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Listen Up: Car Audio Tips & Trends

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author photo by Autotrader December 2007

In the nearly 80 years since the introduction of the first mass-produced car radio, an entire culture of automotive audiophiles has emerged. Technological advancements have impacted virtually every aspect of car audio and every driver as well, from the casual listener to the decibel fanatic. So even if you're not out to shake the neighborhood (or break the bank), there are plenty of car audio options to consider in the search for your most satisfying listening experience.

Gear for Your Ears
It's possible to upgrade most of the equipment in your factory-installed (or -stock-) audio system, starting with the most visible and interactive part - the head unit. A head unit typically contains a radio display, CD/Tape inputs, and numerous other features. Although splurging for a new head unit full of dancing lights may be tempting, it's crucial to do your homework beforehand. There is much variability between stock head units in size and shape, and choosing a drastically different unit may require major surgery. Also, many stock head units contain important non-audio features (e.g., climate control), so you'll want to make sure these features can remain intact.

If you crave better sound quality, or just more volume, new speakers can impact your system like nothing else. True audiophiles will often opt for component speaker sets. In contrast with many stock systems that have one full-range speaker type (or -driver-) do all the work, component sets include several drivers that each specialize in a different frequency range. For example, tweeters are small and best project high frequencies; sub woofers are larger and work with low frequencies. The impact of the sub woofer is felt more than heard, making it particularly significant for bass-heavy tunes.

As with head units, purchasing the right set of speakers requires a great deal of homework. Stock speakers come in all shapes and sizes, and knowing what you currently have will help to determine your options. A major increase in speaker power may also require upgrades elsewhere, so be prepared. Your musical preferences will also go a long way toward discovering what will work best for you, and remember that if your goal is a high-end system, you may not have to upgrade everything at once.

Going Digital?
Whether or not you're satisfied with how your current system sounds, you may still be interested in catching up with the newest trends in digital music. An entire sonic library can now fit within a pocket-sized device, but the finding the best way to take advantage of that in the car can be tricky. This section will focus on MP3s, though similar technologies (WMA or AAC files, for example) are also gaining popularity.

If you've built up a collection of MP3s but don't want to tote along your treasured MP3 player every time you hop in the car, your best option is burning your MP3s onto CDs. This can be time consuming, and CDs are still easily scuffed, but the payoff can be great. A regular blank CD can hold around 200 pop songs (or 10 symphonies), so at least your CD book will get thinner. However, remember that not all car CD players recognize every file type, so find out for sure before you get to burning.

If you're interested in hooking up your MP3 player to your car stereo, there are three basic ways to make it happen, though the ideal solution may still be on the horizon.

The first solution is a cassette adapter, which looks like a normal cassette tape with a cord attached to a headphone jack coming out of the side. Simply plug in to your MP3 player, pop in the tape, and you're ready to go. Unfortunately, two drawbacks exist: sound quality suffers with cassette adapters, and, of course, fewer and fewer head units are equipped with tape decks as time goes by. Luckily, there are other options to consider.

A similarly easy method is the purchase of an FM transmitter. Once you find a clear station, most FM transmitters are as simple as plug-and-play, and some MP3 players come with transmitters already built-in. Here too, however, are drawbacks. Sound quality can suffer even more than with tape adapters, especially if you live in a densely populated area with a crowded radio band. And even if you don't spend any time in the big city, FM transmitters will not produce the quality of sound you may be used to.

For optimal sound quality, your best option is making use of an auxiliary input on your head unit, but this may require some extra work. Auxiliary inputs on the front of the head unit are becoming more and more common in new car stereos, but if yours is an older model, the stereo may have to be removed to access the input. The cost of that would be greater than either of the first two quick-fix methods, but the improvement in sound quality will be worth it to serious listeners.

Satellite Radio
If you aren't willing to spend the time and money necessary to craft your dream collection of digital music, satellite radio is a great option. The two competing providers each charge a monthly fee, but free radio barely scratches the surface of the entertainment and variety that satellite radio affords. At least 120 channels (depending on the service you choose) are broadcast digitally to every corner of the continental US, so it's static-free, and every music station is commercial-free. Either satellite radio provider can outfit you with everything you need to either plug-and-play, or get a unit fixed in to your dash. This decision depends on whether you want to use your radio at home as well.

Do Your Homework
Constant technological innovations and the ongoing rise of digital music have already resulted in many exciting aural automotive experiences, and the best is yet to come. Several car manufacturers are already including docks for digital music players in their new vehicles, and others are sure to follow suit. Also, the growing popularity of other in-car multimedia experiences is sure to affect the audio realm as well, in the form of such technologies as DVD-Audio and Surround Sound.

For the time being, a wide variety of listening options exists to satisfy every listener and every budget. Remember, however, that what you have can determine your options just as much as what you want. Doing the proper research is the only way to prevent buying something you won't need, or can't use. If you're looking to replace your head unit or speakers, keep in mind that creating room for bigger equipment can be a costly operation. If you're looking into satellite radio or want to take your collection of digital music on the go, study all your options to find your ideal configuration. Everyone has their own individual listening habits, and your car audio setup can be as personal as your musical taste.

Happy listening!

© 2007 AutoTrader.com, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Listen Up: Car Audio Tips & Trends - Autotrader