If you’ve bought a new car lately, you know the optional extras go on and on. In some cases, it’s possible to nearly double the car’s price by checking every box. 

Beyond boosting the rims or adding seat warmers, the list always includes an upgrade to the car’s audio system that harnesses big hitters from the world of hi-fi and home entertainment. This makes sense, given what an acoustic disaster your standard car cabin is—all that reflective glass and resonant plastics, the utter lack of space in which to allow a speaker driver to function efficiently—why wouldn’t you want some specialist expertise? And that goes double for electric cars, where the uncanny lack of engine noise gives a feeble audio system no excuses and nowhere to hide.

To help you determine whether to spend what could be a sizable chunk of change on this particular upgrade, WIRED tested the top-of-the-line audio and entertainment upgrade options in six well-regarded electric vehicles, plus the ready-to-go system they come with off the factory line. Each EV should have a perfectly serviceable sound system as standard—but each will, of course, happily part you from quite a lot of money for what (ought to be) a much better one. Is the upgrade worth it? Let’s find out.

Audi Q4 e-tron With Sonos
Photograph: AUDI AG

The latest big-name entrant in the world of automotive audio is Sonos. And if the 21st century has taught us anything, it’s that Sonos hits the bull’s eye far more often than it misses. So while its discreetly branded system forms part of a larger options pack that will set you back $2,200 (£1,295), we believe it’s the major reason buyers will tick the upgrade box. There’s just not as much glamor in “adaptive cruise control,” is there? 

Standard system: Channels: 8. Power: 180 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: n/a. Apple CarPlay: Yes

Audi is being uncharacteristically coy about the standard system in the Q4 e-tron. We know how much power is deployed in total, and we know there’s a subwoofer involved. But other than that, it’s all a bit of a mystery. The system definitely has wide-ranging EQ adjustment for bass and treble, control for balance and fader, and a setting called “focus,” which can be set to “front” or “all.” 

And when it’s doing its thing, the standard Audi system is quite likeable. There’s nothing flashy about the way it presents music; instead it’s a rather grown-up and restrained listen. Bass is particularly noteworthy, given that it develops real punch but retains its shape—even at full volume. The midrange is similarly poised and gratifyingly informative, while treble sounds manage to stay composed and inoffensive—again, even if you’re cranking up the volume. 

The problem is that even though there are, by automotive standards, very few drivers in this system, the overall presentation is rather disjointed. Bass is remote from the midrange, and the midrange doesn’t want much to do with treble. It sounds like three accomplished but very distinct systems all playing at once.

Score: 5/10

Upgraded Sonos system: Channels: 10 -  4 x 28mm tweeter, 4 x 125mm mid/bass, 1 x 65mm midrange; 1 x 120mm subwoofer. Power: 580 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes

In a strange reversal, Sonos—which is generally protective of the technical details of its products—has been very forthcoming about its Q4 e-tron system. And as far as the headlines go (plenty of power, numerous sizeable drivers), the news is all good. And it only gets better when the system is up and running.

As well as the EQ adjustment featured in the standard vehicle, here we also get big “+/-” adjustment for the subwoofer and “off/low/high” settings for the spatial audio effect (here called Panorama). 

The most pleasing sound is achieved with all EQs left alone and Panorama on high. This way, the Sonos system combines a very well-behaved thump that’s full of tonal variation; impressively communicative midrange reproduction; and lively, controlled treble sounds. 

And unlike the standard system, the entire frequency range gets along famously. It all hangs together with proper unity, there’s reasonable dynamic headroom available, and the spatial audio effect delivers an open sound without seeming in any way artificial. It’s particularly effective with older recordings.

Unlike quite a few in-car audio systems, there’s nothing flashy about this Sonos setup, which offers a very naturalistic and musical sound. It may appear redundant to refer to an audio system as “musical,” but there are enough in-car systems lacking in this department to make the distinction plain.

Score: 9/10

Recommendation: Upgrade! Even if you don’t care about the rest of the options in the pack.
BMW iX With Bowers & Wilkins
Photograph: BMW

No one at BMW, it would seem, is familiar with the concept “less is more.” Where the iX is concerned, more is most definitely more. As standard, this EV comes with a system that’s way more expansive than any of the other vehicles here—and the audio upgrade option is by far the most expensive, and by far the most lavish. It comes as an option with the $4,000 Premium package, requiring you to add on an additional $3,400 for the super fancy B&W system. In the UK, it’s a simpler £5,000 option. And when you consider the sort of sound quality the same level of money spent on a static, indoor system can buy, the iX is going to have to sound … well … phenomenal if it’s going to make any real financial sense. 

Standard system: Channels: 18. Power: 665 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes

The big numbers here—18 individual speaker drivers, powered by a total of 665 watts—are more usually attached to the upgraded audio system in most cars. But this system, from the perfectly credible Harman/Kardon brand, is standard in the new BMW iX. And it’s not bad at all.

There’s a seven-band EQ adjustment available, along with controls for bass, treble, balance, fader, and “surround intensity” (the system features Logic 7 surround-sound processing, which hasn’t really been at the cutting edge since the turn of the century). And with all of the controls left alone, the standard iX has quite a lot to recommend it.

The low frequencies are a bit heavy at a realistic volume and get both thicker and decidedly overconfident if you turn it up, but they’re reasonably swift and controlled. The midrange is detailed and quite eloquent, and the overall sound is pleasantly dynamic. Despite its rather antiquated nature, the Logic 7 surround effect is pretty effective too.

It’s at the top of the frequency range that the problems lurk—although they don’t so much “lurk” as “leap out.” The treble sounds exhibit more than enough aggression at standard volumes, and they become more challenging the louder you go. Between this and the tendency for bigger volumes to provoke the bottom end, this is a system that’s best listened to at sedate levels.  

Score: 6/10

Upgraded B&W system: Channels: 30 - 5 x 25mm tweeter, 5 x 100mm midrange, 2 x 217mm bass, 2 x 217mmm subwoofer, 4 x 50mm 3D, 8 x 60mm headrest, 4 x 4D exciter. Power: 1,615 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes 

There’s no room for a kitchen sink in a BMW iX, which is just as well, because if there was it seems likely Bowers & Wilkins would have thrown one at this EV. 

For now, 30 drivers of various types (including eight set into the seat headrests and some featuring the brand’s celebrated “diamond dome” and “aramid” technologies) and over 1,600 watts of power should be enough to satisfy. Consider the “4D bass experience,” for starters. Want your seat to vibrate with the low frequencies as if your wildly expensive car has suddenly become a ride at Disneyland? Well, there are “exciters” fitted into the backrests of the front seats for that purpose.  

Numerous sound profiles are available, along with across-the-board adjustments for every aspect of performance. There’s the obligatory 3D spatial audio effect too.

For once, here’s an in-car audio system whose character doesn’t alter when volume levels get serious. Many setups become borderline hysterical at big volumes, but the Bowers & Wilkins simply gets louder. 

And while it’s not the most natural-sounding system where timing is concerned, it’s a punchily well-judged and entertaining listen. Dynamism is a given (as the power output hints it might be), and in every area of the frequency range the system piles on the details. There’s a visceral aspect to the way this system delivers music that’s more readily associated with the concert hall than the driving seat.

So if you value the shock and awe aspect of sound reproduction, you won’t go wrong here. Mind you, if it’s “shock” you want, take another look at the asking price.

Score: 8/10

Recommendation: Upgrade, probably … just about. It’s an entertaining system, though just a little gimmicky. And it’s the polar opposite of “cheap.”
Ford Mustang Mach-E With Bang & Olufsen
Photograph: Ford

Few audio companies are as aware of, or as protective of, their reputation for design and performance as Bang & Olufsen. So while the UK option pack that’s available on the Mach-E includes quite a few goodies for the money (hands-free tailgate, heated windscreen, panorama roof, and more), we figure you’re spending a big portion of the £3,600 asking price on the uncomplicated cachet of some nice, shiny B&O branding (and sound) in your new EV’s interior. In the US, the upgraded stereo systems is standard on the Premium and GT models

Standard system: Channels: n/a. Power: n/a. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes

There’s a definite lack of pretension to the standard audio system Ford fits into its Mustang Mach-E EV. The essentials (some speaker drivers, adjustment for bass, treble and balance/fader, adequate power) are here—and in practice they turn out to be adequate for getting certain aspects of the job done.

The sound is similarly matter-of-fact. There’s no attempt to wow you with sonic fireworks here, no fancy spatial audio effect to put you inside a dome of sound—just a full-range but measured presentation of the music. 

When it works well—and it works well in terms of tonality (consistent from the top of the frequency range to the bottom), which remains unaltered regardless of volume—the Mach-E system is decent, but it’s far from perfect.

Low frequencies, despite their very similar tonality, sound remote and are quite badly estranged from the rest of the frequency range. And the midrange tones, which many alternative systems like to push to the front, are strangely reticent and almost convex. It’s not a particularly dynamic listen either, delivering the loudest and the quietest parts of a recording at a very similar level.  

So while a lack of artifice is always welcome, it’s difficult to warm to a system that wants to be inoffensive above all else.    

Score: 4/10

Bang & Olufsen system: Channels: 10 - 4 x 25mm tweeter, 1 x 80mm midrange, 4 x 160mm mid/bass, 1 x 150x230mm “racetrack” subwoofer. Power: 560 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes

Question: How interested in sophistication are drivers who’ve decided a Mustang Mach-E is just the ticket? Because throwing a not-inconsiderable amount of money at Ford for this car’s option pack, including the audio system, buys some unarguably elegant sound reproduction.

As with the standard system, this Bang & Olufsen upgrade lacks frills. User adjustment options are limited to bass, treble, balance, and fader, and a total of 10 speaker drivers can’t help but look tentative when compared to some of the more overwrought systems in this test. But—not for the first time—Bang & Olufsen has demonstrated that it’s not the size of your spec sheet, but what you do with it that matters.

At any volume level, there’s a slight edginess to the way this system delivers treble sound, and at significant volumes it can get quite toothy. But in every other respect, this is a convincing, confident listen. Integration throughout the frequency range is good, with bass (so often an in-car issue) an active part of a unified presentation. The balance between fidelity and excitement is well realized, and the B&O system combines forensic levels of detail retrieval with an assured and natural musicality. 

On paper, the combination of Ford’s mainstream appeal and Bang & Olufsen’s high-end audio prestige might seem a little unlikely. In practice, it works remarkably well.  

Score: 8/10

Recommendation: Upgrade! Although it’s expensive if the rest of the equipment doesn’t interest you. 
Lexus NX With Mark Levinson
Photograph: Lexus

Mark Levinson has been providing upgraded Lexus audio systems since “radio/cassette with CD changer” was the cutting edge of in-car entertainment. Here, the carmaker has gone with the tried and tested method of chucking more power and more speaker drivers at a vehicle, but the synergy between Lexus and Mark Levinson is such that “chuck” is probably not the word. Either way, this is a $2,125 add-on to the $3,050 Premium package (or a straight £3,000 in the UK), an in-car audio upgrade that’s the result of literally decades of collaboration. 

Standard system: Channels: n/a. Power: n/a. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes

The first notable thing about the audio system in the Lexus NX doesn’t have anything to do with the way it sounds. It’s simply that the available EQ adjustment (treble, mid, and bass) and balance/fader control is a long way, in terms of the touch-screen menu, from the control that switches the surround-sound effect on and off. So getting the audio you want from the Lexus is more of an effort than it should be.

Once you have settings where you want them, though, the NX is quite nicely balanced. The top end can be a little flimsy, it’s true, and there’s a similar issue in the upper midrange, but it’s not all that problematic unless you’re a fan of big volumes. Dynamic headroom is quite impressive, and the bass is solidly punchy without getting boomy.

This all assumes you’ve turned surround-sound off. Trawl through the menus to turn it on and, though dynamism and overall tonality are basically unaffected, the sound becomes more diffuse and altogether vaguer. Rhythmic expression takes a hit too.

It turns out Lexus has hidden the surround-sound option in the depths of the user interface for good reason.

Score: 6/10  

Mark Levinson system: Channels: 14 - 2 x 25mm tweeter, 3 x 90mm midrange, 2 x coaxial 16mm tweeter with 90mm midrange, 4 x 170mm bass; 1 x 200mm subwoofer. Power: 835 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes

At a glance, there’s next to nothing to differentiate the Mark Levinson audio system from the standard alternative—the long-established (and borderline-illegible) ML logo is deployed very sparingly indeed. Stop glancing and start listening, though, and the differences are significant.

Almost everything the Mark Levinson system does is several orders of magnitude more enjoyable than the standard alternative. With all EQs and sound processing left alone, this is a balanced and spirited listen, with more than enough poise to make sense of complicated recordings and remarkably convincing stereo focus, given how many individual speaker drivers are at work here. Bass is punishingly deep but properly controlled, steering well clear of the midrange, which has the space to express itself. Detail levels are high, and tonality is even from the lowest frequencies to the highest.

At higher volumes, some of the system’s admirable composure deserts it, leaving it rather two-dimensional. But it’s still rapid and detailed, which keeps it ahead of at least a few of the other systems in this test. 

Score: 8/10

Recommendation: Upgrade! Unless you’re expecting visual bling for your money.
Porsche Taycan With Bose
Photograph: Porsche

No one expects a Porsche to come cheap—and consequently no one’s disappointed. So it’s surprising and gratifying in more or less equal measure to find that Porsche will swap the standard five-speaker, 100-watt audio system in its elegant and expensive Taycan EV for a 14-speaker, 710-watt Bose-branded alternative for just over a grand. But just because $1,200 (£956) looks like small change next to the overall price of the Taycan, that’s no reason to spend it pointlessly.

Standard system: Channels: 5. Power: 100 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes

The standard Taycan system has EQ adjustment for bass and treble, plus balance and fader control—the bare minimum, in other words.

On the plus side, this is a sprightly and energetic listen. It’s another system that quite understandably pushes the midrange forward, the better to project voices. It’s an open and spacious sound, with decent levels of detail retrieval and a good, solid soundstage. Unlike many in-car systems, and despite a fairly big subwoofer, it controls its low frequencies well and doesn’t let bass get out of hand. 

At lower volumes (and lower speeds) it’s reasonably balanced, with just a little coarseness and edginess higher up the frequency range giving any cause for concern. But turn it up (while the Taycan is very quiet, at higher speeds tire noise can get disproportionately intrusive) and a lot of its composure deserts it. The more you pile on the volume, the more ragged and uncouth it gets. Every area of the frequency range decides to compete with every other, and the result is not unlike sitting inside someone’s migraine.

Ultimately, this system is just slightly unrefined at reasonable volumes and overtly unrefined after that. Strange, really, that something associated with Porsche should (relatively speaking) fall to pieces when asked to shift into high gear.  

Score: 5/10 

Bose system: Channels: 14 - 4 x 19mmm tweeter, 5 x 100mm midrange, 2 x 165mm bass, 1 x 200mm subwoofer, 2 x 220mm subwoofer. Power: 710 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple CarPlay: Yes

More speakers and more power. It’s the audio upgrade story in a nutshell. But the Taycan’s Bose option also includes something called SoundTrue (a system that aims to reinstate lost information from compressed digital music files) and an option to switch between “linear” sound (read “stereo”) and surround sound.

Both of these functions are quite quickly dealt with. Surround offers a degree of Dolby Atmos-style spatial audio, and because it’s subtle it’s quite effective. SoundTrue just shoves the midrange forward and is no less lossy-sounding than the original.

Overall, this is undoubtedly fuller, more dynamic, and more faithful than the standard system. Yes, it’s midrange-forward, but it’s less problematic here than elsewhere because the tonal balance is, broadly speaking, quite naturalistic. 

Bass performance is particularly impressive. There’s all the depth and wallop you could realistically ask for, plus speed and control. So low frequencies don’t wallow, don’t swamp the midrange, and don’t hang around making the door panels resonate. 

The top end is problematic, though. It’s bright to the point of hardness, and at significant volumes it edges close to “shrill.” And there really doesn’t seem to be any need for that, given that what noise does make it into the cabin tends to be far further down the frequency range. Back off the treble using the EQ and it gets a little less upfront but no less splashy and thin.  

So what your $1,200 buys, in basic terms, is a big, enveloping, and pretty impressive sound with entirely too much emphasis on the top end.

Score: 7/10

Recommendation: Upgrade! But it’s hardly a no-brainer.
Tesla Model 3 Standard and Premium Audio
Photograph: Tesla

Telsa owner Elon Musk cares a lot about the sound of the company’s cars, and that’s apparent in the design of the audio systems inside its best-selling vehicle. Both the standard and premium systems the Telsa team has put together are immersive and well-tuned, making them a joy to listen to in such a quiet cabin. Unfortunately, you can’t just upgrade your audio system as an option on a Model 3. You’ll need to opt for the Long Range or Performance models to get the higher-end setup, which will cost an extra $9,000 for the Long Range and $14,000 for the Performance.

Standard system (unofficial): Channels: 8 - 1 x 1-inch tweeter, 7 x 4-inch midrange, 1 x 8-inch subwoofer. Power: 350 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth Codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple Carplay: No.

The smaller Tesla audio system you’ll find inside the standard-range Model 3 might have six fewer drivers overall, for a total of nine throughout the cabin and trunk, but that doesn’t mean it’s a slouch.

You’ll get less overall soundstage and detail, but the entry-level OEM still performs better than most, thanks to smart cabin design and the same excellent speaker placement. The system might have a single tweeter, but it’s aimed expertly at the center of the dashboard, using the windscreen as a waveguide.

Three 4-inch drivers at the front save you from the muddy sound and awkward bass response you’ll get from in-door speakers. If you’re an audio nerd (and you’ve got the cash) we’d spring for the nicer car, but if not you won’t be let down by this more basic but competent setup.

Score: 7/10

Premium system (unofficial): Channels: 15 - 3 x 1-inch tweeter, 2 x 2.5-inch midrange, 7 x 4-inch midrange, 3 x 8-inch Subwoofer. Power: 630 watts. Amplification: Class D. Bluetooth Codecs: SBC, AAC. Apple Carplay: No.

The 15-driver, “full immersive” sound system inside the Tesla Model 3 Long Range and Performance models is one of the best-sounding car audio setups we have ever heard.

It expands on the standard range’s more basic system, where three main 4-inch drivers in the front cowl take center stage, with two extra tweeters, two midrange drivers, and two extra subwoofers in front to build out the soundstage.

Some 10 speakers in the front half of the cabin provide a deep and wide image of the song or podcast you’re listening to, with the subwoofers in the doors and trunk delivering the appropriate amount of rumble. Five speakers in the rear half of the cabin fill in the gaps, with the entire 630-watt  system powered by two separate amplifiers.

It sounds as good as those specs look: massively detailed, with each instrument occupying its own musical space. The lack of a traditional ICE motor makes for cleaner low end too, meaning this option has some of the most detailed bass we’ve encountered in a car.

Score: 9/10

Recommendation: Upgrade, if not just for the range.
Conclusion

Six electric vehicles, six recommendations to upgrade to the more expensive audio system. And yet it’s not as cut-and-dried as it might at first appear.

As far as Audi, Tesla, and Sonos are concerned, the recommendation to upgrade could only be made more forcefully if we were to grab you by the lapels while doing so—the Sonos system in particular sounds great and is relatively affordable. 

It’s almost as easy to recommend the Bang & Olufsen upgrade in the Ford, although that’s as much to do with how unsatisfactory the standard Mustang Mach-E audio system is as with how well the B&O alternative performs.

At the other end of the scale, there’s no denying the potency of the Bowers & Wilkins system that’s available in the BMW iX. But, then again, it’s not easy to ignore the asking price. And it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to imagine prospective customers wondering if paying for, and then being rather unsettled by, the “excited seat” aspect of the system makes financial sense. 

This leaves Porsche/Bose and Lexus/Mark Levinson. At least Porsche is just putting a price on the system, and from there it’s easy enough to decide if you think it’s worth it or not. With Lexus, you may need to be sold on every element of the upgrade pack before it becomes a truly viable proposition.

If you’re going to lease your nice new EV, then resale price isn’t really an issue. If you’re buying it outright, though, you need to consider residuals. Will a flash audio system make your secondhand electric vehicle more saleable or help it command a higher price? Questions, questions. 

What’s not up for debate, though, is that the market for high-end audio upgrades in these electric vehicles is important to both the vehicle manufacturers and the audio companies involved. As it turns out, it should be important to you too.

Additional reporting byParker Hall.