5 Annoying Things About Today's Car Stereos

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Feb 25, 2014

Car stereos used to be simple, with on-off knobs, five saved radio stations and maybe a CD slot. Today’s units are fully integrated into the cars—you couldn’t even steal them—and they’re hugely more complicated. That has good and bad aspects.

The radio presets on the Audi Q5 diesel. I may be a Luddite, but what was wrong with the old mechanical pushbuttons? You need a Ph.D. to program these things. (Jim Motavalli photo)Take my Audi Q5 diesel. Not only does it have satellite radio, AM and FM, CD and built-in navigation, but Bluetooth to connect to phone music and an in-car 3G wireless network. If you can’t find anything to entertain you with that combination you’re not trying.

Car connectivity is headed in some pretty amazing directions. Still, I’ve noticed some quirks with these state-of-the-art systems in cars I’ve tested recently, and here are a few:

Delayed reaction. Are we back to tubes or something? When I plug in a CD, it can take a full minute to read it. Ten years ago, it took seconds.

Backing up forward. On a bunch of cars, the backup camera stays on after you’re moving forward, sometimes for minutes at a time. In the Audi, for instance, the backup camera function also turns down the radio volume, so I’m driving down the road barely able to hear the radio while also watching the road on camera.

Backup cameras have minds of their own, especially when you're no longer backing up..No standardization. In the old days, just about every car radio worked the same way, and also fit into interchangeable dash slots. Now each new car is an adventure, because of the many features and unique combination of inputs necessary to scroll around and find anything. The Germans, with their Master Control Knobs, win the drive-you-crazy sweepstakes. A pox on overly complicated infotainment systems.

Hush, hush. Who decided that I want my music turned down to the threshold of hearing every time I turn the car off? If I spend hours with the 300-page owner’s manual, I can probably turn that feature off, but it’s awfully annoying.

Capacity limits. Sure, the trend is toward streaming music from your device or portable hard drive via wire or Bluetooth to your car. I get that. That’s why some cars are showing up without CD players. But if that’s the case, why are most systems unable to cope with the admittedly large number of songs in my collection? I can easily fit all 113,000 songs on a cheap 1T hard drive, so why does the system end up endlessly “indexing”? I’m always being told by patient audio engineers that I’m the only guy in the world with that big a music collection, but I don’t think so. I know at least two others.

And while we’re at it let’s make sure that (1) the USB and audio inputs are inside the bin or glovebox so your device doesn’t end up sitting there as a target for any thief who happens by; and (2) Gracenote actually reads the content of CDs so I’m not always listening to “Track One” on “Unknown Album.” 

Here's a Cadillac electronics guy explaining how to use the car's Cue infotainment system. I'm glad he's up to speed:

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