Here Are the Best Ways to Test Your High-End Audio System

You've shelled out for a high-quality audio experience in your car.

Interior Genesis
Courtesy of Genesis

Witness the explosion of premium, in-car audio. Not so long ago, the number of speakers in a car and the brand on the head unit were hardly differentiating factors in the top luxury cars and trucks. Now, it seems that every automaker has its own take on how music should sound in a car, and there are more choices than ever.

This begs the question: How can you best discern the differences among the sound systems that claim to be the greatest? It's an increasingly enticing option to tick a box to enhance your car's sound quality, but doing some research reveals that not all hi-fi audio systems are created equal.

For some clarity of our own, we turned to Jonathan Levine, CEO and founder of boutique headphone outfit, Master & Dynamic. In just three years, Master & Dynamic has emerged as a serious player in portable audio, quickly becoming a favorite of music professionals and sound engineers. A serial entrepreneur with an ear for what's next, Levine has experience benchmarking high-end audio and suggested examining the following parameters before you pony up the cash for high-end audio:

Imaging: "Imaging is perhaps the most important and most difficult to get right in a car: [how] naturally the sound coming from each speaker blends together to form the whole. [Do] the vocals sound natural and at more or less eye level, do different instruments have clear separation, or does everything sound like it's coming from a spot in the door below your thigh? This is actually one of the greatest challenges with headphone tuning, too. … There's only one source for each ear, and so little space between [the] ears. [How] do you make that sound like a concert or an auditorium? It takes some experience to get right."

Clarity and distortion: "Most premium systems these days are actually very powerful, complicated systems. But with this power and all of these speakers, it's difficult to play everything clearly because every part of the car wants to vibrate along with the speakers, and nothing ruins a great stereo system like the sound of rattling plastic or distorting drivers. Playing most any recent pop music track is a great test for this as those songs are usually mixed with very heavy bass and mids, which can quickly bring out problems in a car audio system."

Most premium systems these days are actually very powerful, complicated systems.

Tonal balance: "What's the overall character of the sound? Is it bright? Boomy? Muddy? Articulate? You can always play with treble and bass but it's hard to change the overall nature of the sound. A well-tuned system makes the music come alive and you forget there's a stereo at all—you just get lost in it—and that's the sign of a good system."

Spend some time considering the sound customization options offered on the 17-speaker Lexicon sound system now offered on the 2017 Genesis G90. Let the above parameters guide your listening experience, whether in QuantumLogic Surround or stereo audio. Few systems provide as many options to discover balance and clarity as the G90's, and Clari-Fi technology allows for as little sound loss as possible.

Once you've assembled a shortlist of contenders, choose some songs to test the system. Some of Levine's favorites to test an audio system run the gamut from pop to classical:

With a good system you can appreciate each instrument along with the emotion of the whole.

Stevie Wonder, Superstition: "This is a very busy, dynamic, and loud track that's a lot of fun," Levine said. "I think there are about 15 instruments and vocals going on at any given time. With a good system you can appreciate each of them along with the emotion of the whole."

Philip Glass Etude No. 2 (from Etudes for Solo Piano, Vol. I, Nos.1-10): "Like Superstition, [there] is always a lot going on in Philip Glass's compositions, sans the vocals," Levine advised. "I think Etude No. 2 or other compositions help define the range without having to concentrate on vocals."

Spoken word: In addition to using musical arrangements to evaluate the quality of sound output, Levine suggested listening to plain speech, spoken well. "Personally I find myself listening more and more to podcasts, audio books, and in some instances, meditation. Andy Puddicombe, [founder] of Headspace, has a pretty magical voice."

Our unscientific ears would add three more to the mix:

Lemaitre, Closer: Go ahead and turn this song all the way up. A good sound system won't turn the heavy bass and build-ups into a tinny mess.

Mako, Smoke Filled Room: Try adjusting the treble and mids to experience the full range of electronic symphony.

Gilberto Gil, Aquele Abraço: This Portuguese standard sounds good at all volumes, but most alive at nightclub-level loud.

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