Yes, we have fun drifting Porsches in Finland and piloting Land Rovers along the western coast of Africa, but there exists another perk of this job you might not expect. Whereas most folks have to spend thousands with a company like Marantz or McIntosh to exercise their audiophile muscles at home, every automaker seems to be trying to get in on the premium audio game.
Something that people generally don’t realize is that the audio in the cabin of a car can often be superior to your home setup, as it has been tuned for the reflections and surface textures around you, and of course, the position of your two ears. That’s not so easy to replicate with a home system. But vehicle engineers can carefully design your listening pleasure because they’re the architects of your rolling concert hall and know which seat you’re sitting in.
That’s the good news.
The bad, is that unlike your home, a car might be barreling along at 70 mph and self-creating a lot of competitive noise from wind-hiss, tire-whir, suspension impact booms, and engine rumble—with all of them coming from different directions. Those beautifully tuned acoustics are suddenly less beautiful. It’s sort of like having the sonic excellence of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, but with Disney Hall’s walls made out of construction paper, so you’re also hearing the noise on Grand Ave. outside.
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Last night at Walt Disney Concert Hall. ????: @hilocarriel
Matters are further complicated by car occupants also needing to be able to understand each other when they converse. Human hearing has evolved to be super perceptive to sound within a narrow range of frequencies—centered at 500, 1000, and 2000 Hz—because that’s the realm where human speech resides. Ever try to talk in a busy restaurant and the person across the small table can’t understand you? That’s what’s called masking. It’s when there’s ambient sound already present in the frequency range where you’re trying to hear something else, such as your dinner guest’s voice. It’s even measurable with a sound meter that’s set to analyze Speech Interference Level (SIL).
Car engineers try to relocate a car’s 500-, 1,000-, and 2000-Hz frequency noise to other frequencies to improve intelligibility, but this conflicts with listening to music, which occurs over a much broader frequency range. And either way, a car’s self-generated noise masks any frequency that’s quiet, not just those where human speech resides.
With manufacturers eager to send us loaded press cars with every available option, some of us are testing systems like these every night. So who better to ask than MotorTrend for the best songs to test your new car’s 10,000-watt 43-speaker laser-etched-aluminum–grille audio setup? Keep reading to find out the songs our editors use to separate the stereos trading on name from the real audiophile experience.
Mark Rechtin, Editor in Chief
When testing car stereo systems, you are not only defining the quality of the speakers, but how those waves of sound bounce around a cabin filled with soft and hard surfaces. With that in mind, here are my three tracks that test how well car audio engineers have integrated their systems into a vehicle:
“Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing,” by Chris Isaak
If your car stereo is exceptional, you can hear Rowland Salley’s fingers slinking across the strings on the sultry opening bass riff, accompanied by Isaak’s vocal range that sweeps from grumbly baritone to heartbreaking falsetto with the ever-so-noticeable voice break. And while the opening is minimalist and subtle, the rave-up’s chiming guitars and tinny cymbals is an equal challenge. But the Land Rover Range Rover Velar’s 17-speaker, 825-watt Meridian system is up to the task.
“Cherub Rock” by Smashing Pumpkins
This is the ultimate “wall of sound” song. Most car stereos cannot process the myriad layers of distorted sonic sludge that Billy Corgan laid together on this track, instead just turning it into a disappointing midrange mush. But the Hardon Kardon system in the BMW X5 is a match for snarling Billy and his band of noise.
“California Nights” by Best Coast
This echo- and reverb-drenched psychedelic tribute to the Golden State is a challenge for any stereo that has its own digital effects processors (looking at you, Volvo XC90 with your Bowers & Wilkins system and its “Gothenberg Concert Hall” effect). Once it gets past the possible collision of all that aural sex, another true test of a car stereo is how quickly it reacts to cranking the volume at precisely the 1:18 mark.
Jonny Lieberman, Senior Features Editor
“Dopethrone,” the entire album, by Electric Wizard
This is the thickest, sludgiest, fuzziest, riffiest, filthiest, doomiest record ever recorded. If you’re about to disagree, stop talking because you’re wrong. There’s just nothing else like it. The cover art is Satan sitting on his throne in Hell, enjoying a bong rip (which is legal in California, FYI). But that’s not what makes the record so heavy and fantastic. As the Jus (guitar) said, “Most of us were stuck in some drug addiction or alcoholism at the time, and it was just pure hate. It was us against the world, and we just wanted to make the most disgusting, foul, putrid record that anyone has ever recorded. We camped out at the studio, so it was literally just wake up, consume as much f—ing drugs as possible, and then just start jamming.” The results are beyond compare, and a real test of any car audio system, period.
I will never forget having the good people at Revel demoing their then-top-of-the-line system to me inside a Lincoln MKX. They played something weak sauce like U2 or Coldplay and I said, “Yeah, I guess it’s good. Would you mind if I played a song?” Yes, of course they enthusiastically agreed. Thirty seconds later, both of their faces melted. True story, except for that last part. And seriously, I will forever “test” any and every stereo I encounter with this record. You’ve never heard anything like it.
“No Big Surprise” by NoMeansNo
Off their “Generic Shame” EP, this song is a dynamic rollercoaster. From a throbbing, bass heavy 6-second long main riff, to a ‘70s arena rock-worthy drum solo that manages to transition into a Buddy Rich/Dennis Chambers-quality to drum solo, to dueling stereo’d guitars, to an acapella breakdown that shames all singers who have come within 10 yards of Autotune, this song has it all. With the added benefit of also being an excellent song. My favorite all-time song, as a matter of fact. I’ll never forget blasting this somewhere in the middle of the desert in a Rolls-Royce Phantom headed from L.A. to Las Vegas for my best friend’s bachelor party. Or was that the time he and I drove a Bentley Mulsanne to Vegas for a poker weekend? Point is, few songs can test out every single frequency of an audio system. This is one of them.
“When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin
Arguably the only good song off “Led Zeppelin IV,” and what makes it so incredibly, monumentally, astoundingly great is the drumming of John Bonham. Specifically, Bonzo’s right foot, that incredible, ultra-compressed, tape-delayed, recorded in a mansion’s stairway on just two mics “Ga-Gack” double ghost boom. The better your car’s stereo, the better the best kickdrum of all time is going to sound. I guess the rest of the song has guitars and singing and stuff, but you shouldn’t care. In fact, the Beastie Boys got it the most right when they sampled and looped the opening measures that only feature the drum beat on their song “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” off “Licensed to Ill,” sparing us from all that harmonica, going to Chicago jibber jabber. Seriously though, this song will tell you if your ride’s sound system is good enough.
Kim Reynolds, Testing Director
Probably the best musical test of a car’s audio system is classical music as it comprises an enormous diversity of instruments, and its dynamics (loud or quiet) are often very extreme. Popular music tends to be more constant in dynamics, partly because – if it contained classical-like quiet moments – people would have to slow their cars to hear it.
The LA Phil’s Musical Director is, of course, Gustavo Dudamel, and here’s a choice that I like because he’s conducting the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra from his native Venezuela. It’s a (mostly) youth orchestra, and if you think that ‘classical’ music is boring, you haven’t heard the Dude and his young, and Latin-passionate, hometown band: Arturo Marquez’s “Danzon #2.”
To see how crazy they get, watch Leonard Bernstein’s “Mambo!” They played this several years ago at the Disney—I’d never seen a dancing symphony orchestra before.
Alex Nishimoto, Online Editor
“Don’t Speak (I Came to Make a BANG!)” by Eagles of Death Metal
This adrenaline-raising number from Eagles of Death Metal’s sophomore album is my go-to song for testing an audio system in a performance car. Opening with a steady beat from the snare drum, kick drum, and high hat, the song quickly ramps up with the grungy guitar riffs that give the band their characteristic lo-fi sound. With this song, I look for clarity in the midrange at high volume. Are the guitar riffs and vocals free of unintended distortion? Does the song become harsher and peakier the louder it gets, or does it kick more ass with every crank of the volume knob? If I’m enveloped in a sonic cocoon of radness that just makes me want to hit the gas, then the system passes the test.
Duncan Brady, Associate Online Editor
“Nobody’s Perfect” by J. Cole, featuring Missy Elliot
It’ll take over half a minute to understand why this is my stereo testing go-to, but right around the 32-second mark it should become clear. Sustained bass. This lesser-known track off the North Carolina rapper’s studio debut has one of the lowest, richest, cleanest, and most consistent bass lines in my library. And of course, just eight bars after its introduction there’s a secondary drop that hits even harder. Not only will this song test a subwoofer’s peak power on that first hit but also its sustained output as the 808s continue to thump throughout the duration of the track. The sub that exists as part of Lincoln’s 28-speaker Revel audio system in the Aviator is certainly up to the task.
“Nobody’s Perfect” was introduced to me by my college buddy Louis as his subwoofer test song for home audio systems, and sure enough, it’s made its way into my testing procedure of any car with a so-called “premium” audio option. Whether it’s Mercedes-Benz’s FrontBass system that uses rigid frame members as a subwoofer resonance chamber, or the optional 10-inch Kicker sub they’ll toss in the trunk of a BRZ, J. Cole and my girl Missy are always there to help me assess.
“A Certain Romance” by Arctic Monkeys
What starts with a “Wipeout”-reminiscent single-stroke roll on the low tom unravels into a poetic, dynamic, romp of a rock song that closed out the Arctic Monkeys’ 2014 debut. On an album notorious for loud, compressed mixing, an audio system that celebrates the mellow moments as well as it does the raucous jam-band outro is one with real breadth and versatility.
“Restore the Feeling” by Daniel Caesar featuring Sean Leon and Jacob Collier
Part of what makes a great test song is familiarity, and I listened to Daniel Caesar’s swooning sophomore album Case Study 01 more than anything else this summer. My favorite track, “Restore the Feeling,” introduces itself with silky falsetto and a grainy guitar lick, but the second chorus and outro are really where it’s at. Caesar’s collaboration with vocal harmonic master Jacob Collier results in a veritable wall of blended voices that will test any system’s vocal separation and soundstage. I highly recommend it.
Alex Leanse, Associate Online Editor
I confess to having very particular (some would say limited) tastes in music, and my favorite car speaker systems make me feel like I’m in the middle of a packed nightclub dance floor. That means immersive sound, balanced delivery from all sides, and artillery-grade bass. People stepping on my shoes or spilling drinks on me, less so. Anyway, these tracks were bangin’ on the Volvo XC60 Polestar’s 15-speaker, 1,100 W Bowers & Wilkins setup.
Side note: I’m really tall, so with the driver’s seat adjusted my ears usually line up with the B-pillar. If I lean forward a smidge, the audio can sound completely different. It seems like my seating position orients my head outside of these speaker arrangements’ optimal calibration. Tilting forward puts it back in the zone designed for normal humans. Now you know.
“Artha” by ANNA
A kick drum assault and wobbly, hypnotic bassline gauge how deep the subwoofers can go. Is the rearview mirror shaking loose? Good. The bass shouldn’t overpower, though—I listen for that weepy synth tune to come through bright and clear.
“Aether” by Kommodo
This tune has layers upon layers of sharp-edged melody and percussion. I want each of those to feel like they’re poking me in the tympanic membrane. Kommodo’s arrangement makes the tweeters work, and it shows how well the system distinguishes mid and high ranges. If good, it’s like stepping on a pile of Legos. Except with my ears. You know what I mean.
“Wilkie” by Roman Flügel
It’s all about balance. I can’t listen to bangers all day. Sometimes I just want to chill. Roman Flügel’s music is perfect for that and testing how well balanced a car’s speakers are. “Wilkie,” in particular, has it all—mellow drums, groovy bass, and ethereal, effected refrains. On great sound systems, I’ll hear it side-to-side and end-to-end.
Stefan Ogbac, Associate Online Editor
When I’m in a car, the first thing I look for when turning on the infotainment system is how well the sound fills the cabin. Can you hear the music playing from behind your ear? Is there too much treble? Does the sound permeate every part of the interior? A good in-car listening experience helps the overall impression you get of a vehicle. As someone who’s fond of playing music while on the road—sometimes at full blast—I appreciate a rich and balanced audio system because it helps make my time with a vehicle more memorable.
“Paradise” by Coldplay (from the album Mylo Xyloto)
I’ve been a huge Coldplay for as long as I remember. The evolution of their sound from smooth and easy to the great variety that came when “Viva La Vida” and “Death and All His Friends” arrived has always fascinated me and it continues to do so. “Paradise” remains one of my favorite songs, and it’s one I happily play at full blast in a car because of how sonically varied it is. In fact, one of the most memorable times I listened to this song was driving home in a Volvo XC60 with the optional Bowers & Wilkins surround sound system set to the Gothenburg Concert Hall mode.
“Paradise” is one of those songs that can really put a car’s audio system to the test. You’ll know immediately if it’s not on par with the best because you can’t hear all the little nuances throughout the track, like if all you get are the synths overwhelming everything, including Chris Martin’s vocals in certain instances. For what it’s worth, Coldplay’s constantly evolving sound lends well when you’re testing a car’s audio system. This is just one song in their discography that works well for my profession—and it so happens to be one of my favorites.
“Hallelujah” by Bamboo (from the album Light, Peace, Love)
Alternative and rock are staple genres in my playlist, and recently I found myself a nice collection of Filipino artists on Spotify, including veteran Bamboo Mañalac. This song shares the same title as the famous Leonard Cohen tune, but it’s a lot quicker in pace; think more 90s rock with great guitar work to top it all off. Sung in Tagalog and English, “Hallelujah” is a pretty standard rock tune with smooth vocals and just the right amount of grit.
Songs like this are at their best when you want to let off some steam, and driving is one of the ways I do that. Put this song on full blast, downshift, rev-match and nail the gas and go as you hear the lines “Sinong sawa, Sinong galit Sumigaw, ngayong gabi” (translated: “If you’re tired, if you’re angry, scream out to the night”). Nothing beats an energetic, rebellious tune to get your adrenaline going. “Hallelujah” recently became one of my go-to songs for testing audio systems because you can clearly hear all instruments. If the bass is too heavy before you fiddle with it, then you know the system isn’t balanced and will be biased towards one aspect.
“My Favourite Game” by The Cardigans (from the album Gran Turismo)
This song was the theme of my favorite racing game, Gran Turismo 2, the game that turned me into a JDM nerd at a young age. “My Favourite Game” is classic late-90s rock with Europop flair: catchy, totally worth of a binge listen, and perfect for driving. Its music video even got controversial because in it, the lead singer drove a beat-up Cadillac Eldorado convertible like she’s queen of the road and causing all kinds of havoc before crashing into a van driven by her bandmates.
As for the song itself, “My Favorite Game’s” pop-y nature lends to it being good for audio tests. Since it has everything from synths to traditional instruments, the tune does a good job sussing out which unit sounds flat and plain. It’s also heavy on the former, allowing you to see which sound system doesn’t give you one-dimensional listening experience.
The post Aural Fixation: MT’s Favorite Car Stereo Test Songs appeared first on MotorTrend.