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Top-flight sound systems hit the road

Auto makers and audio makers have combined to make sweet music for car owners. I recently had the opportunity to test-drive/audition several high-end auto/audio combinations. Here's what I found in two sedans.

Infinity Q45

Nissan has added a new brand called Infinity to compete with the best that Europe and the United States have to offer. The flagship of the Infinity line is the Q45, a four-door sedan.

The Q45's sound system is from Bose, one of America's best speaker manufacturers. It features a full-range, 4-inch speaker mounted in a special (three-litre capacity) enclosure in each of the front doors and two 6-by-9-inch speakers mounted in the package shelf, ahead of the rear window. Each speaker is driven by its own Bose-designed, 50-watt amplifier with built-in, 32-band equalization. The system has been tuned with the help of Bose's own computer software to match the interior requirements of the Q45.

Most of the electronics (an FM/AM tuner, pre-amp and audio-tape cassette player, all made for Bose by Clarion) are mounted in the center of the dashboard, just above the ashtray. The exception, a 10-disc CD player (made by Sony) is mounted in the trunk. The control unit for the CD changer is in the console, between the front seats, just ahead of the hand brake.

The soundstage created by this system is excellent. The various instruments of an orchestra are spread out in space ahead of passengers. The placement of most controls is good, and the buttons are all well-lighted for night driving. The only awkwardly placed controls are those for the CD player, way down on the console.

The sound quality is affected very little by opening the sunroof or windows, though front seat passengers do get better sound than those seated in the rear.

The Bose sound system is included in the price of the Q45, not as an extra-cost option. This particular Q45, with an expensive active suspension option, was priced at $43,000.

Lexus LS400

Lexus, built by Toyota, is possibly the quietest big sedan I have ever driven. It definitely has a more regal, less "sporty" feel than the Infinity.

The LS400, four-door sedan I drove was equipped with every available option, including key-less entry, heated front seats and a "premium" Nakamichi (one of the most respected names in audio) sound system. The sound system alone added $1,900 to the price tag, for a total of $46,670.

Included in the sound-system package is a dash-mounted unit containing an FM/AM tuner/amplifier, an audio-tape cassette player and a 10-disc CD player with its changer mounted in the trunk.

Nakamichi's sound system includes speakers in the front doors (with tweeters mounted up by the exterior rearview mirrors), rear doors and a sub-woofer on the rear package shelf.

Having speakers mounted in the rear doors means that music never blares directly into rear-seat passenger's ears. It is easy to listen to music at fairly high volume levels without eliminating the possibility of conversation among all four passengers.

The frequency response of this system is superior to that of the Infinity (higher highs, lower lows), and its transient response is excellent. However, its soundstage is not as effective. Also, the Nakamichi system's sound is affected more by opening the sunroof or rolling down a window.

However, all on-board passengers receive the same rich sound, regardless of whether they are seated in the front or back. Details that could stand improvement include the lighting and design of the various audio-system controls. This setup is difficult to operate at night.

All in all, it's evident that automotive sound-systems are no longer simply afterthoughts to car makers, but it's only right. When you pay that kind of money, you deserve more than just a raspy FM/AM cassette unit stuck in the dash.

Fancy sound-systems are available in less expensive vehicles. When you make your next new car purchase, ask about what original equipment options are available.