When it comes to listening to music in moving vehicles, I know of what I speak. As a young adult in the mid-Eighties, I made the lateral move from Walkman-addicted subway commuter to full-time long-distance hauler touring with They Might Be Giants. My musical partner John Linnell and I played as a duo in New York for a few years, but things got hectic when a few of our no-budget videos sneaked into heavy rotation alongside peak Whitney Houston and the inevitable Rick Astley on MTV. Our Ford Econoline crisscrossed the U.S. countless times from the mid-Eighties to the early Nineties, working the microcircuit of nightclubs friendly to the “college rock” sound. We spent a lot of time driving and listening, even though our entertainment options were confined to our slapdash mixtapes, trucker-song compilations, and, of course, the radio.
This story originally appeared in Volume 15 of Road & Track.
Fast-forward 35 years, and I’m still in the same band, now eight musicians strong. We are still making albums (even vinyl records!), and we’re still crisscrossing America. Some things have changed, though. We now typically play theaters, and we travel in a big old tour bus, each of us wearing earbuds, cocooned from one another, listening to our own podcasts, audiobooks, and Spotify accounts.
So I am here to do some close listening and guide you through a highly subjective aural taste test of three audio-tuned new cars. These vehicles all price out well above my paygrade, so I was not shopping! But for the readers always curious about an honest shootout or for those who have the means to become the custodians of these singular whips, this is for you.
Audio engineers report that cars are among the worst places to achieve quality sound reproduction. It’s not the size of the interior or the relatively small speakers, but, according to these hi-fi know-it-alls, it’s the windows. Glass is about the most unkind material for sonic quality, reflecting rather than absorbing sound, so designers typically minimize its use in acoustic spaces. Yet despite these nagging truths, the popularity of windows in cars endures.
So let’s get down to the testing. For our consideration, we have three luxury vehicles: a Mercedes-Maybach, a Range Rover, and a Rolls-Royce. All have extraordinary appointments and the smoothest of rides with the quietest of engines. It’s in this rarefied segment of the vehicle market that the battle for audio supremacy is fiercest, with manufacturers stuffing their cars with dozens of speakers, bewildering digital-manipulation programming, and the most elite audio brand names available. One could assume the cars’ manufacturers are not cutting corners in their quest to achieve stellar audio for their customers. But did they deliver?
In comparing these systems, my goal was to be consistent and systematic. I used a fixed playlist to audition in each car and set all the systems to neutral EQ, which is to say, no treble or bass boosting, as best I could control. I listened to all songs while on the road. The test audio files were downloaded from Spotify in the highest-quality setting. Not exactly FLAC-format lossless files, but quite respectable sounds. I connected my iPhone to each vehicle via Bluetooth.
First up was the 2022 Mercedes-Maybach S580. This bedazzled sedan comes standard with the Burmester High-End 4D Surround Sound system, and well it should since the car’s base price nears $200,000. The system is a $6730 option on the less opulent non-Maybach S-class. The Burmester sports a whopping 30 speakers, including five subwoofers, two amplifiers, and a total of 1750 watts of power. Like virtually all of today’s high-end systems, the Burmester’s interface is incorporated into a centrally mounted touchscreen. Trying to set up the Bluetooth, I fumbled with the screen, cascading from the hieroglyphs of a graphical interface to proper words for a couple of minutes. After getting completely lost and momentarily blasting the Sirius MSNBC channel at about one billion decibels, shocking everyone’s ears, Road & Track contributing editor (and They Might Be Giants longtime manager and my driver for this experiment) Jamie Kitman took command of the controls and zeroed in on the task at hand. To my shame, he got things sorted in seconds.
Once the system was on, the music was immediately pumping, but it also had an exaggerated, out-of-phase quality reminiscent of an Eighties boombox. I knew something was not neutral about this setup and poked around to find a series of “Personal Sound Profile” presets. The system was set to 3D-Sound, but there was also an option for Pure, which, as the name implies, sounded far more natural.
My first test track in every car was “Rock Steady” by Aretha Franklin, a robust slice of Seventies R&B created just as multitrack recording was coming into its own. Like her vibiest tracks, Aretha is at the piano, New Orleans legend Dr. John and funk guitar maestro Robert Popwell are credited for percussion, and the inimitable Bernard Purdie is on the drums. Purdie is one of the most recorded drummers of all time, famous to many for the albums he made with Steely Dan, which remain go-to test records for many audiophiles. As Aretha sang, “Sit yourself down in your car and take a ride,” the music came up strong and thumpin’, with every kick-drum beat accompanied by a physical bump coming from inside our seats. The sound was in true stereo—cowbell to my right, cuíca drum to my left.
Allow me a brief rant here. For many years, a fundamental flaw with car stereos has been that they aren’t stereo at all but a diminished mono-fide blend of the two channels. As a teenager, my best guess was this was so die-hard Beatlemaniacs wouldn’t drive off the road straining to hear the vocal-only channel coming from the speaker mounted to the passenger’s-side door, but I have come to understand it is just a compromise to ensure everyone in the cabin experiences the same thing. Still, real stereo sound can be achieved, and this car can do it.
The Mercedes-Maybach continued to score high on all sorts of songs—Regina Spektor’s “Fidelity” was warm, while the subtle shaker remained distinct. The booming and crispy loops of “Vivrant Thing” by Q-Tip were authoritative, and the full-tilt guitar-grind test track “Fill in the Blank” by the great alternative band Car Seat Headrest was equally definitive. This car clearly demonstrates what a top-tier modern luxury vehicle gets you in the way of audio.
There was one unexpected experience with the Mercedes-Maybach system, but it occurred after the testing was over. As Kitman moved the car to a safe spot in the lot, he flipped back to MSNBC to hear the latest news and discovered the voices of the broadcasters were also thumpin’, with low end emitted from the seats. Many people like extreme bass, but I suspect no one is looking for it in their news reports.
Next up was the 2023 Range Rover P400 SE, which carries a $105,975 base price and comes with a 15-speaker Meridian sound system. But why settle? Better to throw in an additional $1200 for the more powerful 19-speaker Meridian 3D Surround Sound version, as on this test vehicle. The Rover’s touchscreen is more straightforward than the Maybach’s, and moments after the Bluetooth from my iPhone paired, we were on the road. The sound was magnificent. Again, to my delight, it was rendered in full stereo. Quincy Jones’s “Desafinado,” a sparkling example of both the early-Sixties pop–Bossa Nova fad and the stereo test-record fad, presented great stereo imaging—with flutes discretely on the right channel where they should be. The frequency response was generally good, rivaling the Maybach sans thump. While we all try to repress our inner–soccer hooligan, the power in the sonics of “Back in Black” by AC/DC is hard to argue with: clear and bold, with plenty of punch from the bass and guitars, along with crisp highs from the cymbals. Unfortunately, even cranked to maximum volume, the song was a bit less defined in the Range Rover than in the Maybach, and the track lacked some of its head-butting mojo.
Our final test drive was truly remarkable, not just because of the sound but because of the car itself. I still don’t quite know how to process my encounter with the 2022 Rolls-Royce Cullinan Black Badge. Aptly named Bespoke Audio, a small high-end company out of Hastings, England, supplied the sound system that specs out at 600 watts thumping across 16 speakers.
But before the sound, let’s talk about the car—as formidable a vehicle as the name Rolls-Royce implies. Oversized in almost every way, it makes the American-built luxury SUVs I’ve experienced seem like minivans. The depth of color of the vehicle’s exterior is mesmerizing. The Cullinan was so imposing, so flawless, so precious that every curb we could potentially scrape seemed like a threat, and since the Rolls’s size fully occupied the single lane we were driving in, every oncoming car was the enemy. I know this vehicle is meant to be driven by the owner, but in a sense, the driver becomes the car’s chauffeur. The only feature that was lacking for me was a cloak of invisibility. Maybe the car was telling us we weren’t worthy.
The Bluetooth pairing? Instantaneous. The sound was balanced but also vivid. The piano on Miles Davis’s “It Never Entered My Mind” was finally full, with warm upper-mids. And the gentle spank of James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” was so perfectly L.A. Seventies rock I thought somebody turned on the air conditioner. The Bespoke system was a standout and the clear winner. So what if it’s a $10,800 upcharge on a vehicle that carries a base price only one bottle of Dom away from $400,000?
All of these systems speak to the nature of car sound systems in general. Like televisions in the showroom, car stereos are preset to sweeten whatever audio they are playing. I purposely included the classic song “Kick Out the Jams” by the MC5 on the playlist to test this idea. The track is undeniably harsh on headphones or studio reference monitors. I wanted to see how this kind of recording would show up on these high-end car systems. As I suspected, this raucous rocker felt smoothed over. Coloration was ubiquitous in these most-modern systems. Some would argue it’s the smooth vibes folks are paying for, but it is also hard not to notice how often terms like “clarity” and “accuracy” are used in pitching car audio.
So these cars all have thoroughly modern, great to phenomenal systems, with surprising warmth, full frequency response, and true stereo imaging (at last!). In summary: Turn it up!
You Might Also Like