Spectacularly terrible car stereo...
November 18, 2005 1:34 AM   Subscribe

My car stereo is probably as bad as it can possibly be and still produce sound. But…I think you guys can help me.

The stereo is a factory-issue AM/FM/cassette deck from a mid-90s Caprice. (It has a Bose logo on it, whatever that means.) The symptoms:
        -The sound is really low; not indecipherible, but low enough that I’m always trying to turn it up a bit.
        -The sound also only comes out of one speaker, despite the fact that all four of them work. I know this because once a month or so I’ll hit a bump and have the glorious luxury of four-speaker sound for about ten seconds or so.
        -On coldish mornings, the radio produces only a terrifying high-pitched squeal until it “warms up.” Sometimes this takes fifteen minutes; on particularly cold mornings, the sound never goes away.

Okay! So I assume that the problem isn’t the “head unit” but rather the amp gone spectacularly haywire. Accordingly, here’s my questions…before you read them, please appreciate that my knowledge of car audio is limited mostly to adjusting the volume on NPR:

Is it the amp? Do I even have an amp?
If it’s not the amp, is it the head unit? Will I ever stop giggling when I type “head unit”?

Can I bypass the amp, or is this something I have to replace?
Please keep in mind that I know nothing about this. If I have to replace it, what should I look for when I’m buying? Obviously, I don’t need anything too powerful: I’ll be using my stereo to listen to the news and my iPod (via the cassette) a few times a week…not pumping b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bass as I cruise past your bedroom in the early morning hours. What’s a reasonable price range?

If I need to bypass or replace the amp, is this something I could do myself?
Despite my ignorance at all things car audio, I’m reasonably handy when it comes to automobile stuff: I change my own oil, give myself tune-ups, rotate my tires, and replace my own brakes. I mean, I don’t drop the transmission or anything like that, but I’m not clueless.

Thanks in advance for your help!

(Interesting tangent: the reason I probably need to do this myself is that I live in New Orleans. “Oh, right,” you’re saying, “and most of your car audio places are underwater or looted or just plain closed.” But, in a weird and depressing twist: no. In fact, most of them are open, they’re just packed. Like, ten-day waiting lists before you can even drop your car off overnight to maybe get looked at. Apparently, there’s a certain kind of person who gets a FEMA check and the first thing that springs to mind is b-b-b-b-b-b-b-bass.)
posted by Ian A.T. to Technology (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Heh heh heh... you said "head unit..." heh heh heh....

Sorry. I had to do that.

Did this start suddenly or did it get progressively worse? Was your car "involved" in the flood?
posted by Opposite George at 2:31 AM on November 18, 2005

Response by poster: It's been like this for about two years now, ever since I got the car, and has gotten marginally worse recently.

But, the storm had nothing to do with it...it was my evacuation vehicle.
posted by Ian A.T. at 3:10 AM on November 18, 2005

Unless the previous owner of your car was... well, crazy... it's highly unlikely you've got a separate amplifier. 1990s Chevy Caprices are not known for being pimped-out.

What's more likely is that the previous owner took out the old heatunit and put in the new one, or that Chevrolet offered a "luxury" Bose headunit option. Or, that someone took a Bose sticker and put it on your stock radio. Any one of those is more likely than having a separate amp. If you had a separate amp, you'd probably know by now, because you would have seen it in the trunk or behind the seats.

This sounds like you've got two problems: one, that the wire connections to the speakers are flakey, and two, that your headunit is dying. These things happen.

Here's your basic car stereo diagram: Inside the cabin are your seats, a dash, and some carpet. Inside the dash is your headunit. There are wires running from the headunit behind the dash, through the doors into the door speakers. If you have rear speakers as well, that means there's another pair of wires going from your headunit inside the dash, underneath the carpeting, probably through some hole in the trunk, and up behind the rear deck (where your rear speakers are located).

Most headunits have built-in amplifiers. The only ones that don't are usually phenomenally expensive (Nakamichi, McIntosh, etc.). If you had an external amp, the wires would go from the headunit to the amp, and then from the amp to the speakers. Since space is at a premium in car cabins, the amp is usually mounted in the trunk. Yes, that means there are wires running all over the place under your carpet. Annoying, huh?

The procedure to remove your old headunit differs from car to car, but basically it involves removing the part of the dash that sits in front of the headunit, then removing the headunit itself (usually nothing more than a couple of phillips-head screws). To remove or fix the door speakers, you'll have to take off the interior door panel cover. There will be a few steps that, again, differ from car to car. If you've got an armrest, that unscrews from the door. If you've got manual roll-up windows, there's a clip that holds it on. Once you've got the "stuff" off the door, the door panel itself can be popped off (it's normally held on with a bunch of plastic clips). Rear speakers are much easier. Just pop off the grill and unscrew 'em, or alternatively unscrew them by gaining access from inside the trunk. YMMV.

If you don't have any experience with holding a screwdriver, or are just afraid of breaking something (it happens to the best of us), I'm 100% certain you could take it to just about anywhere (Best Buy, Sears, etc.) and they'll install a new stereo and speakers (and speaker wires) for you.

Alternatively, you can check out Crutchfield and find a new headunit that fits your car, and they'll even send you the correct wiring harness (the connector that goes from the back of the headunit to the other parts of the car so it "knows" to turn on when you put the keys in the ignition, and the like).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:25 AM on November 18, 2005

What C_D said.

Crutchfield has a nifty gizmo where you plug in your car model and year and it'll tell you what fits your car (click on "What Fits My Car" under "More Ways to Shop" on the right.) You might be able to use this to determine how your system is structured (e.g., does it have a separate amp or not?)

I plugged in 1993 Caprice and it appears Bose sound was an option so there's a good chance this is the original system.
posted by Opposite George at 3:33 AM on November 18, 2005

This is a problem that has a $120 solution (I'm actually about to do this with my girlfriend's 1994 Ford): drive your car to the local electronics retailer / installer (e.g. Circuit City, Tweeter), pick out a CD radio, and have them install it. Don't waste your time trying to understand it, just take to the pros* and let them do the install. They do this all day long and there's nothing special about your setup.

You can get CD/cassette/radio combo units, but I ... as an engineer I wonder about the reliability of something like that that has so much jammed into one package.

Don't replace the speakers, don't get satellite radio, don't get an external amp, just replace the head unit and move on with your life. In glorious four-speaker sound.

* pros = surly teens / 20-somethings, probably
posted by intermod at 5:18 AM on November 18, 2005

I think it's very unlikely you have a seperate amp.

I think it's one of two things, roughly equally possible. The first is the connector behind the stereo. It's come loose. The second is inside the stereo and beyond your ability, or reason, to repair (I'd guess it's the connections on the circuit board right before the amp). I'm inclined to think that the second possibility is more likely because a) the consistency of the speakers working and not working; and more importantly b) the high-pitched noise.

If it's reasonably easy for you to reach behind the stereo from below the dash, or by removing only a few things, or by easily pulling the stereo from the dash, it's worth the efffort to do so and just mess with the connector a bit and see if that makes the speakers work (and not work).

Otherwise, get a new stereo.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:45 AM on November 18, 2005

Civil_ Disobedient and Opposite George have the right idea. I was browsing through the Crutchfield website and bought an inexpensive Dual brand CD receiver to replace my aging JVC brand CD receiver. Shipping was super quick, supplied instructions and tools all worked great. It took one hour to install since I had to splice a few wires in the car (the last professional installer didn't have the GM wiring harness on hand, so he spliced the wires). My new CD receiver has MP3 playback and an external jack for my iPod that I installed in the glove compartment.
posted by plokent at 10:19 AM on November 18, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all your answers!

I just went outside and looked in my trunk and I have something that I'm 99% sure is an amp. That is, it's mounted below where the speakers are, it's about the size of hardcover book, and wires run in/out of it. Also, my big clue: it says BOSE on it.

I tried taking a picture of it, but needless to say it's sorta tough to take a cameraphone picture of something in your trunk.

I don't know if that changes anything. Also, I'm not trying to be obstinate, but if I can at all help it, I really don't want to just walk into a car stereo place and be like "I dunno." In my hierarchy of people who rip off the ignorant, car stereo dudes are up there with mechanics and computer repair guys.

(Blame a terrible run-in with Best Buy, where a girlfriend's surprise birthday present ended up costing LESS than the "free install.)

Again, if anyone's reading this thread...thanks!
posted by Ian A.T. at 3:12 PM on November 18, 2005

Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle. It does change things. Could be the amp. The things I wrote could apply to the amp or the stereo. I think you should jiggle some of the connectors on the amp to check that possibility.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:32 PM on November 18, 2005

Chevrolet offered a "luxury" Bose headunit option

... which probably came with an amp. Most of your premium radio upgrades do. Heck, my '89 Ford Probe had a "premium" sound system with a cassette deck, four speakers -- and an amp under the front passenger seat.
posted by kindall at 3:57 PM on November 18, 2005

I have the exact same problem in my 1995 BMW, including a funny-looking, apparently-aftermarket "amp" in my trunk with Monster cables running into it. Jiggling the connectors on the amp causes intermittent improvement and/or crackling of the dead speakers. The BMW was "certified pre-owned" but I guess they didn't certify the sound system.

I sure would like to know of a place I could get this fixed without shelling out two grand.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:05 PM on November 18, 2005

I have something that I'm 99% sure is an amp

How about that... a separate amp in a Caprice. Now all you need is one of those tiny chromed steering wheels and some spinners and you'll be rollin' in style.

But seriously.

What you need to do is isolate which part is broken. Unfortunately, having a separate amp just complicates matters. And I know you don't want to tear your car apart finding out what's wrong. So, first thing's first: test the amp+speakers. Unplug the line inputs coming from the factory headunit and plug something else into the channels. Since they're probably line-input RCA connections, you'll need to get a cable and something to play music with at line-level. If you've got a CD player (not a portable, but a real player), that might work. Some MP3 players have line-level outputs. What you don't want to do is use the headphone output into a line-level input--that would be seriously loud and bad for the speakers.

Anyway, do that and get back to us. You've got a month to track down the problem before the thread closes. :)

And ikkyu2, your problem is most likely a desoldered RCA connector inside the amp. If you're feeling saucy, you can go to Radio Shack and buy a cheap soldering iron (and some solder), crack open the amp and re-seat the plugs. The hardest part of the whole operation will be finding a soldering iron through the vast morass of cell phones and Realistic®-brand consumertronics in Radio Shack.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:47 AM on November 19, 2005

You know, some of us are actually here to help.

We take a little time out of our busy days to assist total strangers in whatever plight they may have found themselves in. Sometimes it's serious. Sometimes it's not. But there's an understood, unwritten code of ethics when it comes to this sort of thing.

Basically, it boils down to this: don't bail on your question. It wastes our time.

If you didn't want to try any of the methods provided, the least you could have done would be to tell us, "Thanks for the advice, but I'm going another route." That sends a message to us humble posters: "You can stop checking up on this thread." It's called common fucking courtesy.

See, if you don't do this, some of us who were actually conned into giving a damn about your sad little problem go through the wasted motion of seeing if there's any updates on your situation and new information that might contribute to a solution.

I'm really, really getting sick and tired of people wasting the time of good samaritans. I don't mean to single this thread out in particular, it's just the most recent example of this kind of shit and I figured I might as well say what needs to be said because, well, it's not like you're ever going to check up again and see it anyway.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:08 AM on November 26, 2005

C_D, bro, I took your comment to heart; I haven't had time to fuck with my car stereo. I'm extremely busy - spent most of the last week out of town - and the goddamn thing's been broken for years.

Rest assured when I do fix the goddamn thing you'll be the first to hear about it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:28 PM on December 5, 2005

Rest assured when I do fix the goddamn thing you'll be the first to hear about it.

This is pretty funny, five months later.
posted by Jairus at 7:04 AM on May 4, 2006

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