Eureka Moments

Let the Good Sounds Roll

When I was growing up having a real car stereo was almost as important as owning a solid home system, maybe more. The radios that came standard with most cars were so horrible in sound and function that a cottage industry developed of stores dedicated only to car stereos and installations. It was as if every automotive manufacturer had thrown in the towel by offering low-quality AM/FM only radios, knowing that anyone who cared about sound would rip them out anyway. I know, I’m writing about a car stereo in Copper, but good car stereos were something to aspire to, not look down upon.

Going into a car stereo store in the 1970s and 1980s was an experience that was entirely different than going to a store with home audio components. For starters, there was no way to replicate the sound of your car’s cabin when auditioning a system in the store. So, radios and speakers were mounted into vast wall displays and you had to take a leap of faith that whatever you heard and liked in the store would sound as good or better in your ride. However, more often than not, because the car interiors were so small the sound would almost always be better once installed in your car than in the showroom.

But car cabins are far from perfect audio environments. Some favor the bass. Some favor the treble. And some just rattled because the interior trim wasn’t what it is today. That said, there was nothing like pulling up to a friend’s house blasting a newly-installed system. This was something to brag about to anyone within driving distance.

I’m reminded of a few car stereos in particular that I’ll always associate with certain bands. The first was an all-Pioneer set up that my brother Brian installed himself in his 1972 Volkswagen “squareback” station wagon (in Sunkist orange). At the time, the model he chose to go with the speakers was at the high end of Pioneer’s product line. He installed some speakers up front along with two rather large ones in the bottom of the rear hatch. He remade the entire cavity where these were mounted, and put insulation between the metal frame and the face plate. This gave the speakers a cozy bottom to their sound.

Nice ride! 1972 Volkswagen “squareback.”

The car would be a regular fixture at summer beach bashes on Long Island Sound. There he would open the hatch wide so that the speakers now faced out and I can remember Steve Miller’s Book of Dreams blasting endlessly. One night it drained the battery dry and we all wondered how it hadn’t happened earlier. Somehow through sheer necessity and beach-side inspiration he and our cousins engineered a way to tap in to an actual power line so that this would never happen again. Back then everyone was at least a little bit handy and resourceful.

For you younger readers, playing music on car stereos at parties was once a pastime as American as baseball. I’m reminded of my late friend Pat. At a high school party one summer weekday night, Pat took us from the party out to the street to hear the new stereo he had installed in his 1982 Ford Fiesta. It was about midnight and he put on Little Feat’s “Fat Man in The Bathtub” from Waiting for Columbus at a volume that had to be at nine out of 10 or higher. The sound was amazing – especially the bottom – and the car didn’t seem to budge at all even though the volume was so high.

As the song unfolded every light in the neighborhood began to turn until a dad who couldn’t sleep and had an early day ahead of him came running out of a house in PJs and a robe, screaming at Pat to turn it down. Pat kept innocently asking “What? I can’t hear you. The music’s too loud!” The next day he was back in the neighborhood cranking the Dixie Dregs like nothing had happened. You can get lost in sound inside a car and Pat often did.

Car stereo cassette systems were everywhere. From Motor Sport, October 1969.

Not every car stereo of the day sounded so good. My friends the Adams brothers co-owned a 1964 Ford Fairlane. It had a little bit of pep because of its inline 6 cylinder engine. But the real muscle came from the way it looked – metallic blue with black rims and silver bullet hubs. The brothers had affixed a state troopers’ ball and whip antenna (used with a CB radio) so it had the look of a mid-1960s Canadian border highway patrol car. Inside, the car stereo was all lights. It was made by Audiovox and when you’d drive at night that little car stereo had so many flashing lights that it looked like you were sitting in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle.

However, that’s where the wonder ended, for as bright and impressive-looking as the display was, the lack of any real power from the system made songs like “Trudy” by The Charlie Daniels Band sound wafer thin. So they decided to add a boost to the system and add an amplifier, also by Audiovox, called “The Sound Exploder,” thinking that such an amp would remedy the weak sound. It had one big square power button and a pilot light. When turned on the only thing that exploded was our laughter over how little it did to change anything. Sometimes even cheap car stereos could create moments you’d never forget. [Are there any readers who had car cassette decks who didn’t have to fish out tapes that were eaten? – Ed.]

I’m something of a classic car collector. I have been fortunate enough to have acquired cars that already had the radios replaced with high-quality units. In my current classic car, a 1986 Porsche 911 Supersport, the prior owner installed what may be the best system I’ve ever seen. It’s at least the best I have ever owned.

Ray’s 1986 Porsche 911 Supersport.

The car came with a Blaupunkt in-dash unit that lasted me about a year. I had to replace it and ended up going with a Sony head unit that is perfectly fine and has modern functions like Bluetooth and Pandora. But what really sets this system apart is the two Butler Audio Tube Driver BLUE TDB 275 power amps under the front hood. Butler Audio is a company specializing in high-end home, pro and car audio vacuum tube gear. Like most tube components, the amps, rated at 2 x 75 watts (into 4 ohms, 250 watts bridged), add incredible power and warmth to the sound.

A “Sowy” car stereo…whaaa? Image courtesy of Pixabay.

When the car is started, the in-dash unit is the only power source. As the tubes warm up the system kicks into gear and the volume jumps by a good 50 percent. This comes through a pair of Focal in-door speakers that have exceptional range and clarity. The sound the system delivers is very full- bodied. Even with a car whose engine can often drown out the conversation between driver and passenger, this blend of components finds a way to cut through and present itself without piercing your ears or feeling like they’re intruding into the space. It’s as close to the warmth and range provided by the best home systems as I have heard. That’s the case whether you are listening to a disc, using Bluetooth, or the radio or a remote digital music source. Lastly, to have tube amps in a car, well in my opinion that‘s just plain cool. It’s old school in so many ways and yet with a functionality that’s very 2020.

Ray’s Butler Audio TDB 275 vacuum tube power amplifiers.

Before I had to replace the Blaupunkt I hadn’t been to a car stereo store in 20 years. They’ve changed. Today, all cars come with really solid radios, and the more expensive the car, usually the more elaborate the stock sound system. They are also pretty well hidden and integrated into a car’s infotainment system – no more banks of Space Shuttle lights. They sound great and better yet – they are impossible to steal.

This mid-1970s Lear car stereo was advertised as theft-proof too.

The evolution of stock car stereos and the move away from aftermarket systems ultimately has caused the car stereo stores that are left to turn to radar and remote starter installations. Everything’s become more block and tackle, and frankly boring. (With one exception: those “sound off” competitions featuring cars loaded with thousands of watts of amplification and multiple huge speakers that create dangerous in-car decibel levels.)

None of this changes the fact that great music, often played at high volume, goes together with cars and summer like ham, eggs, and cheese. It’s perfectly defined in the classic NRBQ tune “Ridin’ In My Car.” That one-on-one experience of singing along with a favorite song played through a custom system in your own car is something entirely red, white, and blue.

There are some memories that only a car stereo can create. Fortunately for me, I have many and expect even more to show up just around that bend in the road.