Factory ‘upgrade’ systems

Recently I have been working on two cars that had factory upgrade audio options fitted. A Nissan GTR with the Bose system and an Aston Martin with the Linn option. My customers were both complaining of poor sound and were wondering how it could sound so bad when the car had the upgraded audio. Now both Bose and Linn are respected hi fi manufacturers who produce excellent products, at Car and Home Stereo we sell the full range of Bose home audio and have supplied Linn audio in the past. I know it well and have a lot of respect for them.

Clearly, both these manufacturers know how to make great audio so what goes wrong when they try to create a car audio system? And I’m not singling out these two, the Harmon Kardon, B&O, Meridian and Mark Levinson are little if any better especially when you consider the cost of ticking that upgrade option box. In my opinion, the short answer is money and marketing while the longer answer is a fundamental misunderstanding of the car environment.


Let’s take a fictitious, generic car manufacturer, Xcar. Let’s assume they are successful and respected producing a high-quality product with flashy showrooms and huge marketing budgets. They need to keep their cars selling and beating their competitors. This competition is excellent for the consumer as it forces the car manufacturers to constantly improve their vehicles. More power, more fuel economy, more safety, more features. More is always better, isn’t it? Of course, at the same time, they need to balance this innovation with costs so that they can turn a profit.

Now Xcar have a mid-priced car that sells very well but is in close competition with its rivals. How to make it more attractive while making more money? This is where the option list comes into play and right up there near the top will be the audio upgrade.

Remember that to marketing people more is always better so obviously, more speakers have to be better right? Wrong! At Car and Home Stereo we design audio systems with one goal; to sound great. What we use to achieve this is almost not relevant, there will be speakers, amplifiers and sound processors but the type and quantity will be decided by the customer’s requirements and personal preferences.

Some of the best sounding audio systems I have ever designed have used only four speakers and a subwoofer. The four speakers would typically be a two way component set comprising a mid and tweeter in each door so could be considered a single pair. A multitude of speakers means that there will be a lot of competing pressure waves in the cabin not to mention multiple reflections causing phase cancellations and ruining the sound stage. Manufacturers often put yet another speaker in the middle of the dashboard, perfect if it is to watch DVDs in 5.1 surround but terrible for stereo delivery.

But Xcar listens to the marketing department and offer a speaker upgrade package that takes the speaker count from six to fifteen. Of course, this many speakers are going to need an amplifier. They could go to a company that designs and builds car audio amplifiers for this but most people have never heard of Audison or JL Audio or Rainbow and Pioneer and Alpine are not considered up market enough. Marketing do their research and find that most of their customers have a house with some decent hi fi so why not get these hi-fi companies to build them an amplifier?

There are two major problems here.

The first is that the car manufacturer has gone to a home audio company. There are fundamental differences between your car and your living room, too many to mention here and most home audio companies simply do not understand them. At Car and Home Stereo we of course use amplifiers from the best car audio manufacturers and while these can be expensive they are ideally suited to the vehicle environment to ensure the best possible sound.

However, the biggest problem can be laid at the feet of the accountants. Remember they need to make more profit without increasing costs too much well putting a big brand hi fi badge on your speaker grille and installing the lowest cost amplifier can do that. The badge might even convince customers that this is great car audio.

amplifier upgrade Nissan GTR Skyline

This is the upgrade amplifier option for the Nissan GTR Skyline. Designed to drive seven speakers even the simplest offering from Hertz would outperform it. And there is the problem, Bose are completely capable of designing and building a tremendous amplifier but car manufacturers will not pay the price for this and go with the least expensive option. That doesn’t stop them from charging a hefty premium when you tick the upgrade box though.

You might assume that you are getting better speakers designed by that hi-fi manufacturer wouldn’t you?
Well more often than not you actually only get the standard speakers with a few more thrown in.

So what have we learned?

My advice is to never tick the upgrade audio box. You will most likely be disappointed and when it comes here to be improved I will usually have to remove it all anyway. Any changes I make will be completely reversible and invisible to any inspection but the difference to your listening experience will be astonishing. You will start to relish the long drive and hold ups will be almost a pleasure as you will have your favourite music in stunning clarity to keep you company.

If you would like to know more about how we can improve your car audio or would like to listen to our stunning Land Rover Discovery demonstration vehicle please feel free to pop into the shop on Sunderland Street in Macclesfield, Cheshire or give me a call on 01625 432707


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