We've come a long way since the AM radio and the 8-track cartridge first let us take our entertainment on the road. These days automotive audiophiles have almost unlimited choice in custom sound equipment, from sweet-sounding stereos to "doof-doof" boxes that'll make your ears bleed. Here's how to make some sound decisions about your in-car audio system.
There are essentially two main areas that need to be considered in upgrading your sound system. The first is getting the music into the car - via radio, tape, CD, MP3 player or mini-disc unit, etc. The second is getting the music out of the car - via speakers, amplifiers (amps), subwoofers and so on. You can upgrade either of these areas alone, to some extent, but best results will be obtained by planning a co-ordinated approach.
Getting the music in
Most modern cars come with a basic (or "stock") sound system including an AM/FM stereo radio and single-disc in-dash CD player (these days CD players are pretty much standard, replacing the cassette players of the previous era). Some CD units now offer support for MP3, WMA and AAC. Most basic systems will have four speakers (two in front, two in back). Some mid-range (and many upper range) cars also come with a 6-12 disc CD changer (or "stacker").
While CD stackers used to be the ultimate in audio one-upmanship over your neighbour, the popularity of the Apple iPod hard-disk based portable music player has lifted the bar dramatically, offering thousands of songs at your fingertips - far more than even MP3 CD-compatible stackers can offer.
Customising your in-car sound system can range from the modest to the magnificent. The simple addition of an amp can lift your car's sound profile to a much more enjoyable level. But for some people the bigger and bolder the system, the better.
More upper range cars are now offering the option of iPod integration as an option, or even as standard equipment. These include BMW, Mini, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo with Honda, Volkswagen, Nissan, Audi and even Ferrari featuring the ubiquitous iPod in upcoming models.
The aftermarket is booming too. Several top car stereo accessory manufacturers now offer iPod integration for most cars, from iPod-ready head units to self-install options to professionally installed interfaces.
Alpine, Pioneer, Clarion, Kenwood and a growing list of others now offer integration accessories that make the iPod, Creative's Zen, and other portable MP3 players work like part of your sound system. This lets you use your head unit (main system control interface) for navigating and choosing songs, displaying all the information on the main unit interface. It is easier to use and therefore less distracting while you are driving, so it is safer than having to fiddle with the MP3 player itself. And the bonus is that these systems also charge your iPod, and other MP3 players, while you drive, so when you stop you simply pop the portable player in your pocket and you're charged up and ready to go.