dashboard.

Why? Automakers and audio engineers thought they had issues that needed to be addressed. When you listen to a home stereo, you sit well opposite two speakers, and they stereophonically generate an “image”, also called the soundstage, that replicates what your two ears would perceive if you were attending a live performance. . (At home you can also use that other music-enhancing device, a glass of wine.) In a car, however, no one can sit in the right place. It doesn’t matter that even at home not everyone can sit in the best seat.

Another challenge: A car interior is a small, enclosed space with an odd mix of hard surfaces like windows and soft surfaces like occupants and seats.

Using signal processing, engineers try to improve the listening experience throughout the interior, even creating a ‘concert hall’ feel. (One system is touted as replicating the “power” of a stadium concert. When have you ever heard good sound in a stadium?)

Either way, a more immersive sound is the aim. The problem is that signal processing can compromise clarity.

I recently spent a few hours switching between surround and stereo on a Harman/Kardon system in a 2021 Volvo XC60. It’s a 600-watt, 14-speaker, and $800 upgrade from one of the largest audio companies. (Harman is owned by Samsung and in turn owns JBL, Infinity, Mark Levinson, Revel, and many other brands.) So it’s a decent mid-market system for a listening test. (Volvo’s topline system is from Bowers & Wilkins.)

I was streaming lossless songs over wifi at home while wired with Apple CarPlay. The bass, treble, and midrange sliders were set to the neutral center position. Surround was generally set high, as we are testing that. I was in the driver’s seat – the seat that is always occupied, so in my opinion music should sound best there. Admittedly, surround sound may be preferable if you’re in the back.

Ronstadt, in older recordings via surround, was muffled and echo-y. “Long Long Time” was less heartbreaking. The opening of “Hurts So Bad” was less intimate and the cries of “No! No!” less raw. However, her later recordings on Skywalker Ranch or with Nelson Riddle were interesting in surround and seemed more spacious with reverberation.

The purest substance in the universe is Dolly Parton’s voice. For whatever reason, surround sound couldn’t hurt her.

Radio announcers, such as those on an NPR newscast, also received reverberation, as if they were in an empty concert hall rather than in a broadcast booth. Bit of a strange effect.

Opera voices like Jessye Norman or Reneé Fleming, while still powerful, lost a few megawatts. Nina Simone and Ann Wilson too. Delicate vocals like Shawn Colvin’s got thinner. Voices become diffused, shifted away from a clear focal point on the dashboard.

A famous story goes that when German engineers were developing the MP3 format, they played Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” thousands of times as a reference song, trying to capture the nuances of her a cappella. (Vega, also famous, told them they hadn’t.) So I tried that song for kicks. In surround she practically disappeared.

There were exceptions: the purest substance in the universe is Dolly Parton’s voice. For whatever reason, surround sound couldn’t hurt her.

Male voices like Johnny Cash lost a little presence, but not much. Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” was almost a breath of fresh air in surround as it cut off about 10% of the intensity level. If you want it darker, play it in stereo.

And you wouldn’t think anything could water down a David Gilmour guitar solo. But part of the bite was lost.

Orchestral music took on fullness in surround, but here too instrumental solos lost their presence and the ensemble became muddy: in the fourth movement of ‘Pines of Rome’ the ominous rumble of the bass instruments was difficult to distinguish. (The same goes for the orchestration in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.”) But Respighi’s antiphonal brass section called the Roman army into battle from the back seat, so that was cool.

I’ve made a wide selection of songs and gathered opinions in the list below. This is of course all very subjective.

Modern recordings may take signal processing into account. Bass seems to lose some punch in surround; the bass on Jon Baptiste’s Grammy-winning “We Are” was overwhelming in stereo, more balanced in surround. Other current recordings such as those by Kacey Musgrave and Orville Peck seem to take advantage of the reverb qualities of surround.

So which is the winner here? Really, it differs from shot to shot. Surround sound is a handy trick every now and then. Obviously I prefer the simplicity and clarity of stereo. But your car, your music, do your own test. You only have two ears though, so good old stereo might be hard to beat.

Songs that sounded best in stereo:

    Jessye Norman, Richard Strauss, “Four Last Songs.” Renee Fleming, Strauss “Four Last Songs,” Samuel Barber “Knoxville: Summer 1915.” Ottorino Respighi, “Pines of Rome” Maurice Ravel, “La Valse” Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 1, “Titan.” Howard Hanson, Symphony No. 2 Pink Floyd, ‘Comfortably Numb’, ‘Wish You Were Here’, ‘Pigs (Three Different Ones)’, ‘Have a Cigar’, ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2″ Linda Ronstadt, “Hurge So Much”, “Somebody To Lay Down Next To Me”, “Long Long Time” Shawn Colvin, “Shotgun Down the Avalanche” Nina Simone, “Wild Is the Wind”, “Don’ Let Me Be Misunderstood” Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner” Karrin Allyson, “Goodbye” FKJ and Santana, “Greener” Brandi Carlile, “Broken Horses”, “The Story” Fleetwood Mac, “Rhiannon”, “Dreams” Heart, “Dog and Butterfly’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Bruce Springsteen, ‘Thunder Road’ Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, ‘Red Right Hand’, ‘Into My Arms’ Steely Dan, ‘Deacon Blues’, ‘My Old School’

Songs that sounded about as good or possibly better in surround:

    Dolly Parton, “Jolene”, “Little Sparrow”, “The Seeker” Johnny Cash, “Hurt”, “Redemption” Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”, “Suzanne” Orville Peck, “Dead of Night” Kacey Musgraves, “Star-Crossed”, “Justified” Linda Ronstadt, “‘Round Midnight”, “Cry Like a Rainstorm” Tracy Chapman, “Mountains of Things”, “Across the Lines” Jon Baptiste: “We Are” Daft Punk, “Get Lucky,” “Lose Yourself To Dance”