Last week I offered three people advice on how the physics and science behind car audio concepts work. In all three cases, these people refused to accept my scientific explanations as fact and chose to argue with me. Baffling.
Science Is Simple
Seemingly unbeknownst to many car audio enthusiasts and amateur installers, the laws of physics are pretty set in stone when it comes to how things work. For example, when more current flows in a conductor, the resistance of that conductor will cause a voltage drop along its length. Among other things, this means your ground wire should be as large as the power wire to minimize voltage drops, and both need to be large enough to handle the electrical needs of your amplifier. Also, all speakers are directional but only at high frequencies relative to the diameter of the cone. As such, tweeters should be aimed toward the listener if there is any hope of hearing the highest of frequencies. Stating simple examples like these is often met with denial, supported by the reasoning that “their buddy who used to be an installer did it and sounds/works just fine.” Frankly, that’s the same logic as saying, “When playing Russian roulette, you don’t always die.”
Car Audio Training from the Good Old Days
When I got into the car audio industry in the late 1980s, manufacturers like Rockford Fosgate would host training sessions with their dealers to explain how scientific concepts related to audio system design worked. They explained how to design a subwoofer enclosure vent using a nomogram. They explained how passive crossovers worked and how to calculate values for the components. They explained the basics of series and parallel speaker wiring and how that affected how various wiring scenarios affected amplifier power production. Schools like Mobile Dynamics in Toronto and Arizona took this concept several steps further by providing students with an understanding of how more advanced concepts worked. They were taught to calculate the net resistance of series and parallel circuits, how to work with relays, how to measure circuits in a vehicle safely and how to make reliable electrical connections. These were the fundamentals upon which a technician could then get a job at a shop and begin to learn the art of properly installing audio and convenience systems.
Question the Source
If someone makes a statement about how something works, due diligence suggests that we do our own research to confirm the information. I remember attending a training session in Toronto conducted by a speaker manufacturer in the mid-’90s. When questioned about the “brightness” of their tweeters, they said it was a level of accuracy nobody had heard before. Decades later, people realized that what they were hearing was actually distortion from an improperly damped metal diaphragm.
Of course, we have the ever-popular “amplifier quality reviews” that are based on power production numbers but don’t include frequency response or distortion measurements. As someone on our Facebook page said recently, “That’s like judging the quality of a truck based on how fast it goes. Only the ignorant and misinformed would do that.” We couldn’t agree more. When you don’t know how stuff works, trying to explain the quality of a product to someone else is often misleading.
Watch the ever-logical AvE has a take on the meaning of life below. Warning: Language and content NSFW!
Car Audio and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
In 1999, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger released a study titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” That’s pretty dramatic wording, isn’t it? In essence, the study showed that people with a small to moderate amount of knowledge regarding a subject have more misconceptions about a topic than those who are proven experts or admittedly new to the subject matter. They proved their hypothesis by giving tests to a group of students. They asked the test-takers if they thought they were experts in the subject matter. In terms of results, those who believed they would pass easily did quite poorly, whereas those who believed they had more to learn on the subject better got better marks.
My belief is that there is always more to learn. For example, I have a quite thorough understanding of how speakers work, including advanced concepts like how extended poles, shorting rings and copper inductance-reducing caps function to reduce distortion. However, I know nothing of how to use finite element analysis software to quantify the effect of these features. I’d want an expert to help me design a speaker. The same goes for amplifiers. I’m quite adept at measuring their performance, and I’ve invested thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours into extracting useful information to quantify their quality. Even though I am a formally educated electronics technician, I’m not an amplifier designer. I can tell you when one is good or bad, but I’d want an expert to help me design an amplifier.
Take Advice from Experts
Having the wherewithal to understand what you know and what you don’t know seems to be a lost art. I’ll fully admit that as I approached the age of 50, I had a better understanding of my knowledge limitations than when I was in my 30s. If you really want to learn, you need to know when to listen and to ask questions. If you think you understand a concept, double-check with a genuinely trusted resource. Sadly, finding those resources is extremely difficult.
Are folks with YouTube channels experts? Based on the videos I’ve watched, typically, no. At least, not in the car audio industry. Some produce interesting or entertaining videos, but they lack the technical understanding to educate consumers about how things really work and typically just repeat the “old wives’ tales” that mislead people. There are a few guys in the home audio industry who share good information. There are a lot of folks in the pro-sound industry sharing very useful information.
What’s the difference between these industries? In my opinion, it’s the scale of the project. If a poorly educated technician does a bad job installing and configuring an audio system in a client’s vehicle, only one person is affected. If someone sets up a home audio or home theatre system poorly, only the family will be affected. If the sound at a concert is terrible, then 15,000 people might be disappointed. The person responsible for the poor performance of the PA system will hear about it, and if the trend continues, it’s unlikely they will be asked to work on any future events. In short, it HAS to be right.
Car Audio as a Career or Paid Hobby
If you want to learn about car audio installation, start with formal education. Take a course on physics and basic electrical theory. There are some online courses at colleges and universities across North America. You may also want to use resources like Brilliant.org for a more graphical approach to learning physics. Next, read some books. I recommend starting with “Sound Reproduction: The Acoustics and Psychoacoustics of Loudspeakers and Rooms” by Dr. Floyd Toole. Finish off this starting point with “Audio Engineering: Know It All” by Self, Duncan, Brice, Hood, Sinclair, Singmin, Davis, Patronis and Watkinson. This is a great explanation of how some of the equipment works.
Of course, there are more than 500 articles here at BestCarAudio.com that can help. If you want to know how stuff works, at least 200 of those articles are right up your alley. Search for a topic you want to learn more about. There’s a good chance we’ve written about it.
If you’re a regular reader of our articles here at BestCarAudio.com, you’ll know that we differentiate between genuine car audio professionals and “people who work in the industry.” Those who strive to learn more about what matters in delivering the best solutions possible are typically professionals. Those who implement systems and guidelines with respect to dealing with clients are professionals. Retailers who maintain a clean, tidy and well-stocked showroom and install bay are likely professionals. While there may be exceptions, they are rare. When it comes time to shop for upgrades for your car, truck, SUV, motorcycle or boat, choose who you let work on your vehicle wisely. Not everyone who gets paid to install car audio and convenience options is a professional.