Bluetooth Audio

Many manufacturers have begun to offer wireless Bluetooth streaming of music from playback devices like iPods and smartphones to car audio systems. As a lifelong audiophile and early convert to the fast-growing field of home computer audio, where high-resolution music files are converted by dedicated, outboard digital-to-analog converters (DACs) and special software to give vinyl-rivaling performance, I was intrigued by how wireless Bluetooth playback would affect sound quality in the in-car environment.

So, when I recently had a week with a new 2013 Lexus RX350 (which you can read here) that had the optional Mark Levinson audio system and streaming audio capability, I had to do some comparison listening.

…while in no way objectionable, there was most definetly a degredation in sound quality. Overall dynamics were compressed, meaning that some of the impact was lost; everything sounded closer to the same overall volume, whether it was percussion, vocals, or low-level ambient reverberations. Cymbals on rock tracks sounded distant and less accurately metallic, there was a more compressed “soundstage,” and drum hits lost impact. String instruments and brass in classical music I tried also sounded less real, with none of the “body” of higher fidelity playback.

In audiophile circles they say sins of omission are better than actual changes to how real instruments and humans should sound, and that was the case with streaming. Thankfully, there was none of that horrendous metallicness that taints satellite radio, where the higher notes sound like trash cans crashing down a flight of stairs, or the bloated bass thump of low-rez MP3s.

When sitting still in the car the differences were immediately obvious; when driving less so. And this was on good quality recordings played at 16-bit/44.1-kHz, which is CD quality. Much of the digital media people play in the car these days (iTunes 256kbps or even worse) wouldn’t show much degredation—it’s analogous to watching an old standard def movie on a smaller set versus a Bluray movie on a high end 60” plasma.


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