A Mark Levinson Reference speaker is shown in a 2024 Lexus LS.

Sound Investment: Reviewing the Best in Mobile Audio

A good soundtrack can make all the difference. With the right music, podcast, or audiobook, doing chores around the house can be elevated from a hum-drum task to a chance to reconnect with your favorite album, indulge in a little true crime, or work your way through that new bestseller. This also holds true when you’re behind the wheel of your vehicle. The morning commute is always a little easier when you have a good pump-up song or your favorite drive-time DJ to keep you comfortable, and date night just wouldn’t be the same without that playlist you lovingly crafted.

That said, one factor that can make or break any listening experience is the quality of your sound system. An underpowered, tinny set of speakers can make it sound like you scored tickets in the nosebleed section of a sold-out stadium show. Luckily, today’s cars, trucks, and SUVs are fitted with some of the best, most high-fidelity sound systems to ever hit the market. From 35-speaker setups that provide an audiophile-level experience to deep, responsive subwoofers and a full suite of cutting-edge technology, these sound systems can transform any vehicle into a concert hall on wheels. What are the best sound systems you can find on today’s market? Read on as we explore some of our favorites and see how choosing the right make and model can make such a difference in stereo sound quality.

Opening Bars

Before we get into the list, we should let you in on one important detail regarding the modern automotive audio system market. While JBL, Bang & Olufsen, Harman Kardon, Mark Levinson, Infinity, Lexicon, and Revel all produce audio systems, they have one other thing in common: they’re all owned by Samsung. Harman Kardon has been buying up its competitors since the late 1960s and building an extensive portfolio before the company was itself acquired by Samsung in 2017.

This consolidation is nothing new in the business world, and it certainly doesn’t mean that all these audio systems are created equal. Take Gap Inc., for example. The San Francisco-based retailer is known for its hoodies and denim, but few shoppers realize that the company also operates the higher-end Banana Republic and budget-friendly Old Navy chains. Just because these brands fall under the same corporate umbrella doesn’t mean that the clothing is of the same quality, price, or style. You’re unlikely to mistake a chic Banana Republic blouse for the Old Navy version, and it’s the same story for Samsung’s many subsidiaries. You’ll notice some of these brands appearing on the list while others are conspicuously absent, proving that a shared CEO doesn’t necessarily mean shared quality.

A diagram of the Meridian Signature Sound System is shown in a Land Rover.

Land Rover Range Rover

Thirty-five is a big number, almost too big. A vehicle with 35 of anything, whether cylinders, USB ports, or cup holders, would be a little overwhelming, but speakers are the exception that proves the rule. Like all of Land Rover’s models, the Range Rover has an available 35-speaker Meridian audio system, which easily takes the prize in sheer quantity. Of course, more isn’t always better, but the luxury SUV brand isn’t about to cheap out when it comes to its stereo quality. Driven by a 1,600-watt amplifier, the Meridian audio system features a dual-channel subwoofer and a full suite of advanced tech that represent a notable improvement over the old bass and treble knobs of old.

The system’s Meridian Trifield 3D technology can blend the center and surround channels with the left and right channels to recreate the experience of sitting front and center at your favorite venue. The 3D aspect comes courtesy of dedicated height channels, which add a whole new dimension to the mobile listening experience. Meridian’s Cabin Correction software is uniquely tuned to each Land Rover model, adjusting to the different dimensions to deliver a crisp, clear signal no matter where you’re seated. The Digital Dither Shaping feature helps to ensure the audio signal isn’t compromised on its way to the speakers, guaranteeing that you get the authentic album experience every time you hit play.

Finally, there’s the Range Rover’s third-generation Active Noise Cancellation. This technology is nothing new, but Land Rover elevates it to a new level with exterior microphones and headrest-mounted speakers that digitally erase road noise to create an oasis of calm. The feature is particularly handy when you’re trying to make calls from the road, drowning out traffic noise and other distractions so well that your co-workers might think you’re just sitting in the next cubicle. The 35-speaker setup is available as an optional add-on, with a 14-speaker Meridian system coming standard on most Land Rover and Jaguar models, as well as the new Kia EV6.

Volvo XC90

The Volvo XC90’s Bowers & Wilkins audio system certainly isn’t cheap, adding an additional $3,200 to the XC90’s base price. You could buy an entry-level Marantz tube amp for that sort of money. However, in the opinion of a number of experienced automotive journalists, it is the best automotive sound system currently on the market. The premium 19-speaker Bowers & Wilkins setup has earned rave reviews from MotorTrend and CarBuzz and represents a massive upgrade over the SUV’s standard Harman Kardon audio system.

The centerpiece of the XC90’s Bowers & Wilkins is just that, a centrally-located tweeter mounted right in the middle of the dash. This unique placement solves one of the biggest issues in mobile audio systems, avoiding the distortion and loss of fidelity that can occur when the sound waves bounce off the windshield. The tweeter is aimed directly at the driver and passengers, providing crystal-clear vocals and bright, glittering, high-end frequencies. While most automakers place the subwoofer in the trunk, Volvo has bucked the trend with its open-air subwoofer attached directly to the car’s wheel arch for deep, resonant bass tones. Kevlar midrange speakers round out the sound profile with the ultra-stiff material, allowing for the precise transformation of signal into sound.

If you want customization, the Bowers & Wilkins comes with a premium Digital Signal Processing (DSP) unit from industry leader Dirac. Designed to eliminate unwanted interference and signal decay, Dirac’s DSP can be set to one of four included audio modes. The highlight would have to be Jazz Club mode, which not only recreates the atmosphere of a smokey jazz joint but a very specific smokey jazz joint to boot. The DSP mode is modeled after the interior of Gothenburg, Sweden’s Nefertiti Jazz Club, adding a little reverb to make you feel like you’re listening to a skilled quartet plying their trade. Concert Hall mode relies on the same trick on a larger scale, mirroring the unique sound of the Gothenburg Concert Hall while adding a little extra reverb for a truly cavernous experience. Those looking to enjoy the Bowers & Wilkins in an all-electric model should check out the BMW iX, with a similar 30-speaker setup powered by a 1,615-watt amp.

Bowers & Wilkins speakers are shown in a vehicle.

Lexus LS

Mark Levinson represents one of the more premium entries in Samsung’s ever-growing portfolio of audio brands. The company’s high-end audio systems have been a fixture in Lexus vehicles since 2001, providing the luxury brand an important leg up over many of its competitors. There’s a lot to love about the Lexus LS’s Mark Levinson Quantum Logic Immersion Reference Surround Sound, whether it be the 23 speakers, 2,300-watt amp, DSP software for advanced signal processing, or Active Noise Control technology. Still, the price might be the most compelling part. Offered as an optional $1,940 add-on for the luxury sedan (as well as its crossover cousin in the LX), the Mark Levinson sound system is among the most affordable on our list while still being able to go toe-to-toe with those that cost almost twice as much.

The Mark Levinson system has been tailored to each Lexus model, with audio and automotive engineers from both companies working side-by-side for over 1,00 hours to provide a bespoke experience that factors in the disparate acoustics of the sedan and crossover models. The approach seems to have worked, with the 23-speaker audio system providing a true surround sound experience with deep, rumbling bass thanks to its outsized subwoofers. It might be hard to imagine where these 23 speakers would fit in a sedan like the LS, but Lexus and Mark Levinson certainly got creative, embedding at least four outputs in the vehicle’s ceiling.

Lexus has also placed an emphasis on sustainability in designing the LS’s Mark Levinson stereo system. The sedan employs new GreenEdge technology that allows the stereo to operate on half the power of comparable setups. This trick is accomplished thanks to a set of high-efficiency speaker transducers that are able to produce high sound pressure while using very little energy. The speaker diaphragms also operate at a lower temperature than average, minimizing heat generation for a more efficient system. Throw in a bunch of eco-friendly materials, and the result is one of the most well-rounded and greenest premium audio systems on the market.

Of all the add-ons and optional equipment you can spring for when choosing your next vehicle, few will have quite as much of an impact on your overall driving enjoyment as a good, quality stereo system. From blasting your favorite track to keeping up with your go-to podcast or even taking calls while on the move, the audio offerings in these Lexus, Volvo, and Land Rover go a long way in helping each vehicle earn its luxury designation. The closed environment of a car, truck, or SUV provides drivers with the ideal atmosphere to experience high-fidelity audio without investing the tens of thousands of dollars it would require to outfit a larger space to a similar level. Whether you’re looking to recreate the experience of a historic Swedish jazz club, surround yourself with 35 speakers, or enjoy the latest in sustainable stereo technology, these three vehicles are worth a closer look based on their audio offerings alone.