Automakers' sound systems: Crank it, don't yank it

Years ago, one of the first things most music lovers did after buying a new vehicle was drive to an aftermarket stereo shop to get the crappy stock components swapped for better gear. And you’d typically get not only better sound but also more bang (and boom) for your buck.

But in the past decade or so, the overall quality of OEM audio has dramatically increased, while car electronics became more complex, removing the incentive for most new vehicle owners — and all but the most hardcore DIYer — to start from scratch. In 2010, I did a comparison of the average costs for OEM electronics vs. similar offerings from the aftermarket, and back then automakers’ stock premium systems were by far the best bargain — and are probably an even better value now.

The premium 14-speaker, 1,200-watt JBL system in the all-new 2019 Toyota Avalon is a prime example of this trend. It’s standard on the top two Limited and Touring trims and is available as a $680 audio upgrade on the XLE and XSE.

I doubt you can even buy 14 speakers and 1,200 watts of amplification from the aftermarket for 700 bucks, much less have it all installed. And because the system is bundled with Toyota’s Entune infotainment system, Apple CarPlay and a surround-view camera, removing the head unit means you would likely lose these features.

Another advantage of OEMs and their audio partners is they can design the car around the audio system. In the past, automakers would typically place speakers where convenient for packaging, not for optimal sound reproduction, and audio engineers were forced to compromise. But as with the Avalon’s premium JBL audio system, this is starting to change.

At a recent behind-the-scenes peek for media into the process of developing the system, Toyota and Harman engineers delved into the minutia of sealing the inner panel of the front doors to create an enclosure for 6×8-inch woofers, making space in the pillars for JBL horn tweeters and extensively measuring the acoustic properties of the interior to tune the sound to the space. I’m met some creative and skilled car stereo installers, but none with a degree in psychoacoustics.

The system is also the first to feature Quantum Logic Surround that creates a multi-channel listening experience from two-channel sources. And it includes Harman’s Clari-Fi processing that “rebuilds key details lost” in compressed audio formats used by streaming music services and MP3s.

Toyota and JBL benchmarked the Avalon’s premium audio by comparing it to systems by Bang & Olfusen in the BMW 650i, Burmester in the Mercedes-Benz S550 and other luxury vehicles. And they pointed out that it has more speakers and double the amplifier power compared to the premium Bose systems in the Nissan Maxima and Buick LaCrosse.

So how does it sound? While it’s not Lexus Mark Levinson quality, the JBL system in the new Avalon is a cut above in quality compared to systems I’ve heard in other mainstream vehicles. Harman handpicked a range of high-resolution audio files to show off the system while I drove (or rode in) a 2018 Avalon Limited — everything from jazz and Led Zep to modern pop and world music.

I evaluated the system with the Quantum Logic Surround on and off and much preferred most music without the processing engaged. (I’m not a fan of most OEM surround processing and prefer to listen to good ol’ two-channel stereo.) But some of the modern pop tracks Harman used to show of the system did sound a bit better in surround.

Later I had the chance to sample the system with my own reference recordings that ferreted out a few flaws. The treble was a bit too bright, and while the soundstage was high and wide, stereo imaging was side-biased. Thanks to the 6×8 woofers in the doors, midbass was powerful and tight when I gave it my standard torture test: Red House Painters’ “Cabezon” and “San Geronimo.”

Like many other modern OEM systems, the JBL setup in the new Avalon borrows innovations first developed by aftermarket DIY car audio enthusiasts looking to get the best sound possible. This includes placing horn tweeters in the A- and B-pillars for better high-frequency dispersion and large woofers in the front doors for up-front bass.

While I’m certain you can get better sound in the Avalon than the JBL premium system delivers, you’ll likely need to spend lot more money. And go to the aftermarket – same as it ever was.

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