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A Stereo Overview by a Monaural Guy

Published on Wed, Dec 9, 1987

By: Len Frank

Len Frank on the state of vehicle audio, sometime in the late 1980s…

When the first AM radios were installed in autos in the late 1920s, it was a thrill just to have them work. Radios—now more properly portable entertainment centers—have advanced as much as the automobiles themselves. The real breakthrough came with affordable solid-state circuitry which allowed the sets to be far more compact and durable.

State-of-the-art has progressed from the tinny sound of those original radios through front-rear, then left-right speakers, then FM that helped eliminate certain kinds of interference, finally to 8-track tape players, cassette decks, real stereo with graphic equalizers, remote controls, water-cooled amplifiers, multiple amplifiers, and finally, compact disc players. Where technology is concerned, there is never a final word. The preceding really covers only the original equipment stereo field. The aftermarket has taken technology several steps further.

The autoradio aftermarket originally occupied the lowest-priced levels. New car dealers ordered their cars without radios, then installed the cheapest units available to either increase their profits or give themselves a competitive price advantage. Radios, usually with a self contained speaker, hung under the dash or hid behind a chrome face plate that matched nothing else in or on the car. In deluxe installations, there was a second speaker in the parcel shelf behind the rear seat and a fader control to adjust the balance between the two. From this level comes the modern aftermarket—in many way the exact opposite of its cheapskate beginnings.

Original equipment (OE) sound systems have improved vastly in quality and features. There are a few very basic price leaders, but just above them even a humble sound system has AM-FM with pushbutton tuning and tone control. At the other end of the OE spectrum are systems that use two antennae tuned for differing conditions with the inbuilt ability to switch to the most effective one, available compact disc players, sound “shaped” by an amplifier at each of at least four speakers (now almost a standard number) tailored to balance the sound and quality throughout the irregularly shaped car interior. Features like “Seek” and “Search”, electronic tuning, cassette players with auto reverse, power antennae, and supplementary amplifiers are common enough to go unnoticed. What then for the aftermarket?

First, according to Michael Townsen of Pioneer, autosound is a three (b)billion dollar a year business. This does not include the AM and AM-FM non-cassette radios that are OE at the bottom of the market, but does include all of the other OE equipment. The three billion breaks out 60%/40%, the advantage going to the aftermarket. About 15% of that dollar volume goes to Pioneer, #1 on that scorecard. It’s difficult to rank and separate because most of the big ones–Pioneer, Sanyo, Fujitsu Ten, Alpine, etc.—also are OE suppliers. But the volume alone tells you that the aftermarket must be doing something right.

The aftermarket producers are the innovators. They are the ones free to pioneer (no pun), to move the standard from today’s excess toward tomorrow’s necessity, to fill all of the market niches the OE leaves, and to lead the OE. Some of the aftermarket names have accrued enough value to become OE: Delco/Bose, Ford/JBL, and Acura/Bose. More are likely to follow.

Several related clear trends have developed. For the first time, there is a visible and sizable upmarket demanding the best—or what it perceives to be the best—of everything. This leaves it open for custom installations of sound equipment like Nakamichi, ADS, and Denon at prices that would easily buy an entire new car or truck.

The other highly visible (and interesting) part of the after-market concerns those vehicles with base prices about the same as the cost of the sound systems in the German panzer fleets in Beverly Hills, Newport Beach, Charlestown, or Miami. It’s a localized phenomenon (so far) but the money is always on trends starting in California, then racing through the sun belt and east coast, then gradually filling in the slower-moving midwest. A mini-truck, lowered, with custom wheels, paint, upholstery, with enough volume potential to cause permanent aural damage has become de riguer in several west coast subcultures.

These little trucks, with a few 4wd vehicles and econo-based image cars, with the right changes, are the price of admission. In large part, the peer pressure that rewarded raised horsepower and lateral Gs, now is aimed toward sound systems.

The high end system in the high end car aims for one kind of image—it must have been installed by the “in” wrench, it must have the right labels, it must be otherwise reasonably concealed. It’s aim, as a sound generator, is to reproduce sound as accurately as possible. This means taking into consideration cab volume, available installation room and best position for speakers, the kind of music that is usually listened to—rock has different requirements than classical.

The low end vehicle with the high end system has a whole different set of requirements. Sheer volume is paramount—a tangible, physically moving bass is the most important component of that—with far less emphasis on accurate sound reproduction. In fact, a highly “colored” sound with higher highs, lower lows, more reverberation, some distortion and over-emphasized separation somehow seems just right—a little like using too many or too large carburetors just because it looks good with the hood open.Since the vehicles are generally smaller, there are more compromises in speaker location and concealment, and a different set of priorities for brand name identification.

There is another segment in the aftermarket that has been around since the beginning—replacement. Sometimes it means simply a replacement for a dead OE unit, perhaps combined with an equipment upgrade. Most European and Japanese cars subscribe to a DIN standard for dimensions which allows near-complete interchangeability. But increasingly, Detroit cars are using non-standard shapes and sometime combining the autosound unit with climate controls making the use of an aftermarket unit very difficult. A perfect example of niche marketing is Pioneer’s Auto America series designed to adapt DIN standard sets to domestic instrument panels. If it’s successful for Pioneer, all of Pioneer’s competitors will have similar units ASAP.

Industry size leaders like Alpine, JVC, Kenwood, Panasonic, Sanyo, Pioneer, are all nervous about the emergence of digital audio tape (DAT). Each has a considerable investment in compact disc (CD) players and changers—just now the newest “must have” equipment. The players and changers are difficult to package, prone to skip on rough roads, and the discs themselves are much more difficult to handle (in fact, that’s exactly what you’re not supposed to do with them) than cassettes or the fast-approaching DATs.

A rep from one of the smaller high-end manufacturers (hell, Nakamichi) theorized that there were already a considerable number of DAT players (the DATs are smaller than conventional cassettes and require completely different players)manufactured and stockpiled but, with no software readily available and the music machine cranked up to satisfy the demand created for CDs, it would be at least two years before they were available. Their larger competitors are betting on five years—the bet smacks of self-fulfilling prophesy.

Another area of nervousness is autosound hardware theft. A huge problem in large urban areas, the companies have been quick to respond with removable units (common in Europe where the market otherwise is not as advanced, or at least, different than our own), coded units that when removed require a digital code to be entered on reinstallation—one such unit must have the code entered correctly the first time, another cannot have a second entry made for four hours if the first code is incorrect. More specialty items like the Classic Research’s Z-Box which helps integrate speakers with the car’s standard interior. CR produces custom fiberglass enclosures that replace the door cap moldings, parcel shelf, etc., with speaker enclosures that can be covered with OE materials and look OE when they do. It helps to reduce visibility of the very expensive components—the automotive version of the money belt or ankle wallet. Status. Contrast this with the Japanese market where cars wear decklid badges announcing the presence of a high-zoot super system. East is east…

What’s coming? Most manufacturers will tell you in one breath that there is little growth forecasted for the near future and in the next about the wonderfulness of all of the new toys that will send everyone rushing out with fist full of dollars or, more likely, plastic, in a buying frenzy. Available is now/ soon will be more affordable CD players/changers and more expensive CD players/changers with more features and greater changing capacity, circuitry that will sample the volume of the enclosed space (to allow for differing passenger loads in the car) and automatically compensate—a step further than the Bose shaped sound that Delco has used. Autosound is going to be combined with mobile telephones and navigation, we are told, with much more advanced circuitry and digital control. More comprehensive anti-theft measures are coming in an attempt to stay at least thirty seconds ahead of the thieves—in fact, in an effort to maintain the aftermarket at its present dollar level, any product, even those of dubious value (over-powerful amplifiers, huge sub-woofers, graphic equalizers, attractive-nuisance displays) will be marketed in an attempt to sell to the most volatile buying group.

Top image: Bandola Telefunken radio (courtesy of iStock in the public domain)

Len Frank
Len Frank

The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor TrendSports Car GraphicPopular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996. Now, you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”, or just click this link: Look Down The Road. – Roy Nakano

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