Listening to High-Resolution Audio in a Car

high-resolution audio car
You can take high-resolution audio along with you in a car, but it isn't the most ideal listening venue ever. Hero Images / Getty

It is possible to listen to high-resolution audio in a car, either with a portable device like a PonoPlayer, or a dedicated piece of car audio equipment. However, whether or not you’ll actually be able to tell the difference is a question that is more difficult to answer. There are some very real challenges involved in getting music to sound really good in a car to begin with, and it’s extremely unlikely that simply plugging a high-resolution audio player into a stock car audio system is going to result in a higher quality audio experience than you’d get from a regular MP3 player.

Listening to High-Resolution Audio in a Car

The two options for listening to high-resolution audio in a car are to use a portable player or a dedicated media receiver component. The first option provides the most flexibility since you can use the same player in and out of your vehicle, while the second will typically provide the highest audio fidelity when used in conjunction with the right components like high quality speakers and an external amplifier.

Listening to high-resolution audio files in a car with a portable device is extremely easy, but the actual quality you get will depend on the setup that you use. For instance, you can take a PonoPlayer, or smartphone with a high-resolution audio app, and plug it into the auxiliary input on your head unit, and you’re off to the races. Or if you have a USB input, compatible portable device, and a head unit with an appropriate DAC, you’ll likely hear even better results.

Most head units aren’t really set up to take advantage of high-resolution audio files, but there are dedicated media receivers that can do the heavy lifting. If you want a true high-resolution listening experience, then this is the better route to take, but the price tag may be difficult to swallow.

For instance, Sony makes a mechless high-res media receiver that’s compatible with a lot of smartphones, but the price tag is around $1,500, and even then you’re looking at upgrading your speakers, installing an amp, and making other tweaks to take advantage of that pricey hardware.

Can You Even Tell the Difference Between Regular and High-Resolution Car Audio?

Opinions are split on how much of a difference people can actually hear from high-resolution audio. For instance, Consumer Reports ran a test on several popular high-res audio players and high-quality headphones and found that while non-experts were able to hear at least a small difference, much of the difference evaporated when using lower quality—but still highly rated—headphones.

The fact is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce the listening experience from a set of premium headphones in a car. Cars are inherently difficult to work with in terms of setting up a uniform soundscape, as they contain so many oddly-angled surfaces and varied materials, from metal to fabric, that can lead to sound waves bouncing around chaotically. High end audio system design attempts to take these issues into account, but every installation is different.

In order to get the most out of a high-res media receiver in your car, you’re probably looking at a hefty price tag for the receiver, premium component speakers, one or more amps, and at least one premium subwoofer, all of which add to the bottom line. Whether that kind of expense is worth it or not is a highly personal question that doesn’t have any one correct answer.

Taking High-Resolution Music on the Road

Anyone who already owns a portable high-res music player, or is looking at buying one, always has the option to take it on the road without any expensive car audio upgrades. Offloading the heavy lifting to a dedicated high-res car audio DAC, like you’ll find in Sony’s pricey RSX-GX9, may be a requirement to actually take advantage of all the high-res music file has to offer, but you can always listen to your uncompressed or lossless-encoded music at a lower sample rate on the road, and then use an external DAC with some high-quality headphones at home.