[SoundStage!]Fringe with Greg Smith
Back Issue Article
March 1998

Reasonable Car Stereo

A quick survey. Car stereo is:

  • So limited by noise and placement problems that it's bound to suck;

  • An endless source of sonic intrusion into life from vehicles possessed with booming-subwoofer madness;

  • An outrageously overpriced money sink; and

  • The sure road to deafness for every teenager on the planet.

While there are nuggets of truth in all of these statements, none of them are completely correct. Let's look at the usual arguments against car stereo as a serious pursuit.

  • Even in the quietest car, just the noise coming through the windows at highway speed would disqualify that system as a real high-end audio source.

  • The placement constraints of speakers in a typical car prevent the ultimate in refinement as far as proper imaging goes.

  • Poorly integrated audio subwoofers will radiate more energy outside the vehicle than inside.

  • Many car audio dealers are less than attentive to the needs of those only spending a small amount of money.

None of this should stop you from enjoying car stereo as a medium with different goals from home audio. I've adopted an approach I call Reasonable Car Stereo. Spending enormous sums of money in an attempt to match the quality of a good home playback system is misguided in my eyes (er, ears), as I think it's impossible. But there are a host of inexpensive upgrades that can turn car stereo into a more pleasant experience without burning a hole in your pocket.

In its simplest form, a car stereo consists of a head unit-the popular term for the receiver and music-source component-and some number of speakers. Typically, passenger cars have two speakers mounted in the panels of the front doors, while another pair is on the rear deck. Smaller cars or trucks will usually only have the front speakers. The reasonable approach to dealing with speakers you're not satisfied with is to replace them with higher-quality units of exactly the same size. It's possible to get adapters that let you shoehorn larger units into the factory space, and sometimes these work very well. I've had good results with some 5"x7" to 6"x9" adapters for the rear deck. But you need to be very careful not to permanently disable the old speakers until you've verified that the larger models will fit comfortably with the new hardware, as these things often don't fit quite as well as advertised.

If you're running off a typical head unit, you should search for speakers on the higher side of the sensitivity scale. While units from companies like Infinity or Polk can sound very good, they also really require a substantial amount of amplifier power to do so. I also tend to veer away from installing the more complicated "component" speaker systems with separate tweeter and midrange. While putting the tweeter higher up does enhance sound in the front significantly, getting an installation of that sort done that doesn't look out of place usually ends up costing more than I'd like to spend. Note that some newer cars (like the '97 Geo Prism I drive) are available from the factory with a sound system using a component tweeter mounted in a panel near the windshield.

Assuming you're optimizing sound for the driver, it's the front speakers that you should be more concerned with. Upgrading them is a much bigger subjective improvement than changing the rear ones. One reason for this is that the back speakers are so much further away. Another factor is that the smaller front speakers installed at the factory tend to be exceptionally cheesy, which is good for a pizza but not in a speaker. It's very common to find a small full-range driver (3.5" is a popular size). Changing one of those to a decent coaxial two-way is the biggest single upgrade you can make in the sound quality of a car equipped that way, and typically it will set you back less than $50. On many older cars with limited useful life left, simply swapping out the front speakers with a moderately priced set will make the system bearable until the car is ready for the scrap heap.

While the so-called "rear fill" effect you get from the back speakers can be important to rounding out auto sound, the bass is usually the more important contribution here. Using the entire trunk as a box lets rear-deck speakers produce decent bass (try opening your trunk with the system on to hear how much the enclosure contributes to the low frequencies). Just don't expect them to go really low. Typically factory speakers in this location are either round and roughly 6", or have an elliptical bent by being 5"x7" or 6"x9". No designs of this type sound any good unless there's a coaxially mounted tweeter in the middle of the woofer cone. More expensive models actually have multiple drivers all sitting in the center. This is usually a waste of money; the simpler two-way designs often sound better. Well-implemented three-way crossovers require lots of parts that there just isn't enough space for in this application. Stick with the less-complicated models and try not to spend over $100 on them. Most of what you're getting as you push above that price point is the ability to handle more power and play louder, which requires installing serious amplification to exploit. I'll make a case against that in a bit.

Once you've gotten your car stereo to where the speakers aren't too shabby, the next point of attack is the source. I personally have ditched all my old cassettes and am strictly digital right now (well, except for those 8-tracks I keep around for when I want to hear music with randomly inserted breaks). While sound quality was certainly a factor in my move to digital, longevity was also considered. I was quite sick of making tapes and having them wear out on me. If you don't have a head unit capable of playing CDs, there are a few options. The easiest thing to do is grab a portable CD player (like the Panasonic SL-S320) and get an adapter to play it through your current source. You can get a cassette adapter and cigarette-lighter-based power supply for around $20; the Sony kit works well for both of their models and the Panasonic ones, and some CD players are sold with such a kit. The sound quality for these adapters is at least as good as any cassette you'll ever encounter. Another type of kit will let you broadcast your CD player over FM and tune it with your radio. The better type, like those you'll find in some trunk-mounted CD players, will actually attach to your antenna directly. This can be a painful installation. I watched the work that went into getting such a system work once, and I gladly paid someone else to do it after realizing what was involved. Your automotive tolerance may vary.

While either of these systems will give a substantial upgrade over earlier source components, you lose a bit of fidelity in either circumstance. You'll need to get a real CD player for best results, usually by upgrading your head unit, our next topic.

Getting Ahead

Car head units have a pretty high rate of failure. The moving parts of a cassette deck or CD player wear out more quickly when subjected to the temperature and weather extremes your car goes through. It can be rough on the media, too; who hasn't lost a tape that melted in the sun? I don't count on any car source lasting all that long before either the performance degrades or it just plain breaks. Accordingly, I try not to spend too much on head units. What I aim for is an uncomplicated setup with simple mechanisms. I would never get something for a detachable face plate, for example, because that's a far-too-fragile interface for my taste. I'd rather get something that wasn't a tempting target instead.

A brief pause for some ranting. Why can't anyone buy a good head unit with a real volume control anymore? I hate up and down volume buttons with a passion. The tiny, cryptic controls of more expensive units are simply unbearable. If I'm switching CDs and finding music on that radio while barreling down the highway, I really don't need to be distracted with control difficulties. In addition to operational complexity, the other thing you get with more-upscale head units is more power. My response? Who cares? A decent 15W or 20W of peak power is more than enough to demolish your hearing in the car, assuming you have speakers that use it efficiently. I've heard very satisfying car systems with a mere 4W of power. For all these reasons, I like to deal with head units in the $200-$300 range. You can get a significant upgrade from a normal factory system, with CD capabilities, and not spend so much that you really feel bad if it breaks after the warranty is up.

Now that we've covered some of the more important things to do in order to make your car a more pleasant audio environment, an obvious question is how to go about installing all this gear. I'm very picky about what I do to my car; since I'm typically driving an automobile that is far from paid for, I'm somewhat reticent to toy around with it. Nowadays, cars are pretty complicated electrically. I personally know one weekend warrior car-stereo buff who tried to save on his installation bill and got to eat his air bags for his trouble. Generally, I feel that speakers are a reasonable upgrade to do yourself, for those who are modestly skilled at things mechanical and electrical. A typical speaker installation starts with removing some number of panels (perhaps even the seats), unhooking the old speakers, and gazing at the wiring. If you're lucky, you'll have an adapter to convert from the factory speaker plug (there's no standard for this connection) into whatever connectors the new speakers use (again, what you'll encounter depends on the model). The more common case involves cutting wires at both ends and splicing them together, being careful to note polarity-the factory speakers in particular are often not labeled very well. You can try to improve the connection by soldering, and the use of heat-shrink tubing makes a nicer-looking installation. Usually people just take the two ends, bend them into J-connections, fit them together, and twist the whole mess up. Surround this by electrical tape and you're done with the wiring. The final chore is fitting the new speakers into the factory holes. While you can usually find adapters to adjust the positioning of the screw holes, I've never had perfect luck lining up after-market speakers in a car. Inevitably, there's at least one screw that can't be forced into the available spots. And forcing the speaker into place can sometimes involve some hairy flexing of plastic or metal for a proper fit. Overall, though, I've had decent luck installing speakers in a wide variety of vehicles. Note that at the end of each installation I usually claim "I'll never do that again; next time I'll pay somebody else to put the damn things in." The memory usually fades and I get suckered in again after some time has passed.

Putting in a new head unit is a whole different type of task altogether. To keep things from getting damaged, you need to disable the car battery before starting and face resetting your clock and preset stations afterwards, but that's inevitable if you've got a new radio anyway. Just extracting the old head unit is often a frustrating experience. But the real fun is getting the factory connectors mated to the new unit; this also turns into splicing in some situations, and there is not a whole lot of space or wire to work with. Finally, there's rarely a perfect fit here either, so you end up needing to perform a variety of tricks to get things lined up and stabilized for the long haul without unsightly gaps. While I've gone through this process a couple of times in years past, I'd never trust myself to work on a new car nowadays. Chewing your air bag isn't even the worst thing you could do. I consider payment for a head-unit installation money well spent, and if you get a good shop, the installation is usually covered by an extensive warranty if problems occur later. I know I've found my local store invaluable for finding out the insider tricks for doing things like freeing a stuck CD. Having a guy available who can show you the spot to tap while pressing eject to free a precious trapped disc is an important consideration.

Depending on where you are, it can be hard to find a good local shop. One question I like to ask to feel out what kind of work somebody does is, "Can you reverse this installation?" Somebody with a well-equipped store should do a minimum of damage to your car. I've seen chopped-up messes behind badly installed head units that would make you cringe.

If you do want to install things for yourself, I've found the catalog and mail order products from Crutchfield very helpful. There have been instances where Crutchfield reported different information about what would fit in my car than a local dealer did, and the little guy was not right (incidents like that have fed into my general distrust of car stereo outfits). I've had good luck relying on Crutchfield for replacement speakers. They are an incredible company to deal with; sales and technical-support personnel are very competent, helpful, and almost always available. While the prices aren't rock-bottom compared with many mail-order places, what you're paying for is the services they perform. For one, the diagrams they provide with disassembly (and reassembly, something often left out) instructions are very complete compared with the messy photocopies I've seen some provide. I once ordered some speakers based on skimpy information I provided about this odd system I was upgrading,
found something didn't work quite right, and called requesting the correct adapter. Not only did they work with me to identify what the odd connector I had was, they shipped it out to me that very day for free because I'd bought the speakers from them (being very close to them in Baltimore at the time, I got it the next afternoon). The shipping costs are fairly inexpensive, and there's a return policy that I've never had to take advantage of (which is a testimonial in itself). Even if you're not sure you want to order something from them, it's worth your trouble to get a catalog for the library of information about what components will fit in your car. About my only complaint is that I can never seem to get them to ship me the supposedly free books about installation issues I keep asking for when I order.

Let me touch on another topic. If your car doesn't have any factory openings for the equipment you'd like to install, or you'd like to modify those openings in some way, be very careful. Cars are so cramped with little plastic parts and support mechanisms that even if you do successfully make your cuts, you can't be guaranteed that the place you picked will support your new device. Not only is it easy to slice something up that looks bad, a poorly constructed speaker hole will sound bad too, by not providing a properly sealed baffle. This is another task I recommend a professional installer for.

Installation and long-term reliability concerns are some of the reasons I'm not fond of outboard power amplifiers or subwoofers in a car. Since these are usually mounted in the back of the car, you end up with very long connecting cables that are prone to picking up noise, not to mention the infamous alternator whine. Trunk-mounted subwoofers do a great job of moving lots of air. But if that doesn't turn into clean bass for the passengers, who cares? Many systems just fire the subwoofer through the seats or other obstacles, which can demolish the sound quality even in the cases where it was good to begin with. Besides, big amplifiers and subwoofers in a small environment have a huge potential to become noise pollution, especially after the owner starts to lose his hearing and needs to turn things up even louder. I'll stick with a moderate system, thank you.

Driving into the Sunset

In a nutshell, my basic advice for car stereo is simple:

  • Upgrade to high-sensitivity speakers that don't cost too much;

  • Switch to CD for your source material; and

  • Make sure you've got a moderate amount of power available.

If the factory head unit isn't bad, I usually drop $100-$150 on new speakers for a typical car. Add another $120 for a portable CD player if you're not willing to upgrade the head unit and you want digital playback. Going for the whole works will set you back closer to $400 or $500. Spending much more than that, while nice if you're just sitting in it, is hard to justify if you're actually using your car for useful work (like driving in it) when you consider the acoustic environment that a car provides. I have spent considerably more than that on a factory system that includes fancier equipment, but now we're talking about well-placed component speakers, maybe even biamping, without any installation fuss.

In closing, let me recommend one reference I've found helpful for those who want to stay reasonable but do something fancier than what I'm describing. Daniel Ferguson's Ultimate Auto Sound, most easily obtained through Audio Amateur Press, goes into details about potential upgrades that are specific to popular types of cars. In addition, his subwoofer construction and usage primer is excellent, including some excellent low-cost designs using the woofers from Madisound. Dan presents a potent argument against the sort of drivel the car-audio magazines spew every month as fact. As a random note, I really miss the late Peter Mitchell's auto-sound columns; now there was a guy who did some good work in that arena.

Coming soon in "Fringe," I'm planning on following up this column with some war stories. I'll describe a number of auto systems I've battled with, recount my wounds, and lay out some tactics for avoiding such troubles in the first place. Until then, I'll be waiting for the letters that seem to follow any discussion of (gasp!) car stereo in a forum ostensibly devoted to high-end audio....

.....GS (gsmith@westnet.com)

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