Refurbishing the Sound in a Classic Car

When I received my driver’s license back in the day, one of the first things I did with the family car was to convince my Dad that the factory installed radio needed a major overhaul. With 5 big silver push buttons and AM only in that car, you can start to guess my current age.

Over the years I have seen the steady upgrade of factory-installed car audio equipment, so my days of upgrading seemed to be behind me. Indeed, my current car has the somewhat incongruous combination of audiocassette and DVD-Audio in one original package, so I get the absolute best in digital audio, while still being able to dust off my mixtapes for a degraded but enjoyable analog experience.

After my Dad died a couple years ago, my Mom wanted a fresh start with cars, so I snapped up the Mercedes Benz 380SL she was selling. When I mentioned the opportunity to my British car collector buddy, he urged me to make the purchase. “After all,” he said, “Those cars were made for driving all over the Third Reich.”

By the time the car was shipped cross-country, I knew the Blaupunkt in the dashboard was shot, and I would be dusting off my car audio installation skills. One of the first things I contemplated was how extravagant I wanted to go. Partly due to budget, partly due to diminished ambition and partly to keep the car true to the era (1983) I opted for a relatively simple Sony headend receiver. Although the Sony CDX-GT570UP ($80) is “SirisuXM-ready” and has a USB input, I remain happy to enjoy CDs and the occasional FM station. The 7-band equalizer lets me tweak the sound, but I have not really noticed the “digital time correction for sharp and precise stereo imaging,” which means it is probably working perfectly. The removable faceplate is handy when I park the convertible. Another cool feature is the Subwoofer Direct Connection, which will let me combine the output of the receiver’s two rear channels to drive a small subwoofer. That is my next upgrade, as I won’t need a separate amp or powered subwoofer.

CDX-GT570UP  from Sony

CDX-GT570UP from Sony

The factory installed speakers on my car are in the dashboard, facing the cabin, so they are quite small. I knew that almost whatever I used as replacements would be better. In fact, the TR350-CXi from JL Audio ($70/pair) are perfect. Being coaxial in design, the speakers gave me an immediate improvement from the factory installed single element speakers I extracted. The 90mm JL Audio woofers have mineral-filled polypropylene cones, long excursion capabilities and stamped steel frames. The paired tweeters have 0.5-inch textile diaphragms that deliver clean response.

TR350-CXi from JL Audio

TR350-CXi from JL Audio

Once the new receiver and speakers were installed, I fired up some Clash and went for a glorious drive along the coast. Even with the top down, I was enjoying far better sound than what the German engineers originally installed when the car rolled off the assembly line, and for a very small cost.

1983 380SL from Mercedes-Benz

1983 380SL from Mercedes-Benz

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.