New Car Audio Revolution is Here

Photo: Rockford Fosgate
Photo: Rockford Fosgate /

There has been an evolutionary progression in car audio in recent years. I went to see the technology that is making it possible.

I am going to date myself here, but when I was coming out of high school in 1990 the car stereo boom was in full steam. There were competitions to see how loud you could build your stereo, bulletproof glass used just so you don’t keep blowing out your windshields. In southern California it was hard not to pull up to a stoplight without feeling the beat of someones thumping subwoofers from several cars away. Massive audio systems that required custom speaker boxes, multiple alternators and miles of wiring.

Today there has been a seismic change in car audio with the integration of touch screens with navigation and cell phone integration straight from the factory. It seemed the need for the local stereo shop had come to an end. After going to several car shows of late I was noticing a new generation of car audio enthusiast that had high output systems using factory head units. More and more I was hearing the cars before I saw them and now it was not just the bass, it was clear crisp sounding music. I had to find out how there were doing it.

I went looking for a car stereo shop that I though could answer my questions. I found Real Time Audio not far from home and pulled in to to see what I was missing. First thing I noticed was the wide variety of vehicles they were working on. There was a 77 Cadillac, Dodge Viper, 2015 F250 dually and something called a Slingshot. If anyone was going to be able to help me get up to date on car audio this was going to be the place. I walked in the door and Nelson Moreira immediately asked how he could help. From there class was in session.

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After I explained my mission to get my knowledge base of car audio past 1995, Nelson started off slow. He told me about how the aftermarket manufacturers had to figure out how to integrate with factory audio instead of replacing it. In the old days you would have a new head unit, crossover and amplifiers installed to match the speaker package you desired. Today replacing the head unit is really not a viable option anymore as multi media displays are more integrated into the dash with custom shapes and designs for each car maker. That is where the DSP, Digital Signal Processor, comes into play. It is able to take the signal from the factory unit, clean it up and send it through 248 bands of programable equalization before it hits the amplifiers.

The DSP is the heart of the current incarnation of high end aftermarket audio installations. So many cars today have noise canceling features built into the factory audio systems, the DSP can activate or deactivate them automatically for you for the best audio experience. It is completely laptop programable and has a bluetooth interface built in as well. The DSP also acts as your crossover providing specialized outputs to your individual amplifiers. All the features of the DSP is squeezed into a box about the size of a brick for easy installation into small spaces. The unit the folks at RTA showed me was the Rockford Fosgate 3SIXTY.3, an amazing piece of technology.

After the DSP, the components are really the same but with much better features and power capabilities. For the high end audio enthusiast, you had amplifiers for your subwoofers, mid range speakers and you tweeters. All of witch were power hogs that require an alternator upgrade at least and in some cases an additional dedicated alternator. Todays class of multi channel amplifiers allows you to have one amp providing unbelievable output to multiple speakers. All this without having to reengineer your vehicles electrical system.

Speaker advancements have come in size and quality, but the biggest change has been the addition of led lighting in the speakers themselves. Being able to chose the illuminated color of the speaker and have it change to the music being played was mesmerizing. Used in combination with the new led packages commonly found on cars adds a new sensory element that is spectacular. With the progression of the speakers themselves, the size of the enclosures has shrunk as well. Toby Barcenas was building an enclosure for the F250 that was one third the size of what we had to build back in the day. With the limited space in todays cars and trucks, the shrinking of the components makes it all possible.

When I was fiddling with my own stereo in the 90’s it was almost all do it yourself capable. Today I would not recommend that anyone short of an expert try an installation. Between the damage that you could to that would void your factory warrantee and the car itself, go to a professional to have it installed and save yourself the headaches. Also professionals like Toby and Nelson are able to program it for you and show you what adjustments that will make the differences you are looking for. You can spend thousands of dollars and have all he best equipment, but without knowing how to get the most out of it you might as well be throwing your money out the window.

I left Real Time Audio with a new respect for todays car audio enthusiast. I know now that the technology involved is way above my pay grade and expertise. What they can get out of todays systems without having to cut up the dash or disfigure the interior of modern cars is amazing. Between the DSP and the advances in amplifiers and speakers we will not just hear the bass of the car behind us, but actually hear the song.