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Mobile Magic

As factory-installed stereos get better and better, many music lovers are sticking with the stereo that came with the car rather than replacing it with an after-market model. This is also in part due to the popularity of leasing-people don’t want to hassle with installing a whole new stereo system if they’re only going to turn their car back into the dealer within two to three years.

Given the declining state of the mobile sound industry, forward-thinking mobile electronics manufacturers have discovered new ways to interface with OEM (original equipment manufacturers) audio systems. And they have also started to pioneer new, non-musical ways of enhancing your commute. Through advancements in computers, video monitors, and wireless communications systems, your vehicle will closely resemble the Starship Enterprise, except it’ll still have tires. Interfacing with the OEM there are some adequate sound systems that now come standard with premium luxury cars. However, there are usually a couple of ways that these OEM systems still deliver substandard performance. The first issue is the CD player. Many systems for new cars include a built-in compact disc player, but even now, with CDs far outselling cassettes, most car stereos only include a cassette deck. When you do get a CD player as standard equipment, it can be very expensive-twice the price of getting it retrofitted by a car stereo store.

The other issue is cross platform media-if you listen to both cassettes and CDs, having only one or the other can be a drag. This is especially true regarding books on tape. If you have been to a Barnes & Noble or another book chain, you will see that their selection of books on CD is quite paltry, so you’ll have to keep a cassette deck if you’re interested in catching up on your reading while driving.

There is a solution that will actually kill three birds with one stone. It is called a multi-disc CD changer with FM modulator. Your friendly car stereo store will install a 6, 10, or12 disc CD changer in the trunk of your car or underneath the passenger’s seat. And they will hook the output into the antenna input of your existing AM/FM cassette player. This hookup is done discreetly, is easy to install and even easier to remove when you want to turn in or sell off your vehicle. The CD player puts out the music on an FM channel just like a radio station but does it on an unused frequency such as 87.1 MHz (radios only go as low as 87.5 MHz). To listen to CD, all you have to do is tune your radio to the correct FM frequency on which the CD player “broadcasts” and you’ve got instant CD sound.

The main drawbacks to a CD player with FM modulator are that the overall sound quality is limited to the quality of you existing system, so if your cassette deck delivers mediocre power output or your speakers are low-grade, it’ll only sound so good. The other issue is that FM only delivers a frequency response from 20 Hz to 15 kHz, and since the human ear can theoretically hear up to 20 kHz, you may be missing some high notes and overtones.

The good news is that with a 10-disc changer, you can listen to music for twelve hours without having to change discs. Many of these players also come with a remote control so that you can change tracks or discs very easily. It can even do random track/disc selection so your road trip can be full of sonic surprises. The other nice thing is that since the CD player itself is hidden out of sight, would-be thieves see only that you have your factory-installed cassette player, which has no intrinsic street value.

Besides the CD player, quick and easy ways to improve the sound of your existing stereo system revolve around amplification and loudspeakers. No matter what kind of high-end factory system came with your Cadillac or BMW, it never has enough power to deliver the kind of clean, clear sound akin to a decent home system. So the most dramatic change you can make to any system is to add an amplifier. There is a variety to choose from, but if you’re going to keep your factory radio, you have to get one that accepts speaker-level inputs so it can interface easily. Amps also come in many channel configurations – 2-channel, 4-channel, 6-channel are just a few of the options. An easy way to go would be to get a 2- or 4 -channel amp.

You can use your head unit’s power to run your front speakers and your amp to run your rear speakers. Or, you can get a four-channel amp and bypass your head unit’s power altogether. Whatever you decide, an outboard amp will always produce a cleaner sound than the poor-excuse-for-an-amp that’s built into your head unit.

The other great way to enhance your system’s sound is to replace the speakers. There is a large quality range of speakers, from standard “replacement” speakers, to high-end “separates” which are separate tweeters and woofers that deliver a more dramatic soundstage. But no matter what kind of speakers you purchase, they’re going to need ample amplification to sound their best.

Finally, a powered subwoofer is the icing on the cake. Bass tubes with built-in amplifiers will fill-out the sound so that all types of music-from hip-hop to classical-will sound more exciting. These bass tubes fit in your trunk, hatchback, or behind the seat, and can interface with your existing AM/FM radio. They come complete with their own built-in crossover to separate out the low frequencies, as well as a built-in amplifier to crank them up. If you’ve never experienced a car stereo with a subwoofer system, it is highly recommended-you may look forward to running out of toilet paper, just to get back in your car (and you might not choose to go the closest convenience store either…).

Mobile Video

A brand new invention that will be a hit with parents is TV for the car.

Available only in the back seat, kids can now watch videos and play video games while they are shuttled to soccer, daycare, or whatever. It is also the perfect hypnosis for long trips. The video monitors are flat, LCD-type screens and are mounted in one of two ways. The least costly way is to have them mounted where your dome light is on your vehicle’s ceiling. The screen is stored flat up against the ceiling when inactive. When engaged, the screen automatically opens downward so the back seat passengers can view it.

Headphones are plugged in for sound, as is a video game controller. A VCR or mobile DVD player is mounted underneath the seat to watch movies.

Another popular configuration-which is more costly than the first-is to mount a screen in each of the headrests of the front seats. This looks a lot neater than the dome light scenario, and allows each child to have his or her own screen. To make this work, the installer adds a cover to the backs of each of the seats that accommodates the screens. Mobile video is rather expensive right now -$1500 and up. But many parents who drive long distances are happy to pay a premium for some peace and quiet.

Radar Detectors

Radar detectors used to have a single purpose-to allow its users to speed and reduce their chances of getting caught. But this technology has evolved into something a bit more useful. Electronics manufacturers have joined forces with highway safety departments to produce something called the Safety Warning System or SWS. Roadside SWS transducers send out information pertinent to upcoming road or traffic conditions. Radar detectors equipped with SWS pick up these messages and display them on an LED readout as text.

Examples of warnings are road construction ahead, school zone ahead, etc.

SWS is a must for frequent travelers who like to be in the know.


Another extremely convenient item for the serious roadster is GPS navigation. There are many Global Positioning Satellites in orbit whose main function is to tell people on Earth exactly where the heck they are.

Boats have been using GPS for years. Now cars use it because it is extraordinarily precise-down to a few feet. So far only a few cities in the U.S. offer GPS because mapping out each city’s highways and bi-ways is quite time and labor intensive. Every single street along with all of the details such as No Left Turn and One Way signs have to be written into the software which is utilized by the system in the form of a CD-ROM. There are some cities such as Atlanta, which are up and running as beta sites. Japan has most of its cities mapped out probably because they’re a smaller country with more “technophile” early adapters. Expect most of the major U.S. cites to be up and running in a year or two.

The GPS satellite sends out a constant signal, which is picked up by your car’s navigation system so it always knows where you are. Enter in your destination into the computer and chose whether you want to take the highways, the back roads, or a scenic route. The computer then takes a couple of seconds and calculates your route. It tells you what to do on the screen, in the form of a map, but for obvious reasons, there is a computerized voice that warns you of an upcoming turn. “Take the next exit; one hundred feet, fifty feet, twenty five feet, turn now…” That sort of thing. If you screw up and miss the exit, it will automatically calculate the best way to get back en route.

As each region’s database becomes more populated, you’ll be able to do more stuff from your car. You’ll be able to inquire about restaurants (“find me a three star Northern Italian bistro within 15 minutes that accepts Diner’s Club”). Or you’ll be able to find a hotel that takes Marriott points. Your navigation system will interface with your cellular phone and will automatically make a reservation for you and guarantee your late arrival with a credit card.

Originally Published