Choosing a Mild or Wild Audio System

For many people, car audio is as much about show as it is about sound. After all, chrome wheels won't make your car go any faster, but they look good, they're fun, and they tell people you care about your car. Nothing wrong with that. After all, people have been pimpin' their rides for years.

If you want a flashy car audio system, go for it. Just keep in mind that there are trade-offs. If your car is a daily driver and you use it to haul people and other things, then going with a flashy system may be impractical.

For instance, I once put a show system in my 1996 Chevy Impala for a cross-country promotional trip I did for a magazine. It was the first time I installed a huge system in my own personal car after nearly 10 years in the car audio business. Although the interior was kept pretty low-key except for custom door and rear-deck panels for the speakers, the car's trunk was turned into a veritable car audio showcase. It included five amps in a rack in the floor and three 10-inch subwoofers in a bandpass box with a see-through Plexiglas panel under the rear deck. A massive 100-disc CD changer was installed against the driver's side trunk wall, with a bank of capacitors and power-supply accessories on the other. It was all trimmed with custom vinyl-covered wood and Plexiglas panels.

It sounded great and looked awesome. The car was a hit at the shows I attended and my neighbors would bring their friends over just to see it and listen to it. It was covered in magazines several times, and it was cool to have a celebrity car.

But the car didn't handle and accelerate the same due to all that extra weight from the car audio components. About a year or so later, after my first child was born, my wife and I couldn't even fit a baby stroller in the trunk because of all the car audio gear.

Tip: The reason I relate this story is to show you both sides of the coin. If you want a showy system, by all means, you should have one. But a great-sounding but more discreet system can usually serve the same purpose. Plus, with a showy system you run the risk of attracting the wrong kind of attention: from thieves.

Upgrade Your Factory-Installed System

If you really want to stay on the mild end of the scale and keep from altering your car too much - as well as protect against theft - you can keep the factory radio and add components such as amplifiers and subwoofers. Inversely, you could always change out your factory radio and keep your factory speakers intact.

I did this in one of my own vehicles, a 1997 VW Eurovan Camper that's a family-mobile. After talking it over with my installer, we decided I could get the sort of performance I needed in the vehicle (after all, my wife mostly drives it, and I can't really crank it up with the kids around) just by swapping out the radio. This also gave me the option to add satellite radio and an auxiliary input that allowed me to easily jack in an iPod. And I could always decide to upgrade the speakers and add an outboard amplifier later.

Tip: There are several options for upgrading your factory audio system. You should consider these first if you're primarily looking for better sound. The easiest and least expensive path to better sound is to swap the factory speakers for higher quality aftermarket ones. Many car audio manufacturers offer drop-in speakers that are specifically designed to fit factory provisions in a vehicle with a minimal amount of hassle and little to no modification. Often it's just a matter of taking out the factory speakers and dropping in new ones. This approach generally offers the most bang for your buck because many stock car audio systems use cheap and poor performing speakers, and even inexpensive aftermarket speakers can offer a dramatic difference in sound quality.

Keep Your Factory Radio

When most people think of a car stereo, they think of the thing in the dash with buttons and a display. But such head units are just part of the system, although a major part. They generate an audio signal, let you select among various music formats, show what's playing, allow you to crank the volume, and sometimes include some signal processing functions, such as equalization, which tweaks the sound to better suit the car's interior space.

Then they send a signal on to the speakers in a system and sometimes to amplifiers in between to boost the signal. Truth is, many modern stock head units do this quite well, and they are getting harder and harder to extract from the dash. Some are oddly shaped or control other functions of the car, such as climate controls. So it isn't always practical - or even necessary - to replace the radio in some vehicles.

Understanding OEM Upgrade Options

The increasingly difficult-to-replace head units are why a growing trend in the car audio industry is to leave the factory head unit intact and add components downstream in the audio signal path. This is happening for the reasons I mentioned earlier in the chapter, as well as the fact that many people lease their vehicles these days and are reluctant to modify them in any way. Because of this, the aftermarket car audio industry has started to respond with a growing number of components specifically designed to allow upgrading a stock stereo system.

Almost all stock head units have only amplified high-level outputs that are designed to drive speakers, not amplifiers, which usually require an un-amplified low-level signal. That's why it's typically easier to add speakers to a factory system than amplifiers. Some aftermarket amplifiers do, however, accept both high- and low-level signals, making them ideal for OEM (or Original Equipment Manufacturer - meaning the equipment that came with the vehicle) upgrades. And as with drop-in speakers, adding an amplifier is a surefire way to improve the sound of an anemic stock system.

But it isn't always that easy. More and more stock systems, particularly premium systems, also incorporate proprietary signal processing that's designed to work only within the closed system. When aftermarket components are added, it can actually make the sound worse because they aren't compatible with the system's signal processing.

But the aftermarket has been performing end-runs around the carmakers for decades. Being the resourceful bunch that they are, car audio manufacturers have responded to being locked out of such systems with products specifically designed to drop a signal from a stock head unit down to line-level and filter out any signal processing. Many of these also have an auxiliary input that also allows you to add an iPod or some other audio source to a factory system. If a stock system doesn't use proprietary signal processing, a simple line-level output converter will knock a high-level signal from a stock head unit down to line or a low-level so that an amplifier can be added.

Regardless, a savvy specialty car audio retailer will be able to help you upgrade your factory system so that you can add almost anything you like to it.

From Car Audio for Dummies, copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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