A Concert Hall In A Truck

Before the sport-ute boom of the 1990s, light-truck owners were more interested in high ground clearance than high fidelity. Thus, their "audio systems" usually consisted only of one-speaker AM radios. "They just wanted a radio for the farm report," says Richard Stroud, supervisor of audio acoustics for the Delco Electronics Div. of General Motors.

Today, as drivers ditch the family car in droves for sport-utility vehicles, minivans, and four-door pickups, truck stereo standards are soaring. Audio engineers are cramming up to 10 speakers into trucks' cavernous confines and making them sonic showpieces.

GROOVING. An AM/FM stereo now comes as standard equipment on most trucks. But more buyers are opting for multiple-CD players and dual-zone stereos, which allow the kids to listen to Puff Daddy on headphones in the back while mom and dad groove to Eric Clapton up front. While plenty of people are willing to spend more than $1,000 to get a custom system from an independent stereo shop, many buyers are simply taking the premium audio package that is installed at the factory.

Down the road, trucks will feature even more high-tech audio extras, such as digital surround-sound stereos like those found in home entertainment systems. "These vehicles are ripe for that kind of configuration, because you have speakers all around you," says Henry Blind, Ford's senior technical specialist for audio acoustics. The sheer size of most trucks makes them a hospitable habitat for big sound. There are more spaces for speakers than in the family sedan. And the music has more room to move around, heightening the separation of sound and creating an audio experience usually found in your living room.

Indeed, buyers are now demanding more creature comforts as truck prices reach for the sky. "There are a lot more affluent truck buyers, and they're looking for the same kinds of amenities they found in luxury cars, if not more," says Michael Maloney, director of multimedia systems for Visteon, Ford's parts unit. That's why 73% of buyers of the $45,000 Lincoln Navigator order the $950 Mach audio system with seven speakers and a six-disk CD changer housed in the center console.

But trucks also provide plenty of problems for audio engineers. For starters, "you're constantly being challenged by road noise," says Maloney. Feedback from brawny engines also intrudes in the cabin. To drown out the noise, engineers boost amplification, jack up the size of speakers, and even hang them from the ceiling. For example, the 10 speakers on the Jeep's Infinity Gold system--a $280 to $940 upgrade--includes four tucked into the roof. Two of the eight speakers also line the roof in the Chevrolet Suburban's $200 premium audio package. "Speakers play loud and clear when they are close to your head," says Stroud.

Another problem: Trucks' wide-open spaces are not conducive to the thundering bass preferred by many audiophiles. With car stereos, the trunk provides a natural resonance chamber. But trucks don't have trunks, so engineers have to be creative. GM and Chrysler pump up the bass by drawing it from speakers placed in the large, deep doors found on trucks. Ford generates a booming sound from a beefy 8-inch subwoofer encased in thick plastic and tucked into the rear of the Expedition.

BAD CHOICES. Where to locate the CD player poses still another dilemma. Audio engineers would like to plug multiple-CD changers directly into the dash, instead of tucking them away in the center armrest, or, worse yet, in the back.

But until minidisks or higher-capacity CDs catch on, bulky multidisk players are not likely to claim prime real estate on the dash--especially if they take space away from those coveted cupholders. "It's a struggle, because what we're trying to do in truck audio is still new," says Chrysler's Jack Mills, manager of Jeep electrical engineering. "But our star is rising." Indeed, the farm report has never sounded so good.

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