Every month or so, someone asks me for a recommendation for a car stereo shop. Sometimes the request is simple and involves replacing damaged or worn-out speakers. Other times, the project involves a remote car starter or an audio system upgrade. When these requests are simple, I have several resources at my disposal to make a solid recommendation. However, when things get more involved, I often find myself in an awkward situation where there is no perfect answer. For those who care about the quality, performance and reliability of the work done to their vehicles, I can only assume you feel the same way.
When Car Stereo Shop Suggestions Go Wrong
Sometime back in the late ’90s, I was asked to recommend a shop to build a fiberglass subwoofer enclosure and amp rack in the back of a Volkswagen Golf. The client was in the north end of Toronto. I recommended a shop that had a good reputation. Two months later, I received an e-mail stating that the work had been unsatisfactory. The subwoofers didn’t play very loud, nor was there much low-frequency extension. I asked to inspect the work in person and found that the shop hadn’t built a fiberglass enclosure under the subs. Instead, they sprayed the area with a blue sound-deadening material and then built a wooden frame on top. There were gaps and openings all around the perimeter. Based on what I saw, I was surprised that the system made any bass at all.
When I recommend a shop, I’m putting my own reputation on the line. That experience is an excellent example of why I’m increasingly hesitant to get involved in larger projects, aside from explaining the physics behind my product suggestions and component installation guidelines. I said this (thankfully) long-defunct shop in Toronto could do the work. The shop owner told the customer they could. Unfortunately, the results didn’t match the promises. I guessed and was wrong. The shop owner lied.
I fixed that installation myself. I bought the necessary fiberglass and resin, then built the bottom of the spare-tire well enclosure on my time. I didn’t take a penny for compensation, although I think some pizza was involved in the project completion.
The Challenge of Picking a Car Stereo Shop
Sadly, retailers like the one I described above still exist to this very day. Unfortunately, not everyone is in business to do every task the best way possible. This philosophy extends to manufacturers as well. Some of them buy products overseas and put their names on those products without considering performance or reliability. Some companies do test those products to ensure consumers get solutions that meet their claims. The best companies invest in the engineering personnel and equipment necessary to create solutions from scratch and test them. These are the companies that consistently deliver solutions with better value and performance that exceeds specification.
Unbeknownst to most of the popular car audio manufacturers, I test significantly more products than what is published in our Test Drive Reviews. I’ll often borrow an amplifier, speaker, subwoofer or source unit from a friend or local shop owner so I can put it through its paces. I’ve invested thousands of dollars into test equipment to make sure I can characterize as many aspects of a product’s performance as reasonably possible. If I recommend something, it’s not based on a friendship or a trip to Europe, or something online posted by a stranger. It’s based on measurements and genuine hands-on experience.
I do not doubt that consumers share the same frustrations I do when choosing a shop to work on their vehicles. As we’ve said many times, the correct integration and calibration of car audio components play a massive role in determining their performance. This isn’t the same as plugging a set of headphones into a portable music player or hanging a TV on the wall in your living room. Working with modern automotive infotainment systems can be very complicated.
Unfortunately for me, my research into product performance adds a second level of frustration. I have a very different perception of product quality and performance than most retailers, product manufacturers and distributors. I don’t have to say that something is good or great to keep the lights on at work and pay the bills.
Armed with the above information, picking or suggesting a good shop is much more complex. More often than not, the shops that do the best work are partnered with brands that I don’t hold in high regard. Sure, selling those amplifiers, speakers and subwoofers may be profitable for the business owners, but other solutions sound better for the same — or often less — money. This is my description of value.
Frustration Level Three and Four
Aside from offering top-quality products and world-class installations, I consider two more criteria when asked about recommendations.
First, for complex audio systems, style and design matter, I look at dozens of installations every day in several social media platforms. I prefer those installations where the product becomes part of the vehicle, rather than being highlighted in a way that makes it stand out. If a speaker will fit behind a stock grille, or a new grille can be created that mimics a design aspect like a vent or trim piece in the car or truck, I think that’s ideal. Many installations introduce new shapes, grille patterns, colors and materials that aren’t already in the vehicle.
When it comes to the trunk or cargo area, things get even weirder. In my opinion, the trunk should be either stealthy or an extension of the vehicle’s interior. Some great examples combine features of the vehicle exterior, but more often than not, I think they look out of place.
The last challenge circles back to product selection. One of our top priorities here at BestCarAudio.com is to showcase the best the industry has to offer. Some well-known shops use products that aren’t even car audio products. These usually fall into the speaker category, although those low-quality Android-based head units are definitely a part of this.
There are some amazing drivers designed for the home audio industry. They include class-leading technologies and can sound fantastic. Sadly, they aren’t car audio speakers. They typically don’t undergo environmental testing or use materials resistant to humidity or prolonged UV exposure. Even if the product is equivalent, it’s typically coming from a source that doesn’t support the industry. (By supporting the industry, I am referring to offering dealer training that improves the knowledge base of those upgrading consumers’ cars and trucks.) It’s often a bit behind-the-scenes, but the shops that excel at what they do invest a lot of time and money and training. BestCarAudio.com is here to support the brands that offer high-performance products at brick-and-mortar retailers while providing retailer training and support programs.
As they say, everyone is entitled to their opinion. If you’re investing in upgrades for your car, you are welcome to choose whatever style and products you want. The staff here at BestCarAudio.com hope that the information we provide you helps make shopping decisions that offer the best value and a gratifying listening experience. After all, enjoying your music is what car audio is all about.