I'm All Ears

By Chelle Cordero

September 21, 2016 5 min read

Listening to good music as you're driving down the highway is almost an American dream. Many drivers like a bit of dressing up with less reliance on mere AM/FM radio. Luckily there are options. From factory-installed original equipment to aftermarket selections, your car audio system can provide quality that will have you believing that you are in a 65-mile-per-hour personal concert hall.

If you keep your favorite tunes in your smartphone, you can easily attach your phone to your car's audio system to have full control of your entertainment. Especially good for cars with basic or older systems, the easiest way to channel the best sound from phone to car is through the cable that plugs into your phone's headphone jack. The only drawback of using this auxiliary system is that the connection is one-way; if you want to change up your music, you will have to use the phone's controls.

Another convenient way to hook your smartphone up to your car audio system is with Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a wireless communication between objects within close proximity; newer Bluetooth technology enables more frequencies to communicate with each other. While many older cars do not come equipped with Bluetooth capability, it's often optional in newer vehicles. Bluetooth kits can be wired into a car's existing radio or new radios with that technology can be installed.

Created in the late 1980s, XM radio brought multiple entertainment stations (music, news, talk radio and more) via satellite to subscribers. Using special receivers, listeners had a choice of the type of commercial-free entertainment they preferred. Although there was limited competition in the U.S. throughout the years, the companies offering these satellite services merged into Sirius XM Radio Inc. There are dedicated car or home radio XM receivers, and more recently there are apps to download on Apple and Android smartphones. All receivers work on fee-based subscription services; car and home receivers are not interchangeable.

*Improving the Listening Experience

Most cars are equipped with standard AM/FM radios with CD players; some older versions offer cassette players instead of CD. Original manufacture add-ons can include CD-changers, Bluetooth, smartphone and iPod car adapters, amplifiers, subwoofers, satellite radio and more. Audio systems are also being offered with other mobile electronics devices, such as GPS navigators and DVD entertainment systems. When these are included in the car's original purchase, they are seamlessly integrated into the original equipment and blend in with the dashboard.

Aftermarket additions are also available for both professional audio technician installation and owner DIY kits. The advantage of upgrading the audio system as aftermarket is that you don't have to do it all at once. Many equipment upgrades such as speakers, CD changers and even dashboard radio kits can be found to fit the car's original cutouts. Even if you purchase parts online, you can usually arrange for a professional installation.

HD Radio Technology is a relatively new and growing concept and is available without subscription. HD radio offers a larger section of digital radio stations than the normal AM/FM lineup. You can see a list of HD stations currently broadcasting online. Listeners have noted the digital sound, increased selection of stations and integrated artist information availability. Stations use regular radio waves to broadcast digitally.

*The Basics

The most important part of any car audio system is the head unit in the dashboard. The head unit features all of the controls for tuning, sound input, volume and balance. Except for the speakers and the antenna, everything in a basic system is included in the head unit. Amplifiers boost the signal from the head unit to the speaker system often through electronic transistors.

Head units contain the controls for remote CD changers mounted elsewhere in the vehicle. The antenna might be an extended rod, a fin-like protrusion, or nearly invisible wires running through a window. Speakers are only as good as the amplifier, higher wattage ratings, RMS, allows more power output to the speakers.

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