For sure, people can go nuts over in-car sound and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for Richter-moving results at the big sound-off contests.
But for many motorists who want more than traffic reports and talkback, a modest improvement to the factory sound system can provide a payback in listening quality.
Auto sound can be really good, just as it rolls off the showroom floor. Some of the expensive premium systems will sound as good as, if not better than, fine home hi-fi set-ups.
But most cars don’t have anything close to the premium set-ups that typically add $1500 to $5000 to the sticker.
The reality is that, particularly at the economy end of the market, car sound systems are built to a price.
They’ll sound okay, but put on some music that you know well from your home hi-fi, and your ears may beg for mercy.
There are all sorts of ways to upgrade car sound, but two key components are the speakers and the head unit – the thing with the knobs, dials and the “brain”.
Though it’s easy to deal to the components by basic remove-and-replace, upgrading auto audio to a meaningful extent is both a skill and a bit of a black art that really requires the services of a specialist.
Compared to typical OEM speakers, aftermarket alternatives will have a larger frequency response, which equates to more music coming through.
They’ll have better power-handling capabilities that will brighten highs and increase the bass.
It’s usually possible to upgrade speakers with ones that fit in the same space as the originals: if there’s a problem it may be insufficient depth.
Two types of speakers are typically used.
A dual cone design has a small paper cone built into a larger paper cone. A two-way speaker has a separate tweeter on a larger paper cone and allows more frequency response.
Upgrades will usually be of the second kind, but like in-home hi-fi speakers, quality will vary, and the most expensive aren’t always best.
Some cars, even in the lower price bracket, now offer separate tweeter speakers to better handle high notes. You might find them in all sorts of odd places, but typically the A-pillar or somewhere in the dash. They, too, can be upgraded, or fitted if the car doesn’t have them.
On the other hand, subwoofers enhance the lower end sound. Relatively few brands offer a sub as standard, so adding one has become a popular modification.
The head unit is used to control the audio system and will probably include the amplifier as well as a slot that swallows CDs. Today’s units mostly allow MP3 connection and possibly Bluetooth.
An audio specialist will always manufacture these units; some will carry the vehicle manufacturer’s name or remain anonymous, but often they’ll retain the audio company’s name, especially if it’s perceived as a prestige brand.
Some new vehicles arrive in New Zealand without audio, which is fitted locally; these usually carry the audio company’s brand name.
As with speakers, OEM head units tend to be built to a price reflecting the place of the vehicle in the market. However, there are some excellent units to be found in quite cheap cars.
One good reason to change has nothing to do with sound quality. Many units have become infamous for tiny, fiddly controls and operational complexity.
A “big fingered bloke” may find the change to a unit with decent knobs and buttons well worthwhile.
On the sound quality front, there’s no doubt that an upgraded head unit can pay real dividends. You’ll also have access to all sorts of other features such as security, automatic volume control and clever displays.
Some cars – typically in the luxury arena – have one or more separate amplifiers. Their role is not only to provide volume for Africa, but to send a smooth, effortless sound to the speakers.
A separate amp can pay big dividends in listening pleasure, no matter what the choice of music.
The size of the amplifier or amplifiers will be proportionate to the level of power you want. Fortunately, their location is not critical, as long as they have sufficient airflow and are mounted on a dry surface.
It doesn’t stop there, of course. You can add video, TV, games, a fancy controller that ties it all together.
In the wonderful world of aftermarket audio, your bank balance, rather than the sky, is likely to be the limit.