Car Stereos: Extra Dash In The Dash

A car sound system was once a fancy radio with a couple of extra speakers on the back deck that, likely as not, got covered up with yellowing newspapers and dog-eared maps. But install some of today's advanced equipment, and it will sound as if the Berlin Philharmonic is perched on your dashboard. In the last few years--really, since the advent of the compact disk--car sound has caught up in quality with all but the top-end custom home stereo systems.

Deep-pocketed audiophiles can still fork over the price of a midsize sedan for a carload of components. In general, though, car hi-fi prices have been tumbling down the same slopes as computers. A CD player for the dash can now be had for $300, half of what one commanded several years ago.

The simplest way to improve your sound is to replace your factory speakers with upgrades from any of the big names in consumer electronics, such as Panasonic, Kenwood, and Pioneer. For a mere $200, you can install a high-quality pair in the dash or front-door panels and another two on the back deck.

DOUBLE DUTY. What's really driving the change, though, are technological advances that improve the sound as it enters and leaves the speakers. A relatively recent development is called digital signal processing (DSP). Available on higher-end systems, such as Sony's $2,500-and-up Mobile ES, DSP manipulates the timing of sound delivery to create different chamber effects, from cathedral to nightclub, in addition to enhancing overall sound quality and placement. As DSP evolves, it may also play a role in counteracting auto engine and chassis noise.

Two new formats for the car are Sony's MiniDisc, available for under $1,000, and Philips Electronics' digital compact cassette, which is due out before Christmas. MiniDiscs are half the size of standard CDs, so you can carry that many more. And if you have a home unit, you can record on blanks as well. DCC units have the advantage of playing digitally recorded cassettes as well as your old analog tapes. Panasonic's version, the $1,000 CQ-DC1, comes with a wireless remote that can also control up to two CD changers, stashed in the trunk, under the seat, or in the glove compartment. It has a removable faceplate, disabling the radio for thieves. And it is packaged with an AM-FM radio and offers Dolby B sound.

FORMAT FINDER. Even the old car radio is evolving. By the mid-1990s, digital radio is expected to arrive, offering sound so clear and interference-free you'll think the disk jockey is sitting next to you. Already out from Panasonic is PRS ID Logic technology that allows a cross-country driver to hit a button and automatically pull in a station playing a favorite format, from country to classical. Chips hold 10,000 AM and FM call letters.

Auto makers, meanwhile, are teaming up with top stereo names to offer their own custom high-end sound systems. Independent stereo dealers pooh-pooh factory-installed systems as overpriced, but those systems do have a major selling point: They are uniquely designed for the particular car models. For example, Bose has joined with Mercedes-Benz to offer the Bose Beta system as a standard feature on the new S-class luxury sedans. The system offers 11 speakers, including a single midrange and tweeter unit built into the rear-view mirror, seven-channel amplification, and custom equaliation. The effect is peak sound delivery to all seating positions.

Toyota has teamed with Fujitsu to create the $1,200 Premium 3-in-1 ETR/Cassette/CD Combo System for the Celica GT series. Among its components are an AM/FM radio, CD player, and eight speakers, including two subwoofers that resonate from sealed door panels. And Ford Taurus offers optional JBL speakers and amplifier as part of Ford's High-Level Audio System at $1,028, which also includes CD player, AM/FM, and cassette unit. A $300 DSP unit with a switch allows you to adjust sound positioning. With equipment like that, you have an incentive to keep your car's interior clutter-free.

       $230      Two Panasonic H55 speakers for front doors ($85); two Panasonic H65
                 speakers for rear deck ($95); installation ($50)
       $645      Two Panasonic H55 and two H65 speakers ($180); Panasonic CQPD33EU
                 in-dash compact disk player and AM-FM radio ($365);
                 installation ($100)
       $1,990    Two Sony XSL202 8-inch woofers ($190); two XS6051 6-inch midrange
                 speakers ($190); two XSPL45 midrange-tweeter speakers ($220);
                 XEC1000 6-way cross-over ($240); XM3060 six-channel amplifier ($550);
                 CDX4040 CD/AM-FM head unit ($300); installation ($300)