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Selcting An Audio System Specifically For Your 4x4 - Killer Four-Wheel-Drive Audio, Weather or Not

Posted in How To on July 1, 2002
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If sound in your rig is good, great sound in your rig is even better. But just because you've bought your dream vehicle, and just because you've opted for the factory's double-throwdown optional audio system, that doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to get great sound.

Here, in this Land Rover Defender 90, is an excellent example of a sound system waiting to be attacked by a rainstorm or dust tornado.

To somebody who is really picky about such things, factory car sound can be dismally mediocre. It's a lot like today's factory four-wheel-drive systems. To most folks driving to and from their jobs five or six days a week in their pickups and SUVs, the better examples of factory four-wheel-drive systems are pretty impressive. You and I both know better, however. We know that the factory doesn't build a vehicle with the capability we routinely add to our rigs. Even the best stockers can easily be outdone by a built 4x4. The same is true for car audio. Folks who really want the best sound possible in their rigs select the components and tweak their audio systems the same way we build our vehicles for the uses to which we put them. Some of them will choose the products found in the guide that accompanies this story. They'll get terrific sound. But for those who want to take the next, ultimate step, there's more.

If you value good sound, if accurate reproduction of music really means something to you, it's possible to venture to some pretty far-flung horizons. What kind of sound do you really want in your truck, and what do you have to do to get it? Probably the best way to find out is to research the custom audio shops. Find them, go there, talk to their specialists, and above all, listen. See if the difference in sound turns out to actually mean something to you. No point in spending the money and going to the trouble of building the best if it doesn't move you. On the other hand, there might be some unknown pleasure and beauty to be discovered, making it all worth while. Once you've made the decision to move forward, you're ready for the next step. Putting a sound system into a 4x4 that will be really used for what the 4x4 was built for involves several problems that even the best audiophile professionals may never have been motivated to solve.

The Land Rover has the front speakers neatly mounted in the doors, with the rear speakers in the corners in back. If it rains, these speakers will get wet, but as marine units, they are built to take it.

First, in any such 4x4, the degree of vibration and shock audio gear will be subjected to is vastly greater than the same gear ever would be subjected to in any standard car. Second, many four-wheel-drive vehicles are run open, with no top. Dust gets everywhere, and sooner or later Murphy will send a rainstorm to dampen the spirits of you and your high-end audio gear.

Car stereo equipment was not originally designed to withstand the rigors of what we put our vehicles through, so when selecting equipment carefully examine the equipment for how solidly made it appears to be built. If you can find people who have real experience putting audio into 4x4s, tap into their experience to find out what will hold up the best over the long haul.

A number of manufacturers build products that were purpose-built for the marine environment. Anything that will live around saltwater on a boat will handle any water a four-wheeler might encounter. If the product is adequately sealed against water, it will probably keep out dust as well, but examine the product with this in mind.

Speakers should have plastic or otherwise waterproof and corrosion-proof cones (same with tweeter domes, etc). Vented enclosures are risky because moisture and dust can get in through the bass reflex port and damage the insides. The enclosure must be waterproof. Wood enclosures should be covered by fiberglass or otherwise sealed, or they will absorb moisture and deteriorate.

Amplifiers make heat, and must have cooling provided. Most of them use large external metal fins, called heat sinks, to dissipate heat. They also are likely to allow airflow into the internals to cool the smaller parts inside. They will survive a certain amount of dust, but if moisture gets inside, they're history. Amplifiers must be located so that they will receive a cooling flow of air, but kept dry and reasonably dust-free.

There is a variety of marine covers available. As the name implies, they are designed for boats, to keep the spray off the head. Works real well in a Jeep to keep dust and rain out.

The tape/CD/radio unit, commonly called the head, must be securely mounted. These units are often designed to be mounted by the front only. That's not good enough for us. Make braces that carry the weight of the rear of the unit, and generally do what it takes to make sure this thing is securely mounted. Even more than amplifiers, the head must be kept moisture-free. Dust will kill the moving parts in a CD or tape player in short order. The low- and medium-grade units will have the amplifiers built in, and must be ventilated. The true high-end ones will only have low-level power inside, and will rely on external power amplifiers. These typically will need some ventilation, but not much. One good solution is to mount them in the glove box. Use foam weather stripping on the glove box door, and seal up the inside. Center consoles are available with specific compartments for the stereo: These are not usually as weatherproof as we need them to be, however they can be weather-stripped and sealed with excellent results. In-dash installation can use a marine cover which mounts over the front of the unit and has a door or flap which can be closed over the face of the unit to keep out the dust and weather.

If your sound quality requirements are not tremendously stringent, off-the-shelf marine components are probably a good bet. Just bolt them in securely, and off you go. If you want to go for the rarefied heights of really great sound, however, it is difficult to find truly good equipment designed specifically for the marine environment. This is when you need to get creative. Modify, think up solutions, and fabricate. Of course, four-wheelers know about that., so this should be easy.

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