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Dec 12, 2009

The How's and Why's of Improving Car Sound

Posted by The Advanced Audiophile

Fact of life: many people spend more time listening to music in their car, than they do at home. In your car, besides driving, there's little else to do. If you're an audiophile, you're supposed to listen to your home system in an undistracted manner, and with full attention (as opposed to using it for background noise). That's kind of the point of high fidelity music reproduction. In a car, you have little choice but to do so. Therefore, it seems to me, high fidelity in car audio should be of prime importance. But if you look at what the general marketplace reflects.... it isn't. It isn't by a long shot. If you're looking for high fidelity in your car, the answer you will eventually get in return is "too bad".

Oh sure, there are "upmarket" cabling options, like "Monster brand cable".   Puhlease! These are just ways for dealers and manufacturers to make obscene amounts of profit on accessories. Not that I don't believe wires and cables make a difference. But that the "Monster" and similar cables sold for the car and "home theatre" market are way overpriced for whatever gains they "might" make in sound. ("Might" implying that I don't assume they will always be more positive than negative in their influence on your sound). 

Or you can throw even more money at the problem, by "investing" in a better grade of head unit (car stereo). Since your car stereo will be worth next to nothing as soon as you exit the store with it, you can be sure this option is not going to be cheap. But that's about all you can be sure of. You usually can't be sure that you're going to get a fantastic improvement on your sound, because when was the last time you were able to compare car stereo head units side by side, before purchase, with the same ancillaries connected to them in the hopes of it being a meaningful test comparison? Not to mention the fact that you could only really compare units stocked by one dealer in this manner, and it wouldn't be in your car. So you might go on the opinions of others.... But your typical user review (say, at, is "This is the greatest product I've ever tried!". Followed by another customer who says "This product was a nightmare! I so regret having to live through this experience, that I will never buy anything again for as long as I live! I want to give it as many negative stars as there are in the galaxy. Times two.". This is no way to buy a stereo unit....

Can you assure superb sound by going with an audiophile car stereo brand? Well, first, try finding an audiophile quality car stereo maker today. Back in the day, you had more options. Nakamichi, Harmon Kardon, or even Blaupunkt, when they were associated with top quality. But that's no longer the case, today. You might find Linn and Mark Levinson making car stereos... but you can't actually buy them. Not unless you buy the car they are sold with. If you look hard and spend lots, you might be able to find audiophile quality car speakers. And though they can only amplify the garbage coming from the source, they'll probably help a great deal.... until some punk fancies them and steals them from your car. In addition to the expense and dearth of audiophile quality car audio units, there's also the expense and trouble of ripping your car apart to install them.

This is probably why that most settle for the big business corporate conglomerate mediocre-fi consumer audio solution. Which I call the "It's good enough!" solution.  Why did audio systems with separate components and massive quality construction, disappear from the face of electronics stores and homes alike, in favor of prettier (or cheesier) glorified boom boxes and clock radios you just dock your mp3 player to? Because "It's good enough!". Be happy. Be sheep. It's good enough. It vaguely resembles music, you don't need better. Well, that may be "good enough" for most. But not me. I'm special! :)

Enter Beltism

.....And this is why I like Beltism! Through Belt-type modifications on my current car stereo, I've been able to take my car audio system to levels not imaginable, even by the likes of Linn and Mark Levinson - Lexus owners. Everyone who steps into the car, is amazed at how good the stereo sounds. And I've been able to do all this, without buying a single Monster cable (stock wiring throughout). In fact, I've been able to do this without changing a single component in the system. The work was done with a combination of PWB products, and my own contrivances, all based on this phenomenon we call Beltism. So the expense, where there was any, has been nominal. Since the devices were applied to various parts of the car (including the current stereo), this means I did not have to rip apart the car in any way!  Nor did my stereo become instantly obsolete, simply because I wanted to improve on the sound.

However.... of recent, I did want to change my car stereo head unit. Not for reasons of sound, but to get features I didn't have on the old one (ie., plug in mp3 players and SD cards, so that the music would never skip going over bumps). This afforded an opportunity to treat" the device (a Pioneer head unit) with the aforementioned Beltist products, without taking the car apart.  I did a wonderful job on it, as the sound was glorious, when I first installed it. I put on a George Winston CD (sourced from mp3 files), and there was a piano playing in my car. I'm sure that Linn and Mark Levinson wish they could do this with their stereos!  Mind, this was only a partial trial install. And by the time I had done the full install, made further Belty modifications to the unit, and fixed a wiring problem, a big chunk of that "glorious" sound was gone. The liquid tone on the piano was still mostly apparent, but most aspects of the sound took a turn for the worse.

I did not want to remove the head unit again and rip the dash apart, and take a risk of having another wiring problem. So instead, I took off the removable faceplate, took that inside my home, and proceeded to work on Belting just the faceplate. Now, you might be asking yourself "How do you guage your progress on tweaking the faceplate, if you just have the faceplate?". I certainly can't connect the faceplate to anything, to listen to it. Nor was I going to go outside to install the faceplate, every time I installed a series of Belt-type devices to the faceplate, to guage whether I was making true progress to the sound, in my modifications. But this is Beltism, remember. And this is nature. I had a CD player next to me, on the table where I was working on the Pioneer's car stereo faceplate. I plugged headphones into its headphone jack, and listened to a CD, to better determine where I was going, in my mods to the faceplate.

One of the devices I used to make these mods, was something I had come up with a few weeks ago. But I was also implementing a technique that I had come up with that evening. Each application of this technique produced a different type of feeling and sound. But one particular application produced a type of sound (and reaction) I had never recalled experiencing before. Considering that I've done such tests thousands of times, that means something. I was listening to a drum solo on the Sheffield Drum Track (classic audiophile test cd) at the time, and the reaction I observed getting was one of being particularly keyed in to the beat and rhythm of the track. All I could do was move in timing to the rhythm. At the same time, I did not find the sound itself to be particularly good. Rather, it was flawed, in numerous ways. But there was something really special going on with the timing of the sound. Worse is, I wasn't exactly sure what I did to trigger it! (I have some rough ideas, so I'll have to experiment a bit later on, to see if I can repeat the effect).

I decided I was going to stop there and go with that, warts and all, because this was definitely worth checking out further. So I stopped working on the faceplate, took it outside to the car to install it. There was a Billy Joel CD, so I listened to that. The first song heard being a relatively slow piano based number. Yet despite that there was no perceived "rhythm" to the song, that same reaction stayed with me in this test as well. I was totally keyed in to the timing of the song, and mesmerized by it. All music seemed to play objectively "faster", in a sense. I thought this all might be due to a particular combination of attack and decay, produced by the change in the perception of sound, by the particular combination of changes made and devices applied, to the Pioneer unit. But I'm not at all sure that's what's producing this unique timing effect. And to be sure, this effect was heard with everything I played on the Pioneer car radio. Tuning radio stations to play classical music, or playing mp3's, etc. It made everything superbly musical. Musical, in a way not obtainable by simply changing to a different car stereo unit. It's simply not a type of sound that would expressly be engineered into a manufacturer's car head unit, if it were even possible to do so.

Since it had me perfectly engaged with a radio station playing classical, one of my least favourite types of music, I decided this sound was going to stay (well, for as long as I could get it to). Later in my fiddlings with the car stereo, I realized, that this sound I acheived had certain side effects. It made me particularly sensitive to what I have called "The Force" (the energy fields that permutate all things great and small).  I realized this in the way that I could sense the changes in energy, produced by changing some of the different settings on the Pioneer car head unit.

This was not the first time I had noticed this. The first time was a couple of days prior, when I first tested the stereo, in the car late at night. I sensed physical changes when, say, I switched between the subwoofer options of; reverse, normal, off. There was an instant lowering of tension when the subwoofer was set on normal, and a different feeling when set to reverse. Some other settings (ie. HPF) produced similar effects, while most settings produced either no positive changes in tension, or no obviously discernable changes. And though a deepening level of relaxation is usually associated with a result in better sound quality, I concluded the best setting here was OFF. That one giving the most accurate, balanced sound. In fact, much to my disappointment, OFF proved to be the best option for all settings on the Pioneer, as it produced the most accurate sound. Including "FLAT" for the equalizer option. (Though I cheated a bit and added " +1 " to the Bass Boost option).

Apart from the particular energy pattern emanating from the Pioneer unit, I could tell the other part of the reason for my particular sensitivity at that time, to things like display options, was due to my state of fatigue. It was 3:30 in the morning when I was out testing this receiver. A time when my body was telling me "sleep now". As it was preparing me for sleep, my general grogginess (a sign of the state of relaxation my body was in), made it more conducive to feeling and hearing changes on the stereo. This I could tell, because once I ignored my body's signals and went past the "sleep window" into the next phase of "alert fatigue", I was less sensitive to changes in the Pioneer's settings, as changes in the sound. As such, the music sounded not quite as good, either.

So while in my groggy phase, I observed that what was different this time, is that I now felt differences from the various "visualization" options this stereo provides, for its OEL display. Something I never noticed changing the visualization options before. And it was nothing subtle, for me. As soon as I selected "Simple 2", my head dropped like a ton of bricks. Now that's what I call lowering of tension! As you might guess by now, this physical sensation translated into a more deeply engaging sound, when I actually applied the "Simple 2" option, and listened to music while that display was in effect. I couldn't quite figure out why this particular screen had a strong energy, though. I normally use the unit on "Simple 1" display. Simple 2 is mainly blank, just like Simple 1. Except instead of an icon showing which function you're using, there is a small spectrum analyzer display in the upper right corner. However, the powerful feeling I got every time I switched to the "Simple 2" display panel, remained whether the spectrum analyzer animation was on, or whether it was off, and just showing a blank box, with a blank background.

So, was this effect coming from the fact that there was very little animation in the "Simple 2" display?  No, not even. "Simple 1" has the least animation of the options, and I did not have the same reaction to it. Morever, there were about 5 other displays that I also had a strong reaction to (though none that I preferred over "Simple 2"). They included the one with the analogue style VU meters, which is a constant animation that fills the screen. And an even more animated screen, "Movie 1" (cars racing a la "Fast and Furious" !). Interestingly, the rest of the display options (there are about a dozen in all), did nothing for me. Feeling-wise or sound-wise.

Remember: no one said Beltism is supposed to make sense.

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