Why is 12V Stuck in the 80s on Cables?

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Car Audio Stuck in 80's With RCA Cables

By James Chevrette


A recent meme was going around the internet for the over-40 club.  It said if Marty McFly from the movie Back to the Future went back in time today, he would be going back to 1993 (yes, that’s thirty years ago). This made me think, has our car audio industry really changed in thirty years?

I am referring to the technology of the RCA cable. With two wires for the left and two wires for the right, nothing has changed since the early 1980s. With all the advancements in DSP, digital audio streaming and plug & play integration, why are we not rethinking the RCA cable?

Every RCA manufacturer has claimed to add features to their RCA cables in order to get ahead of the competition. But what have they really done: added shielding for noise rejection, dressed up the outside casing for better durability, or reinvented the locking end of the RCA cable. When was the last time you had to fix a loose RCA, from a properly installed head unit or amplifier?

RCA cables have a few flaws:

  • Pick up noise (pop, snaps etc.)
  • The dreaded “ground loop” noise or audible tachometer
  • Limited length and voltage capabilities

Why not adopt technology from the home audio industry, for example using digital cables? Digital technology would reduce ANY external noise from being introduced into the automotive system, provide an auto-sensing turn on feature and provide a lossless signal. While some manufacturers are using digital inputs, especially on DSP or Digital Sound Processors, some manufacturers have removed this technology from their head units in the past 10 years. Why? Cost? No one cares? Or RCAs are proven technology?

In Europe there are 20+ magazines dedicated to Liquid Music or Streaming Lossless Audio, with over 10+ in North America.  Let’s ask ourselves why we aren’t following the framework of streaming audio companies like Sonos, HEOS from Denon or many others. Entire companies are dedicated to digital audio but we, as an industry, have been using the same analog technology for over forty years.

Rockford Fosgate and Soundstream had a BLT or balance line transformer mimicking technology used in the professional audio industry, for some of their amplifiers and processors, promising better performance than RCAs. Head unit companies Alpine, JVC and Kenwood had digital outputs in the past, but nearly all have been removed. Every home audio receiver, DAC or digital-to-analog converter and digital streamer (Sonos or HEOS) uses a digital output. Many installers are adapting home audio streaming devices into the automotive environment to achieve better sound. This requires using various voltage converters.

Let’s agree that technologies like Car Play and Android Auto have made some headway into this space but it’s just a glorified Bluetooth technology in delivering streaming audio. Why aren’t we embracing better technology?

Digital cables would provide cleaner sound, reject all automotive interference and provide the perfect turn-on lead solution while providing a lossless signal to better reproduce a concert-like experience in your vehicle. Isn’t that what we are all striving for?

Top image: Getty Images

Welcome James Chevrette as a contributing editor to CEoutlook!

James Chevrette, contributing editor to CEoutlook

James Chevrette has been a territory manager for over 8 years with Trends Electronics, Canada’s largest Electronics Distributor, but he never forgets his roots.  He has worked in an installation bay, in R&D in manufacturing, and personally trained thousands of people across Canada. Through his dealing with National accounts, regional chain stores, and relationships with brick and mortar independent retailers, he offers a unique perspective about business growth opportunities. He started a non-profit blog in 2015 to educate people within and outside his industry. It has since reached across North America and into Europe with over a million posts read.

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  1. Even Toslink is an 80’s technology (1984 to be exact) so it’s certainly not new. Fiber optic cables require an amp that has d/a conversion of some sort, and the majority of amps are analog. That D/A conversion needs to be able to handle all formats.
    Even in upper tier home audio separates, the connections to the preamp can be digital or analog, but once you’re connecting the preamp to the amp, you’re using an analog connection of some sort.
    Similarly, in most cases the head unit is doing everything as far as giving you an analog signal out from digital sources, and sending out a signal that just needs to be amplified more often than not. Intercompatability with other brands, older equipment, maintaining competitive price points all play a factor.
    Modern amplifiers have largely eliminated noise issues in rca connections, and has reduced this factor to a minimum.

    Digital signal adds cost and complexity that isn’t always needed in 2ch audio, and has limited benefits to the end consumer.

    The main benefit today of a digital signal is running less cabling, but at the expense of less universal capability. When you run an amp that takes a fiber input, and someone wants to add to it, you need to hope it has acceptable outputs, or the sub amp has appropriate inputs, or you’re back to running rca cables again.

    As we see multichannel audio only formats possibly enter audio, and car audio again, it would be interesting to see how that changes things.

  2. Is the bulk of todays consumer of aftermarket audio products willing to pay more for a head unit with digital/fiber audio out, an amplifier with digital/fiber audio in, and cable(s) necessary to interface the two? All to MAYBE hear a difference they might not care about anyway?

  3. Lol, I was going to talk about HDMI technology, and I agree with you. Even the modern day home CD/DVD/Blu-ray use one digital cable!

  4. With so many systems starting with the OEM headunit instead of replacing it, you would need to build this into the interface, then you would need either a breakout box before the amplifier to turn them into RCA inputs, or you would have to get all amplifier manufacturers to agree on a protocol as well as a connector to be able to input into the amp. Otherwise you are going to have a bunch of proprietary connectors or need multiple adaptor harnesses in order to work with every manufacturer. You will also need to flash the interface to make sure it has the correct protocol for the amplifier you are installing. Next comes troubleshooting, how do you test the signal in order to ensure that what you think is going into the amplifier is actually correct? If you don’t have a way to see what is going into the amplifier (signal wise) then how do you know if it is the interface company issue or the amplifier company issue? Now you are going to be swapping parts and have no idea what the issue is. Maybe there is a break in whatever cable is running from the source unit to the amp, now you are swapping more parts out.
    I say this because we already have a lot of people that just swap out parts and say that it is bad, but no troubleshooting is done or not done properly. This creates returns of goods to the manufacture that then tests the products only to find no issues. This creates more B stock goods which then devalues your A stock. This then creates the need to raise prices on the A stock goods in order to make up for the loss in profit.
    Lets also account for the cost of goods to build these parts. Everything cost money, every transistor, diode cost something that gets added to the cost of the product. Then there is the other side of what a product like this will need, the software. Software engineers are not free and to make a GUI that is easy for everyone to use is not easy to do. It all sounds easy, but it is months of work to get it to BETA then it is a constant update from then on.
    The amount of R&D, Testing, production, and if you are lucky to get it all right the first time into production could literally take years. Just getting the interface or source unit companies to decide this is a viable option (if they are not already working on it) will be at least 2 years if they start today, I would guess longer. Then they have to create an amplifier line that will work with this new input or make an amplifier line that will take this new input and the RCA input and speaker level input, another 2 years (could be simultaneous, but you will have to have a lot of information figured out prior to starting your amplifier layout. And lets not forget, that if this was the call from up high that this is the newest priority, it will displace other projects in the roadmap of future products that they are already working on with no real numbers to say that this will be the future of car audio, good luck getting something this complicated pushed through so that they can see if this is going to work.
    BUT, as it was said in the article, multiple companies did try this in the past. Sure it was different and technology has come a really long ways in the last 3 decades, but most companies found that trying to change the way people install products, not matter if it makes it easier or not, is not a viable proposition.
    Now, I am not saying that none of this is impossible, and maybe 1 or more of the companies are looking into this, what I am saying is that it is hard to beat the cost of a couple pairs of RCA’s compared to adding in all of the additional cost of adding the parts needed to pull this off. This is especially true in the source unit world where margins are so tight to begin with.

  5. Good article James,

    Very true the last time a lot of the big head unit manufactures had fiber optic toslink out was during their push for 5.1 DVD audio which never caught on. Then for over a decade later most still don’t have it in their systems. Now more then ever is it NEEDED with all the electronic interference and noisy electrical system in modern cars. Not to mention all the hybrid and electric cars coming in the future. With most DSP’s having a fiber optic in that makes the most sense one less D to A conversion and definitely less noise on the line. This coupled with an external subwoofer level control your good to go. We are hoping to to see in change in the near future where the head unit manufactures start putting them back on especially on their flagship units. Keep up the good work!

  6. Welcome, James. I can tell you that whenever we have the opportunity to use a digital preamp and an optical output, we take it. Zero noise issues.

  7. Many European vehicles have been using fiber for years. It always meant more money for the special interface. We as an industry use to lead the OEM world, now we are following. In some cases far behind.

  8. Because nobody can tell the difference between regular audio over RCA vs digital audio over digital cables when you are driving a car. Anyone that says they can is lying and hasn’t actually done a blind test.

    1. It’s about simplicity. Think about how many cables home audio systems use to have – todays system have a couple of HDMI cables & little else – would be way simpler & effective in the car too.

  9. Back in the mid 1980s, Hirschmann offered a system of amplified car speakers that were fed audio over fiber-optic cables from a fiber-optic adapter connected to a head unit, all to eliminate noise.

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