A new car's sound system can present a stimulating challenge to shoppers who want to test how good it may be. But experts say it's simple enough to do if you bring along music that's familiar to you.
Sound is subjective, says Elliot Scheiner, audio producer, sound engineer and developer of high-end ELS stereo systems used in Acura automobiles. He says buyers should remember: “What works for me might not work for them. But what works for them should work in the car.”
A 40-year veteran at the studio mix board and winner of eight Grammy awards, Scheiner has done studio work for the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac and others you might have on your own list of favorites. He says he won’t sign off on the final sound mix of music he has produced until he hears it in a car. “I know what the car sounds like and what I want people to hear,” he says.
Mark Ziemba, a sound engineer at Panasonic who works with Scheiner on the Acura ELS — as well as with other automakers on their high-end car systems, says his benchmark for testing music is, “If you put it in a stereo system and hear new details, or it sounds like it did when you first heard it and fell in love with it, that’s a good system.” He listens for “new details in your favorite recordings; whether the sound is realistic and natural, placing the vocals and instruments where you think they should be. You don’t want your favorite vocalist captive in the near-side door.”
Also, there should be no distortion, nor should the sound system have boomy bass notes, shrieking and brittle high notes, or tinny midrange sound.
One song Ziemba and Scheiner both say is a great audio test — and a sweet piece of music, period — is the “Hotel California (Live)” track on the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over album. Ziemba says the piece has “incredible imaging and spaciousness, [and a] powerful kick drum. This selection is utilized by many carmakers to test their systems.”
We asked Ziemba to craft a playlist that would be a credible test of a car's stereo system and feature music familiar to buyers age 50 and older. Below are 25 songs from a variety of artists in popular genres that can help you discern the features of a car sound system.
- Green Day – “Know Your Enemy”
- Eagles – “Take It Easy”
- Steppenwolf – “Born to Be Wild”
- Supertramp – “School”
- Pink Floyd – “Us and Them”
- The Who – “Bargain” and “Young Man Blues”
- The Beatles – “Come Together” and “Norwegian Wood”
- Bachman-Turner Overdrive – “Blue Collar”
- Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Riviera Paradise”
- Joan Baez – “Diamonds & Rust” (“Huge vocal image with natural instruments.”)
- Grateful Dead – “Friend of the Devil”
- Garth Brooks – “The Thunder Rolls” (“Real thunder, great vocal emotion.”)
- Faith Hill – “Breathe” (“Natural detailed vocal, a good test for harshness.”)
- Van Morrison – “Crazy Love” from Moondance album
Rhythm and Blues
- Marvin Gaye – “Mercy, Mercy Me” (“Fabulous track with the famous cowbell with reverb.”)
- Michael Jackson – “Billie Jean” and “Bad”
- Adele — "Skyfall"
- Christina Aguilera – “Come On Over” (“Listen for midrange glare and harshness.”)
- Kesha – “Praying”
- Hall & Oates – “Sara Smile”
- Steely Dan – “Black Cow” and “Peg” from Aja album