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Wired for sound

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday February 4, 2011

Rod Easdown

The car stereo isn't what it used to be. Rod Easdown navigates a brave new world. The compact disc player is destined to disappear from the car. The latest and greatest aftermarket entertainment systems have already ditched the technology and experts predict it won't be long before vehicle manufacturers follow suit.The car product manager at Pioneer, Australia's biggest in-car entertainment brand, gives CDs just five more years, 10 at the most."In a few years, less than half the people listening to music in their cars will have any use for CDs," Daniele Mariani says.He believes the future lies in Pioneer's Media Centre Receiver, a device that accepts inputs from SD and SDHC cards, USB drives, iPods, iPhones or any other electronic music player.It has Bluetooth. There's a radio tuner. It gives you full control over your iPod from the dash and it can also be controlled by an iPod.The name of the game is flexibility and portability, rather than storage capacity.Expensive mega-storage devices have largely flopped because buyers want their music in an affordable package.Big hard drives cost from $3500 to $5000, good media centres are available from about $400.Compatibility with iPod and iPhone is a must, and not just because these products dominate their categories - they provide access to whiz-bang applications. Pioneer is about to launch App Mode, which will give users access to iPhone apps in the car.With their long product development lead times, car companies are struggling to keep up with the pace of change when it comes to in-car entertainment and, as a result, are making it harder to upgrade to an aftermarket unit.Many factory original audio systems these days are no longer simple boxes that slip out of the dash to be replaced by a unit of the same dimensions. They are integrated into the dash.But the aftermarket suppliers are ever-resilient and have come up with a range of dash fascia kits and electronic gizmos to get around all this. Some can even ensure that existing steering-wheel controls will operate the new system successfully.Having a popular car helps but there's far wider availability than ever. "A few years ago we had lots of problems but now there are devices available for far more cars," upmarket installer Juerg Nydegger, of Auto Acoustics in St Peters, Sydney, says."I'm currently working on an Alfa 159. Two years ago I wouldn't have been able to touch it."But car makers are fighting back. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota unveiled what it calls Entune, a multimedia centre that offers audio streaming, traffic reports, roadside assistance, weather and such delicacies as restaurant and entertainment bookings, movie tickets, maps, sports scores and stock quotes. Toyota says Entune will be available in the US market this year on some models.But in many respects it's only playing catch up with Ford's Sync, also operational with apps for smartphones, and BMW's Connected, both available in the US. More are to come from other brands and General Motors is expanding its On-Star service accordingly.Software updates can be delivered from time to time. But if you haven't shopped for in-car entertainment for a few years, the biggest change you'll notice isn't the technology, it's the pricing.You can get a great media centre for $500, a CD player complete with a 50-watt by four channel power chip for $150 and an overhead DVD player with a generous screen, a remote and a couple of pairs of headphones for $1000, all from good brands.Nydegger says the hot product among music buffs right now is a digital processor from Audison called the Bit One.It takes the signal from the head unit and cleans up any interference to yield a rich, pure signal to the speakers. It can also flatten out factory pre-set equaliser settings."Otherwise it's all about Bluetooth and iPods or iPhones," he says. "There are compatibility problems from time to time but mostly we have them sorted out."Jay Ariti from Xtreme Car Audio in Blacktown says touchscreen systems and stand-alone roof-mount DVD systems have become very popular within the family market. But the number of people spending serious dollars is dropping, he says."We would only see two or three customers a year spending between $10,000 and $20,000."DIGITAL RADIODigital radio has been a slow starter in Australia. In cars it's practically non-existent. Digital transmissions started pumping in mid-2009, bringing better sound quality and flexibility. So why isn't it selling?A couple of reasons, say industry insiders. The first is that the big brands launched a swag of products in Europe to discover the buyers weren't interested. Hence their caution here. The second is reception. Digital tends to be all or nothing. When you're receiving it, it's great but when you're not it's gone entirely.UPGRADINGMost people make a mistake when they upgrade original audio. They replace the head unit that gizmo in the dash with the radio tuner and the CD.The truth is, in terms of sonic performance there isn't much difference between a cheap head unit and an expensive one. Replacing the factory original seldom improves sound quality.Your first step should be to replace the speakers. Car companies buy the cheapest speakers they can get away with and hide them behind expensive-looking grilles. In some cases the speakers cost a couple of dollars each. They have tiny magnets, thin, fragile cones and a power-handling capacity on par with Sarah Palin.Replace them with decent speakers, which cost about $100 to $150 a pair. The improvement in sound quality will be palpable. So good, in fact, that you may be happy to call it quits there. If not, add power with an external amplifier and chuck in a subwoofer, not necessarily to turn the car into a doof-doof machine, but to counter road and engine noise.THE GOOD,THE BAD ...Bose really started something when it put its name on car audio systems. In the past decade a host of prestige audio brands have turned up in cars, Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufsen, JBL, Dynaudio, McIntosh, Harman/Kardon, Rockford Fosgate, Burmester and Mark Levinson among them. Even Fender has got in on the act. Some are good but others, well, their folk know more about home audio.We've heard some great Bose systems but we've also heard some shockers, among the worst in the current Nissan 370Z. And Audi's premium B&O system, complete with tweeters that lift out of the dash, struggles to justify its breathtaking price.Then again, the performance of the optional B&O processor/speaker package in premium Audis is excellent.Harman's Logic7 (used by Mercedes-Benz) and Levinson systems in Lexus RX 350 and IS F are among the best factory-original systems we've heard. Honourable mentions go to Volvo's Dynaudio package and Jaguar's B&W system.Alpine's premium electronics and speakers remain unmatched by anything we've heard.HISTORYCar radios began appearing in cars in the 1920s but well into the 1950s they were still a luxury fitting: a good quality AM-only unit with five mechanical push-buttons for station selection cost as much as 10 per cent of the price of a Holden. So would you pay $3000 for an AM radio?It was only when Japanese brands charged into Australia in the 1960s that radios became standard equipment.In-car entertainment really didn't start cranking up until a decade later when cassette players turned up. They weren't the only tape players in cars.In the mid-1960s Bill Lear, the maker of the Learjet, invented an in-cabin entertainment system built around a tape module the size of a book, carrying a long loop of quarter-inch tape. Called the eight-track, it was quickly picked up because of its excellent sound quality.It led to a curious and short-lived offshoot, the Quadraphonic system championed by JVC. This used the same tape modules but provided genuine surround sound with a speaker in each corner.Car companies were tediously slow to make CD players a standard fitment, some brands keeping them optional for 15 years after the birth of the format, but they have been fast to embrace premium sound systems, probably because of the premium margins involved.GETTING SOUND RIGHTIt's hard to get concert-hall sound in a car; cabin acoustics are terrible. There are hard plastics and glass that reflect and brighten sound, making it harsh and sharp, and there's carpet and upholstery that swallows it up. And cabin acoustics can be altered when someone gets in. Now throw in road and mechanical noise.But Phil Muzio, the man behind the Mark Levinson systems in Lexus, says there are two big advantages in designing a car system over a home system. Firstly, he knows the exact dimensions of the listening space and secondly, he knows where everyoneis sitting.Equalisation can therefore be used to boost dead spots, reduce bright spots and for electronic time alignment.Muzio says carmakers are cottoning on to quality sound."Now they understand how to get a good result they're beginning to design systems from the ground up that sound really good," he says.

© 2011 Sydney Morning Herald

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