Taking the Car Audio Plunge

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If you're like me, some of your most treasured memories are listening to an awesome audio system in an automobile. Picture this: It's a beautiful day on a fun road and you're behind the wheel of your car, jamming to your favorite music. Now think of the same situation if you were driving in silence. It's just not the same.Music makes a good drive even better, a long road trip more fun, a daily commute more bearable. Think of your best times behind the wheel, and chances are there's a soundtrack that goes along with it.

After all, cars and music go together like . . . well, cars and music. Just think of all the great rock, pop, and rap songs that have been written about cars: from The Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" to Prince's "Little Red Corvette" to The Game's "How We Do."

For my money, there's no better place to listen to music than in a car. When you're listening at home, the phone always rings or someone tells you to turn it down. Even with headphones, distractions occur and the music is all in your head, so to speak. But the car is like your own private listening room: a mobile sound cocoon that isolates you from the outside world. You can turn it up as loud as you want (as long as you're not disturbing others) and feel the visceral impact that comes from the music pulsing around you.

I've been fortunate enough to hear some ultra high-end home-audio systems and I've been in state-of-the-art recording studios and witnessed some amazing live performances. But none of these live up to the feeling I get while listening to a well-designed car audio system in a cool car on a fun road. Music just seems to sound better when asphalt is flying under your feet!

The Best Time Ever for Car Audio Fans

There's never been a better time to be a mobile music lover. Not only have components such as amplifiers and speakers reached an apex of performance and offer more bang for the buck than ever, but the recent explosion in media options has made the DVD radios that were state-of-the-art a decade ago seem almost antiquated now. The advent of MP3 has freed music from a disc-based format so that now you're able to carry your entire music library on a small portable player such as an iPod. Alternatively, you can load hundreds of songs onto a single disc or even a USB thumb drive. Satellite radio has gained ground against traditional terrestrial radio, while high-definition (HD) radio promises to make AM and FM better and offer more content. Plus, in just a few short years, mobile video has turned "Are we there yet?" to "Are we here already?"

Your Roadmap to Awesome Car Tunes

Consider Car Audio For Dummies your roadmap to awesome car tunes. You know that there's this wonderful world of car audio out there, but you don't know how to get started planning a sound system, shopping for components, or installing everything, let alone getting the most out of your system, protecting it, and fully enjoying it. In this book, I take you through each step of the process so that you can make informed decisions without wasting time and money and so that you'll ultimately end up with a car audio system that will give you years of listening pleasure.

You've Come to the Right Place

You probably heard someone's car audio system - a friend's, your older sibling's, or maybe one at a car show - and now you want something similar. You used to think your car's system sounded pretty good, but now that you've heard something better, it just doesn't stack up. I've always referred to this as the ice cream theory. After you've tasted Ben & Jerry's, for example, you can't go back to the grocery-store brand. It's just not the same. You know what you want, or at least have a vague idea in mind. You just don't know how or where to get it.

Decide What Kind of Mobile Music Listener You Are

One of the first things you'll need to determine is how you like your car tunes. Do you like to crank the bass so that people can hear you coming down the road for blocks? Or do you like to hear every subtle nuance of a Mahler symphony? Do you like to be blown away by every note of a great rock-guitar solo and feel the bass drum beating against your chest? Or do you want your system to sound as if Norah Jones and her piano were sitting on your car's hood? Maybe you want your system to do all of these things. The cool things about car audio is that you can have it almost anyway you choose.

Tip: Deciding what kind of music listener you are helps you determine a starting point. Most people have wide-ranging musical tastes, and it is possible to put together a system that bangs out the bass in a rap song and produces the subtle sound of a symphony. Defining those parameters will help you when planning your system.Besides thinking about what kind of music you mostly listen to, you should also consider how you like to listen to it. Do you mostly drive alone during a daily commute? Or do you want a system that you can crank when you're out driving with your friends? Most people will want a little of both.

Tip: Also think about what type of media options you'll want. Do you keep all your music on an MP3 player, or do you mostly listen to CDs? Are you an FM radio listener or do you like to tune into AM talk radio? Thinking about these things can help you pick out the best components and hopefully avoid some potentially costly mistakes down the road.In the not-too-distant past, you had just a few choices in music formats: AM, FM, CD, or cassette. But MP3s, the iPod, and satellite radio have changed the way people listen to music in the car. And now it's not uncommon for in-dash radios to sport USB drives or even SD card slots that allow you to play dozens of digital music files on these handy devices. Plus, it's possible to burn as many MP3 and WMA tracks on a single CD as a clunky old CD changer once held on multiple discs. Now, devices such as phones and portable media players (PMPs) that use Bluetooth Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) technology to wirelessly wing music to a compatible car radio are starting to become available.

With so many different ways to bring your tunes on the road, it pays to think long and hard about how you'll listen to music in the car. It's a way to hopefully future-proof your car audio system so that you're not shut out from using new technology or having to do expensive upgrades later on.

Finally, creating a car audio system can be an extension of your personality, in much the same way that customizing your car says something about you. After all, if you wanted to be like everyone else, you'd just keep your stock stereo system. Car audio is about creating a system that sounds the way you like it, plays the media that you choose, and looks the way you want it to.

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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