There was a time when Bose was the only recognized premium car stereo brand. Then Nakamichi blew our minds in the 1990 Lexus LS 400. Since then, automakers have scrambled to align themselves with whatever home or car-audio brand, music producer or musician they could find.
What do these alliances mean? Absolutely nothing. Decades of experience in home audio — or the music business — don't guarantee performance. Performance is its own bottom line. That's why I was impressed with the latest newcomer, a premium stereo in the 2012 Volkswagen Passat developed with Fender Musical Instruments and Panasonic.
The Fender-branded stereo is just that: a stereo, meaning two channels, not the multichannel approach many automakers — especially luxury brands — have taken. It's about as effective evidence as you'll find that high speaker counts and complexity aren't necessary to deliver quality audio. (The Suzuki Kizashi's Rockford Fosgate system is another.)
For the 2012 Passat, the Fender system is available as an option for the SEL trim and higher, which starts at $28,395, well above the car’s $19,995 base price. Fender also developed audio systems for most of the 2012 VW lineup.
Below I dissect the plusses and minuses of the system. As a former editor at Audio, Car Stereo Review and Sound + Image magazines, I am unfathomably nerdy about audio performance in or out of a car.
The Fender system's strengths are detail, dynamics and spatial rendition. Pop in any complex recording, and you will hear crystal-clear vocals, both male and female, and all the instruments independently, rather than one big smear. This is aided by a well-defined soundstage that arrays appropriately recorded (and mixed) instruments across the dashboard in front of you. Although it's biased a little bit toward the driver's side, the stereo soundstage is better than that of many cars with an extra center-mounted speaker.
The Fender stereo is decidedly a front-stage design, meaning all the music comes from in front of you. If you prefer to feel like you're surrounded, as if you're in the band, this isn't for you. I prefer the Fender approach, but I'd like more depth to the stage. The voices and instruments hover over the dashboard rather than farther forward. On the upside, the bass is solidly anchored in front of you, so you don't hear the subwoofer booming away from the rear. Unfortunately, a defect I hope was limited to our test car produced a distracting resonance in the rear parcel shelf, the flat surface behind the backseat (on which you're actually not supposed to put parcels, for safety reasons).
The stereo plays loudly with minimal distortion, and the dynamics are excellent. There's plenty of punch to drums and such without sounding exaggerated or boomy. The frequency response is broad overall, but the bass isn't as extended as I'd expect from a trunk-mounted subwoofer. Fender wasted the Passat's large trunk by using a plastic enclosure rather than an infinite baffle configuration that would have used the trunk as a giant enclosure (when empty, at least). If you listen to ridiculous sub-bass-heavy "music," you'll find the bottom-most part of the spectrum lacking, if not missing entirely.
Senior editor David Thomas recently tested Fender systems in the 2012 VW Beetle and Jetta GLI and came away equally impressed with the execution in those models. He happens to be a former music journalist for Billboard and MTV.com.
The success of a premium car stereo is mainly about how early in the vehicle's development the acoustic engineers get access to design the speakers and tune the rig, and how much money the automaker spends. It's not about the wattage, the number of modes, channels or adjustments or the speaker count, size, design or materials. It's the results, which newcomer Fender got right in the 2012 Passat.