Summer's here and I have been happily driving my new car. I know that automotive endeavors, especially with the price of gasoline hovering at $4 a gallon, are not only fuel-hardy but also socially unconscious, but heck, it is summer. This is the first, and most likely only, new car I'll ever own. Usually I prefer to spend money on musical instruments and audio gear rather than a new-car premium. However, a Subaru dealer made me an offer I couldn't refuse. For $4000 more than a one-year old Outback 2.5i with 20,000 miles I could get a new one and qualify for 3.9 percent dealer financing. I signed on the dotted line.
It is fun to drive off in a car with only 4.6 miles on the odometer. What's not so fun is to turn on the car stereo and discover, after about 30 seconds of listening, that the factory-installed system sucks. Upon arriving home, the first thing I did was research upgrades to the car stereo. Car manufacturers are getting wilier when it comes to car systems. On the Subaru Outback you can buy a "better" stereo as part of a fancier interior trim package. However, this better stereo is actually worse because it is integrally connected to the climate control system so you can't install an aftermarket head unit. All you can do is hook up a special box from JL Labs (the same folks who make the killer Gotham and Fathom home sub-woofers) that gives you line-level outputs for outboard power amps. Fortunately I didn't buy the interior upgrade package because I hate sunroofs, don't need a dual-zone climate control system, and would rather have a removable GPS.
Fortunately, the head unit that comes with Subaru's basic interior package can be easily replaced with a better one. Naturally, the dealer didn't volunteer this info and even various Subaru enthusiast websites I frequented neglected to mention this. I suppose they erroneously assume that no one (except a real cheapskate) ever buys the basic interior package. It took a visit to my local Car Toys store to discover that I could easily replace the factory unit with a far better one. They had all the parts needed to effect the change, including a new wiring harness, FM antenna adapter, and replacement trim bezel. Hallelujah.
Originally I wanted to avoid patronizing to Car Toys. My last experience wasn't great. I had a Verizon cell phone contract purchased through a Car Toys store in south Denver. The customer service was truly abysmal. A pimply-faced sales associate kept me waiting forever and had the technical expertise of a trible. But the Boulder store is completely different animal. When I first walked in and explained my situation, the manager told me, without a moment's hesitation, "We can fix that." He then took me outside to his own vehicle where he demonstrated his heavily tweaked system. Wow. It was only the second car stereo I've heard that produced a real soundstage with proper imaging. The manager's system had an Alpine head unit, JL Labs electronics, JL Labs subwoofers, and Focal midrange and tweeter components. He was surprised when I told him I was quite familiar with Focal speakers (I just finished reviewing their 705V speaker for The Absolute Sound). "Most people have never heard of them." he confided, "I usually have to spend a lot of time convincing customers they don't want more expensive drivers from Infinity, Polk, or Boston Acoustics. The Focals are better." After only a couple minutes of listening I was convinced.
We went back inside while the manager worked up a price quote. The first quote included an Alpine CDA 9886 head unit, JL Labs 12" subwoofer, JL Labs bass amp with a built-in crossover, a special custom fabricated enclosure, extensive Dynamat sound treatments, a lot of re-wiring, and a Focal 165-A1 speaker system. The total tab was just shy of $3k. Gulp. I told him I'd have to run that past my wife so I didn't wind up sleeping in the car. I went home and examined the quote. I quickly realized that getting the bottom octave, from 80 to 40 Hz, in a car stereo costs a lot more than the whole rest of the frequency spectrum. The Subwoofer, amplifier, enclosure, wiring and installation gobbled up over $2k of the $3k system. What to do?
My solution was draconian simple — eliminate the subwoofer. Even though all three of my home systems have subwoofers I'm not a bass fanatic - my first great-sounding stereo was based around Quad ESL 57 speakers, which don't have anything of consequence below 80 Hz. I can and have lived with and enjoyed systems without any serious low bass. In a car low bass can actually be a safety hazard - you can't hear the rumble of that semi bearing down on you. SPLAT! - one flattened audiophile. Without the subwoofer system the entire car stereo, including installation using Dynamat treatment in the doors and upgraded speaker wires, came to slightly under $900. That was a number I could live with, so I went ahead and had the system installed.
It took Car Tunes the better part of a day to install the system. I dropped my car off in the morning and picked it up around 3:00 PM. The job was immaculate with no signs that doors panels, interior carpeting, or the center panels had ever been removed. Only the Alpine 9886 gave away the fact that the system was no longer stock. I chose the $299 list price Alpine 9886 head unit for several reasons. First and foremost, it sounded good. Secondly, this particular model has provisions to integrate completely with an i-Pod so the i-Pod can live in the glove compartment. The Alpine supplies power to the i-Pod as well as allows full access to the i-Pod's search, select, and shuffle features through its own display. The Alpine even comes with a remote! It also includes a single-disk CD player (as if you need one with an i-Pod attached), and a decent AM and FM tuner section.
The Alpine 9886 has fairly sophisticated tone controls for a car head unit. It allows the user to move the set points for bass and treble boost or cuts as well as set the whole system to "flat." While it only produces 18 watts RMS per channel, coupled to the 92 dB efficient 4-ohm Focal 165 A1 speakers the system can play much louder than I routinely require.
Car Stereo Is A Nearfield Listening Experience
Obviously a car is a less than ideal sonic environment. It is noisy, speakers are often placed in less than ideal positions, and you really can't concentrate too single-mindedly on the music. But like a good nearfield set-up your listening position is fixed and the system designer does know exactly where the speakers and listener will be located.
As I mentioned earlier, very few car systems image successfully. This is due in large part to the listener being way off center and the speakers being placed in less than ideal locations because of that pesky windshield. The systems I've heard that solve this problem did so by placing the speakers in better positions and exactly adjusting the left/right levels and time-alignment. Unfortunately my new system doesn't image that precisely. It s-p-r-e-a-d-s the image from left to right in a vague recreation of vista-vision, but any approximation of imaging specificity gets smeared across the windshield. Strike one for the new car stereo.
But despite imaging issues my car stereo does get it right when it comes to midrange detail and articulation. Despite road noise, I can listen well into the mix to hear all the subtle details I hear on my home systems. The Focal 165-A1 speakers' tweeters have enough air and high frequency extension so string sections sound like they're violins instead of string synthesizers. Also the Focal tweeters are smooth enough so snare drums and cymbals don't make me think of eggs frying.
You can't expect a pair of 6 .5-inch diameter drivers to generate much in the way of low bass, and the Focals don't. But they do extend smoothly down to 120 Hz before beginning to roll off. Since I don't listen to much organ or contemporary urban music I don't mind the loss.
The bottom line for any system whether installed in a car, boat, airplane, or doublewide trailer is whether the sound system can get out of the way of the music. If you can become emotionally involved in the music without noticing the system's shortcomings then the system is doing its job. By these criteria, my new car stereo is a success. Fortunately it is not so much of a success that I've driven off the road while executing an air guitar solo or been broadsided in an intersection while singing along with "The Pirates of Penzance."
With the price of gasoline continuing to head skyward Americans' love affair with the gasoline-combustible motorcar may be lessening. But I suspect that within the next couple of years we'll have energy-efficient electric cars that promise to be even quieter. This lower noise floor will be more sonically benign so systems will sound even better. Until then I'm pretty happy with my under $1000 car stereo, even if I can't rattle teeth at 20 meters.