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The sound of music -- Buy what you like

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the best sound system for your new car is whatever pleases your eardrums best.

And don't be tricked into thinking the system that costs more is necessarily better than the standard installation.

The decision is not always easy. You may not be the type who demands an ultra-premium system like a wine connoisseur does the finest vintage. Nor do you want equipment so powerful it rattles the fillings in your teeth.

But you also don't want to pay all that money for a cool new car and realize a week later the sound stinks.

While the salesman extols the virtues of the upgraded system -- for a mere $1,200 more -- your dad is argues, "A radio is a radio."

It's a dilemma.

Don Lindich, an audio/video expert with 18 years of experience, has a surprising answer.

"The regular person often feels intimidated about wanting the basic system," he says. "Don't think because they charge more, it's necessarily better. Premium sound systems aren't always better than basic systems. A lot depends on personal preference."

Lindich is author of the advice column Multimedia Answers, appearing in newspapers around the country, and runs multimediaanswers.com. Yet, when he bought his 2003 Infiniti G35, he picked the basic system instead of taking the optional sound system made by Bose.


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"I thought the basic system sounded better than the Bose system," he says, "and I saved money, too."

His advice: Pick the system that sounds best to you.

Pick what you like
Here are some simple tips for finding the in-factory sound system that is best suited to you.

Bring several of your favorite CDs from home and try them out in the basic system of the vehicle you intend to buy. Try them in the upgrades, too.

  • Make sure the controls -- bass, treble, balance and fade -- all are at the midpoints.
  • Play the CD at the same volume you normally would. Listen to the basic system and premium system at the same volume.
  • Close the doors and windows and listen. If you can, take the car on the road to see how it sounds with road and wind noise. If it's a convertible, play the sound with the top down. If possible, listen for at least 20 minutes to see if listener fatigue sets in. "Most systems fall apart at volumes needed to overcome road noise," says Derek Lee, managing director of Mobile Dynamics, an accredited auto sound-system installation school in Toronto. When you get back to the car dealer, keep listening. If the sound then annoys you or makes you feel uncomfortable, the system is not for you.
  • Pick the system that sounds best to your ear and suits your needs. If you like CDs, get a CD player. If you have a lot of cassettes or enjoy audio books, choose one with a cassette player.

"If you think the upgrade sounds better and the price is affordable, get it," says Lindich. "Otherwise get the basic. But buy what your ear likes. This isn't brain surgery."

Distortion is the key
Lindich also advises the regular buyer not to get caught up in most of the specifications of a system except for the amplifier "distortion" level. Distortion is the harsh breakup of the sound as the volume is increased. If you hear the sound warping at the normal volume level you listen to, try a different system. The lower the distortion figure, the better. Outstanding sound systems produce as little as .1 percent distortion and anything less than 1 per cent is generally acceptable. If you see a figure higher than that, forget it. Unfortunately, it's sometimes difficult to get distortion ratings on manufacturer-installed equipment.

One inexpensive way to improve the sound quality of the in-factory system is to replace the speakers with better ones. Sometimes you can get this done for as little as $100.

Lindich recommends American brands such as Boston Acoustics, Polk Audio, JBL and Infinity as replacements. "American companies make the finest speakers in the world," he says.

That's a big savings over getting a premium sound system, often available only in vehicle models or packages costing thousands extra.

For instance, the Acura RSX sports a six-speaker radio/CD as basic. To get the Bose surround-sound eight-speaker system with radio/CD/cassette and satellite radio, you have to buy models that cost $5,000 to $10,000 more.

The Ford Expedition's basic four-speaker radio/CD/cassette player upgrades to a seven-speaker surround-sound system, but only if you pay $2,500 for a package upgrade.

Cadillac offers a seven or eight-speaker radio/CD/cassette system as standard in most models. The Bose eight-speaker system adds $1,275.

Now, before you go shopping, let's define some of those confusing technical buzzwords about sound systems:

Surround sound
Surround sound places speakers so that the listener is enveloped in sound. Usually, there are at least five speakers, two at the front, two on the sides and a subwoofer, which plays low bass, in the center.

There are two types of surround sound:

Matrix: This system picks up music recorded on two tracks, breaks up the sounds and distributes them to the five or more speakers. The Cadillac XLR and Volvo (with its Dolby Pro Logic) offer this sound system feature.

Discrete: These are capable of picking up five separately recorded soundtracks and sending them to different speakers. Dolby Digital equipment, found in movie theaters, is discrete surround sound. It also handles two-track recordings the way a matrix system does. Currently, no in-factory auto sound system has this feature, but it's coming in the near future. The 2004 Acura TL is the first car to sport the Pansonic's new ELS surround system which provides six independent and discrete channels of sound.

Digital Signal Processing
DSP is a sound manipulating system that gives an environmental background effect. Say you're listening to a football game. DSP adds an acoustic echo to give the feeling that you're sitting in a stadium. The premium in-factory systems in the 2003 Ford Explorers and Expeditions offer DSP.

A compact disc recorded with MP3s can hold at least 10 times the material recorded on a normal CD. MP3s can only be played on sound systems designed to play the compressed files. Cars that come with MP3 systems as standard equipment include the Pontiac Grand Am, Ford Ranger Edge, Honda Element EX, Ford Focus SE, Mazdaspeed Protégé, and the Bentley Continental R. The feature is optional in Mazda MPV LS, Chevrolet Cavalier LS, Hyundai Elantra GLS, Ford Mustang and Pontiac Montana.

-- Updated: Oct. 28, 2004

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