|How to Buy Car Audio|
|Home Theater Feature Articles Audio Related Articles|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Sunday, 01 July 2001|
As a dedicated music and car enthusiast, I must admit there is quite a buzz involved in having the right tunes blasting as you rip through sweeping curves on Pacific Coast Highway in a spirited car with a stellar music system. Properly mixed with the growling intonations of a sporty exhaust, a tasteful car audio system can take you places that your home system simply can’t. Considering how much time most of us spend behind the wheel, as opposed to sitting in front of our AV system at home, one can see why mobile entertainment has become the fastest-growing segment of the multi-billion-dollar consumer electronics industry.
When I worked as an audio/video salesman in Philadelphia in the early 1990’s, car audio was a purely aftermarket luxury that many of the older salesmen wouldn’t even discuss with prospective clients. I loved it because I got to play with and, in many cases, drive really expensive cars. The mobile systems we installed back at Bryn Mawr Stereo and Sassafras were pretty simple and mimicked the configuration of the stereo systems we sold for home use with a CD or tape head units, an amp or two, good speakers and a subwoofer (if the client would agree to use one). In most cases, the systems came out sounding pretty damn good, considering the factory systems we replaced.
Since the good old days of car audio nearly 10 years ago in Philadelphia, quite a bit has changed in the world of 12-volt audio. First off, factory systems have gotten 500 percent better, with many top auto manufacturers inking deals with the better car audio companies. Some of these happy marriages include Mercedes and Bose, Lexus and Mark Levinson, BMW and Harman-Kardon, Mazda and Kenwood.
Cars today have far more sophisticated amps, drivers, enclosures and user interfaces. In many cases, the result is an audio system so good that you would be crazy to remove it in place of an aftermarket system. Controlling your system at a finger’s reach is an awfully useful option for those of us who love toys of all kinds, but there is another level of performance available. Interested?
My Car Audio Project
I own a 1996 Polar Silver Porsche 911 C4S, which I show competitively in the Porsche Club of America Concourse Series. The car is a blast and I drive it every day, yet the factory Becker car audio system is simply shameful. Remember all of the cool bells and whistles I described above? I don’t have any of them in my car, not even a cup-holder. In fact, with the Porsche factory motorsound exhaust, I can barely hear the music, even cranked all the way up to full volume, when I am driving the engine in its power band. With a bit of coaxing from some of my friends in the 12-volt market, I decided to install a simple but very high-quality music system in my beloved ride.
The first challenge I had was re-learning who the players are in high-end 12-volt car audio. When I designed systems, the brands of choice were Alpine, Nakamichi and Sony for head units, Rockford Fosgate and Precision Power for amps and MB Quart, Boston Acoustics and JL Audio for speakers and subwoofers. All of these companies are still around, but some of the have moved away from what we’d consider American high-end car audio to manufacture their products in the Orient. This is not to say their products are bad – they’re not, but neither are they the handcrafted American gear that a hardcore audio and car enthusiast might want to glue, bolt and screw into his pride and joy. Some of the new players that I found and invested in were DynAudio for speakers, Xtant for power amps and Pioneer Premier for a head unit. Seemingly, the system had everything I was going to need to get some excellent sound for windows-down jaunts along Sunset Boulevard. I did opt against a subwoofer, simply because I have no room for one in such a small car.
The Most Important Part: The Installation
When it comes to home theater or home automation, you can count on finding a trained, certified and qualified installer through CEDIA. Finding the same in a car audio installer is far more difficult, as I unhappily discovered. I must warn you: under no circumstances do I recommend that you even touch your car’s audio system until you have found a firm that you trust to install it. It is complicated work in an environment that is even more difficult to work with than the walls of your home. As I found out, this is a critical decision that will make or break your car audio experience.
I was referred to a number of private car audio installation gurus in the Beverly Hills area but, as with nearly every video projector set-up guy you’ll talk to (good luck making a living on the new easy to set up DLPs and DIL-As, you jerks), these fellows weren’t all that interested in taking on my project because I wasn’t planning on spending $10,000 or more on installation. Amazing. In many cases, even with a pretty good installation budget and an $80,000 car, I couldn’t even get my phone calls returned.
Ultimately, I chose to go with a dealer, Automotive Entertainment in Santa Monica, that I had worked with on two cars I have owned in the past. I had a somewhat disheartening conversation with the manager of the shop about the price of the project and the amount of time it was going to take to install a system that we used to be able to install in one day. They said the project would take at least two days, which was something of a hardship, because I only have my 911 to drive, which meant that I would have to rent a car, which at L.A. prices would easily be an additional $150 expense, not to mention quite an inconvenience. When it came down to getting the system installed, I went with Audio Entertainment for a few reasons. First, I was able to schedule the installation around a five-day trip I had to make. Second, Automotive Entertainment does most of the car audio installation work for the major-league Steve Taube Porsche dealership in Santa Monica so, in theory, this firm should know many of the inside tricks and idiosyncrasies of a Porsche. Finally, as authorized dealers for both Xtant amps and DynAudio speakers, this dealer should know how to make the system sound its best in my car.
To say I was unimpressed when I returned from my trip to Mexico doesn’t really sum up how bad the situation was. After getting the hard sell on Dynamat acoustical treatment and high-priced car cables before I left, I was prepared to hear my car sound dynamic, smooth and musical. It didn’t. I was careful not to compare my car system to my home system, but with years of experience in car audio under my belt, I could tell that this system wasn’t installed correctly. Moreover, the FM reception was hopelessly bad, with AM reception outright nonexistent. When I complained to the owner of the shop, he said the system "needed tuning" and that I’d have to bring it back to him. You mean to tell me you can’t install and "tune" a $4,000 car audio system in five full working days? Moreover, the owner refused to physically sit or even stick his head inside the car to hear what I was complaining about.
Understanding that installing car audio can be an inexact science and that there were lots of EQ settings on the nifty Pioneer Premier head unit, I went home. Before I reached my destination, I realized I couldn’t pull in even the strongest of FM radio stations while driving down major thoroughfares like Wilshire Boulevard. I called to book a time to get a "tuning" done and to get the radio reception issue resolved ASAP. We booked the appointment at a time when the installer and the owner of the shop would be in after lunch one workday. At 2:00 on a Friday, I fought my way through 45 minutes of cross-town traffic from Century City to Santa Monica, hoping for the happy ending I was seeking in this project.
The owner and the installer weren’t there – they had both blown me off. The manager, who was the guy behind the hard sell on the high profit margin cables and Dynamat, told me that I would have to wait until the installer finished with a new $250,000 Rolls Royce before he could even look at my car and that could be a four-hour wait, but he’d be glad to hear my system right now. I was stuck. The owner wouldn’t listen to my system when he’d had the chance and now he had stood me up, even though I had called a mere 90 minutes earlier to confirm our appointment. The manager got in the car and immediately cranked up the bass, the mids and the treble on the EQ to disturbingly high settings. He then cranked the volume up to ear-bleeding levels that had to be well over 100 dB. That was it. I turned the volume down and he started to tell me how the system needed between two and four ours of tuning before it would sound right. However, if I bought more Dynamat (keep in mind that I’d already purchased $300 worth for two doors), my system would have sounded much better. He went on to tell me that I really didn’t know how to EQ and, because I knew so little about speaker drivers, I shouldn’t expect the system to sound any better than this. I let him know I have a degree in music from the University of Southern California’s School of Music, where I learned how to master and engineer recordings on an SSL mixing console, not to mention having worked with Mark Levinson at Cello, who also taught me how to EQ program material on the Audio Palette. The manager was a tone-deaf moron. I drove off in disgust.
The next day, I called back to the shop in hopes of reaching the owner and to give them one more chance to at least fix my radio reception. This time, the actual installer answered my call, but told me there was nothing he could do. It wasn’t his job to book the car into the shop and the two guys who did book the cars were the owner and the manager, both of whom had given up on the project. I was in need of a hero.
I called my contacts in the car audio business, as well as a personal friend, to complain about the sorry-assed service I had received. Rodeo Mobile Sound was recommended to me by two separate sources. My friend called for me ahead of time and the owner of Rodeo Mobile, which does the work for Ogner Porsche-Ferrari, agreed to help me out of my bind.
That Monday, I took my car to Rodeo Mobile Sound in the San Fernando Valley and their entire team of four installers stopped work on a gorgeous Porsche 911-996 C4 cab and tore my vehicle apart. They readjusted the crossovers that were installed on my doors, resulting in much smoother response from my DynAudio 360 speakers. They made changes to the settings on my Xtant amp, which also helped. One of the installers took the time to custom-program a setting on my Pioneer Premier head unit, which had the best settings for this specific car’s system. Astoundingly, we found that Automotive Entertainment installed my system over a five-day period without installing the lead to the powered antenna that runs up the middle of the windshield. The FM and AM reception was clear and powerful, now pulling in FM stations from San Diego, which is well over 100 miles away from where I live. Ultimately, the Pioneer Premier head unit far out-performed the factory system, as did the Xtant amp and the DynAudio speakers. It just took a professional installation to get the system up to its potential.
Within two hours, Rodeo Mobile Sound had solved many of the big problems with the system. We all agree I could have gone for a bigger system with dedicated woofers, custom enclosures, more amps, subwoofers, more EQs and other goodies, but for all buyers, there is a spending limit. $4,000 was mine. I just thank God and my contacts that they turned me on to Rodeo Mobile, as I had feared that I was out of luck after being so abandoned by Automotive Entertainment.
Hard Lessons Learned
I am not going to BS you: my car audio experience was a nightmare. Ultimately, it had nothing to do with the quality of gear I purchased, as I bought what most people (including my lame-ass first installer), consider to be the best gear in the industry. What I learned was that the quality and, more importantly, the integrity of the installer is paramount to the success of your system. I have harped on this point regarding high-end music and film systems, but I never had any idea how essential it had become with car audio.
Considering what audio gear comes in your car is a bigger factor than ever before. You have to weigh the potential buzz vs. the potential headaches and real-world costs of upgrading your car system. Listening to great music in your car is truly a pleasure, yet a car is guaranteed to be a depreciating asset. Set your budget at the amount that you are willing to invest in your enjoyment of music and not much more. If you can spend $2,000 on making your car sound better, cool. Do not let the salesman sell you something far above your budget, because salesmen will never stop and a car can only sound so good.
There is a value issue in a car audio system: if you buy a kickin’ new pair of DynAudio home speakers or one of Pioneer’s new DVD-Audio players, the components are likely to have far more value in a few years than your car audio system. If you do buy gear at any level above $500, be sure to take photos of the installation and write out an entire catalogue of cables, components and installation prices, and make sure you keep all receipts. Your insurance company will need to then be called to see if they will cover your new system. Take it from someone who had his last car stolen – I was pleasantly surprised to find that USAA, my insurance carrier, would give me any value for my last car system. Even so, quite a few of the components were not covered, because I wasn’t thorough enough to protect them. Be smart and do this up front.
Should You Invest in a Mobile Entertainment System for Your Car?
This is totally up to you. The gear is getting incredibly advanced. DTS is promoting 5.1 sound for cars. Kenwood has a DVD-based system that does 5.1 sound, complete with a candy bar-sized center speaker, all of which can be controlled by a 6.5-inch touch-screen system that is nothing short of amazing. It is only a matter of months until you will be able to buy DVD-Audio head units that will be ready to decode 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1 music for your drive home from a number of mass market electronics companies.
Another new automotive toy is XM satellite radio, which has 100 commercial-free satellite radio channels that you can stream right into your car if you have the right head unit. Considering how bad the radio stations have become in Los Angeles, I am likely to have this option activated, with a tiny additional antenna about the size of a quarter and a $10 per month service fee. FM radio is still the driving force behind most car audio systems, but satellite radio is a new alternative that could lure even more people over to upgrading their car systems.
There are plenty of good reasons why you should make the time you spend in your car more enjoyable. Be sure to balance your investment with the understanding that most cool new cars, ranging from Mazda’s Special Edition Protégé with MP3 to Lexus’ SC430 with the Mark Levinson sound system, sound incredible and come with many (but likely not all) of the features you lust for. If the car you want or currently own is goodie-deficient, do your homework to avoid the mess I got myself into. My system is in much better shape now, but if I had the good fortune to have found a better installer first, I would have been able to enjoy the addictive buzz that the best mobile electronics has to offer from the day I got my car back from the shop. Be sure you get more than one recommendation and even check with the Better Business Bureau to find the most reputable car audio dealers and installers. It will make all the difference in the world as to how you’ll enjoy your purchase.