Sugg. Retail: US$ 299.00
Aiwa North America
Reprinted from the Fall 2001 Audio Ideas Guide
Well, quite a bit has changed in my life since the last installment of Aaron at Large. Much to the apparent surprise of friends and relatives who didn’t seem to think we were “serious”, my wife and I moved to the Los Angeles area early in the new year. I figured I’d take a crack at being a small fish in a much bigger Hollywood pond (my day job is in the film biz) and we were ready for a change and a little adventure. True to the U-Haul credo, moving our accumulated personal effects was indeed an adventure, yours truly driving the truck (with car trailer in tow) from Toronto to our new digs in Manhattan Beach (a small coastal community south of LA proper) in less than three days (special thanks to contributing editor Darryl Stenabaugh who shared the driving until Austin, Texas). As in my previous move, the 32″ Sony Wega struck fear into the hearts of all those tasked with lifting it’s 200 odd pounds, but it survived intact as did most other things, electronic and otherwise.
Between the move and living in southern California I’ve been spending a lot of time listing to music on the road lately. Now I wasn’t expecting anything as exotic as a CD player in my U-Haul, but you’d think a vehicle designed for long haul, cross-country travel might at least feature a tape deck. Nope. Not even an option. I guess I could have set up a portable CD player and some headphones, but in the chaos of the packing and the clutter of the small cab, it would have been more trouble than it was worth. Darryl and I thus developed a deep understanding of the precise width and breadth of classic rock radio across America, concluding remarkably quickly that it is neither very wide nor very broad.
With some minor exceptions (most notably the disappearance of Canadian bands save for Rush, BTO and The Guess Who) it was as if we listened to the same station across the entire country. The homogeneity of formats from station to station was stunning, right down to the high-testosterone, head-banging, vaguely (and often not so vaguely) sexist banter and promos. Why did we mainly listen to classic rock stations, you ask? Well, often it was the only acceptable alternative to silence; at least for us. If you can’t take country, look upon fire and brimstone religious programming as a cultural novelty to be enjoyed ironically in small doses, and run screaming from top forty, there’s only the occasional oasis of a good classical/jazz or NPR (National Public Radio) station to save you from the most tolerable alternative: shamelessly repeated listenings to the classic rawk war horses. I must have heard “Hotel California” over a dozen times, not to mention the biggest hits of Heart, Zep, Steely Dan, and, never to be forgotten, classic rock radio’s favorite son, Steve Miller. For a considerable period of time in southwest Texas I became concerned that the tuner had failed completely, as it scanned in vain through the FM band for a signal. Turns out that there was simply nothing there to pick up. A relief, perhaps for awhile, but even Steve Miller beats the dusty, windswept silence after awhile.
No shortage of radio here in southern California, that’s for sure. Radio in the LA area seems to be better than average, with a lot more funk, soul, and hip hop than you’ll find in most major North American centres. A particular highlight is KCRW, a public station with an excellent new music program each morning (Morning becomes eclectic with Nic Harcourt — check it out online at www.kcrw.com), and Harry Shearer’s “Le Show” on Sundays (Shearer is perhaps better known as Derek Smalls from Spinal Tap, and as the voice of about half the characters on The Simpsons. Archives of his show are also available at kcrw.com). Considering how many people are out there in their cars, right now, coveting the chromed wheels on the SUV next to them on the freeway/parking lot, LA ought to have good radio! Talk about a captive audience. It should be enshrined in the constitution, right up there with gun ownership! Sadly, although it’s better than Toronto’s, LA’s radio is not good enough for me to end my reliance on CD based car audio. In fact, with the number of hours I’m spending in the car (usually 1.5 hrs a day or more), the radio would have to be pretty darn spectacular to keep me happy. With a terminally jammed CD changer, and largely non-existent tape collection, it was time to do something about it. Fast!
MP3 to the rescue!
I know, I know. My last column wasn’t particularly “pro MP3.” In case you missed it, I was voicing concerns about the limited sound quality of digital music on the internet, as compressed digital file based music is poised to be the next major audio format. However, what doesn’t sound quite good enough for the home system can be plenty decent in the car, as I’ve discovered first hand. Since I’m not a big fan of car CD changers (too many excursions into the trunk to switch up music) and having only a single disc head up front can result in a lot of disc and jewel case clutter, not to mention even more frequent disc changes, the idea of an MP3 capable head unit became very enticing indeed.
At the time (February 01) there were a number of exotic (read, expensive), hard drive based systems available, but only two serious candidates from known quanitities in the car audio market (there are quite a few more available now). A rather expensive unit from Kenwood and the Aiwa CDC-MP3. At US$299.00 the Aiwa seemed a reasonable value so I ordered one, along with a set of Panasonic EAK-DS130 5-1/4″ component speakers (on sale at Crutchfield for about US $50.00) for the front of my 98′ VW GTI VR6.
The CDC- MP3 looks and acts much like any other single CD car head. As such it has most of the features you’d expect from a deck in this price range, including detachable face, 22 watts on all four channels, RCA preamp outs (2 sets, front and rear), changer controls, and lots of radio presets (18 FM and 12 AM). The Aiwa goes above and beyond the norm by including a steering wheel remote control, a front panel auxiliary input, adjustable contrast on the clear, always-readable display, and the ability to play CD-R and CD-RW discs. The real kicker, however, is that the CDC-MP3 will play CD-ROMs containing MP3 files. I’m not talking about MP3’s “ripped” to CD, in which you end up with a normal audio CD made from MP3 files (although the CDC-MP3 will play those too). The Aiwa plays MP3 files in their raw, compressed form right off a CD-Rom disc, just like your computer does (it will not, however, play any other compressed audio formats like Windows Media or AAC). This means that one humble CD packed with MP3 files has a playing time of roughly ten hours, holding, on average, about 160 songs! (this assumes encoding at the de facto standard of 128 Kb/s) Make ten mix discs and keep them in your car and you’ve got a year’s worth of music without ever having to pillage your CD collection again. If you’ve got access to a computer and a CD burner then the possibilities are salivatingly limitless. Exactly what I needed to keep me sane in the commuter lane.
Since LA embodies the zenith of car culture, goods and services associated with cars are ludicrously plentiful. As such it didn’t take long to find a mobile installer who would come to me and set up the new system while I was at work. In a little over an hour the stock front speakers (tweeters in the dash and mid/bass in the doors) and stock head had been cleanly replaced and the new gear was running smoothly. The first thing I noticed on my drive home that night was that visually, like the current generation of boom boxes you see at discount electronics stores, the CDC-MP3 is the car stereo equivalent of Las Vegas. The big, pulsing, scrolling, orange dot matrix display and all the flashing blue lights are almost enough to induce a seizure when it’s dark outside. At least the adjustable contrast control will let you tone things down at night, and compete with direct sunlight during the day. If you’re looking for something subtle and reserved, look elsewhere.
Gaudy visuals aside, it was clear that the new equipment had improved the sound in the car considerably. The Panasonic speakers didn’t have the bass I’d hoped for, but were certainly a much cleaner, tighter, more transparent alternative to the stock speakers. The tweeters sounded especially nice and integrated quite well considering their placement on the dash, two or three feet away from the mid/bass drivers in the doors. Treble and midrange took on much more detail and delicacy with well recorded vocals being rendered with surprising transparency and immediacy for a car system. On well recorded acoustic material there was even an impressive amount of air, the car’s interior seeming to grow much larger, acoustically speaking. Imaging was better, but I’ve never been able to conjure up much of a soundstage in a car, no matter how hard I try. The Pansonic’s being only 5″, smaller than the 6″ stock drivers, I traded some quantity of bass for quality, the lower mids tightening up very nicely with deeper bass pretty much disappearing from the front of the car entirely.
Being able to program my own music again was certainly a dearly missed treat, the deck proving easy to set up and use, playing plenty loud, and sounding punchy and clean with regular CDs and remarkably good on FM too. FM sensitivity is very good, the Aiwa pulling in local and not so local stations clear and clean with considerably better fidelity than the stock deck. EQ controls are basic but adequate for my needs, allowing just treble and bass adjustment. There are also the inevitable “bass boost” modes which add varying degrees of thump to the signal. These invariably muddied up the bottom end terribly and were pretty much ignored. The rotary volume control is a godsend, allowing much quicker adjustments than the push buttons found on so many car decks. There’s nothing worse than twenty button pushes when you need it quiet RIGHT NOW! There’s also a soundstage adjustment feature meant to improve imaging in the driver’s seat, but it seemed to just shift the balance a little to the left and make the already limited bass disappear entirely, so it too was largely ignored.
While the Aiwa plays CDs pretty much like any other car deck, things are a little different when you insert a CD-Rom with MP3s on it. The first thing that happens is nothing. Well you won’t hear anything for about thirty seconds anyway while the CDC-MP3 has a look at the disc and figures out what it is and what’s on it. It will then start playing the files in alphabetical order unless you put it into random mode. If you want a little more control and customization of your mix, the CDC-MP3 can also deal with file folders (it can even read nested folders up to 8 deep), which it will treat as albums. Naming your files with a numerical prefix will allow you to order them however you like, just make sure you use three digits (ie. 001,002,010 etc.) or, like most computers, it will put 10 before 2. The mixmasters among you will LOVE this thing, big, eclectic CD collections making some phenomenal custom mixes possible. For example, compile the best driving tracks in your CD collection onto a bunch of discs which can stay permanently in the car. No more shuttling CDs back and forth, no more steering with your knees as you change the disc again, no more skipping through tracks you don’t want to hear. If you’re like me, this is exactly what you’ve been waiting for.
Flexibility at a price?
The price for all this flexibility and convenience? Well, like most other MP3 based devices, making the software takes a little more work, forcing you to compile and organize files on your computer. It sure is faster and more efficient than making cassettes though, and, as with cassettes, a lot of folks will enjoy making the mixes as much as they do listening to them. Just like other MP3 devices, there is a sonic price to be paid too. As I discovered though, you’re not likely to notice it very often. Most of MP3’s sonic shortcomings have to do with detail, especially low level detail. Exactly the same kind of detail and nuance, that, unless your car is very quiet, and you’re stopped at a light, you’re not likely to hear above the wind, tires, and engine anyway. It’s ironic that this kind of “masking effect”, loud sounds masking out quieter ones, is one of the main techniques of MP3’s psychoacoustic compression algorithm (for more on this see my previous MP3 column sidebar, “Codec Considerations“). After a couple of months and many, many hours behind the wheel listening to MP3s I don’t think I could ever go back to a regular car stereo. When playing back files encoded at 128 Kb/s I occasionally become aware that the fidelity might not be what it could be, but when the stereo’s competing with wind, tires, engine, helicopters, and other traffic, MP3’s compression artifacts become a secondary concern. At 256 Kb/s MP3 files are pretty much indistinguishable from CDs in the car, and this is the bitrate I use when ripping discs from my own collection. Plus, it’s awfully hard to argue with changing the disc once a week instead of every forty five minutes.
Even moving the Panasonic speakers to the back seat and putting in the exotic and excellent Premier (Pioneer’s high end car brand) TS-M7PRS 6 3/4″ ($US 300.00) mid/bass drivers up front didn’t make MP3’s sonic shortcomings apparent. The system sure did sound better though, these lovely looking carbon fibre drivers producing tight, lightning fast mid-bass and very immediate, uncolored midrange. I’m still lacking the deep bass I crave, partly because the speaker enclosures holding the Premiers are so small, but transient response is excellent and I’ve never heard such pure mids and top end in a car. Although it only becomes really obvious when the car is stopped or not even running, vocals are beautifully rendered with realistic, full bodied timbre. These are very musical speakers indeed. It’d be nice if they came with grille covers though, I’d hate for someone to put their shoe through one of those fancy drivers! When I moved the Panasonic speakers to the back of the car I managed to firm up the interior panels which hold them by stuffing some foam into the spaces between the enclosure holding the speaker and the outer body panels of the car. This improved bass and helped kill a lot of rattling by bracing the fairly flimsy interior panel. If you’re trying to kill resonances in your car, this kind of thing is a great way to start. I picked up some cheap foam at an auto upholstery shop for a whopping total of five bucks which did the trick nicely. There are also kits which will help you damp body panels and even damping sprays meant for the noisier nooks and crannies of your car (have a look at www.crutchfield.com).
Bumps in the road
Not all was joy and happiness inside the GTI, however. The first significant disappointment came early on, as the CDC-MP3 immediately showed its sensitivity to bumps, skipping on ruts and seams in the road that would never have phased the Pioneer CD heads I’ve owned in the past. Even thought it tended to happen only at highway speeds, the gaps in the music were plenty irritating. Especially when you consider that pretty much every portable CD player on the market now features 40 second anti-skip. Why this feature hasn’t been incorporated into car decks, made by the very same consumer electronics giants making the portables, is a mystery on par with the origins of the universe. The problem was just as bad, and sometimes worse, on MP3 discs. Driving over the same bumps every day I managed to figure out, however, that some brands of discs were more skip resistant than others. Best performer so far is the Maxell CDR Pro, which has a fully painted label side and is therefore more reflective than other CDR’s. In general it seems that the more opaque the label side of the disc, the more resistant to skipping it will be. With the Maxell discs the skipping was brought down to an acceptable minimum of once or twice a trip, and often not at all. The Aiwa was not without its quirks either, occasionally rejecting a disc and displaying an error message only to play it flawlessly when re-inserted. Another quibble with MP3 play is that if the car is turned off, the deck will not resume play from the same spot in the song like it will with regular CDs, but will restart at the beginning of the track it stopped on. When making a bunch of short trips, this can be a drag. Otherwise though, the system has been a functional and musical joy.
It may not be “High-End”, but damn if I don’t love it
Those of us used to high-end sound at home have to put up with a lot of sonic compromises on the road. For many audiophiles, this makes the whole idea of good car audio a non-starter. Indeed, with all the noise, vibration, and strange speaker locations, getting really good sound in your car isn’t easy. All these existing compromises render MP3’s sonic shortcomings largely moot unless you’ve gone to obsessive lengths in making your car sound good (custom enclosures, serious damping and sound insulation, etc) making it perhaps the ideal automotive format. My beloved GTI may not be the best car for audio, lacking the interior solidity and quality of more expensive German cars like Benzes and BMW’s, but the speaker enclosures in the doors are very solid and the car is also reasonably quiet overall (unless the throttle’s wide open and the Neuspeed P-Flow air intake is howling like a banshee) which means you can actually hear some of the detail at highway speeds. No, it doesn’t sound like my home rig, that’s for sure, but it brings me just as much musical satisfaction and makes my commute MUCH more bearable.
As a result I don’t have much time for snobby, blanket dismissal of car audio by audiophiles. Even a passable car system is just too much fun to turn your nose up at. Over the past couple of months I’ve found myself much happier behind the wheel, looking forward to getting in the car, and at times even wishing my trip was longer so that I could hear a few more tunes. Those moments when you can hit precisely the right emotional chord with the music your playing, the perfect soundtrack to your trip, short or long, when you can’t stop drumming on the steering wheel or attempting to use the dead pedal as a high hat, the occasional air drum flourish while stopped at a light. Those moments are golden, psychological balms for those of us living the car culture. If your home audio exploits are restrained by family members and neighbors, the car is also the ideal place to play stuff LOUD, without irritating anyone (leaving aside the “boom box” systems which seemed to designed expressly to set off car alarms, which are as ubiquitous as silicone and cell phones in LA). Good music in the car can make your day, turn your mood around, and put a big, goofy grin on your face. It did for me.