By on September 24, 2021

Yevhenii Orlov/Shutterstock.com

A week or so ago, I was in Tennessee, testing the Volkswagen ID.4, blasting some country music on satellite radio simply because I was in Tennessee, and it hit me. You folks might be wondering what, if any, music TTAC staffers play while testing.

After all, automakers love to tout the premium audio systems available in their vehicles. This means that we, of course, rock out sometimes.

But only sometimes. When testing, I always turn the radio to mute for at least some of the time, so that I can hear wind/road/tire noise and get a sense of how quiet the cabin is. But the rest of the time, I am rocking out to various genres of music. And so is the rest of the staff.

Chris and I are the ones in test cars the most, so he and I agreed to share our tastes with you. I asked the others but they were mum. No way to tell if that means someone is secretly a Nickelback fan and just afraid to admit it.

Tim

I’ll go first. As I said, when testing I mute the radio for a least a little while. When it’s time for tunes, I am all over the place, and I don’t have a set playlist like Chris does (see below). I like most genres of rock, from alternative to classic to Southern to pop rock. In terms of satellite radio, I wander the dial from channel 24 (Margaritaville) to 34 (Lithium), occasionally going a bit further up or down.

I’m the only person I know who has seen both Jimmy Buffett and Metallica in concert multiple times. I’m also a bit of a Deadhead in addition to being a Parrothead. Speaking of heads, I also love the Talking Heads. Paul Simon, The Who, John Mellencamp, Lynyrd Skynyrd – all part of the mix. Lest you think all my musical tastes are Boomerific, I often listen to Arcade Fire radio on Pandora.

Of course, I am a child of the ‘90s, meaning alternative rock is big. From Foo Fighters to Everclear to Green Day to even the ska stuff that hit the airwaves back then (Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones), if it was on Chicago’s Q101 FM between 1994 and 2000, I was probably into it.

I also like country, both the ‘90s stuff (Garth Brooks, George Strait) I grew up with and the more recent “bro” stuff – think Luke Bryan or Eric Church. ‘80s music of all kinds, from hair metal to synth, is also often on the playlist.

Rap and hip-hop are part of the mix, too, from Common to De La Soul to Kanye to the classic Snoop and Dre stuff from the ‘90s.

Sometimes I switch off the music and listen to the local sports yakkers or the news, too. It’s not all musical fun and games.

Really, I will listen to anything except classical or jazz. Nothing against those genres, just not my cup of tea. I also ignore most bubble-gum/Top 40 pop (though some stuff is good). If it has a beat and makes me feel good, it’s on the list.

Take it away, Chris.

Chris Tonn

I’m not an audiophile. While, yes, I did go out recently and buy an older stereo so I could play my old records – and, in the process, found myself buying a new pressing of A Trick of The Tail by Genesis (see my 2018 review of the Genesis G80 for other thoughts on the band) I don’t have a tube amp or high-end speakers or anything like that. I just enjoy a variety of music both at home and in the car, and the sound of a good needle drop brings me back to the early Nineties when I couldn’t afford a CD player and had to make do with a variety of cheap used records from the local used bookstore.

Spotify has become my musical savior when I tire of SiriusXM. I have an hour-long playlist that spans a few genres of music so I can see how a car’s speaker setup manages. Beyond that, I simply keep all of my favorites in one cross-genre playlist sitting at around 2,000 songs so I get a wide variety throughout my drive.

A caveat: remember that playing anything via Bluetooth or satellite isn’t a perfect representation of the music – it’s a downscaled digital rendering of a higher-quality track. But realistically, how many people are carrying around full lossless audio files to get perfect sound reproduction in an automotive listening environment that will be otherwise marred by road and wind noise, let alone kids who want to play whatever crap music they’ve found on TikTok? I did attend an Acura event a few years ago where the admittedly excellent ELS audio was noticeably enhanced by a thumb drive of FLAC files playing from the center console, but I only listened in a parking lot. I can’t imagine the difference would be noticeable when driving.

Tim

Now you know what two of us listen to while testing. What do you all out there listen to when commuting?

[Images: Yevhenii Orlov/Shutterstock.com, © 2021 Chris Tonn/TTAC]

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48 Comments on “Pumping on the Stereo: TTAC Rocks … and Rolls...”


  • avatar
    vb9594

    Car Seat Headrest
    The Felice Brothers
    Rainbow Kitten Surprise

    The above three bands are INCREDIBLE and in constant rotation for me.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    One of the things I miss about my old Audi is the sound system – mine had the Bang & Olufsen option, and it was spectacular.

    Testing songs?
    1) “Nice ‘ N Easy”, Frank Sinatra (2020 remix). Most of Sinatra’s recordings put you right in the middle of the orchestra, but the remix here is spectacular – it’s sharp and clean, and Sinatra’s in particularly fine form. “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” is a good one too.
    2) The overture to “Jesus Christ Superstar”. If we’re going Broadway, “Evita” and “Hamilton” are great too.
    3) “DNA,” Kendrick Lamar. Best bass drop EVER. As a bonus, it royally p*sses off the bro-dozer guys.
    4) “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga. Pure audio candy, plus a crap ton of bass.
    5) “Back in Black,” AC/DC.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    I’ve been on a real Lilith Fair kick of late and listening to all the 90’s women. Heavy Rotation currently is full of Fiona Apple, Alanis, Garbage and The Breeders.

  • avatar
    Astigmatism

    For stereo testing, the first and last tracks of Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, plus Radiohead’s National Anthem. And then Yo Yo Ma Inspired By Bach for hiss and overall sound level.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I just bought an 02 Silverado with the RPO UM7 AM/FM radio by Delco Electronics.

    Check this out… not only can I listen to AM radio, but I can *also* listen to FM radio!!

    Mostly, it just stays off. I really don’t much care for music, in the car or elsewhere. The radio does make for a handy clock, however!

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I had the same Kenwood unit pictured in my 95 Thunderbird. The previous owner installed it as an upgrade along with JBLs behind the stock grills. It was a fine unit.
    The Alpine system in my Challenger is quite good though satellite radio has its shortcomings when it comes to audio quality.
    Back in the era of vinyl and high end audio Steely Dan Aja would always be the perfect test LP for a system.

    What I’ve been listening to in the car:
    On Sirrus/XM-The classic country at Willie’s roadhouse as
    well as Outlaw country. None of that so called modern country, what Tom Petty called “a bad rock band with a fiddle”
    Also digging the Bridge which is early to mid 70’s artists and singer songwriters.
    On terrestrial radio- My local NPR college station which plays a lot of Americana and modern rock.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    As a middle-wave baby boomer (and amateur musician) my tastes run to all sorts of typical 60s-80s stuff with an emphasis on psychedelia from San Francisco.

    My tastes, however are way broader (soul, big band, classical, jazz, bossa nova, new age, world music, ’90s college radio stuff, Shoegaze, electronic house, 2000s-2010s alternative, to name a few).

    I am an audiophile (I worked in the industry and was a partner in a Boston recording studio) and I just want to make a point about car environments. It has to do with what is known as the noise floor which is the SPL (sound pressure level) of the ambient noise. In a car, this much higher (and more variable) than a quiet listening room. Having said that, what matters is the difference between the music SPL and the noise floor. Above a certain threshold, and for the most part, you don’t hear the noise as our brains do a great job of filtering it out. I mention this because, in the end, if you want the best sound, good equipment (especially speakers) really does make a difference. And that’s before all of the electronic processing that has been developed to adapt the response curve and time-domain aspects to the automobile environment. Simply replacing the crap speakers in my Tacoma with a set of Focal components and adding a modest amp to drive them (as well as a liberal application of dynamat in the doors) made for a fantastic listening environment. Listening to Nelson Riddle era Frank Sinatra (AAC Lossless as is all my digital music) was as good as I’ve ever heard it. The White Album by the Beatles was, similarly excellent.

    • 0 avatar
      Tele Vision

      @bunkie

      I’ve been playing semi-pro for thirty-five years ( pro for a few years ) and know a few industry guys. More than a few FOH and sound reinforcement types have told me that the automobile is the most difficult environment to get a decent mix in. Not just for the reasons you listed but also for the standard speaker placement. A sub can go nearly anywhere but door speakers are limited in both depth and throw; tweets should be up in ones teeth but often aren’t; opening a window or sunroof destroys all the soundscape design; and SPLs range hugely with speed/wind/tire noise.

      Also, CD quality is limited by physics and MP3s are even worse as regards quality. Much, much worse.

      Good speakers will help a bit, as will sound-deadening in the doors and rear, but we’re all at a disadvantage in most cars as far as audio is concerned. I’ve yet to pin ‘Sledgehammer’ by Peter Gabriel or Handel’s ‘Messiah’ as interpreted by Christopher Hogwood in a modern S-Class but in any of my cars they both sound like just music. A stark difference from AKGs and a turntable – or even good cans and a good radio station.

      I don’t bother with recorded music in my cars, unless I have to learn something. Even my CTS-V, which has a Bose system with A-pillar tweets, isn’t up to the job. It’s CKUA or silence in my rigs!

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    I like radio, wherever I am and used to travel a lot on the road, I always went for local stations to keep up with local weather/news/events. I like all kinds of contemporary music including top 40, Country & Western, R&B even light rap is ok now and then. No play lists, no satellite, just search & seek whatever’s out there

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    Audio testing; Strawberry Letter 23 long version. It is rich complex and you can instantly hear a good system from a bad. ♫

    Not applicable here, but for video testing I used to use Installing Shaft Rockers on a Volkswagen head. in the days of early HD.

  • avatar
    theflyersfan

    I’m surprised my VW didn’t come with satellite radio given that most VAG cars come with. But I guess I’d have to upgrade to the Fender system which from what I heard wasn’t that much of an upgrade.

    I’m a child of the late 80s and early 90s. Constant rotation of known and off-beat 80s rock and Euro-pop, and I gotta have my hair bands.

    Love the fact that when the Flyers score a goal at Wells Fargo, “Feel the Shake” by Jet Boy plays. Or it did when I was there last in the days of crowds.

    I wore out of listening to grunge, although I can listen to Alice in Chains all day. The Unplugged album is one of the best I’ve heard.

    I know I’m in the small minority who uses (and pays) for UHD Amazon Music in the hopes that the slightly less compressed stream sounds better in the car. Well, their discovery/soundtrack leaves a lot to be desired (I’ve liked hundreds and hundreds of songs, so mix them up guys!) and it still sounded somewhat fuzzy on the upgraded Harmon Kardon system in the Arteon loaner I had.

    Call me old, but I miss the quality of CDs. I don’t miss trucking them around.

    • 0 avatar
      Astigmatism

      Actually disagree with you re: the Fender system. I had it in my GTI and it was great compared to the “high”-end crud in my old bimmer.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      The premium audio option on the GLI is Beats. It’s an improvement over the base system, but hardly revelatory.

      • 0 avatar
        theflyersfan

        D’oh! My bad. I remember in other VWs, it was a Fender system. I think the GTI had more speakers to play with. I have 2 in the pillars, 2 in the front doors, and 2 tiny ones in the rear doors that don’t put out much. It looks like there should be 2 large speakers in the rear shelf, but those slots are either for air venting or speaker upgrades.

        I was somewhat disappointed in the H-K upgrade. I’m not much of a fan of the subwoofer in the middle of the spare tire – I had that with Bose in the RSX Type-S and it doesn’t put out much. I don’t listen to bass heavy music (and this auto-tuned crap needs to vanish yesterday) but a little extra kick is nice.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    Funny timing. Earlier this week I just took delivery of cassette player. In the physical form of a Walkman, it can convert cassette media to MP3 (why would anyone do that?) as well as playback cassettes and can power off batteries or USB. I can plug it into my aux-in early Sync system and listen to my very old dubbed cassette of the Purple Rain soundtrack (on Maxell tape) in all it’s hissy wow-and-fluttery glory just like old times. I have a whole box of old cassettes and mix tapes in my closet to cycle through.

  • avatar
    Mark Stevenson

    I know for a fact that Timothy Cain listens to techno and dance, even though I have never actually heard him listen to it.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    70s-00’s rock, plus Credence
    Some techno and EDM
    Some alternative rock
    National Public Radio, so I can hear the leftist viewpoint masquerading as news
    Local sports radio, just to be current even though I hate sports
    I make phone calls
    Sometimes silence is really nice, especially in an EV

    I’m no audiophile, so the basic setup is fine for me. I’ll never buy up.

    I’ll never get Sirius XM again due to their cheating consumer policies, and I’m easily entertained by free radio anyway.

    I never turn on the radio with passengers in the car, unless they ask. I turn the radio off when the car salesman turns it on.

  • avatar
    thegamper

    My son just got his first car at age 16 last month. It is a 2009 Lexus RX 350 which happened to be the last model year of that particular design. In any event, it is the basic AWD model. I think upgrades included NAV with bluetooth. But his car has no AUX jack, no bluetooth. What it does have is a 6 disc changer. I think it has been a decade since I last listened to a an actual CD. But I showed him how to burn discs on his computer and was shocked at his musical selection. A lot of what you would consider “oldies”. Beatles, Elton John, CCR, Stones and a real variety of music that was fairly devoid of newer artists.

    I listen to a pretty wide variety of music with older stuff and contemporary stuff. Still, cant help but feel like I did something right introducing my kids to things they never would have listened to on their own, and actually having it stick. Crazy to me when I think that my kids have never had, and probably never will have any physical media to own in the form of a disc or otherwise. Just stuff that is stored on your phone and magically comes out on car/home speakers.

  • avatar
    cardave5150

    My music tastes are all over the board, but first and foremost is Van Halen (hence the 5150 in my TTAC name). A whole lot of classic rock after that, a little grunge (Live, Alice In Chains), gotten into the “Bro Country” lately, with a whole lot of Kenny Chesney in that mix. Grew up on classical and jazz, so there’s some of that thrown in there too.

    Someone on here mentioned several months ago that the audio quality on SiriusXM can be greatly improved if you listen through the app on your phone and go into settings to change the quality of the download. I’ve noticed quite a difference myself (broader range, more bass).

    Sirius stations are typically Classic Rewind, Classic Vinyl, Hair Nation, No Shoes Radio, and whatever Channel 56 is called (having a braincramp right now).

  • avatar
    7402

    Radar Love by Golden Earing.
    The Human Equation album by Ayreon.

  • avatar
    Daniel J

    The one thing I just don’t understand that hasn’t improved is satellite radio quality. It is dreadful. Blast that? Heck no. It works for talk radio, sure. But most services using cellular networks provide far better audio quality.

  • avatar
    dal20402

    I listen mostly to classical music (having a ~20k track collection) but occasionally to almost any other genre except country. But I don’t listen that much in the car, and when I do it tends to be just the local classical or jazz radio stations.

    The best sound system I’ve ever had in a car was the Mark Levinson system in my ’08 LS 460. (Levinson systems in Lexuses other than the LS aren’t built to the same standard.) That one was a fun listen when sitting quietly in the garage. But I don’t really care about car sound quality that much, because cars that are actually driving are terrible places to listen.

    I want the car stereo to be able to play reasonably loud without distortion and I want better mids/highs than you get from the cheapest paper whizzers, and that’s about it. Premium factory systems usually do that adequately. I’m reasonably satisfied with both the Bose system in my Bolt and the JBL system in my Highlander, and the Sony system in the C-Max was acceptable too. I had to replace the speakers to get there with the factory systems in my G8 and my Forester.

  • avatar
    toronado

    All good stuff- for me its Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, early Chicago (the brassy era),and Al Stewart’s Year of the Cat. Alison Krauss is also a great one.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    The difference in OEM cost* to go from crappy base speakers to something decent is very small. If you knew how small, you would realize that the OEM loves you a lot less than you love them.

    *The cost to them, not what they charge you.

    https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-stockholm-syndrome

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      This is an excellent observation. And even the components used in “premium” sound systems are, often, not much better.

      What’s worrying is that as factory car audio relies more and more on electronic digital signal processing, even the simple act of upgrading speakers can be problematic. I tried upgrading the speakers in a car that had active noise canceling. The difference in efficiency of the better drivers utterly confused the DSP and created a serious low-frequency feedback loop.

    • 0 avatar
      redapple

      Toolguy
      You are precisely right. They are f ing you and me.
      $3 for a crap speaker. 7$ for a good one. If you dont upgrade, you have 5 years of fuzzy mufflies.

      Same goes for ugly vs cool aluminum wheels. Cost the same.

  • avatar
    carcomment

    This article reveals everything wrong with this site lately and the ‘reviews’. So no testing with jazz or classical because theyre not my cup of tea…so dear readers you are sol because i dont care enought to have a comprehensive sampler to test one of the most important parts of a vehicle.

    And thanks for the reminder that bluetooth isnt a lossless audio. Heaven forbid you actually carry highy quality mp3s on a stick to compare to BT when testing. But that involves work.

    As to the speculation that lossless cannot be discerned when driving, ive got an idea-test so you can inform your readers of the facts.

  • avatar
    redapple

    Pet Shop Boys
    INXS
    English Beat
    Spandau Ballet
    U2
    Blondie
    Joy Division
    >XM 33<

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I’m at the point where I prefer the sound of silence and I’m not referring to Simon and Garfunkel or Disturbed rendition.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    When I was in my 20s and early 30s I was all about music. I am finding everything froze in about 2012 and I basically listen to the same stuff from the 2004-2011 range. I used to go to the same club every Friday night and dance to the indie music that was played. So my playlist is fairly static.
    White Lies
    The Sounds
    Editors
    Doves
    Ladytron
    Muse
    Interpol
    Kasabian
    Metric
    The Whip
    Yeah Yeah Yeahs

    There are some new bands mixed in, but for the most part it’s like Groundhog Day in my car every day.

    New Placebo album coming out soon, which is exciting.

    For those interested, I have a playlist called “Indie Dance Rock of the 2000s” on Spotify. It’s all the club hits from my time which is now terrifyingly long ago.

  • avatar

    I like Garbage. And Nirvana too. Also Beck and KGO. Nice depressing stuff. Helps me getting in the mood on my way to work.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    As long as it’s loud (even at low volumes), Rocks the party, shakes the steering column, I’m there. Limp Bizkit, B52s, The Hollies, The The, Lover Boy, whatever, it’s all good, I don’t care the lyrics or what the drummer was convicted of, sex offender, etc, who cares?

    They call Steely Dan “Sail Boat” music, but let me pick the song, the system and decibel level..

    But I know I’ll be sorely disappointed by the best factory system money can buy.

  • avatar
    Crashdaddy430

    I’m really much more interested in the brand of chewing gum that you chew when you’re testing the cars.

  • avatar
    manu06

    I’ve downloaded an app called Radio Garden. It accesses thousands of radio stations around the world with a very cool
    interface. All free and the variety can’t be beat. Just connect the phone via Bluetooth or cord and you are set.

  • avatar
    JD-Shifty

    Pete Seeger, the Smithsonian Collection

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