The Truth About Car DSP: Editorial

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Audison bit One

By Andy Wehmeyer, Audiofrog

Seems there’s lots of confusion and plenty of hoopla surrounding digital signal processing (DSP) in cars these days and lots of amplifier manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon—as was reported here in CEoutlook this month.

Some dealers don’t like DSP or they think they don’t need it.  Some are confused by it. I would like to clear up some of that confusion.

I’ve been in the industry in various capacities for just over 30 years and I can say for certain that DSP isn’t new, but the coming proliferation of what was once a rare piece of equipment is both an opportunity and a potential industry stumbling block.

Some say “Digital sounds harsh,” “digital lacks the warmth of analog,” “something gets lost in the conversion”—all of these are the battle cries of audio fundamentalists clinging to the old idea that any manipulation of the audio signal is degradation of the signal.

The same thing happened during the transition of photography from film to pixels, but the argument in photography was more legitimate. Simply put, our eyesight is more acute than our hearing and far more data is required to provide suitable resolution in digital images than in audio.  The higher resolution argument in audio is a myth. Jitter, artifacts and noise once plagued the conversion from analog to digital and back. Those days are long gone and even today’s cheapest convertors are able to do their jobs perfectly for signals within the range of what we can hear.

Like it or not, music is numbers and it always has been. If that’s a bitter pill, check this out:

We can now perfectly capture the sound of a drum, a saxophone or the human voice as numbers. DSPs manipulate numbers without noise and without degradation to make the listening experience more believable. This new simplicity is a big problem for an industry partially built on sketchy technical propositions and outlandish claims of superior performance through exotic materials and old-world processes rooted in the conflation of music creation and music reproduction. Music is both science and art but reproducing it is science.

Make no mistake, what comes out of your speakers and eventually reaches your ears, especially in a car, is not what’s on the disc. Acoustics is the study of what happens between the speaker and your ears and that study has made the tools available in nearly every DSP powerful and appropriate. Equalization, crossover and delay have been around for years. With DSP, they’re better, more accurate and cheap enough to be included in nearly every system.

A  DSP is just a collection of tools. Some DSPs are like  a 100-piece hobbyist set and some are like a 3000-piece mechanic’s set. Tools don’t fix stuff by themselves. They are only valuable in the hands of a skilled mechanic, carpenter or technician and therein lies your opportunity.

You gotta get the skills and there are resources available to help. Get the new MECP study guides. Read “Digital Audio” by Ken Pohlmann.  Ask the companies from whom you buy DSPs to teach you how to use them—and not just how to use the PC interface. Join MERA and come to Knowledgefest in August. Larry Frederick and I will be teaching three seminars to help you understand why DSPs are important, how to use them and how to make using them one of the keys to profitability in higher-end audio.

I hope to see you there.




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  1. Excellent article. Having worked in the car audio industry for 24 years along with working in the Pro Audio and Commercial audio markets as well. DSP has become a very viable tool that helps correct many issues we all have experienced in a car. Cars are made of metal, plastic and glass so it is not the most perfect environment. In my experience the only draw back I see with DSP is the ease of use. With better education and making products more user friendly this is an area of growth. Also a source of revenue for dealers. With Ipads and Iphone interfacing these days you would thing that someone would tap into this technology and make set up and adjusting easier. I have heard several DSP processing units in cars and they are impressive.

  2. Processors allow us to upgrade audio in cars that will not gracefully accept a headunit. That is not a bad thing. Sure there is a learning curve and they can take a while to install and set up correctly. Customers still think there is a whole bunch of voodoo involved and are more willing to pay for the time to get it done. This is one category where we can get paid for what you know! Let’s face it, most car audio enthusiasts can install a headunit if they put there mind to it. Yes, there have been some growing pains as some of these products have evolved and we have had to swap out parts. In most cases, swap the product and upload the file you have for the customer and send them down the road. It’s not like there haven’t been a whole bunch of foul balls with headunits failing right? At this point we have enough baseline tunes that I can upload a setup from a previous car and adjust the time alignment to fit the current car. Most of us do the same “systems” over and over right? Active front separates and a subwoofer off of a 5ch amp, all using our “go to” gear. Most of the cars that we see in our area are fully loaded, Bluetooth, USB, Aux, Sat, Steering wheel controls, and B/U cam. Not having to replace that leaves more money in the job for better speakers and amplifiers. This also means in most vehicles you don’t even have to take apart the dash! Grab your speaker wires at the factory amp, or in the kick panel and go on with the job. Also, no learning curve for the end user since they still have their factory radio. Saves time on the demo. All good things…….. Embrace the processor!
    If a manufacturer brings a training to your area please go. Leave the dick jokes at home, worry more about the presentation than the free food & drinks and you will learn something.

    By the way, the DSP’s that the industry is talking about doesn’t just add hollow echo. Stadium, Hall, and theater are gone!

  3. Great article. But dsp’s do need to become more user friendly and become more reliable before they hit the mainstream. One of the major manufacturers need to come up with one that is tune able via an user friendly iPhone or Android app vs a laptop.

  4. the biggest problem with the processors these days is that there is no really good reliable one. I have used and sold everything Alpine F#1, Bitone, Mosconi. The best ones that always worked was the pxa-h701 from alpine it had an easy interface and always worked, F#1 processor was good too but, always had burnt out displays but other than that it is the best sounding. I replaced every Audison Bit one that I sold and installed at least once at least once, Fell in love with the adjustability of the Mosconi 6 to 8 but, have had some noise on issues and present resetting problems. The newest Alpine PXA is quite nice but there is no Alpine Head units that fully control it with a digital signal line the old F#1 and Ai-net units. Anyways I am a huge fan of processing when it works, you can correct so many issues you come across in a vehicles environment.

    by the way Larry Frederick is the best trainer in the in the car audio world and is an all around BAD ASS

  5. I agree completely with this article. Here is my problem with this technology. The manufactures(or at least the ones I sell) aren’t doing a good enough job training the dealers on the proper installation and setup procedures of these types of products. We have attended plenty of group style trainings, but when it comes down to it dealers need a hands on approach in a vehicle when it comes to be trained with these products. I believe and support the DSP technology 100%. I’m struggling getting my techs to get behind it due to the lack of setup knowledge that they have. My guys have gotten to where they don’t want to call the tech department of our current manufacture because the techs talk to them as if they are stupid and should already know the answers to their questions. This is a newer category, the tech departments need to show a little compassion to these guys when they call in.

  6. Andy,

    That was beautifully stated. 80%+ are under educated in this category. I know we will start to help the education process one dealer at a time. Thanks for taking the time to share the truth about our industry.

  7. Andy,
    Nicely done. Between you and Larry I am confident that retailers attending KnowledgeFest and your sessions will leave with new knowledge and skills well worth the time and energy invested in attending.
    Ray Windsor
    Leadership Systems

  8. Excellent article, as expected. It is human nature to resist change, even if the change is positive. In my experience retailers who migrate towards new concepts/technologies seem to also be the healthiest retailers in the market. Coincidence? Looking forward to being able to say, ” hey remember cassette decks, flip phones and cars without DSP?”

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