You know how I like to start these columns with "back in the day," right? Well, back in the day, I'll tell you what, factory stereos sounded just terrible. If you wanted any bass in your car, any clarity, any anything, you had to go get a custom car stereo from the shop across town.
But 'round about the mid-1980s, I'd say, automakers started to realize that sound systems for a car could sound almost as good as custom audio sound in your living room. They started sticking graphic equalizers in there, subwoofers, you name it, and nowadays every carmaker's got great factory audio on tap. Of course, factory stereos will always be limited by the relatively small size of their components --you can't stick a four-foot-tall concert speaker in your car, unless you've got a sunroof--but there's no reason why you can't have excellent sound quality anyway. Also, cars have a natural advantage because they're perfect surround-sound environments. You just gotta make sure the speakers are making the right noises.
Thing is, with all the high-end factory stereos on the market today, it can be hard to keep 'em all straight. So since I'm lucky enough to get seat time in all the latest cars, I've put together a list of the top 5 factory stereos that you can buy right now. See what you think, and then come back and have at me in the comments. What's your favorite factory audio system ever? Have you heard any of the latest ones? Am I off my rocker? Let's talk it out.
One of my favorite cars of all-time is the Porsche 911, but as any Porschephile will tell you, the 911 has rarely had a factory audio system to write home about. More often than not, you get bare-bones sound that makes you want to turn the darn thing off and just drive. That's never a bad idea in a Porsche, but with the new 911's optional Burmester stereo, now you've got options. This bad boy gives you 12 speakers, 800 watts of power, and clarity that you have to hear to believe.
Audi Bang & Olufsen
I'll tell you this upfront, Audi's Bang & Olufsen system doesn't sound as good as the Porsche Burmester. But it's not just about sound with this one. I sampled the "B&O" in an Audi A7, and I couldn't believe it, you turn the thing on and the tweeters rise up out of the dash with their own little motors! Now, it won't be so entertaining someday when those motors break and you gotta replace 'em, but meanwhile, what a show. And with 1,200 watts on tap, you may not quite have Burmester-grade sound, but you've definitely got power to spare.
Lexus Mark Levinson
Here's something Lexus won't like to hear: I actually like their older premium stereo lineup better. That range was made by Nakamichi, and it was Japanese electronics at its finest, bar none. I think that was the pinnacle. But the Mark Levinson lineup is a close second, and for a while in the early 2000s, it was pretty much the best factory audio in the world. As usual, the ultra-luxurious LS sedan has the showcase Levinson system, but you really can't go wrong with any stereo that's got the ML name on it.
Ford Mustang Shaker Pro Audio
You didn't think I could get through a whole column without mentioning a muscle car, did ya? Listen, any muscle car worth its salt needs a thumping stereo, and the Shaker Pro Audio setup hits all the right notes for me. The Shaker's got a big ol' subwoofer that never sounds stressed, and there's an iPod/USB input to keep up with the times. You won't get a whole lot of clarity or tonal separation here, but you can crank it to eleven all day, and in a Mustang, that's what really matters.
Surprised to see a VW on this list? So was I, at first, but when I thought about all the Dynaudio factory stereos I'd sampled in VW products, I realized they're just consistently great performers. Whether you get it in the GTI hot hatch or the Touareg luxury crossover, Dynaudio's gonna give you a real crisp, tight sound that just sounds different from the norm.
And there you have it, folks. Come on now, which five would you have picked? Let's hear it.
Editor's note: If your factory car audio system is sounding a bit thin, visit Advance Auto Parts for a wide selection of stereo gear and accessories.