Sound studio

Ezra Dyer: Sound Opinions

Artwork by Derek BaconCar and driver

Excerpt from the May 2022 issue of Car and driver.

The McIntosh MX950 audio system in the new Jeep Grand Cherokee will blow your mind. It has a 17 channel amp, 19 speakers and, as the name suggests, 950 watts. The bass will get the change out of your pockets. A hard-hitting trap can knock your socks off. If you told me you want to feel like you’re in the recording studio with Steely Dan, I’d say be careful what you wish for, but the McIntosh will get you there. You really wouldn’t want to change anything about it. Which is lucky, because you can’t.

The car stereos of my formative years – the 80s and 90s – were mostly standardized, with a DIN-sized central unit feeding directly into the flimsy loudspeakers that the manufacturer deigned to supply. But the head unit and speakers were easy to replace, and once you had the interior torn apart anyway, you might as well add an amp and subwoofer. In high school, I was well versed in impedances, crossover slopes, and fuse blocks, and could set up my own stuff semi-proficiently, just like my friends. This free labor allowed us to invest more of our summer job earnings in increasingly ridiculous sound systems, until I came to believe that having two 12-inch subwoofers (like I did in the IROC) was the bare minimum to do “Whoomp! (Here he comes)” justice. My friend Adam had a dual 15 inch speaker box that he once pulled out of his Subaru and used to DJ a dance in high school. That’s where we set our standards: if your car stereo sounds loud in a gym, it’s probably almost loud enough for your car.

I first glimpsed the end of goofy DIY car stereos in the early 2000s, when my buddy Dave tried to fit a relatively low-key system (one amp and 10-inch sub) into his Saab 9-3. Even with professional installation, the aftermarket head unit disabled the Saab’s security system, which was somehow networked with the factory stereo. Dave could throw Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” or have a working keyless entry system, but apparently not both. The 9-3 presaged the imminent demise of public address systems that could be hacked by high school students.

But you know what doesn’t have an infotainment system? The 2003 Ram regular cab I bought last year. Among its minor weaknesses was a dead stereo, so I decided to resurrect my old skills and revive them with a semi-boom system. Since aftermarket headunits typically exhibit the cool aesthetic restraint of a Japanese pachinko parlor, I purchased an OEM Chrysler replacement (from the creatively named 1 Factory Radio Company) quietly hacked with an auxiliary jack so you can plug in a phone. Then I ordered a slim eight inch powered subwoofer to hide under the seat and embarked on a fun and rewarding project. Ah, that old familiar feeling of wishing you had paid someone else to do this! I remember it well. Speaking of which, did you know you have to remove the Ram’s upper seat belt anchors to access the rear speakers? Running the power cable to the battery required drilling through some sort of firewall grommet with a coat hanger. In the process, I slashed my hand at various sharp, invisible pieces of metal that Dodge included just to frustrate this process and trick you into trading your stupid truck for one with the Infinity sound system.

After running MacGruber all the way and tapping into a switched hot wire to get the amp to wake up, I had a system that looked stock but thumped loudly. Which is great, except now I’m thinking about all the other stupid things I could do – kick panel components, multiple amps, sub-boxes behind the seat. Maybe I don’t know how to build a car stereo that sounds as good as a McIntosh MX950. But I bet I still know how to make a stronger one.

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