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BMW Original Parts
Apr 4, 2023
Ah, music… Isn’t that a remedy for everyday hardships? Hardships like a stressful day at work, a difficult commute, or simply a lack of energy. Regardless of the problem, you’ll surely admit that sometimes there’s just nothing better than blasting your favorite tune while driving. Even if you love listening to your revving engine and you consider it a symphony of its own.
Since you are here, we don’t need to convince you about music. You are probably looking for the best car audio setup for sound quality instead. Read on to learn how to make your car sound better with the simplest ways of improving your in-car musical experience.
Okay, so you know that something is not right with your car audio quality. But what is it? How to determine what’s wrong with your BMW audio in a simple way?
Just use your ears. Test it by getting inside your car, closing all doors and windows, and starting up your head unit or radio player. Remember to:
Be aware though: some of the audio quality issues may be related to physical damage of your sound system. If you try out the methods described in this article but still suffer from poor music quality, you might need to visit a workshop specializing in audio.
Without further ado, let’s focus on…
Ultimately, the audio quality in your car depends on all variables of the signal chain that finally end up getting to your ears through the speakers. Audiophiles on a budget will be happy to learn that it’s often quite easy to improve it without introducing any hardware changes in the sound system.
Are you one of the people striving for the best possible musical experience during your commutes? Well, then you better remember that everything starts at the source – the audio quality is inherent to it as well as to the types of files and streams you feed through it.
So, you would expect that CarPlay should sound better than FM radio, which it very well could. However, you always have to keep in mind the GIGO principle – that is, Garbage In, Garbage Out. If you load your phone up with highly compressed MP3 files, streaming them through CarPlay will not make them sound any better. But if you go with WAV files, they will sound way better.
This brings us to our first tip.
Of course, each of the sources listed has their pros and cons. One thing we can all agree on is that no matter if you listen to music, podcasts or shows for children, there is nothing worse than commercial breaks. But we’ll tackle this issue in a bit.
What are some of the most popular music sources for BMW audio systems?
Now is the time for a more detailed overview that will help you choose your preferred audio source.
Most of the time, CDs or DVDs sound very good and as such are a great benchmark when comparing car audio sources. As far as playback quality goes, it really can’t get much better.
What’s their biggest problem? You need a CD or DVD player in your BMW and some CDs laying around, obviously. Although even if you have a collection of 5,000 CDs or DVDs in your living room or attic, carrying them around with you wouldn’t be the perfect, hassle-free solution. However, if you can’t say goodbye to your awesome mixtapes (or rather mix-discs) and your car isn’t equipped with an appropriate playback device, be sure to check out the genuine BMW CD player from BimmerTech.
In most instances though, the truth is sad for this medium – the world is slowly moving on. But it was good while it lasted…
Most people know what AM sounds like – not so great, but in case of a nuclear armageddon, you’ll probably still be able to receive it in the middle of nowhere. That is, if someone will still be broadcasting it.
On the other hand, FM can sound great if it’s broadcast right, although usually it also suffers from more compression than the venerable CDs. This means that the audio quality might be slightly worse. Regardless, many people in the past recorded their favorite songs from it on a reel or cassette tape, maintaining more than decent quality.
In the end, it all depends on your local stations’ signal quality as well as how capable the receiver is.
These are the two more modern approaches at radio broadcasting.
SiriusXM is an American and Canadian satellite radio, while DAB is a radio standard. It’s an acronym for Digital Audio Broadcasting. The name of the latter also explains the major difference between SiriusXM/DAB and AM/FM broadcasts – the signal within them is transmitted digitally, as opposed to the traditional analog way.
Generally speaking, SiriusXM offers lower audio quality than FM. The same goes for DAB, with the exception of the upgraded version of the standard called DAB+ (it uses a very efficient AAC audio codec, which allows for a high quality sound). Where these two broadcasting methods excel is coverage and resistance to interferences.
The internal memory of iDrive, just like CD/DVD or USB, can be a great source for listening to music. That is, if you feed it with high quality audio files. Try playing compressed or ripped MP3s downloaded from an unknown source on the internet and you’ll suffer miserable, distorted music. Load up some good WAV files and you’ll be nothing but delighted.
Reap what you sow, as they say.
Similarly to the abovementioned iDrive internal storage, connecting your phone with a USB cable can allow you to experience a great quality of music. Technically speaking, when paired up with a high-quality stream or audio files, this should be the best audio source available in your car.
When it comes to the tracks themselves, there are multiple options available. On the one hand, you could purchase, download, and store WAV or FLAC files on your mobile device and play them through the appropriate app. On the other, you could try out some of the existing HiFi music streaming services (which we’ll discuss in just a bit).
The first option requires the extra steps of buying and downloading the music but doesn’t require an Internet connection. In a way, you sacrifice one freedom (in choosing what to listen to) for another (listening to the music despite no signal). Choose wisely…!
…Or simply choose whatever suits you best – that works too. Searching for a way to enhance your BMW infotainment system and want your upgrade to have a USB port? Then you should take a look at our CarPlay MMI Prime.
When it comes to audio quality, this one is kind of a mixed bag. If you have an older BMW that, for example, has an old Bluetooth module and no USB port, it could be a good idea to give the AUX input a try.
Be sure to use a high-quality playback device though, which should let you evaluate it fairly. Most premium smartphones these days have an analog audio output that is either decent or straight-up outstanding (e.g., a jack). You could also use a portable music player like iPod, FiiO, or a Sony MP4.
Yes, wireless means convenient nowadays. But, despite some people claiming that Bluetooth is just as good as the CD, it suffers from compression and is a little harsh. That is not to say it’s bad.
PRO TIP: If you want to achieve the best possible results for music streaming via Bluetooth, set the audio output on your phone to around 80% instead of 100%. Why? Simply put, you’ll experience noticeably less harshness.
As far as wireless music in-car listening methods are concerned, Apple CarPlay is by far the best one available. The data is transferred via WiFi, not Bluetooth – although the latter is initially used to pair up the device to the car. This ensures that the sound quality is much better, especially when combined with a HiFi streaming service or good music files. It also wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that its playback quality is nearly on par with that of CDs.
Unfortunately, CarPlay’s counterpart for Android devices isn’t as good or as reliable as what iOS device users get.
The biggest dealbreaker with Android Auto is that it has a fair share of connectivity problems. Add to it questionable audio quality requiring convoluted workarounds and you are left with a potentially not-so-enjoyable music-listening experience.
Among the more common issues you can encounter are things like:
One of the likely reasons for worse audio quality could be linked to the fact that some phones use different codecs for voice and for music. This, in turn, is a result of Android being an operating system for a lot of different devices from various manufacturers. Its open-source nature means that it’s difficult to provide a unified experience to all platforms running it, as opposed to iOS.
If you have an Android phone, it’s still worth giving it a shot and testing Android Auto in your car when parked. If you’re lucky, you might just avoid any connection errors and your sound quality could be quite good.
This next tip might seem like a no-brainer, but let’s dive a little bit deeper into this issue.
Free music streaming services are convenient, but it’s no secret that ads are annoying. You can stream off of YouTube or Spotify without paying a dime. However, the sound quality will be no different than that of MP3 files. And, of course, you’ll be interrupted by ads all the time.
Literally. All. The. Time.
One way around this is using a third-party app like Musi for iOS or Music Stream for Android. They let you create a playlist of your favorite tunes from various online streaming sources. What’s cool about them is the fact that they also allow you to bypass commercials on apps like YouTube even without premium plans.
Remember though: this kind of software isn’t entirely “bulletproof.” What we mean by that is you should consider the fact that at some point the app of your choice might be taken down due to a lawsuit. Both of the above examples cut into someone’s profits, which always generates legal tension. So be ready with a spare music CD if that ever happens.
Or you could go straight for a source that is both much more reliable and of higher quality.
Ad-free audio streaming sources – overview
Modern subscription-based streaming services can offer more than just an ad-free listening experience. Depending on the chosen plan, some of them will let you gain access to high or even exceptionally high-quality music, with added bonuses like offline streaming.
Here’s a short list of some more popular streaming services that are worth considering.
|Service name||Audio quality (subscription-dependant)||Platforms|
|YouTube Music/YouTube Premium||128–256 kbit/s (OPUS)||iOS, Android|
|Spotify||from 24 kbit/s (HE-AAC v2) to 320 kbit/s (Vorbis)||iOS, Android|
|Tidal||160–320 kbit/s (AAC), CD quality, MQA, Dolby Atmos, Sony 360 Reality||iOS, Android|
|Pandora||64–192 kbit/s (AAC+)||iOS, Android|
|qobuz||320 kbit/s (MP3), lossless (CD-DA)||iOS, Android|
|Amazon Music||320 kbit/s (MP3)||iOS, Android|
|Apple Music||lossless (CD quality, ALAC)||iOS, Android|
These are just some of the basic characteristics of the described streaming services. Long story short, the higher the bitrate the better, with the lossless or CD quality being basically top-of-the-line. What you’ll definitely also want to take a look at when choosing the one for you is the pricing (obviously) and how well the providers deal with connectivity issues.
After all, you don’t want your music streaming service to be unavailable half the time.
As you can clearly see, a lot of things can influence the quality of your in-car music. And that’s just the beginning of the signal chain. The next big factor is your factory multimedia system. The iDrive system debuted in BMWs and MINIs soon after the new millennium started, with many different generations released up to the present day.
The latest iDrive 7 and later audio systems work on a completely different premise when compared to the previous two decades of Bavarian head units. It no longer has analog audio outputs and it doesn’t have a multimedia-oriented MOST optic input/output bus.
So, how do the speakers work?
Every BMW equipped with iDrive 7 has a Receiver Audio Module (RAM) in the rear left trunk area. As its name suggests, it functions not only as an amplifier for the in-cabin speakers. Among other features, RAM:
That’s quite a bit to unpack and it’s not necessarily all related to car audio experience, so we won’t go over all the details. Instead, let’s take a look at the differences between RAM modules used in HiFi-equipped BMWs and the ones with Bowers & Wilkins systems.
Systems of the tier higher than 676 HiFi also have a second audio output device called a booster, which is running parallel and in tandem to RAM. This includes the 688 Harman Kardon and 6F1 B&W (you know, those setups with the fancy diamond tweeters and speaker illumination). Of course, there are also differences between the boosters themselves.
In 688 HK cars, the booster powers subwoofers that are under the seats and, occasionally, the external faux exhaust sound generator called the “buzzer.” Additionally, it’s a part of the Acoustic Sound Design (ASD) system. Conversely, in B&W cars, the booster has a total of 14 audio outputs. That’s right – 14 different audio outputs, 13 of which are for in-car speakers while the remaining one is for the buzzer.
In any case, both the RAM and Booster modules receive audio signals in a digital form via an Ethernet connection from the head unit. What it means is that you cannot improve the audio signal by simply upgrading the head unit, like you could with pre-iDrive 7 BMWs.
If you were to compare various BMW audio systems installed, you would likely notice that, on average, pre-iDrive 7 systems sound better than the new ones. Due to how they work, the only simple way for you to get the most out of them is by using music files of the highest available quality.
There is, however, an alternative solution for music quality improvement, but it’s not just a matter of changing the audio source. To make your iDrive 7 setup sound better, check out Alpha One Amplifier by BimmerTech.
You would be excused for thinking that two decades of BMW sound system development should bring many significant changes. However, that’s not really the case. The only big change came with the introduction of iDrive 7, as we mentioned above.
Pre-iDrive 7 audio systems operated on one of two premises.
For entry level and medium tier audio systems, the head unit sends an analog audio signal directly to the speakers or to an amplifier in the trunk, if it was optioned. From there, the audio outputs are sent to the speakers inside the cabin.
What were the systems that worked like that?
Over the years, the quality of the audio output signal generated by the BMW head unit varied. While all of them have a decent analog output signal when combined with a HiFi amplifier, there is one that stands out – the NBT Evo ID5/ID6.
In addition to their quality, the added CarPlay functionality is the main reason why they get retrofitted to compatible BMWs. You just can’t overlook the fact that they sound so much better. Regardless of whether you are using the stock amplifier or if you’ve installed an upgrade like our Alpha One Amplifier.
The other option? Audio signals in your BMW could be digitally transferred from the head unit to the amplifier through the MOST (Media Oriented System Transfer) bus. This is what you would get if your car was configured with a top tier audio system, like:
These setups will take good care of your music listening experience, as digital signal transfer is generally preferred over analog. In their case, it doesn’t really matter which iDrive head unit you have. The quality of the digital signal is the same no matter if you have an older CCC or the NBT Evo ID5/ID6.
You’ve tried all of our suggestions but your audio quality still isn’t ideal? Provided there’s nothing wrong with the hardware, it might mean that you simply need more than your current sound system can provide. If that’s the case, there isn’t much you can do, other than installing a BMW audio upgrade.
Luckily, we’ve got you covered. Check out our blog to see why it’s worth upgrading the sound system in BMW and what is the best car audio setup for sound quality with our Alpha One BMW speakers and amplifiers.
Do you find our tips more helpful than just some tutorial on how to make your car speakers louder? If so, will you be trying out any of them?
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