Buckle up. You may not be able to go very fast on America's highways anymore, what with speed laws intended to prevent everything from death to running out of gas, but you can go loud. Some of today's latest auto-sound equipment is designed to play so loud, in fact, that it can blow you out of your seat, and the sound is so clean you'll swear Elvis Costello climbed into your back seat at the last stoplight.
By the way, for my taste, the car is by far the best place to listen to music – outside of a concert hall. I mean, you can really crank it up. Runnin' down the road at fifty-five mph, you have no neighbors banging on ceilings and walls to get you to turn it down! And in that little acoustical environment, it sounds more like you're up onstage with the performer than down in the audience somewhere.
Car-stereo systems have come a long way since the early Sixties, when a fellow who called himself Madman Muntz began the whole craze by selling shiny chrome four-track-stereo tape machines complete with four-inch speakers for $29.95. Today, some manufacturers make equipment that rivals many of the components you can buy for your home. The retail sales action is at what the industry calls "the high end." That means people who are buying car-stereo units are opting for the best products they can afford. It also means that manufacturers, hoping to cash in on a boom, are turning out high-end car-stereo gear in unprecedented quantities. Consequently, you have a lot to choose from.
A word of caution is in order, however. The car-stereo industry's commitment to high fidelity is only a recent phenomenon. And only a certain number of suppliers are truly committed to providing real hi-fi for the car. There are some schlock-sters out there trying to capitalize on accelerating car-stereo sales by claiming huge power outputs and ultralow distortion specs for their systems. It ain't always so. Make sure the specification sheet carries the note: "Rated according to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or Institute of High Fidelity (IHF) standards," or something to that effect. The reputable makers are concerned about misrepresentation and have begun to use the same FTC standards employed by the home hi-fi industry for measuring car equipment.
That said, we can begin our search for the ultimate in buggy boogie. There's a lot of good equipment out there at all price ranges, but we're going for the top – that's where the real mind-boggling sound comes from. We'll start this expedition where the signal begins: the radio or tape player – usually a combination of both – that generates the music which eventually, amplified and equalized, reaches your ears.
Custom installers around the country seem to have a particular affinity for the Concord HP 100 combination cassette deck and AM/FM stereo radio. Priced at about $200, it is an indash unit featuring automatic ejection at the end of the tape.
Grundig, a German company, has just introduced its GCM-8200, with a motorized cassette-loading system, for around $280. It also features an autoreverse mechanism.
The new top of Clarion's line features an automatic scanning device that searches out stations and holds them for five seconds while you decide if you want to listen. It also has tenstation electronic push-button tuning. It's priced at $469.95.
Other source units that have the experts intrigued are the top-of-the-line Jensen receiver, the R 430, for $469.95 and the Marantz CAR-420 ($399.95).
Sanyo's newest source unit, available this summer, is the FT2200 with a sendust-alloy head so it can accommodate the new metal-particle tape, for $329.95.
For the ultimate in car sound, however, the trick is to ask your installer to disconnect the preamp and amplifier stages these units contain. To get superclean, window-popping sound in your car, you need to add a separate preamp and power amp. The reason is that the small size of car-stereo source units precludes the use of the kind of circuitry you need for real high-fidelity sound.
The preamp and power amp duos most commonly mentioned by auto-sound installers come from Fosgate and Audio-Mobile. In fact, many people feel Audio Mobile is responsible for starting the whole trend toward hi-fi for the car. Founded by a guy named Paul Stary, the company was exclusively dedicated to making car equipment built to the same exacting standards that are used for home components. Today the firm is owned by hi-fi veteran Advent.
AudioMobile's top preamp is the SP300A. It features on-off, volume and tone controls, and retails for $149.95. Besides those controls, the preamp does nothing but boost the signal coming from the source unit high enough so the power amp can take over.
The companion amp to the SP300A is the SA2000, which boasts 100 watts per channel. Total harmonic distortion for the pair is said to measure less than 0.05 percent. The SA2000's price is $349.95.
Fosgate's entry is the PR 250 matching preamp/power amp system. It is rated at 100 watts per channel with less than 0.07 percent total harmonic distortion, Price: $329.95.
None of these products is any good without the speakers to pump out the sound. The best of the easy-to-install speaker systems, the experts say, is EPI's LS 70A, for $150 a pair. Mounted on its own baffle board, you need only cut a large enough hole in your rear deck to install it. The LS-35, a mid- and high-frequency system for mounting in the front of the car, is a new addition to the system. It's priced at $75 a pair.
To get the penultimate in speaker performance for your car, however, you'll need to put it in the hands of a top-flight installer. There aren't many around because it's a relatively new business, so before you do anything, check the guy out thoroughly. Ask for the names of people who've already used his services. When those guys start cuttin' and boltin', there's no turning back. The best of them, however, are absolute sound fanatics, and they'll tune your car's interior like a good speaker designer builds a fine loudspeaker cabinet.
To illustrate how these people work, let's take the example of AudioCraft, a custom sound installer and maker of power amps in Garden Grove, California. Run by a couple of veterans of the old AudioMobile days and a Kenworth truck dealer in Southern California, AudioCraft will turn your car into a sound room. First they rip out a car's rear deck and reinforce it with two layers of three-quarter-inch plywood. Then they install a pair of ten-inch woofers made by Audax, a French manufacturer.
Next, they reinforce the car's quarter panels alongside the back seat and put in a pair of three-inch midrange speakers from Audax or three-by-five inch drivers from Philips. For the highs, the AudioCraft technicians choose a pair of Philips tweeters with ten-ounce magnets and soft-dome construction.
If your car lacks a rear deck and quarter panels, AudioCraft will build a custom speaker box wherever they can fit it. Of course, that cuts down on your luggage space, but you're after the ultimate in sound, right?
I haven't given prices for the individual components in this system because they're a little difficult to find if you're not a professional installer. But figure the job will cost you anywhere from $750 to $1000, depending on your car.
How does this whole thing sound when you finally get it into your car? Well, it's a little hard to describe sound, but a woman I know in L.A. has a Concord AudioMobile/AudioCraft system built into her BMW 320i, and she swears people standing fifty feet away can hear the bass. Her installer says the system is capable of producing 130 decibels at the bass frequency of 30 hertz, and that's enough to make your hair blow around even if you can only go fifty-five mph.