Is the Hyundai Palisade’s Harman Kardon Audio System Good?

When we name an annual award winner and purchase it for a year’s examination, we dig deep, and lately that’s led to more multisensory reporting than we ever expected, as we’re already nose-deep in what I call CSI SUV: Car Smell Investigation, Stanky Utility Vehicle. But today, we’re ignoring the malodorous aspects of our Best of 2020 award-winning Hyundai Palisade Limited and putting our ears to work with an evaluation of its sound system.

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This responsibility habitually falls to me, as the staff audiophile and former employee of the late “Car Stereo Review” and other audio publications (also late, or evolved). Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced the 2020 Hyundai Palisade’s lower trim levels and their base sound system, which has half as many speakers as the 12 in the Harman Kardon stereo that comes in our Limited, so I can’t provide a comparison as I did for our Best of 2018 Volkswagen Atlas. The circumstance is similar, however: As in that model, this isn’t a question of buying a stand-alone option or not; the premium audio is part of the top trim level, as it will be again for the 2021 Palisade Limited and a new trim, the Calligraphy. If you buy those, you get the Harman system.

With said Harman system comes a claimed 630 watts of amplifier power (no further specifications given) and the 12 speakers already mentioned. What it doesn’t include is a CD player, which irritates people averse to change or good sound. Fortunately, the Palisade does support lossless audio formats like FLAC, which is what I used, from a thumb drive connected to a USB data port, to prevent poor audio-file encoding, digital streaming or other such factors from coloring the results. (According to online forums, people even nuttier than I have reported that the Harman system accepts an impressive variety of digital audio files, both lossless and lossy.) To ensure adequate amplifier voltage, I evaluated the system with the engine idling.

What the lower trim levels don’t include are the additional amplifier power and six of the 12 speakers. Similar to the VW Atlas’ system, they go without the center-channel speaker in the dashboard, the subwoofer and the third-row speakers. The six present include four door woofers and a tweeter for each front door.

Good Sound Overall

To cut to the chase, the Palisade’s Harman system is quite good overall. I’ll refer you to the Fender audio evaluation in our Atlas if you need a primer on vocabulary, and I’ll boil it down here to this rig’s strengths and weaknesses. Its main strength is that its frequency response is reasonably accurate and it sounds natural if you figure out how to set it, though the high frequencies start to sound strident at higher output. It’s also rather no-nonsense from a control perspective. I’m no fan of overly processed concert-hall effects and other such gobbledygook, which sometimes appear on otherwise good systems. The Palisade’s Harman system avoids this.

The Most Important Settings

The most important of several audio menus I found on the touchscreen was a page that includes Quantum Logic Surround, Bass Boost (both of which are simple on/off checkboxes) and Speed Dependent Volume Control. I experimented with Bass Boost because I found the bass response accurate but not very deep; as usual, this setting disappointed. It just led to boomy, one-note bass, destroying the musicality that was there. Though the system includes a subwoofer in the side panel of the cargo area, the driver’s diameter is just under 8 inches and its enclosure, though not visible, can’t be large enough. With Bass Boost turned off, the system sounds good enough, but dynamics are only so-so, and you feel almost no bass even with silly bass-heavy material playing. Turning Bass Boost on floods the cabin with audible boom, yet you still don’t feel it. As such, the Palisade with Harman Kardon might be the perfect example of how you can’t fake deep bass.

When it comes to deep bass frequencies, what you primarily need are greater woofer size and enclosure volumes, even if that enclosure is the trunk of a car. Unfortunately, hatchbacks don’t have trunks, and large SUVs struggle to achieve the deepest lows unless engineers can cram them with many large-diameter woofers, a sizable subwoofer cabinet or both. Honestly, I’ve been pretty impressed by what original equipment manufacturers have accomplished with the molded plastic things they drop into the center of a spare tire or the space they steal from a side panel, but seldom do these measures come close to the performance you’d get from an old-fashioned aftermarket (or homemade) subwoofer box. As I noted in that report, the Atlas needed more, but I recall its bass being more extended than the Palisade’s.

The Quantum Logic Surround option, which you can turn on or off via a little QLS button atop the main audio menu, also proved important. I always start with such features turned off and all other settings on default, because goosing, say, a tone control often introduces some other anomaly. With QLS off, the soundstage is very narrow, concentrated under the rearview mirror. Turning it on broadened the stage nicely and put the vocalist right in front of the driver (which I prefer), but that vocal image wasn’t as stable and became quieter in the mix. The representation sounded purer with QLS turned off, but I needed a wider stage. The balance and fader adjustments were inadequate.

I praise the car’s lack of crazy controls, but I wouldn’t mind independent control of the center channel. That might allow me to lower its level relative to the left and right speakers and widen the soundstage without all the other effects of QLS. Ultimately I chose to keep QLS on all the time as a reasonable compromise.

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Rear Rows Aren’t Forgotten

I admit I don’t always pay much attention to the sound in rear seats, perhaps because I spend little time there and don’t have house apes — er, children — but I was pleased by what I found in the Palisade Limited. In case you’ve lost track of the speaker count, two of the 12 are tweeters in addition to woofers in the rear doors, which provide a nice frequency response for the second row. Another two are midrange speakers at head-restraint level in the C-pillars, which locates them nicely in front of the third-row passengers — a better place than the Atlas’ D-pillar position, which is behind and too close to passengers’ heads.

While I wish the Harman system in the Palisade had deeper bass and more impactful dynamics, that’s a common refrain about premium audio systems, particularly in a nonluxury brand and a large SUV. You can’t judge an audio system by its brand alone — especially in an automobile, because the end result depends on how much access and how early on audio engineers get to the vehicle during its development, as well as how much the automaker spends. (This is why luxury vehicles may have better results, though it’s not guaranteed.) But I must say I’ve been more impressed with Harman Kardon’s in-car efforts over the past few years than I ever was in the decades prior.

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