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There are plenty of reasons why your car’s audio might sound bad. There’s no telling what could’ve gone wrong with all the different settings and features included in modern infotainment systems. However, one reviewer recently discovered a significant problem with their own car audio. With a straightforward fix, they were able to resurrect their sound system. One possible reason your car audio sounds terrible is the surround sound setting.

Why does your car audio sound bad?

A person uses the Ford Sync 4 infotainment system, why does car audio sound terrible?
Ford Sync 4 infotainment | Ford

If you’re someone who loves to listen to music loudly in the car, you’re not alone. You also might’ve noticed that certain things don’t sound as they should. Even regular earbuds probably produce better sound than some car speakers. Although, if you’ve paid for premium audio systems in a car, you probably expect much better. Experts at Auto Blog offer one possible solution to your problems.

According to AB, you might have “surround sound” switched on. When they owned a 2014 Toyota Highlander, the reviewer said it had a JBL sound system that just didn’t sound right. However, deep, hidden in the menus, a surround sound option was active. Once the owner turned it off, the car audio started to sound better right away. In fact, like this Highlander owner, some people might not even know this setting exists inside their vehicle.

What is surround sound or “3D sound” for car audio?

Changing surround sound to off could fix clarity in your car audio system. Infotainment Uconnect system in Stellantis models.
2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee interior with Uconnect infotainment | Jeep

Surround sound, sometimes called 3D sound in vehicles, is not the same as surround sound in your home theater. At home, surround sound simply means the sound is filling the room all around you, instead of only coming from near the screen. Additionally, movie audio is recorded in surround sound, and your home receivers are capable of duplicating that. Music, however, is recorded in stereo with only very few exceptions.

The music is intended to be played from the left and right speakers inside a car using the stereo recording. According to Auto Blog, “It’s signal processing — in which a stereo recording is not reproduced in two channels out of two speakers (or left-right sets of woofers-tweeters-midrange) as the recording artists and engineers had intended.”

As a result, the audio doesn’t sound the way it should. Vocals might seem muffled, the guitar could sound unnatural, and other problems can occur. So that begs the question, why do automakers include this setting for car audio?

Why do car audio systems have a surround sound option?

Image of a man driving a car. Changing one setting could help clarity of your car's audio system.
Driving with music | Why Kei via Unsplash

In short, the answer is that no one is sitting in the right spot to listen to the music. Moreover, the audio is generated to the left and right sides at home, assuming you’re looking into the television screen or listening from straight ahead somewhere. As a result, listeners hear the audio perfectly going into both ears on either side. However, there’s no one sitting in a sweet spot in a car, so the audio needs to spread throughout the cabin evenly.

In addition, the interior of a car isn’t very roomy. As a result, the sealed space with soft and hard surfaces throughout makes for a problematic area to distribute high-quality sound. Furthermore, engineers try to improve the listening process throughout the entire cabin using signal processing. Signal processing systems provide “the power of a stadium concert.” It’s supposed to be immersive and allow all passengers to hear music. Unfortunately, signal processing distributes the sound around the cabin but sacrifices clarity.

Should you permanently deactivate surround sound in your car audio system?

Surround sound should always stay turned off inside the car for many people. It is most helpful to passengers in the very back of the vehicle, like in the third row of a large SUV. However, most people drive alone or with one passenger most of the time, so surround sound can stay unchecked. This should help with clarity in the car’s premium audio system. Moreover, your daily commute will be pleasant to the ear compared to your drive home from soccer practice with a full seven-seater. One reason your car audio sounds terrible could be the surround sound or 3D sound setting, so turn it off.


1 Automaker Engineers its Own Premium Audio System