- Bose is widely available and uniformly excellent.
- Consistency across a variety of different vehicles is its strong suit.
- The five-decades-old company also produces a super-high-end system for Cadillac.
Business Insider just named its 2017 Car of the Year: the Porsche Panamera. We also anointed Audi as our first-ever repeat winner for Infotainment System of the Year.
Infotainment System of the Year is a new award that we launched last year, alongside Audio System of the Year. In 2016, Bowers & Wilkins took the Audio prize.
In 2017, Bose — also a 2016 finalist — is the winner of Audio System of the Year.
Once again, we started with a list of five contenders, with a few familiar names from 2016:
- Bowers & Wilkins
- Tesla Audio
As BI’s resident car-audiophile, I did the majority of the testing, but I hashed out my assessments with transportation reporters Ben Zhang and Danielle Muoio, as well as Deputy Editor Cadie Thompson.
We don’t have a scientific process or even an elaborate methodology for this award. However, we did sample pretty much the full range of car audio systems over the course of testing about 70 vehicles in 2017. We tend to pick out what some systems do better than others, although most car audio these days is excellent. As I pointed out last year, the old AM/FM-two-speaker arrangements of yesteryear are long gone. And even the most basic vehicles frequently offer Bluetooth integration, AUX ports, satellite radio, and multi-speaker soundstages, complete with powerful amplifiers, carefully tuned speakers, and subwoofers.
The market is separated into three tiers: fairly basic systems; premium systems; and super-premium high-end systems. The Bowers & Wilkins setup that won last year is an example of this last tier, as is Burmester (found in Mercedes-Benz and Porsche vehicles) and Revel, which we’ve enjoyed in Lincolns. These upmarket systems are often an option on cars, and at times a pricey one. But in our view, they’re well worth considering.
When listening to music in your car, you’re likely to be surfing media: terrestrial radio, satellite radio, CDs, MP3s, Bluetooth streaming, and streaming audio services such as Pandora, Spotify, and Tidal. You may also be using USB inputs or an AUX jack, so the quality of your source audio will vary. (Just as with last year’s contest, I again found this year that into the AUX jack gives me the best modern audio, although some experts maintain that the USB port is better, and that using a CD-player input still offers the best sound).
Each of our finalists handled this challenge deftly and delivered a superb listening experience regardless of where the music was coming from.
The big winner
Massachusetts-based Bose has been around for over 50 years and is a legend in audio. It’s also no stranger to bringing music into cars, having been in that business since the 1960s. We’ve enjoyed Bose audio in a very wide range of vehicles and have, in particular, been impressed by the Panaray bespoke system that the company created for Cadillac’s flagship sedan, the CT6.
But it’s the more common mid-range Bose system that takes home the trophy this year. That’s because its level of excellence is so consistent. As with Bose’s other audio products, including popular headphones and home speakers, the goal is to avoid extremes. Other audio systems might blow your mind under specific circumstances, but Bose manages to be great in everything from two-door sports cars to big SUVs.
I reviewed a bunch of car-audio systems in 2016, and my verdict on Bose stands: “Basically, Bose car audio systems always sound good, and unlike some other choices, they do it without requiring 1,000-watt outputs. Depending on how many speakers a vehicle has, where they’re positioned, and whether there are powerful bass speakers, they can sound significantly better than great.”
The bass is full and robust, the midranges are well-defined, and the highs are bright. Rock lovers, pop lovers, hip-hop lovers, jazz lovers, blues lovers, classical lovers — everyone will be happy with Bose. And that’s why we’re naming it 2017’s Audio System of the Year.
Revel Ultima is Lincoln’s high-end system, developed by Harman/Kardon (and for what it’s worth, H/K-branded systems are very competitive with Bose). I reviewed it at the same time I checked out the Bose system in 2016, and was stunned by how visceral it was.
“Because Lincoln and Harman/Revel co-developed vehicles and their audio systems, the listening experience is incredible immediate,” I wrote. “It sounds live. It sounds, possibly, better than live. It’s the best system I’ve yet tried for jazz and blues — combos that feature acoustic bass, saxophone or trumpet, piano, and drums. Bee-bop and swing. Miles Davis and John Coltrane. B.B. King. You get the idea.”
Our three other audio systems are all wonderful, and obviously Bowers & Wilkins is so superb that it got the trophy in 2016. Tesla’s in-house-developed system is impressive on that basis alone, and Burmester is mind-boggling — it’s just that I haven’t listened to it enough to form a full opinion.