Define “no shame:” Rolling down every window and opening the enormous sunroof in our 2014 Subaru Forester XT and blasting the ’70s best of KISS at full volume on the first warm, sunny day I’d seen in a while. Gene and the boys pulled the trigger on the Love Gun, and the Scoob’s head unit put up a pretty solid fight.
Coming out of the Nissan Titan PRO-4X, with its awesomesauce Rockford Fosgate system that let you feel every bass drum thump like you were in the jam room with your favorite band, I knew there was no way a more pedestrian setup would equal that sheer sound power. And to be honest, the Subaru Forester’s unbranded head unit didn’t come close to the punch of the Fozz when cranked up. But beyond the immediate “getting used to it/coming back down to earth” period, the Subaru’s completely flat starting point wasn’t doing it any favors.
That’s not to complain about the fact that the Forester– which came to us with only 300-odd miles on the odometer– arrived with all the EQ settings zeroed out. To the contrary, that’s how I prefer to hear my car audio setup on first listen. It lets me get a sense for the speakers’ quality, for one. (The Forester’s speakers, by the way, were pretty good, but suffered some high-frequency washout and low-frequency distortion in the upper volume registers when the EQ was completely flat.) What I didn’t expect was how much of an improvement could be gained by tweaking a few of the Scoob’s EQ settings.
I started by going through the three-band basic EQ. I clicked the bass up a couple points, the mids up one more point than the bass, and the treble up five clicks. While this didn’t help the speakers’ tendency to wash out the highs at the highest volume settings– in fact, it made it slightly worse– it vastly improved the liveliness of the speakers at more sane low- to mid-volume settings. Where they had sounded bland and unimpressive with an all-zeroes flat EQ tuning, these basic signal-boosting tweaks breathed life into the mix.
Beyond the three-band EQ settings, the Forester had a Virtual Bass setting, which given my boosting of the bass signal in the three-band EQ, I did not use. There was also a Vocal Image setting that seemed to act as a sort of mid-frequency fader designed to make the vocals more or less prominent in the mix of most songs, depending on your preferences and how you tuned the setting. I didn’t use this much, either, but I could see how it might come in handy for some music in my collection that has shady vocal mixing. Finally, there was a Sound Restorer mode that was reportedly intended to help improve the sound quality of MP3 compressed songs. This setting actually made the songs streamed from my USB stick sound better, so I used it almost all the time.
Like almost every car nowadays, the Forester had available speed sensitive audio, but I didn’t feel the need to use it. I’ve never been a fan of such systems, in general. Unlike the Subaru WRX Special Edition we tested a few weeks ago, the Forester’s exhaust wasn’t so loud at speed to demand automatic volume adjustment for me. Then again, I didn’t use this feature in the WRX, either, probably because I spent a lot of time with the radio off, simply enjoying the rorty engine note as I made good on every opportunity to rev-match my downshifts in the manual transmission-equipped tester Subaru sent us.
Other items of note:
— Bluetooth pairing worked easily enough with my dumb phone.
— The Forester’s HD radio tuning capability actually saw some use. This is the first HD radio tuner-equipped tester I’ve had that could pull in an HD signal from the Nashville NPR affiliate. I live in the sticks, where there are plenty of hills. Perhaps conditions were just more favorable for HD signal reception during our test week than they had been in previous tests of HD radio-equipped cars.
— I’m annoyed that Subaru’s OEM radios don’t have the ability to see my phone’s contacts list. I’d have to create a separate phonebook of frequently called numbers in the radio itself. I couldn’t hit the voice command button on the steering wheel and tell it to “call home” because of this quirk. This is probably my only true gripe with the head unit. Most other cars with Bluetooth have been able to see the data in my phone contacts list, making voice dialing easy.
Overall, a solid effort for a factory stereo head. If Subaru can make Bluetooth voice dialing more seamless, I’d be a fan for its simple layout. No silly touchscreens, just hard buttons and knobs. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like tactile control surfaces.