You've spent a lot of time getting the sound just right at home but what about the car? After all, most people spend a lot of time in that small cabin driving around, going to work or holidays so you might as well see about improving or adding to it. If you have children, then a video system will keep them quiet on long trips! Navigation systems are the latest must-have gadgets and are a godsend for many people. In this article however, we will look at the audio in more detail.
Generally speaking the newer the car, the better the features and sound you will have. Luxury cars often have branded system by the likes of Harman/Kardon, Bose, Infinity, Mark Levinson, Becker and others. Particular audio brands align themselves prestige brands of cars to enhance both their images and a lot of money is spent on developing integrated systems with all the bells and whistles. Actually it is these systems which are the hardest to upgrade as most of the items are developed with the car and very well integrated so an after-market audio system is difficult to fit. Things like steering wheel controls, mobile phones, navigation and instrument cluster displays all are connected via special data buses and store-bought units will not have these sorts of connections.
So having such an integrated system makes it very difficult to improve the sound (though, that said, many do tend to sound pretty good to start with!) but there are still things that can be done. Usually the easiest is to change the speakers. A decent car audio store will be able to advise on speakers that fit and are compatible with the current system, even sometimes just adding a tweeter to a one-way driver can improve the high-end response. Replacing all the speakers and adding an external amp is the next step, this will give a lot more power in many cases and you may even be able to add a subwoofer. If going down this path, it is a good idea to get the installers to add extra deadening to the panels to help stop rattles and vibrations caused by the extra power!
A full work over of the system would be to replace virtually all the parts and will certainly not be easy but if the car is out of warranty or fairly old, you may be able to install a fantastic sounding system but be warned, the cost of doing this is going to be steep, especially if you want it done properly. A lot of special devices are now appearing to enable proper integration with the original factory fitted system and these can make it easier and sometimes also allow you to keep the more specialised features of the system.
For most other cars, you can change virtually any part of the audio system you like without too much trouble. As mentioned above, speakers are usually the first step but you have to consider the age and the power of the radio same as you do for home systems. Watch out for labels on speakers and head units (the name given to the radio unit in the dashboard), the car audio industry is full of misleading labeling especially when it comes to power. Speakers are often labeled with incredibly high power figures, it is usually for the uninformed to walk into a store and ask for 200W speakers. They think that will give them a very loud system but of course it doesn't mean much at all by itself, many other factors come into play.
New radios abound these days, many are now fully featured and include auxiliary inputs for MP3 players and the like, MP3 disc playback, memory card slots, USB ports and Bluetooth interfaces for mobile phones. Complete systems can be designed as simple or as complex as you want or can afford. The sound quality these days is astounding and there are even sound quality competitions run across Australia (also along with the SPL competitions, yes, you guessed it, who has the loudest system.)
Many brands in the home audio areas also have a range of car audio products, Dynaudio, Pioneer, Panasonic and Focal to name a few. They even go as far as using virtually the same speaker drivers with slight modifications, so the actually system can product matching sound quality. Where problems arise is of course the lack of a proper listening environment. You have a very high noise floor with the engine, road noise and of course other vehicles. The sweet spot is impossible to sit in and the speakers are located very close to the listening position. However clever installations and audio processing can take care of some of these issues to an extent. Time delay adjustments are becoming more common and of course the simple balance control can centre the sound a bit better for the driver.
The resultant sound is always a compromise but a decent system with proper installation can sound really good and will rival many home systems. If you spend a lot of time listening to music on the car and plan to keep the car for a fair while, go to a quality car audio store and have a chat about getting your car's system upgraded!
Written by Leon Gross, originally published in Audio & Video Lifestyle magazine.
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