How to Listen to High-Resolution Audio in a Car

High-resolution audio is expensive; here are some viable options

You can listen to high-resolution audio in a car, either with a portable device like a PonoPlayer, or a dedicated piece of car audio equipment. But, whether you can tell the difference is a question that's difficult to answer. There are challenges involved in getting music to sound great in a car, and it's unlikely that plugging a high-resolution audio player into a stock car audio system will result in a higher quality audio experience. Here's what you need to know.

Ways to Listen 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 provides the highest audio fidelity when used 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 easy, but the actual quality you get depends on the setup 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. Or, if you have a USB input, a compatible portable device, and a head unit with an appropriate DAC, you'll likely hear better results.

Most head units aren't 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, it can be costly.

For instance, Sony makes a mechless high-res media receiver that's compatible with many smartphones, but the price is over a thousand dollars, 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 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.

The fact is that it's difficult, if not impossible, to reproduce the listening experience from a set of premium headphones in a car. Cars are 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.

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 personal question that doesn't have a correct answer.

Taking High-Resolution Music on the Road

Anyone who owns a portable high-res music player, or is looking at buying one, 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 find in Sony's pricey RSX-GX9, may be a requirement to 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.

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