Sound systems

The stealth art of ultra-custom car audio systems

Matt Figliola tries to sort out the electronics on an Aston Martin Lagonda. This is no small challenge. The Lagonda, an outrageous four-door corner of the proud and ambitious futurism of the 70s, was the first car with a purely digital dashboard, a technological overtake that nearly bankrupted the company. The one he’s working on doesn’t have the dreaded CRT instrument panel, and instead has the dreaded red LED matrix instrument cluster and a vast handful of disastrous touch controls scattered around the cabin. “Everything is malfunctioning and will have to be rebuilt,” says Figliola. “And we’ll definitely be updating the stereo. This customer almost always fits a vintage McIntosh Car Audio into their cars. We have a small inventory that we maintain and keep for him.

This story originally appeared in Volume 3 of Road & Track.


Figliola is used to disasters. He’s been solving intricate automotive audio and electronic puzzles for decades, since helping a high school friend install speakers in his Pontiac Sunbird so they can better appreciate the magic of Rush and Styx on tape. . (“I also loved disco,” he adds.) He opened his boutique, Ai Design, in the suburb of Westchester County, just north of New York, nearly 30 years ago and is became one of the most talented and renowned artisans. into the aftermarket custom audio space, integrating custom five and six digit audio systems into new and old vehicles. Cars in his store currently include a McLaren 720S, Nissan GT-R, Porsche 959, Chevrolet Chevelle, Audi RS4, and Toyota Land Cruiser.

Car audio is big business, and it’s becoming increasingly important to automakers. “We’re seeing data from third-party research like Nielsen, and a certain demographic of 18-24 year olds actually listen to music in their cars more than anywhere else,” says Jonathan Pierce, senior director of research and development. development at Harman International, a sound engineering company that supplies the automotive industry with stereo systems through a number of different premium brands including JBL, Mark Levinson, Infinity and Harman Kardon. “This trend is growing, with more and more people choosing the automotive environment as their primary location to listen to their favorite music.”

The car is your form of transportation, your mobile office, your pandemic sanctuary, and your personal avatar. It is also the symphony hall with speaker in your living room. And Figliola is the Leonard Bernstein of Tuckahoe, New York.

In the early 2010s, Figliola saw his car audio business crater. “It was pretty dead for a while because OEMs really took over the market,” he says. Car manufacturers have started to implement quality branding systems. But it picked up recently, for various reasons. Algorithm-based smartphone apps have created a personalized, easy-to-use platform that increases interest. Streaming, along with better Wi-Fi and improved cellular bandwidth, now allows near universal access to an unlimited library and better than the compressed MP3 files of yesteryear. Finally, consumers have become smarter and richer. They want more.

“The digital native generation has aged where they work and they can afford things,” says Figliola. “And the idea of ​​high-resolution streaming music has been around for a few years now, and it seems to be becoming a buzzword today.” He adds that demand will increase once again as 5G becomes more universally available and high-resolution Bluetooth audio is adopted.

Of course, hearing this quality output requires that you have a system that can properly process the input. “If you have a brand new Porsche, for example, and you want to bring your high-resolution music into that car, it won’t translate that way on the other end,” says Figliola. “It’s going to fall apart because the stereo isn’t actually capable of playing something at that resolution.”

Grant Cornett

aston martin lagonda

Grant Cornett

In order to create a system that can deliver this premium sound and properly tune the system for optimal playback in the car, Figliola and her team need to do a few things. Automakers are adding their own proprietary tuning digital signal processors (DSPs). Figliola attacks the latter first, either bypassing it or modulating it so that it can control the blank signal. “What we’re trying to do is take away the mandatory equalizer that the manufacturer puts in the car,” says Figliola. “I call it all ‘the front-end’. “

The hardware part – speakers, amplifiers and cable – is therefore the rear end. “This is really where the magic is, and this is where you can influence things the most,” says Figliola.

His general approach here is to “put as many speakers as possible in the front, door and dash positions”. Key to this strategy is placement optimization, something Figliola says OEMs can struggle with. “They put tweeters in the crotch of the windshield and dashboard area, and then they put a grille on this speaker which isn’t very transparent from an audio point of view,” he says. “When they do that, they just put the most directional speaker in the worst position.” (Pierce notes that components used by automakers must meet stringent industry standards for safety and longevity that the aftermarket is unrelated to. “We need to make sure these speakers will last ten years. he said.)

Instead, Figliola will install tweeters in areas that will provide “better access to the listener and a freer location”, ie standing, exposed and facing occupants. This helps with the directionality and localization of high frequency sound. It will then prioritize the installation of a very powerful mid-bass woofer, usually in the front door, which helps pull the low frequency output to the front of the subwoofer that it will mount at the rear. This makes the “attack of sound” much more precise and helps decrease decay, decay and what he calls “listener fatigue”.

Tuning each of these individual speakers for ideal sound, achieved by Figliola and her team with a laptop, a good ear, and countless hours of tuning, is a big part of what separates her systems from the stock. “We use a full parametric EQ, which allows us to assign any crossover point to any speaker we like, to affect any gain on any amplifier channel. . We can even play with more intellectual aspects like changing the phase of any speaker or the type of crossover, ”says Figliola.

aston martin lagonda
The Lagonda’s sharp styling was shocking when it first debuted, and time has barely dulled it. Preserving appearance while improving capacity was no small feat.

Grant Cornett

The other trademark of the Figliola store is the integration of these components. They use high-quality, resonant Baltic birch for the construction of custom cases, and stiffen the cases against rattling (which degrades sound reproduction) via reinforcements made of ABS plastic, aluminum, or even steel. They apply damping materials to keep sound waves in the right direction. And then, using computer-aided design systems, three-dimensional printers, and a team of wood, metal, fabric, plastic and leather manufacturers, they design, produce, prepare, paint and cut the components to match any part of the car they are going to be attached to. “The end result is something that looks different from the stock, but it looks like the OEM may have done it,” says Figliola.

Just as the inclusion of subwoofers in OEM systems was a trend that first emerged in the custom aftermarket world, the integration of quality is the next area that automakers and audio providers are watching. “The installation, the industrial design, the integrity of the components. It’s something that we could pursue and over which they have an advantage, ”says Pierce. This factor has become so important that in recent PA system competitions, the single “sound quality and installation” category was split into two, scored separately.

For Figliola’s shop, getting a quality installation can mean going to crazy extremes, such as building custom speaker boxes for a 1950s Bentley from matching wood veneer, thatch cane and black. piano. Or create custom, laser-etched switches for the dashboard of a 1969 Camaro SS, with a project-specific vintage-inspired font. Or make a removable Bluetooth-enabled speaker with a retro guitar amp grille for a 1967 Cobra. Or resto-modifying the tiny graphic EQs that came in Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi in the ’80s and’ 90s to work with. contemporary components.

By all accounts, the future looks bright for in-car audio. “I think we’re going to see a lot more features. Not just on the music side. But also audio for security. Suppression of road noise. How navigation prompts come to you, ”says Pierce. “And looking into the future with self-driving cars, the car becomes your living room, and you really want that audio upgrade experience. “

As much as Figliola and her shop embrace

Going forward, by staying abreast of the needs of autophile audiophiles, he recognizes that there is something deeper and more basic about the connection between cars and sound. That our vehicles are not just an audio delivery device, but active participants in the listening experience, and vice versa. Figliola takes us back to that Lagonda, the otherworldly rumble of its four-carb V-8 engine at start-up, and how it’s forever linked to the crazy looks and feel of the car, which brings it out of time.

“The first time I saw one was at the supermarket where I worked when I was 15,” he says. “A lady came out. For years, I had no idea what it was. I thought it was a spaceship. He wasn’t wrong. Old cars are time machines, and the sounds they make, inside and out, take us back to the past and the future.