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3. Components

This section describes various components that you can have in a car audio system, along with common specifications, desirable features, some of the best and worst brands, and so on.

Be aware that there is no standardized testing mechanism in place for rating car audio products. As such, manufacturers are open to exaggerating, "fudging", or just plain lying when it comes to rating their own products.

3.1 What do all of those specifications on speakers mean? [JSC, CD]  
3.2 Are component/separates any better than fullrange or coaxials? [JSC, DK]  
3.3 What are some good (and bad) brands of speakers? [JSC]  
3.4 What do all of those specifications on amplifiers mean? [JSC, BG]  
3.5 What does "bridging an amp" mean? [MHa]  
3.6 What is "mixed-mono?" Can my amp do it? [JSC, IDB]  
3.7 What does "two ohm stable" mean? What is a "high-current" amplifier? [JSC]  
3.8 Should I buy a two or four (or more) channel amplifier? [JSC]  
3.9 What are some good (and bad) brands of amplifiers? [JSC, IDB]  
3.10 What is a crossover? Why would I need one? [JSC]  
3.11 Should I get an active or a passive crossover? [JSC, JR]  
3.12 Should I buy an equalizer? [JSC]  
3.13 What are some good (and bad) brands of equalizers? [HK]  
3.14 What do all of those specifications on tape deck head units mean?  
3.15 What are features to look for in a tape deck?  
3.16 What are some good (and bad) brands of tape decks?  
3.17 What are features to look for in a CD head unit?  
3.18 Should I buy a detachable faceplate or pullout CD player? [IDB]  
3.19 What are some good (and bad) brands of CD head units? [HK]  
3.20 Can I use my portable CD player in my car? Won't it skip a lot? [JSC]  
3.21 What's that weird motor noise I get with my portable CD player? [JSC]  
3.22 What are some good (and bad) brands of portable CD players?  
3.23 What's in store for car audio with respect to MD, DAT and DCC? [HK]  
3.24 Are those FM modulator CD changers any good? What are my other options? [PW, JGr]  
3.25 What kind of changer will work with my factory head unit? [PO]  
3.26 What are some good (and bad) brands of CD changers?  
3.27 Why do I need a center channel in my car, and how do I do it? [HK, JSC]  
3.28 Should I buy a sound field processor? [DK]  
3.29 What are some good (and bad) brands of signal processors? [IDB]  
3.30 I keep hearing that speakers for Company X are made by Company Y. What's the deal? [IDB, DK]  
3.31 What is a Line Driver? Do I need one? [LC,IDB]  
3.32 Can I play MP3 files in my car? [AK]  


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3.1 What do all of those specifications on speakers mean? [JSC, CD]

Input sensitivity is the SPL the driver will produce given one watt of power as measured from one meter away given some input frequency (usually 1kHz unless otherwise noted on the speaker). Typical sensitivities for car audio speakers are around 90dB/Wm. Some subwoofers and piezo horns claim over 100dB/Wm. However, some manufacturers do not use true 1W tests, especially on low impedance subwoofers. Rather, they use a constant voltage test which produces more impressive sensitivity ratings.

Frequency response in a speaker refers to the range of frequencies which the speaker can reproduce within a certain power range, usually +/-3dB.

Impedance is the impedance of the driver See section 1.1 What do all of those acronyms mean? [JSC,MZ], typically 4 ohms, although some subwoofers are 8 ohms, some stock Delco speakers are 10 ohms, and some stock Japanese imports are 6 ohms.

Nominal power handling is the continuous power handling of the driver. This figure tells you how much power you can put into the driver for very long periods of time without having to worry about breaking the suspension, overheating the voice coil, or other nasty things.

Peak power handling is the maximum power handling of the driver. This figure tells you how much power you can put into the driver for very brief periods of time without having to worry about destroying it.


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3.2 Are component/separates any better than fullrange or coaxials? [JSC, DK]

Usually, yes. Using separates allows you to position the drivers independently and more carefully, which will give you greater control over your imaging. For best results, try to keep the mid and tweeter as close together as possible -- this will make the two drivers act more like a single point source (which is ideal).

For rear fill applications, however, coaxial speakers will perform fine, as imaging is not a primary concern. However, it is very common to use a low pass crossover with the rear speakers (at 2500 Hz) since rear-fill is intended to produce "ambiance," and high frequencies (> 2500 Hz) can confuse the soundstage, making it appear that music is originating behind you.


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3.3 What are some good (and bad) brands of speakers? [JSC]

People will emotionally defend their particular brand of speakers, so asking what the "best" is is not a good idea. Besides, the best speaker is the one which suits the application the best. In general, however, various people have claimed excellent experiences with such brands as Boston Acoustics, MB Quart, a/d/s/, and Polk. Also, most people agree that you should avoid brands like Sparkomatic and Kraco at all costs.


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3.4 What do all of those specifications on amplifiers mean? [JSC, BG]

Frequency response refers to the range of frequencies which the amplifier can reproduce within a certain power range, usually +/-3dB.

Continuous power output is the power output of the amplifier into one channel into a certain load (usually four ohms) below a certain distortion level (usually at most 1%THD) at a certain frequency (usually 1kHz). A complete power specification should include all of this information, e.g. "20W/ch into 4 ohms at < 0.03%THD at 1kHz" although this can also be stated as (and be assumed equivalent to) "20W/ch at < 0.03%THD". The amplifier should also be able to sustain this power level for long periods of time without difficulties such as overheating.

Peak power output is the power output of the amplifier into one channel into a certain load (usually four ohms) below a certain distortion level (usually much higher than the continuous rating level) at a certain frequency (usually 1kHz). A complete power specification should include all of this information, e.g. "35W/ch into 4 ohms at < 10.0%THD at 1kHz" although this can also be stated as (and be assumed equivalent to) "35Wch at < 10.0%THD". Consumer warning: some manufacturers will state the "peak power output" rating by including the amount of power which can be drawn from "headroom", which means power supply capacitors. They usually will not tell you this in the specification, however; indeed, they tend to prominently display the figure in big, bold letters on the front of the box, such as "MAXIMUM 200W PER CHANNEL!!!" when the continuous rating is 15W/ch and the unit has a 5A fuse.

Damping factor represents the ratio of the load being driven (that is, the speaker - usually four ohms) to the output impedance of the amplifier (that is, the output impedance of the transistors which drive the speakers). The lower the output impedance, the higher the damping factor. Higher damping factors indicate a greater ability to help control the motion of the cone of the speaker which is being driven. When this motion is tightly controlled, a greater transient response is evident in the system, which most people refer to as a "tight" or "crisp" sound. Damping factors above 100 are generally regarded as good.

Signal to Noise or S/N is the ratio, usually expressed in decibels, of the amount of true amplified output of the amplifier to the amount of extraneous noise injected into the signal. S/N ratios above 90 to 95dB are generally regarded as good.


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3.5 What does "bridging an amp" mean? [MHa]

Bridging refers to taking two channels of an amplifier and combining them to turn the amplifier into a one channel amplifier.

3.5.1 Why should I bridge my amp?  
3.5.2 Why shouldn't I bridge my amp?  
3.5.3 What happens when an amp is bridged?  
3.5.4 Does bridging an amp would halve the impedance of the speakers?  
3.5.5 Can I bridge my 4 channel head unit?  


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3.5.1 Why should I bridge my amp?

For increased power. If your amp can handle the load, it will put out more power through a bridged channel than it would into through a non-bridged channel. Theoretically, a "perfect" amplifier that puts out X watts into Y impedance into each of two channels will put out 4X watts into Y impedance into one bridged channel. Be aware that some amps more closely approximate that perfect amp than others, and some manufacturers build current limiters into their amps to allow them to remain stable into difficult loads at the expense of power gains.


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3.5.2 Why shouldn't I bridge my amp?

There are several reasons: you might need those extra channels; your amp might not be stable into the load your speakers present if the amp is bridged; you might be a hyper-perfectionist that can't stand the thought of an small increase in distortion; or perhaps you just don't need more power. Car audio power is relatively cheap, and if you are not trying to make a mega-gonzo system, you may not need to double your power.


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3.5.3 What happens when an amp is bridged?

Basically, one channel's signal is inverted, and then the two channels are combined to form one channel with twice the voltage of either of the original channels.

Ohm's Law for Alternating Current states that I = V/Z where I is current, V is voltage, and Z is impedance. We also know that P = IV, where P is power. If we use Ohm's Law and substitute into the power equation, we get P = V(V/Z), which can be rewritten as P = (V^2)/Z. Therefore, power is the square of voltage divided by impedance.

Now, why do we care about all that? Because it explains precisely what happens when an amp is bridged. I'll give a practical example and explain the theoretical basis of that example.

Imagine you have a two-channel amp that puts out 50 watts into each channel when driven into a load of 4 ohms per channel. Since we know P and Z, we can plug these numbers back into our power equation and find V. 50 = V^2/4 -> V = sqrt(200). So, we're seeing a voltage of 14.1 volts across each channel.

Now, imagine we bridge this amp, and use it to push just one of those 4 ohms loads. When the amp is bridged, the voltage is doubled. Since we know the voltage (2*14.1 volts), and the impedance (4 ohms), we can calculate power. Remember that P = V*V/Z. That means P = (28.2)^2/4, which is 198.1 watts. It should be clear by now that the new power is approximately 200 watts - quadruple the power of a single, unbridged channel!

You can probably see that should be the case, especially if you look back at the power equation. Since P = V*V/Z, if you double V, you quadruple power, since V is squared in the power equation.

Now, all this assumes the amp is stable into 4 ohms mono. The mono channel is putting out four times as much power as a single unbridged channel, so it must be putting out twice as much as the two single channels combined. Since the voltage on the supply side of the amp is dependent on the car's electrical system, it doesn't change (OK, the increased current might cause a voltage *drop*, but let's not worry about that now). Looking at the first power equation, at the supply side of the amp, we see P = IV. Now, when we bridged the amp, we doubled the power, but the input voltage stayed the same. So, if we hold V constant, the only way to double the power is to double the current.

That means the amp is now drawing twice as much current when it's running at a given impedance mono than it would be running two stereo channels at the same impedance. There are only two ways the amp can do that - it can simply draw more through it's circuits, and dissipate the extra heat, or it can utilize a current limiter, to prevent the increase in current. Of course, using the current limiter means you don't get the power gains, either! So, if the amp can't handle the extra current, and it doesn't limit the current in some way, kiss it goodbye. For that reason, an amp is typically considered mono stable into twice the impedance it is considered stereo stable.


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3.5.4 Does bridging an amp would halve the impedance of the speakers?

Impedance is a characteristic of the speakers. The speakers don't give a flip how the amp is configured: they have a given impedance curve, and that's that. It should be clear that when you bridge an amp, you are changing *the amp*. The speaker's impedance is *not* a function of the amp, but the amp's tolerance to a given impedance depends completely on the way the amp is configured. If you'll remember from section 4, an amp bridged into a given impedance draws twice as much current as it would if it were driving two separate channels, each at that impedance. So, a four ohm speaker stays a four ohm speaker, if it's hooked to one channel, a bridged channel, a toaster, or the wall socket. But, it is more stressful for the amp to drive any impedance bridged than unbridged.

So, why do people talk about the impedance halving? Well, it's a simple model that isn't correct but is easy to explain to people who don't know what's really going on. It goes like this: When you bridge the amp, each channel is "seeing" half the load presented to the amp. So, if you bridge an amp to 4 ohms, each channel "sees" 2 ohms. Therefore, each channel puts out twice as much power, and the combined output is quadruple a single channel at 4 ohms.

Why is that still wrong? Because each channel isn't really used as a single channel. You've used part of one channel, and an inverted part of another channel to create a totally new channel, the bridged channel. Also, there's no way for a channel to "see" only part of a circuit. If it's "seeing" half the speaker, it's "seeing" it all.

Second, it makes it awkward if people believe that the impedance is really, literally, changing. If you use that model, is it safe to run a 4 ohm mono stable amp into a 4 ohm speaker? It should be, but we just said the impedance halves, so that's now a 2 ohm speaker, and you can't use it. That's wrong, and confusing, and it makes people think they can't do things they really can.


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3.5.5 Can I bridge my 4 channel head unit?

Generally, NO. Unless the manuals that came with your head unit specifically state that your head unit can be bridged, then do NOT attempt it -- this could destroy the head unit's internal amplifier, and possibly void your warranty.


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3.6 What is "mixed-mono?" Can my amp do it? [JSC, IDB]

Some amplifiers which are both bridgeable and able to drive low impedance loads also allow you to use mixed-mono mode. This involves driving a pair of speakers in stereo mode as well as simultaneously driving a single speaker in bridged mono mode off of ONE pair of the amp's channels.

To do this, you connect the mono speaker (typically a subwoofer) to the amp as you normally would in bridged mode, and then connect the left and right stereo speakers to the left and right stereo channels, respectively.

However, for this to work, the amplifier must actually use both input channels in bridged mode. Many amplifiers, when placed in bridged mode, will simply "copy" and invert either the left or the right channel. This practice ensures high output to the mono speaker, but eliminates the possibility of mixed mono since you lose one channel.

It is VERY important to use passive crossovers when configuring your amplifier in mixed-mono mode in order to keep from overloading the amp. The reason almost all new amplifiers are able to run in mixed-mono mode (even if they are only 2-ohm stable) is that the impedance seen by each channel of the amplifier is the same across the entire frequency spectrum when using passive crossovers. Here's how it works: Take a typical 2-channel amplifier that is stable to 2 ohms (stereo) or 4 ohms (mono). When the subwoofer is connected with a low-pass crossover (at 100Hz, for example) then the amplifier "sees" a 2 ohm load on each of its channels (see 3.5) from 100Hz and down. When the full range speakers are connected with a high-pass crossover (at 125Hz, for example), the amplifier "sees" a 4 ohm load on each of its channels from 125Hz and up. The passive crossovers prevent the amplifier from seeing more than one speaker on either channel at any given frequency. Of course, between the two crossover points the amp DOES see more than one speaker (and therefore the load on the amp dips to 1.33 ohms when using 4 ohms speakers).

A graph of impedance vs frequency for ONE channel of an amplifier would look similar to this when using 3 4-ohm speakers and crossover points at 100Hz(LP) and 200Hz (HP):

 
  +-----------------------------------------------------------+
  |                   ****************************************| 4
  |                  *                                        |  
  |                 *                                         | 
  |*************   *                                          | 2
  |             * *                                           | 
  |              *                                            | 
  |                                                           | 1
  |                                                           | 
  |                                                           | 
  +^-----^-----^-----^-----^-----^-----^-----^-----^-----^---^+ 0
   25    50   100   200   400   800  1.6K  3.15K 6.3K 12.5K 20K


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3.7 What does "two ohm stable" mean? What is a "high-current" amplifier? [JSC]

An X-ohm stable amplifier is an amp which is able to continuously power loads of X ohms per channel without encountering difficulties such as overheating. Almost all car amplifiers are at least four ohm stable. Some are two ohm stable, which means that you could run a pair of four ohm speakers in parallel on each channel of the amplifier, and each channel of the amp would "see" two ohms. Some amps are referred to as high-current, which is a buzzword which indicates that the amp is able to deliver very large (relatively) amounts of current, which usually means that it is stable at very low load impedances, such as 1/4 or 1/2 of an ohm. Note that the minimum load rating (such as "two ohm stable") is a stereo (per channel) rating. In bridged mode, the total stability is the sum of the individual channels' stability See section 3.5 What does "bridging an amp" mean? [MHa].


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3.8 Should I buy a two or four (or more) channel amplifier? [JSC]

If you only have one line-level set of outputs available, and wish to power two sets of speakers from a single amplifier, you may be able to save money by purchasing a two channel amplifier which is stable to two ohms rather than spending the extra money for a four channel amp. If you do this, however, you will be unable to fade between the two sets of speakers (without additional hardware), and the damping factor of the amplifier will effectively be cut in half. Also, the amp may run hot and require fans to prevent overheating. If you have the money, a four channel amp would be a better choice. You would need to add a dual-amp balancer in order to maintain fader capability, however, but it is more efficient than building a fader for a two channel amp. If you wish to power a subwoofer or additional speakers as well, you may want to purchase a five or six channel amp.


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3.9 What are some good (and bad) brands of amplifiers? [JSC, IDB]

As with speakers, people emotionally defend their amplifier, so choosing the best is difficult. However, some brands stand out as being consistently good while others are consistently bad. Among the good are HiFonics, Phoenix Gold, a/d/s/, and Precision Power.

Generally, "good" amplifiers tend to cost more (in money/watt) than "bad" amplifiers. So when you see an amp advertising 300W for only $100, and are comparing an amp with 50W for $300, you will usually find that the 50W/$300 amp will be of much higher quality than the 300W/$100 amp.


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3.10 What is a crossover? Why would I need one? [JSC]

A crossover is a device which filters signals based on frequency. A high pass crossover is a filter which allows frequencies above a certain point to pass unfiltered; those below that same point still get through, but are attenuated according to the crossover slope. A low pass crossover is just the opposite: the lows pass through, but the highs are attenuated. A band pass crossover is a filter that allows a certain range of frequencies to pass through while attenuating those above and below that range.

There are passive crossovers, which are collections of purely passive (non-powered) devices - mainly capacitors and inductors and sometimes resistors. There are also active crossovers which are powered electrical devices. Passive crossovers are typically placed between the amplifier and the speakers, while active crossovers are typically placed between the head unit and the amplifier. There are a few passive crossovers on the market which are intended for pre-amp use (between the head unit and the amplifier), but the cutoff frequencies (also known as the "crossover point", defined below) of these devices are not typically well-defined since they depend on the input impedance of the amplifier, which varies from amplifier to amplifier.

There are many reasons for using crossovers. One is to filter out deep bass from relatively small drivers. Another is to split the signal in a multi-driver speaker so that the woofer gets the bass, the midrange gets the mids, and the tweeter gets the highs.

Crossovers are categorized by their order and their crossover point. The order of the crossover indicates how steep the attenuation slope is. A first order crossover "rolls off" the signal at -6dB/octave (that is, quarter power per doubling or halving in frequency). A second order crossover has a slope of -12dB/octave; third order is -18dB/octave; etc. The crossover point is generally the frequency at which the -3dB point of the attenuation slope occurs. Thus, a first order high pass crossover at 200Hz is -3dB down at 200Hz, -9dB down at 100Hz, -15dB down at 50Hz, etc.

It should be noted that the slope (rolloff) of a crossover, as defined above, is only an approximation. This issue will be clarified in future revisions of this document.

The expected impedance of a passive crossover is important as well. A crossover which is designed as -6dB/octave at 200Hz high pass with a 4 ohm driver will not have the same crossover frequency with a driver which is not 4 ohms. With crossovers of order higher than one, using the wrong impedance driver will wreak havoc with the frequency response. Don't do it.


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3.11 Should I get an active or a passive crossover? [JSC, JR]

Active crossovers are more efficient than passive crossovers. A typical insertion loss (power loss due to use) of a passive crossover is around 0.5dB. Active crossovers have much lower insertion losses, if they have any loss at all, since the losses can effectively be negated by adjusting the amplifier gain. Also, with some active crossovers, you can continuously vary not only the crossover point, but also the slope. Thus, if you wanted to, with some active crossovers you could create a high pass filter at 112.3Hz at -18dB/octave, or other such things.

However, active crossovers have their disadvantages as well. An active crossover may very well cost more than an equivalent number of passive crossovers. Also, since the active crossover has separate outputs for each frequency band that you desire, you will need to have separate amplifiers for each frequency range. Furthermore, since an active crossover is by definition a powered device, the use of one will raise a system's noise floor, while passive crossovers do not insert any additional noise into a system.

Many people find it advantageous to use both active and passive crossovers. Often, a separate amp is dedicated to the subwoofers, to give them as much power as possible. The other amplifier is used to power the mids and tweeters. In this scheme, an active crossover is used to send only the sub-bass frequencies to the sub amp, and the other frequencies to the other amp. The passive crossovers are used to send the correct frequencies to the individual speakers (e.g., mids and tweeters).

Thus, if you have extra money to spend on an active crossover and separate amplifiers, and are willing to deal with the slightly more complex installation and possible noise problems, an active crossover is probably the way to go. However, if you are on a budget and can find a passive crossover with the characteristics you desire, go with a passive.


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3.12 Should I buy an equalizer? [JSC]

Equalizers are normally used to fine-tune a system, and should be treated as such. Equalizers should not be purchased to boost one band 12dB and to cut another band 12dB and so on - excessive equalization is indicative of more serious system problems that should not simply be masked with an EQ. However, if you need to do some minor tweaking, an EQ can be a valuable tool. Additionally, some EQs have spectrum analyzers built in, which makes for some extra flash in a system. There are two main kinds of EQs available today: dash and trunk. Dash EQs are designed to be installed in the passenger compartment of a car, near the head unit. They typically have the adjustments for anywhere from five to eleven (sometimes more) bands on the front panel. Trunk EQs are designed to be adjusted once and then stashed away. These types of EQs usually have many bands (sometimes as many as thirty). Both types sometimes also have crossovers built in.


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3.13 What are some good (and bad) brands of equalizers? [HK]

Generally, companies that produce 1/3 octave (30 band) and 2/3 octave (15 band) equalizers are good. These include AudioControl, USD, Rane, Phoenix Gold. Most people try to stay away from equalizers that contain a "booster;" these are made by Kraco, Urban Audio Works and others.


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3.14 What do all of those specifications on tape deck head units mean?


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3.15 What are features to look for in a tape deck?


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3.16 What are some good (and bad) brands of tape decks?


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3.17 What are features to look for in a CD head unit?


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3.18 Should I buy a detachable faceplate or pullout CD player? [IDB]

It is getting difficult to find pullout CD players any more, since detachable faceplates are much more convenient to carry around. However, there is the obvious trade off -- it is still possible to steal the chassis for the detachable face unit, when that is not possible with a pullout. Although some companies will advertise that it is very difficult to get replacement faces without the original receipt, thieves can still get the faceplates.

Some companies, such as Eclipse, are starting to offer alternative methods for preventing theft. Some Eclipse decks now offer ESN (Eclipse Security Network), where the owner chooses a "key" CD that must be inserted to "revive" the deck should it lose power. The entire deck stays in the dash, with nothing to carry around; this expands on the trend towards convenience while offering the owner peace of mind.


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3.19 What are some good (and bad) brands of CD head units? [HK]

Generally, Alpine, Clarion, Eclipse, McIntosh, Phillips and Pioneer are considered to produce good quality CD head units. They all have their problems, but these brands seem to be common and relatively problem-free.

Bad brands include Kraco, Radio Shack, Rockwood and other "bargain" brands.


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3.20 Can I use my portable CD player in my car? Won't it skip a lot? [JSC]

You can use any portable CD player in a car provided that you have either an amplifier with line level inputs (preferred) or a tape deck. If you have the former, you can simply buy a 1/8" headphone jack to RCA jack adapter and plug your CD player directly into your amplifier. If you have the latter, you can purchase a 1/8" headphone jack to cassette adapter and play CDs through your tape deck. The cassette adapters tend to be far more convenient; however, there is a significant tradeoff: by using cassette adapters, you limit your sound to the frequency response of the tape head, which is sometimes as much as an entire order of magnitude worse than the raw digital material encoded onto the CD itself.

Portable CD players which were not designed for automotive use will tend to skip frequently when used in a car (relatively). CD players that are specially designed for automotive use, such as the Sony Car Discman, tend to include extra dampening to allow the laser to "float" across the bumps and jolts of a road. Some people have indicated success with using regular portable CD players in a car when they place the CD player on a cushion, such as a thick shirt or even on their thighs.


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3.21 What's that weird motor noise I get with my portable CD player? [JSC]

Many people report problems while playing CDs from a portable CD player into their car audio systems. The problem, stated very simply, has to do with the stepping of the motor requiring a varying amount of current and non-isolated power and audio signal grounds. Using a liberal application of capacitors and inductors, this voltage variance can be restricted to a window of 8.990 to 9.005V for a 9V CD player, yet even the swing between these two levels is enough to cause annoyingly loud noise on the outputs. It has been reported that this entire problem can be solved by using a true DC-DC inverter at the power input to the CD player.


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3.22 What are some good (and bad) brands of portable CD players?


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3.23 What's in store for car audio with respect to MD, DAT and DCC? [HK]

MiniDisc (MD) seems to have a better future than Digital Audio Tape (DAT) or Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) which don't seem to have appeal to the public. Ease of use seems to be an important factor and the CD formats allows direct access to musical tracks at an instant. Although MD doesn't match the sound quality of the standard CDs it will probably be popular since the players have a buffer to eliminate skipping. DAT will remain as a media for ProAudio for recording purposes before pressing CDs.


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3.24 Are those FM modulator CD changers any good? What are my other options? [PW, JGr]

Almost all manufacturers offer an FM modulator for their changers. As with all equipment, some are good and some are not. A person thinking about using an FM modulator must take into consideration that the sound quality will only be as good as the tuner in your head unit. Also, FM is limited in its frequency response. There is usually a noticeable loss of the high frequencies, due to the nature of transmitting via FM.

If you do not want to use an FM Modulated CD changer, some manufacturers make controllers for changers that feature line-level (RCA) outputs. This allows you to connect the changer directly to an amplifier, bypassing the stock system altogether. Some models offer line-level inputs, allowing you to connect the stock system to the changer (so you can continue to use your radio/tape). Clarion, Sony, and Kenwood make such units.

Your third option is to use the aftermarket changer that corresponds to the stock unit in your car. Not all cars have this option, but it is becoming easier. See section 3.25 What kind of changer will work with my factory head unit? [PO].


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3.25 What kind of changer will work with my factory head unit? [PO]

Many factory head units these days have the ability to control a remotely mounted cd changer. Generally, the head will have a button labelled "CD" to switch sources to the external changer. In this mode either the radio preset buttons and/or the tuner up/down buttons will control which CD and/or track is playing. Check your car's manual to make sure your head can control a changer and how the buttons work.

Once you know your head can control a changer, you wonder "What kind of changer will work with my factory head unit?" Of course, the one the dealer wants to sell you will work. However, the dealer makes lots of money selling you a changer, and there are often other after-market solutions, usually involving an adapter cable and a name-brand changer. The dealer will tell you that their solution is better and that's why it costs so much more (often more than twice as much as an aftermarket solution).

The car manufacturers are constantly changing the interfaces between their heads and changers, in an effort to get you to buy their solution. However, the after-market is constantly reverse-engineering the interfaces and providing alternative solutions for the cost-conscious consumer.

Two companies that make such adapters are Precision Interface Electronics (or PIE, http://www.pie.net) and Peripheral Interface Components (http://www.stinger-aamp.com/peripheral/s-ind.htm). Check their web sites to see if there's an adapter for your car's factory head. They also list which changer(s) will work with their adapters.

For example, many of Honda's late-model heads were made for them by Alpine, so the OEM changer you'd pay your friendly Honda dealer ~$700 for is essentially the same as Alpine's changers. The only difference is the interface wiring, where they swapped two pins, specifically so you'd have to get it from the dealer. (If you're interested in the details, see http://integra.cyberglobe.net/caraudio/diagrams/DIN.html). The after-market adapters for this head simply swap the pins back, so you can use the regular Alpine changer, which can be bought for ~$300.

Once you know which adapter/changer combo will work, you can get it from your local car audio dealer or favorite mail order place. The advantage of getting it from a local dealer is that they'll be able to install it for you. However, if you have the time and are at all mechanically inclined, you should readily be able to install it yourself.


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3.26 What are some good (and bad) brands of CD changers?

You will find that those companies who make high-quality in-dash CD players will also make good CD changers. See section 3.19 What are some good (and bad) brands of CD head units? [HK], for a list.


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3.27 Why do I need a center channel in my car, and how do I do it? [HK, JSC]

If a proper center image isn't achievable via a two channel configuration, installation of a center channel can help. Since the majority of recordings are done in two channel, a two channel system designed correctly should be able to reproduce a center image which was captured during recording. A center channel is not simply a summation of the left and right channels, like bridging an amplifier; rather, it is an extraction of common signals from the left and right channels. This usually means the lead vocals, and perhaps one or two instruments. These signals will then be localized to the center of the stage, instead of perhaps drifting between the left center and right center of the stage. A signal processor is usually required in order to properly create a center channel image. The image should then be sent to a driver in the physical center of the front of the car, at an amplification level somewhat lower than the rest of the speakers. The correct frequency range and power levels will depend on the particular installation, though a good starting point is perhaps a pass band of 250-3000Hz at an amplification level of half the power of the main speakers (3dB down).


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3.28 Should I buy a sound field processor? [DK]

Sound field processors (also known as DSPs) are fun toys to play with, and can have some use, but it is generally good to keep the KISS principle in mind: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

The fewer signal processors (this includes equalizers, and active crossovers) that are in your system, the less chance there will be for noise to enter your system. You'll also save money, have a lower noise floor. Surround sound processors and bass regenerators are nothing more than bells and whistles and are totally superfluous in a properly designed system.


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3.29 What are some good (and bad) brands of signal processors? [IDB]

If you do decide to buy a signal processor, try to stick with reputable brands like: AudioControl, Clark, Crystal-Line, Phoenix Gold, Rane or Clarion. Try to stay away from brands such as Petras, Urban Audio Works and Kraco.


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3.30 I keep hearing that speakers for Company X are made by Company Y. What's the deal? [IDB, DK]

Many of the speakers you've ever purchased or ever will purchase have been assembled in plants "along side" speakers from other manufacturers, but that does NOT imply in any way, shape or form whatsoever that the two brands are even VAGUELY similar. This is often done in order to reduce costs because purchasing your own gaussing stations and mass producing your own drivers takes a LOT of money to implement.


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3.31 What is a Line Driver? Do I need one? [LC,IDB]

A line driver is a device that amplifies a signal, such as the low-level signal output from a head unit. Line drivers are made to amplify the line level signal to as much as 10 volts or higher. This, of course, is useless unless the receiving end can handle 10 volts as input. To solve this problem, there are line receivers which bring the line level voltage down from 10 volts or more to about 1 volt. Usually, the line driver and receiver are placed as close to the sending signal source and destination as possible, to minimize noise pick up.

The automobile is an inherently noisy electrical environment. So RCA cables may pick up noise as it makes its way to the amplifier. Note that noise here refers to the induced noise, not ground loop noise such as engine whine. A simple way to fight against this noise is to make the signal level carried in the RCA cable very high, thus increasing the signal's resistance to induced noise and resulting in a higher signal to noise ratio at the destination of the RCA cable. Most head units produce a fairly low output voltage (< 1.5 V), although recently high end head units advertise 4 volt or higher output, and won't usually need a line driver.

The line driver will increase dynamic range in certain cases where excessive noise is masking the lower level signals. However, a line driver will not increase the dynamic range when used in a system with little noise to begin with.

There is some truth to the claim that a line driver will let you play your stereo louder since there are cases where the amplifier still doesn't play at its full potential even when its gain is turned all the way up and the volume on the head unit is maxed out. Adding a line driver here will allow you to turn down the gain on the amp while using a lower volume setting on the head unit.

But before you jump in with both feet, remember that all electronics has their own inherent noise. Thus if you don't have a serious case of induced noise, a line driver will do little good since it might add enough noise to offset what little noise it "takes away."

The line driver is a patch to the noise problem rather than a fix so it is still not the ultimate solution. My personal experience has shown to ME that a properly installed system with none-malfunctioning components will have little noise, even if you use low grade components such as those made by the less desirable manufactures. Also, a lot of crossovers and EQ units have rather high low-level output signals. Some times as high as 8 volts. So be sure to take this into consideration.


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3.32 Can I play MP3 files in my car? [AK]

In a few short years several products have hit the mainstream which enable consumers to use digital music files instead of relying on fixed media like tapes and CDs. The most popular format is MPEG Layer 3 or simply MP3. Most aftermarket manufacturers produce at least one product which will allow you to play MP3 files that have been copied to a CD-R or CD-R/W, and to do so without converting the MP3 files into CD Audio format. Some of these units will also play other formats, such as WMA (Window Media Audio), or Ogg Vorbis.

Another option which is often less expensive is to use a portable music player such as Apple's iPod or the Creative Nomad, and to use an inexpensive FM modulator to broadcast the player's audio output over FM radio. Then, you simply tune your headunit to the proper FM station to listen to your music. The downside of this is that your overal sound quality is limited not by the encoding of the file, but by the capability of FM radio, which is significantly less than audiophile quality.


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This document was generated by Ian D. Bjorhovde on February, 7 2006 using texi2html