Beyond Bumpin'

Putting Four Premium Car Audio Systems to the Test


Cars By Photo by Sung Han
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A 2013 study by Texas A&M reported that, on average, the American commuter spends 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. And while big engines and capable chassis make for driving pleasure when paired with open highways and winding driving roads, for everyday use in stop-and-go traffic, driving is a chore. That’s why a good in-car audio system can be a godsend. If you can’t hear the raucous howl of your Bentley’s V8, you can at least pass the time by savoring some jazz rendered in high-quality sound.

There is no shortage of first-rate audio systems on the market, and each manufacturer has a stereo exclusively made for them through a partnership with a big-name hi-fi audio manufacturer (especially for high-end models). We managed to get our hands on four cars, each with their respective premium systems. We tested them using Spotify’s “extreme” audio quality setting to see how each one stacks up when set to its default factory setting. What we found was that each had its own strengths (and weaknesses), but the common denominator was clear for all four cars: a high-end audio option is a wonderful experience, and, if it’s possible in your budget, always worth the extra cost.

Burmester Audio

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Application: Mercedes GLC300 | Speakers: 14 | Watts: 640

The System: Burmester, the German audio powerhouse, makes car audio systems for both Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, with the systems for the Porsche Panamera and Mercedes S-Class both costing north of $5,000 and boasting power figures above 1,000 watts. In the GLC the setup isn’t quite as premium, but with Burmester’s sound engineering expertise and a mere $850 price tag, it could be a tremendous value.

The Verdict: Somewhat thin and flat, this system lacked the overall clarity and vibrancy of other systems, with tracks feeling compressed together. Bass was lacking in power as well as definition, though highs were fairly crisp. Though the sound system was disappointing (we’d like to see how the S-Class’s system holds up), the car itself is very well insulated, with very little engine and road noise intruding into the cabin. The speakers also happen to be very handsome, so considering that, along with the modest bump in sound quality from the standard system and the affordable price tag, it’s still an option worth speccing.

Naim for Bentley

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Application: Bentley Mulsanne Speed | Speakers: 20 | Watts: 2,200

The System: For Bentley’s top-tier system they’ve partnered with Naim, one of the most prestigious audio purveyors of the UK. On paper, the system is, simply put, the most impressive system ever fitted to a car. It’s the most powerful production car audio system in the world at 2,200 watts and comes in at a whopping $8,030 extra on top of the Mulsanne Speed’s $335,600 base price.

The Verdict: Highs, mids and lows felt incredibly clean and defined. The system is undoubtedly powerful, with round bass that kicked hard. And, like the Mercedes, the interior was nearly a deprivation chamber at low speeds, with the growl from the massive 5.8-liter V8 only coming through at high RPMs. There is one caveat: the system gives incredibly accurate sound, so if you aren’t listening to tracks from a high-quality source (consider a subscription to Tidal or a portable hi-fi player) you won’t be using the system to its full potential.

Meridian Audio Signature Reference

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Application: Range Rover Autobiography LWB | Speakers: 29 | Watts: 1,700

The System: Jaguar Land Rover offers a Meridian system on a variety of their cars, but if you want the crème de la crème offering, you’ll want the Signature Reference system which comes standard in the top-of-the-line Autobiography. Meridian’s goal with the system is to make the interior feel like a concert hall, and it does so by adding a staggering 29 speakers and Trifield 3D, which blends the center channels with the left and right for dynamic, ambient sound.

The Verdict: The Meridian system in the Range Rover Autobiography certainly had clarity, though not to the extent of the Bentley’s Naim system. There was, however, no lack of vibrancy, and the sound ambience in the cabin was airy and full. There was some character to the system, with some light blending of the highs, mids and lows — from a pure clarity standpoint, that wasn’t ideal, but it made for great presentation of a lower-quality audio track.

Mark Levinson Auto

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Application: Lexus RX350 | Speakers: 15 | Watts: 835

The System: American hi-fi brand Mark Levinson has been making car audio systems exclusively for Lexus for 15 years. Their systems are available across almost the entire product lineup, but the 15-speaker, 835-watt application in the RX is one of the best iterations, and it’s a relatively low-cost option (for hi-fi, anyway) at $2,830 ($3,260 if you spec a bigger infotainment screen).

The Verdict: The biggest surprise of the bunch, the Mark Levinson system in the RX350 managed to give us the best clarity and vibrancy of any system, without revealing some of the audio track’s imperfections. There was little distortion when the system was fully cranked. Highs came in crisp and vibrant and bass was powerful and well rounded. What’s more, the Mark Levsinson system can be had for less than the Meridian or Naim system in their respective cars — so it’s particularly impressive from a value standpoint.