A Bandshell In Your Backseat

Hot new luxury cars put high performance in a package that pleases the eye. But the ear typically gets a low-cost, factory-installed tuner/cassette player. Now, drivers who want mobile sound as impressive as their wheels will find several audio manufacturers have innovations worth a listen.

The buzzword is processing. Whether it's digital-signal processing, as Panasonic calls it, or soundfield processing, in Mitsubishi's lingo, the effect can be startling. The sound from a half-dozen or more speakers is electronically adjusted so it seems that you're listening in a concert hall, jazz club, cathedral, or other specific site. After inserting a cassette or choosing a station, you match the "place" to the music by pressing one button to adjust each speaker's volume, reverberation, and other acoustic factors.

Sound processing works in home stereo, but adherents say it's most effective in cars, where it can offset the tight space, fixed speaker positions, and reflective glass surfaces that affect quality. Both American Honda's Acura Vigor sports sedan and Mitsubishi's Diamante LS sedan, at $25,000 apiece, offer sound-processing stereo as standard equipment. Along with an AM-FM tuner and cassette deck, the Acura system boasts eight speakers. For $1,400, Technics has a similar system for your present car.

Another high-tech development makes it easy to fight traffic and adjust the sound system at the same time. Sanyo's $1,300 EX-W2 is a tuner/cassette player that controls a six-disk CD changer in the trunk. The unit responds to 20 spoken commands. To turn on the radio and call up a station, for example, you can say: "Tuner, preset 1," with your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

A HIP CHIP. Other innovations to make listening while driving safer include Aiwa's $500 CT-X8 cassette/tuner, which has a control panel angled toward the driver, and Panasonic's $350 CQ-ID60 cassette/tuner with ID Logic circuitry. It has a memory chip programmed with the formats of all radio stations in the U. S. and on the Canadian and Mexican borders. As you drive, you simply tap buttons marked Rock, Classical, Jazz, Country, Easy Listening, or Talk to pull in your kind of station. You can even program the tuner with your direction of travel, and it will find a stronger signal in the chosen format as the old one fades with the scenery in the rearview mirror.