2023 Subaru WRX Long-Term Update: Sound quality, and the CD player

As the crow flies, I went to college only about 60 miles from where I grew up; by car it was 100 miles almost on the dot. In good traffic, it was a breezy two-hour drive, but I more frequently measured it in album running time. A filled-to-the-brim compact disc of the day boasted 74 minutes of uncompressed audio. I know, I know; Americans will do anything to avoid using the metric system. But I’d wager that if you were any kind of frequent commuter back in the days of physical media, you could probably time a frequent route down to the individual track that would play as you reached your destination. If I left my college apartment to the opening bars of “One Headlight” from the Wallflowers’ “Bringing Down the Horse,” I knew I’d hear the clickity-click of the disc changer about 45 minutes from home.

One of my must-have features at the time was a six-disc setup. If you’re a frequent reader of new-car reviews, you already know that such technology is effectively extinct. But if you’re really got a hankering, there are still some automakers that will sell you some form of optical drive. Subaru is among them, but rather than the fancy, super-shuffling, multi-disc mechanical nightmares I once coveted, our long-term 2023 WRX offers only a single-disc setup squirreled away inside the center console. And while it’s included in Subaru’s build & price tool, it’s not actually a factory-installed option, but rather a dealer-installed accessory. 

There are really only two reasons to use an automotive CD player in 2024. Either you have an expansive collection you simply refuse to digitize out of stubbornness, inertia or simple disinterest; or you’re an audio nut who wants a bit-perfect reproduction of the source material. Subaru’s solution caters mostly to the former for one simple reason: bit-perfect source material or not, the WRX simply isn’t the venue to experience that level of immersion. Even with the Harman Kardon system, the WRX is simply a buzzy, boomy little thing. The lows are muddled by the road noise (especially on the Blizzaks) and the highs seem to be swept away by the air swirling around the A-pillars. Volume will help the top end, but the bass and mid-range just don’t really fill in no matter what you do. If you’re a true audiophile, you’ll probably be looking into upgrade paths before your WRX is even broken in. I know I would.

At the time of publication, the CD player will run either $375 and $450 depending on which audio system you get. That’s a lot for a single-disc unit that is only vaguely integrated into the WRX’s infotainment system. Can one put a price on nostalgia? I’d argue yes, even if this one’s a bit high, but I’m glad it exists nonetheless. Check back soon for another update on our ’23 WRX after we swap it back over to its warm-weather rubber. 

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