Differentiating the good from bad in modern cars today has become increasingly difficult. The playing field has improved to the point that it’s the details and available features that make the difference when deciding what automobile deserves your 60 monthly payments. One of those areas that has always swayed my purchase decision is the quality of the stereo that comes with the car. As a result, we have started to ask manufactures that have specialty branded audio systems to have a chance to review them on their own. Recently, we asked Volkswagen to sample their Fender branded system as the word on the street was it was a solid system for a reasonable price. Read on to find out if it lived up to expectations.
Fifteen years ago the quality of a cars stereo was far less of a concern. First, it wasn’t worth considering the quality of a factory stereo because they were all pretty terrible. Second, car stereos used to be easily upgradeable. Do you remember the terms DIN and double DIN? (DIN is a German abbreviation for the ISO standard size of a stereo head unit – bore someone to death with that fact at dinner.) Today, stereo head units are deeply integrated into complex dashboard designs resulting in a challenging upgrade path for a factory stereo. The point? A quality sounding and functioning factory stereo today matters as you’re pretty much stuck with it for the life of the car.
I have to admit that when I first heard that Fender was slapping their brand on VW stereos I was skeptical. A guitar maker was getting into car stereos? That makes about as much sense as Puma partnering with Mini for auto branded sneakers. Oh wait, that happened and seems to be successful. Hmmmmm. Maybe this isn’t so ridiculous after all. As it turns out, it is a pretty logical partnership and one that has resulted in a quality product.
The Fender audio system that we sampled was in a 2012 Volkswagen Passat, and boasts of 400 watts and nine speakers. Want a hint that things are going to sound good? Notice the number of watts that are quoted. In today’s world it is easy to come up with ridiculous and fundamentally fake peak wattage numbers to fluff your stats and VW and Fender have steered clear. The other thing that Fender did was skip all of the “dynamic surround” nonsense that has become so popular in today’s world. They call stereos stereos because they are typically dealing with two channels of audio. It may be true that signal processors can approximate surround sounds, but in the process they are (most likely) adding a layer of noise that was never intended to be their during the music’s recording.
So how does it sound? The Fender Premium Audio System sounds damn good on any type of music that could have been produced using a Fender instrument. In other words, rock, jazz, country, and classical music are represented as purely and loudly as you can find in a car. That is a huge compliment considering that the Fender Audio System is included in the SEL trim level of the Passat and appears to add less than $1,000 of cost to all other models in which it is available. We have not sampled the Fender system in the Beetle, but the system that is in the Passat and Jetta are fundamentally the same. One thing that Fender and VW have done is given the subwoofer 17 liters of enclosure to work with in the rear deck. Having a sealed space (in contrast to using the entire trunk as an enclosure) for the subwoofer has paid dividends in both punch and control of bass.
You may have picked up that I noted that the Fender system does well with all types of music except for Rap and R&B. If there was one area that could use improvement is with re-creating machine-generated 808 tracks. Here, the subwoofer just doesn’t quite have the guts or excursion to be able to keep up with tracks from Lil Wayne and Beyonce. At lower listening volumes it does fine, but at high volumes things get muddled. It is clear that they system just isn’t built for this type of music. I would be more harsh about it, but the Fender system isn’t designed to shake mirrors it is built to represent rock at ear splitting levels accurately.
What appears to be the real magic of the Fender system you can actually turn the volume all the way up. Unlike most car stereos where the volume knob (boy do I want to make a Spinal Tap reference here) goes up to some level that you could never actually use, the Fender system can handle full volume. At all levels, the detail and differentiation of the music shine in the Fender system. I found myself focusing on country and Metallica with the Fender system. I’m always impressed with stereos that can show me a new dimension or sound in a song that I know well. The Fender audio system showed a new layer of echo in tracks like Master of Puppets that I had not noticed before.
The Fender Premium Audio System in the 2012 Volkswagen Passat ends up being a smart brand partnership and a high quality product. They managed to stick to the fundamentals of a quality stereo and produced a solid system. If non-rap music listening is important to you the Fender system is worth a listen.
Volkswagen provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.