ca 1Having worked for a couple of car companies I’ll let you in on a secret about car audio; it doesn’t have to be terrible. In fact getting a noticeable improvement in sound quality in your car can be fast, simple and surprisingly cheap.

Everything a car company does is about selling more cars and price is critical to that, so any buck that can possibly be saved is saved. This is where car audio’s dirty little secret comes into play.

Usually the electronics car makers put in the dash are pretty good and that’s because you can see and touch them, and anyway there’s not much sonic difference between one amplifier/tuner/Bluetooth/USB combo and another. Thus it’s highly likely the system that’s already in your dash is capable of far better sound quality than you’re currently hearing. So what’s the problem?

That would be the speakers. Those impressive grilles in the doors and dash are hiding speakers that very possibly cost the car company just a couple of dollars. They’re probably flimsy little things with paper cones and magnets that would have a hard time tugging at a Boy Scout compass. Rip them out and replace them with proper ones. You’ll more than likely get a significant and highly noticeable improvement in sound quality straight off.

ca 2This is a simple job if you know what you’re doing. If you don’t it’s easy to damage or break the clips that hold door trims in place, and door trims are a great deal easier to pull out than to put back in. Unless you know exactly what’s under there leave the job to someone experienced in this black art.

It’s fair to assume that installers at car audio suppliers know all about what to expect, but make sure they’ve worked on cars like yours anyway. And take a look at the workshop. If they won’t let you ask why; public liability insurance is a valid excuse, otherwise be afraid.

You won’t pay much in labour because there’s no extra wiring needed, no holes to be drilled and no modifications to be made, and it’s practically certain the shop will have good quality speakers that will fit like a glove. If they don’t they’ll be able to order them in.

ca 3Simon Farrugia at Street Sound and Vision in Melbourne’s north does lots of this work and says it can cost as little as $250 to replace four speakers. And, he assures, it always improves sound quality. But he says some factory-fitted systems are light on power, and then he suggests an outboard amplifier as well. If you want to go further add a sound processor and subwoofer. Now you’re getting serious; think $1200 on up.

I got quotes on replacing the speakers in a Mazda3, Australia’s top-selling car to private buyers, and they started at $300. That gets new speakers front and rear, fairly basic Sonys but demonstrably better than the factory originals. Or I could go as high as $500 for mid/bass drivers with built in tweeters in the front and mid/basses in the rear from brands like Alpine or Pioneer, two giants of car audio.

After that I was entering exotic territory populated by brands like Focal. Such speakers love power and can’t perform properly on the modest levels put out by most factory systems. An outboard amplifier is needed to make them work at their best.

The best way to pick speakers is to listen and serious car audio shops have showroom sound boards set up that let you do back-to-back comparisons easily.

“The cheapest way to do it is to replace the front speakers only because they’re the ones that provide 90 per cent of what you’re hearing,” one installer advised.

Which led him to what is obviously his hobbyhorse; “We get lots of people in here who think the rear speakers are the most important in a car, but the front door speakers are the ones you want to use because you want the music to come from the front. When was the last time you went to a concert and sat with your back to the stage? You can tell music lovers,” he concluded, “they have the fader turned at least three-quarters to the front.”

Published August 2015

 

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