2012 VW Passat Fender Stereo a Welcome Surprise

Fender

There was a time when Bose was the only recognized premium car stereo brand. Then Nakamichi blew our minds in the 1990 Lexus LS 400. Since then, automakers have scrambled to align themselves with whatever home or car-audio brand, music producer or musician they could find.

What do these alliances mean? Absolutely nothing. Decades of experience in home audio — or the music business — don't guarantee performance. Performance is its own bottom line. That's why I was impressed with the latest newcomer, a premium stereo in the 2012 Volkswagen Passat developed with Fender Musical Instruments and Panasonic.

The Fender-branded stereo is just that: a stereo, meaning two channels, not the multichannel approach many automakers — especially luxury brands — have taken. It's about as effective evidence as you'll find that high speaker counts and complexity aren't necessary to deliver quality audio. (The Suzuki Kizashi's Rockford Fosgate system is another.)

For the 2012 Passat, the Fender system is available as an option for the SEL trim and higher, which starts at $28,395, well above the car’s $19,995 base price. Fender also developed audio systems for most of the 2012 VW lineup.

Below I dissect the plusses and minuses of the system. As a former editor at Audio, Car Stereo Review and Sound + Image magazines, I am unfathomably nerdy about audio performance in or out of a car.

Passatscreen
The Fender system's strengths are detail, dynamics and spatial rendition. Pop in any complex recording, and you will hear crystal-clear vocals, both male and female, and all the instruments independently, rather than one big smear. This is aided by a well-defined soundstage that arrays appropriately recorded (and mixed) instruments across the dashboard in front of you. Although it's biased a little bit toward the driver's side, the stereo soundstage is better than that of many cars with an extra center-mounted speaker.

The Fender stereo is decidedly a front-stage design, meaning all the music comes from in front of you. If you prefer to feel like you're surrounded, as if you're in the band, this isn't for you. I prefer the Fender approach, but I'd like more depth to the stage. The voices and instruments hover over the dashboard rather than farther forward. On the upside, the bass is solidly anchored in front of you, so you don't hear the subwoofer booming away from the rear. Unfortunately, a defect I hope was limited to our test car produced a distracting resonance in the rear parcel shelf, the flat surface behind the backseat (on which you're actually not supposed to put parcels, for safety reasons).

Passatipod
The stereo plays loudly with minimal distortion, and the dynamics are excellent. There's plenty of punch to drums and such without sounding exaggerated or boomy. The frequency response is broad overall, but the bass isn't as extended as I'd expect from a trunk-mounted subwoofer. Fender wasted the Passat's large trunk by using a plastic enclosure rather than an infinite baffle configuration that would have used the trunk as a giant enclosure (when empty, at least). If you listen to ridiculous sub-bass-heavy "music," you'll find the bottom-most part of the spectrum lacking, if not missing entirely.

Senior editor David Thomas recently tested Fender systems in the 2012 VW Beetle and Jetta GLI and came away equally impressed with the execution in those models. He happens to be a former music journalist for Billboard and MTV.com.

The success of a premium car stereo is mainly about how early in the vehicle's development the acoustic engineers get access to design the speakers and tune the rig, and how much money the automaker spends. It's not about the wattage, the number of modes, channels or adjustments or the speaker count, size, design or materials. It's the results, which newcomer Fender got right in the 2012 Passat.

2012vwpassat

Comments 

Joe

The MINIMUM requirement for stereo is two channels.

Dan

I'm glad there are still a few audiophiles out there. And ones that love cars too!

Thanks for the article, Joe. I hope you take the time to write more like it in the future.

enbie

The guy who sound tuned all of the Fender system is a 6 times IASCA World Champion for Car Audio Sound Quality....no wonder it sounds so good :-)

Liger

Wow,

This site is really losing it's credibility with me.....You seem to love everything! I have read on several different websites/magazines that this stereo isn't very good in sound quality.

enbie

Really? show me the link then.
*********
Liger
Aug 30, 2011 6:14:35 PM
Wow,

This site is really losing it's credibility with me.....You seem to love everything! I have read on several different websites/magazines that this stereo isn't very good in sound quality.
*********

enbie:

Who was the IASCA winner? Maybe I know him....

enbie

ha ha ha , it is me myself. This is Natan Budiono, aka enbie (n b)

Liger

Here is the car and driver review, which calls it middle of the road....

http://www.caranddriver.com/reviews/car/11q2/2012_volkswagen_passat-first_drive_review

Liger

Here is the truthaboutcars.com review:

....The bass was initially so overpowering and muddy that I assumed someone must have set it to 11....

http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/08/review-2012-volkswagen-passat-tdi-sel-premium/

enbie

@Liger:
Thank you for the links. I am not surprised by those comments, understandable.
I am interested to hear what your comments/opinions would be when you listen to it yourself.

Frank

I find "The Truth About Cars" is the most inaccurate car site I've ever come across. I've lost count how many times they've had obvious reporting errors.

hammersmith

i bought the tdi sel premium indifferent to this aspect of the car, but i am very, very pleased w/ this feature now that i have it, as i am with car in all other respects.

Ian

I work as a tech for VW and this stereo isn't actually all that bad. I was pretty surprised to see the Fender logo on the speakers and was pretty skeptical at first, but it does sound pretty decent. Just my opinion though, I am not trying to sell you any of our vehicles, that's not my job.

The stock audio system speakers in the MKVI Jetta are definitely crap though, I can't tell you how many i've heard of or replaced because they blew within the first 10k miles.

Anthony

Im also a VW tech and was very surprised when I heard this system is a Jetta. Sounds very clean and warm for a stock system, way better than the moonsoon and the dynaudio.

Jeff

I know this is the initial attempt but I certainly hope that the Fender/Panasonic system doesnt fall into the same vein as Bose. Bose systems have that "Bose sound" in which people either love it or hate it. That said, it is clear that this system is meant to replicate a "live" soundstage and it does that really well. Listen to the right type of music/recording and the system just blooms. It is flat out impressive. Listen to anything else such as electronic music or modern rock/pop groups and the system seems tinny. The bass is there, the highs are there but it's missing everything in between. Tried to tweak it as much as possible but it still didnt sound or even "feel" as impressive as the live recordings do. This is in a Passat TDI SEL.

Daniel

Enbie,
I haven't messed with it too much, but I don't really notice any bass from the rear. I was expecting to feel a little kick from the sub. All the bass I hear seems to come from the from woofers. I'm going to check tonight to see if the subwoofer is actually working, cause it sounds like it's not.

LuckyLL

Liger - taking things out of context, don't you think?

Car & Driver actually stated: "The optional 400-watt Fender audio system, with a sound profile an engineer predictably described as “purposely middle-of- the-road,” is punchy and accurate enough to please almost everybody."

...while Truth About Cars stated: "The 400-watt Fender audio system deserves special mention. The bass was initially so overpowering and muddy that I assumed someone must have set it to 11. Then I tapped my way through the pages of the touchscreen control panel to discover that it was centered. For the first time ever I had to take an audio system’s bass down a few clicks to balance out its sound."

In neither case did I take away from the reviews that the stereo "isn't very good in sound quality" as you originally stated? Quite the opposite, both sites seemed impressed with the Fender/Panasonic stereo...

Steve Metz

I have a very critical ear and demand quality sound in my car. I was familiar w/audiodyne speakers VW has before. I just leased a new Passat, and my biggest joy is the speakers. VW , Panasonic & Fender got it right.

Art

LuckyLL: Thank you for alerting us that those reviews were taken out of context by Liger. When one of my students twists a quote that severely, I tell them exactly what I consider it: a form of lying. In this case, Liger, think about how many professionals worked really hard -- even putting their careers on the line, in some cases -- to produce a truly high fidelity audio system available in a mass market car. That's an unusual accomplishment. It's simply not fair, and definitely not nice, to resort to falsifying a case against them just to save face.

Here's a more general observation: There is no reason to ever assume a general car reviewer will have the knowledge, or will take the time, to conduct an expert evaluation of a car audio system. Evaluating audio fidelity is a specialty. Most buyers won't question the typical reviewer's inexpert, fast verdict on a sound system. So that's all we usually get: Inexpert summary judgements. It's certainly all that The Truth About Cars and Car and Driver offered in this instance.

As a moderately passionate audiophile (I've owned $10K home systems; my current home speakers are on Stereophile's "Class A" list; I've helped choose the final mix on an album), I'd trust Wisenfelder's professional background far more than I'd trust any car reviewer without a background in audio. And Wisenfelder's thoughtful, careful review makes it clear that my trust was deserved. He's evaluating the key considerations in musical accuracy.

Here's where it gets complicated: Musical accuracy isn't everybody's goal in car stereo sound. Jeff's review is a good example of this: He appreciates the superior musical accuracy of this system, but prefers an inaccurate system for somme kinds of music.

To please listeners like Jeff, VW may need to add defeatable extreme equalization and digital signal processing to simulate the "immersive" distortion that they prefer for electronic music etc.

As for me, give me musical accuracy, please.

It sounds like that's what Fender/VW have achieved.

Kudos to them.

Oh wow well isnt that cool :D

Ed

I do find a distortion of sound that is annoying coming from the drivers door speaker I am hoping that it is just a bad speaker it is going to be looked at this Saturday at dealership courious if anyone else has had this problem 2012 passat

Enbie

Wow! I am surprised that people are still posting about this Awesome Fender system. :-)

Daniel,
As far your concern on the bass from subwoofer.....i am sure the subwoofer is playing fine. This system is intended to reproduce a live music experience, thus it was intentionally tuned to have strong Front staging. As you watch a Live concert, all the sound you hear are coming from in front of you. Some people are expecting or used to hear the subwoofer behind you but in the Fender system, we put the effort to get the feeling of "Up Front Bass" which is where they belong. Eventhough the subwwofer is in the rear. I hope I make sense.

Laurence Scroggins

I just purchased a 2013 GLI and after roughly 1000 miles I have encountered absolutely no rattles or distortion from the Fender audio system. It is one of the best manufacturer provided car audio systems I have heard. Yes, there are better sounding custom systems which are much less efficient and take up much more space, but this system is great for what it is.
I have been listening to primarily Sirius broadcast which can be hit or miss regarding sound quality. Everything from electronica to classic rock to hip hop has sounded pretty darn good. The bass is not overpowering, and can easily be adjusted to suit different musical genres. It gets pretty boomy at the +3 and up range; especially with hip hop tracks. I think it may be a little lacking of midrange, but tweaking the eq corrected most of that for me.
After listening to Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here CD, I really fell in love with this system. It reproduces those little nuances you miss out on with other OEM car audio setups. It reminded me of some of the higher end audiophile home systems i've heard over the years; not so much as far as audio quality is concerned but with how the Fender stereo system allows you to hear each instrument clearly. This is not a end all audio setup, so people need to step back when reviewing it. It is a OEM car audio setup. I have heard alot of "nice" OEM car audio setups on cars two to three times the cost of a Jetta GLI, and this holds its own with all of them. No, its not a perfect system by any means, but it does its job very well and the negative press it has received is unfair to say the least.

John Thompson

I recently purchased a 2013 VW Passat from Lindsay VW in Sterling, VA. I am very disappointed in the quality of the Fender Premium? Audio System. The sound that comes from this system is terrible; it is not acceptable. Imagine playing a radio in a cave......it has a very hollow sound.

DWhipp

I just purchased the 2013 VW GLI with the Fender audio system. Day two of owning the car, I popped in a classic Depeche Mode tune that cries for excellent audio. I cranked it to level 17 and broke into a fit of gleeful giggles when the bass dropped. I've never heard anything like it in a car audio system. The clarity of the hi tones is outstanding. Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" delivered another round of evil laughter from me. Pair this with a ridiculous drive up the California coast testing the legs of the GLI, and I feel like I cheated the system in what I paid for this car vs. what I considered paying for others.

I have discovered that the sound quality is best when delivered via a good old fashioned CD, and the Rdio.com app via my iPhone delivers the next best sound, with the Sirius satellite channels being hit or miss. But as my daughter says "Mom, you gotta remember that the signal goes to SPACE and then back; give it a break."

I wasn't shopping for this car because of the sound system, but now I know I won't ever be able to part with it. What a nice surprise . . . and no, the kid's not getting the car when I'm done with it. I don't think I'll give up my new sound system on wheels for a very long time.

Doug

I have driven about 3,500 miles so far with my new Passat SEL and have been thoroughly pleased with the sound of the Fender system. The only issue I have had is with the trunk assembly housing the subwoofer. Recently I began to hear and chirping/thumping and pegged it to the screws holding the housing in place. After replacing the factory metal washers with rubber washers, the chirping/thumping seems to be fixed. Has anyone else come across this? Hopefully, my experience helps.

Diane

We purchased a 2013 Jetta Hybrid SEL which included the Fender® Premium Audio System and six month trial subscription to the SIRIUS® Satellite Radio which is well liked for the songs. Running on the Sirius system, the Fender system sounds blurry and monotone. We did not even notice this until one day we accidently switched to a local FM radio station, and WOW !! There was the stereo, we heard string instruments and could even distinguish words and for some songs that was better than most systems. Bought a Beatles RUBBER SOUL DVD and popped it in only to be back to blur and monotone, the same with other DVDs that we could put in an older boom box and get better acoustics. If anyone out there can tell me if this means that I need to have my system checked or fixed, please let me know. When listening to the FM local station, the system certainly sounds better, like a surround sound separation and clarity, I have heard better, but it seems enough to be working fine. We really expected a little more from Fender Premium Sound...and can't even imagine why the Sirius Satellite Radio and the DVD player are muffled and monotone, but seem to be dispersed throughout the car. When the car is running on electric motor, there is almost ZERO exterior noise, , but the flaws in the sound system are far more pronounced If anybody else is having these issues, please let me know as well. Is it just the nature of this beast? Hope not, as quiet as this car is it would be a total shame to have any limitations on the sound system. Thanks for any help offered.

Troy

Hopefully I don’t sound too harsh, but frankly the Fender system in my Jetta is dissapointing. I am surprised to see some of the positive comments on it, because my experience with the system is quite the opposite. The soundstage is the only ok part of it and to make it bearable I have reduced the treble and Mid EQ to its lowest settings. I also am disappointed with the sub, I actually disconnected it once just to see if it was working. Only if I played bass heavy music did I notice it missing. Seems way underpowered. This system is one of the first and probably only things I will have to change on my Jetta.
I hope I didn’t offend you Enbie. I applaud you taking the time to support and talk to the public about the system you worked on, I am sure you worked very hard and spent many hours on it. But it seems obvious to me there were some cost/OEM pressures on this one. Do you know the power handling on the sub? I sure would like to give it the power it needs.

Bert

I bought a 2014 Passat with the Fender stereo. At home, I have a $5,000.00 needle on my $12,500. turntable, a $28,000.00 CD player,
a $20,000. power amp, tube preamp and a completely different system down the hallway. So, I do get to listen to music on great systems. And, to me, the Fender system is perfectly acceptable. I think it sounds just fine. I listened to it for a few minutes on the test drive and moved on because it passed the test. So, when people write on here how terrible it is, I have no idea what you are listening to or talking about. Even more impressive is the fact that my wife likes it. She says it's great. And, I agree. And, this is from a guy who hates Bose. And, the Mark Levinson that I heard in Lexus was so bad I wanted to hang myself.
I did notice that it sounds better on a station like Watercolors than it does on a classic rock station because the Watercolor recordings are better. But, that is universal and no reflection on the system. Bert.

Enbie

Hi Troy,
Thank you for your report on your experience with your Fender Jetta system. First of all, I am not at all offended by your comments. I am sorry that you didn't have good experience with the system.. I wonder if there is actually something wrong with your system. What year is your Jetta? Have you ever taken your car to the dealer, perhaps the next visit you could ask them to verify if the Head unit and Amplifier are correctly configured with the right software parameters, Also verify that the wire harness are correct. There might be the reason why it doesn't sound right. Also, please listen to other Fender system in a different car to see if it sound the same to you. I know we cannot posibly make everyone 100% happy but I am confident that the correctly configured Fender system won't sound as terrible as your experience. please keep us up to date.
Thanks for your comments

Kevin

I just purchased a Jetta TDI premium with the Fender system. I was very apprehensive that the sound would be good enough but after 15 seconds I was simply amazed. The crisp vocals and sizzle from snare drums could be heard. I hear sounds that I did not even know were there. Kudos to this system. It's only weakness is punchy bass. I sometimes like to have that from some of the music I listen to and if there was an option for that this system would be PERFECTION!

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