How to get the best from in-car audio 2.0
It’s not just how your music sounds that counts – it’s where it comes from. Thomas Kibwe helps you enjoy the best automotive aural experience
For true petrolheads, it’s not just the hum of the engine that matters – it’s the sound set-up inside. After all, you need to impress your passengers as well as everyone you’re driving past, right? To that end, bespoke sound systems for cars have been a huge part of the automotive aftermarket for decades – worth billions of dollars per year in the US alone – and ground-shaking bass or 5.1 surround sound the holy grail for audio purists on the move.
There’s a change afoot in the industry, however. Just as it’s upset every market from healthcare to video gaming over the past ten years, the smartphone revolution is changing our expectations for in-car audio – not just how your tunes sound, but also where they come from, and how your speaker system works with your phone, your diary, your messages, indeed your whole life outside those four doors.
Content is king
A sound system that literally blows the sunroof off your motor is one thing, but it’s nothing without the songs to get everyone nodding along. This is where the trusty smartphone is really making an impact on in-car audio.
For years you’ve been able to pair your phone with many car radios and receivers to stream songs wirelessly, but there are limits to this. Sound quality over Bluetooth doesn’t compare to a CD played via a typical car stereo. And ‘dumbphones’ with Bluetooth lack two key things that iPhones and Android smartphones offer, beyond mere speed and ease of use: catalogues and connectivity.
You’ve likely heard the phrase ‘content is king’ – the idea that a platform is nothing without anything to enjoy on it – and it’s as true inside your car as anywhere else. This is where smartphone apps have the potential to change your daily drive forever. How many CDs can you fit in your glove compartment? Ten, maybe. Leading music streaming service Spotify has more than 30 million tracks in its library, and that number is growing all the time.
And that’s just Spotify. There are countless other music-streaming apps you can use to pump songs to your car stereo, from Apple Music and Deezer to podcast and internet radio apps (see box on page 70). Whatever genre of music you’re interested in, you’re covered. What unites all of these apps is the connectivity that a smartphone provides. Unless you’re driving through a particularly long underground tunnel, you can stream whatever takes your mood at any given moment (or even request a song using your voice). Many apps let you download whole albums and playlists in advance.
The upshot of this breakthrough is that in order to be best equipped for a road trip, you don’t just need great speakers – you need a great audio receiver that works seamlessly with your smartphone as soon as you get in and close the door. Some cars come with internet connectivity and even Spotify support built in, but these systems can be expensive. If you’re already paying for data as part of your mobile phone subscription, you could save yourself lots of money by continuing to use your phone as a means of streaming music for your journey.
You’re best off checking out the dedicated receivers from big technology brands that let you connect to your phone . We’ve picked out a few in our Best Buy section.
Integrating with your life
Auto-makers have come up with clever new ways to help you interact with their in-car entertainment systems over the years, from screens in headrests to volume and station control buttons tucked below the steering wheel grips.
But another advantage that pairing your smartphone provides is the ability to go truly hands-free. In many countries, it’s illegal to text or make phone calls while driving, but now that phones are able to listen out for voice commands and take dictated messages, it’s possible to tell a friend you’re going to be late, rather than have someone in the car next to you try to tap the same out on your phone for you.
The best in-car audio systems and receivers connect automatically with your phone when you jump in, and instead of relying on your handset’s tinny speakers to interact with the built-in voice assistant, let you hear your commands and actions back over your much more powerful built-in speakers. You can re-arrange calendar dates or dictate emails all through your phone and car audio.
The same is true for navigation, too. It’s long been the case that, armed with an app such as Google Maps or HERE Maps, even the cheapest smartphone is more powerful than the most expensive dedicated satnav. Paired with the right receiver, you can now have live traffic updates read out to you so you’ll never miss that important right turn.
Taking advantage of that, the two major smartphone software makers, Apple and Google, have tailored their software to work with in-car audio, both aftermarket products and with built-in units from many of the leading car manufacturers. You can read more about them in our box-outs. You’ll have to make a careful choice: as we’ve hopefully made clear, in-car audio isn’t just about tweeters and decibels any more. It’s about software eco-systems. Good luck.
Match your budget and requirements to pick the top choices from our must-have gadgets
01 Multimedia: Sony XAV-AX100
For the very best in modern in-car audio, no matter your phone or car, look no further than Sony’s AX100 receiver. The crisp 16.3cm screen works with both Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay to put your apps within touch, make calls, get real-time traffic updates or listen to any music apps. And because it comes with four 55W amps, songs sound even better. At around US$500 RRP, it’s not cheap, but it’ll let you do much more than just simply listen to music, and with hands-free ease.
02 On a budget: Sony RM-X7BT Remote Controller
A top-of-the-line smart AV receiver isn’t always possible. They’re expensive, and may not even fit in your model of car. Luckily, if you have a smartphone, there’s a workaround. Smartphone remote controllers like Sony’s FM-X7BT pair with your smartphone via Bluetooth and use an intuitive dial system, so they can be stuck anywhere within reach. As well as letting you control your music and skip tracks, they can also activate voice control on your phone, or answer calls. All you need is an AUX input and power supply, either USB port or cigarette lighter – and, at around US$70, they’re a relative bargain.
03 Speakers: Pioneer A Series
When your factory-installed car speakers just aren’t cutting it and you’re after something with a bit more oomph, look no further. Pioneer’s excellent A Series 5-way speakers offer a huge frequency range, serious heft at 650 Watt output – and, best of all, don’t break the bank, hovering at around the US$70 mark online.
04 Subwoofers: Infinity Reference
For the best in bass, Harman’s Infinity Reference subwoofer is the way to go. Its 23-400 Hz frequency response and 1,200 Watts peak power mean you’ll feel the deepest notes as more than just a rumble, and its slight crossover with your speakers’ response will really flesh out the guitar lines in tracks. At around US$150, it’s a great way to turn up the bass in your ride.
Internet radio on the move
The world’s biggest music-streaming services aren’t available in all countries, and digital radio largely only in Europe – but wherever you are, you can knock down those barriers by connecting an internet radio app to your car sound system, either through a supported car radio or your smartphone. Apps such as TuneIn (tunein.com), available for free on both Android and iPhone, allow you to listen to radio stations far beyond the reach of a humble FM transmitter, and all without the cost of a monthly premium subscription.
5G is coming…
4G mobile networks are still rolling out across the globe, but already the next generation of network technology is being worked on in labs right now. The GSMA mobile industry body has outlined plans for 5G technology, and is focused on connecting not just phones but all devices to the internet – even cars driving at high speed down the motorway. While the focus is on making sure a huge array of intelligent sensors for cars can always check in with a central server wherever they are (essential for self-driving cars), this always-on connectivity is great news for audiophiles on the daily commute, too, as it will surely guarantee Wi-Fi level speeds wherever they drive – perfect for music streaming. Though there’s no launch date just yet for a public rollout, the GSMA estimates that more than a billion people will live in 5G coverage areas by 2025.
Android vs Apple
Though most modern Android-powered smartphones will work with the official Google Android Auto app, they become even more powerful when paired with an Android Auto-supported car or radio. Paired up, your phone’s display will appear on your dashboard screen, and notifications will be read out to you. You can stream music through your speakers from Google Music or other supported apps, and since Google’s voice recognition software is best in class, it’s easy to compose messages, all without lifting a finger. Supported car manufacturers range from Alfa Romeo to Volvo, while supported audio manufacturers include Sony, Panasonic, JVC and Kenwood.
Apple’s Siri voice assistant has long been a selling point of the iPhone, but it’s expanded its abilities to be even more powerful inside your car – even putting your phone’s screen on the display of your AV receiver. Paired up, Apple Maps will be able to pull up destinations from your calendar and messages, you can conduct hands-free calls and even have your emails read out to you for you to respond to. The catch, of course, is that you’ll need an iPhone to reap the benefits of the software. Supported car manufacturers include a huge range of brands from Audi to Volkswagen, while supported audio manufacturers include Pioneer, Kenwood and Alpine.