CDs, Subwoofers, and Components
the early 1980s, car stereos began to rival home stereos in their
sophistication and sound quality. The first car audio competitions began
around this time as well. Multiple speaker configurations began to take
hold in earnest. It was common to find upgraded or custom systems with
two or three separate (or "component") drivers per side in the front
(pictured, below) plus rear deck speakers as "fill" to pull the
image back and fill out the sound, and one or more subwoofers
(pictured, below right) either in their own separate enclosures or
mounted in the rear deck. In the 1990s, we began to see higher-end
systems incorporate a genuine center channel to improve imaging;
Chrysler included this in some of their upscale Infinity stock systems
The move from tape-based systems to the compact disc
was particularly significant. The CD brought improved sound quality that
remained pristine for thousands of plays, instead of degrading over
time—until scratches rendered it unreadable, of course. CDs also let you
skip tracks back and forth instantaneously, instead of tedious fast
forwarding and rewinding. Multiple-disc CD changers began to appear in
the late 1980s, and let you store as many as five, six, or even 10 CDs
at a time, and switch between them while you were driving. By the
mid-1990s, it was common to find a CD changer in a given car's trunk or
underneath the front passenger seat.
In fact, CDs were a step forward in all respects save
one—customizability. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, CDs were fixed
albums, like vinyl records; although CD burners were introduced early
on, affordable consumer products didn't take hold until around the turn
of the millennium. For a while, many cars offered CD player and cassette
deck options, and sometimes both in a single, large receiver: one for
ultimate sound quality and instant gratification after a trip to Tower
Records, and one for custom cassettes and any old prerecorded tapes you
still had lying around.
One other note on aftermarket car stereos is worth mentioning
here: Simply put, automakers began to make it tougher to install them.
For many years, single-DIN, double-DIN, and a few other receiver sizes
were standard, so you could easily swap in an aftermarket receiver,
especially using the appropriate install kit from Crutchfield or another
retailer. The same went for speakers in the front doors, rear doors,
rear deck, and so on. But as automakers began to incorporate anti-theft
systems, as well as custom upgraded audio systems, they also began to
blend them into the dashboard using a variety of non-standard sizes and
openings. Whether this was purely for profit, for interior style
reasons, or just to discourage buyers from tampering with the vehicles,
it has frustrated a lot of audio hobbyists over the years.
The Digital Music Revolution
tough to overstate how revolutionary the digital MP3 player was.
Virtually the moment the iPod and competing models took off in
popularity, sales and usage of the CD began to decline, and what
remained of the compact cassette market disappeared almost overnight. By
now, most of us are familiar with MP3 palyers, which store thousands of
songs, make it easy to create custom playlists, and let you search by
song title, artist, or album easily. But when it comes to cars, there's
plenty of tension in this market. Even as people began to buy iPods and
other players by the millions, it wasn't always simple to connect them
to car stereos—and in some cases, it's still complicated today.
For example, by the mid-2000s, cars began to come with
auxiliary inputs that connected to any MP3 player's headphone jack. But
true iPod integration remained elusive for longer; after some early BMW
and MINI systems, we're only now beginning to see more and more cars
come with USB jacks that can read standard iPod and iPhone playlists,
albums, artists, and songs, or even hook into iPhone apps (pictured,
above). Even so, that leaves out the millions of people with Android
phones, BlackBerrys, and other handsets. For now, stereo Bluetooth
streaming, or sideloading music via USB flash drives or SD cards remain
the best option in those cases.
The biggest problem for
music in cars today has nothing to do with sound quality—well, aside
from MP3 and AAC files, which are fine most of the time but don't match
the experience you'd get from a proper CD or uncompressed audio file.
Instead, the problem is access. In an increasingly fragmented world of
tech, it's not always clear what sources will work in a given vehicle,
at least without doing some research first. Buy a new car off the
showroom lot in 2012, and you're virtually guaranteed at least an
auxiliary jack for your mobile device, if not more. But more advanced
integration varies by the vehicle and by the device, and it can
sometimes get quite complex. Ask anyone who came away frustrated with
BMW's iDrive or one of the earlier Ford Sync systems.
It almost makes you long for the days of the AM radio and two big dials for volume and station tuning. Almost.