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Auto Audio salesman Ian Meek plugs a thumb drive containing what seems to be a single, constant bass-note into a radio built into a wall of big subwoofers and punches a button to activate a pair of 12-inch speakers. The effect of standing two feet from those speakers is hard to describe: a vibration that thrums in my voice box and makes me want to have a coughing fit, the sound rolling at me and around my body like a wall of liquid mercury.
Meek has worked at West Little Rock's Auto Audio — this year's local winner for best car stereo installation — for nine years. Even at that, he's still a whippersnapper when compared to the age of the shop as a whole, which has been installing car stereos in Little Rock since 1978.
Though the shop does all kinds of automotive customization work, its stereo systems — some costing upwards of $10,000 dollars — it's best known for.
Meek said that like the rest of the world of electronics, aftermarket car stereos have become about a multi-media experience and seamless integration with portable devices, from iPads to USB drives. Some of the stereos on display there these days — many of them big flat panels featuring touch-screen navigation — look like something from the Star Ship Enterprise to a guy like me, who grew up in an era when having an astroturf-covered plywood speaker box crammed in your trunk set you apart from the next guy.
I'm apparently not the only one caught in a time warp. Meek said that by the time an automobile manufacturer designs, tests and implements a new stereo for a new car, the technology is already three years old, and three years behind the features you can find in an aftermarket stereo. For example, Meek said the aftermarket had jacks for iPod input three years before the stereos in most new cars.
Though he's clearly got a dog in the hunt, he says that even "designer" stereo systems that can be ordered as pricy options in new cars often feature speakers with paper sound cones. "The easiest way to put it is, a factory stereo is like watching regular TV," Meek said. "Ours is like watching HD. You get a fuller, richer sound, with less distortion. It's a cleaner signal. That's across the board."
Meek said that as cars have become more complicated and computerized, doing something seemingly as simple as installing a radio becomes a delicate process, one best left to professionals. "You get a Mercedes in there and do something, even just probing wires, you can mess up that whole system," he said. "It's a lot more complicated than people perceive. You've got fiber optics. You've got to know what not to touch. These cars are computers, and you've got to know what you're doing. You've got to know the car."
"Anything that's high end, we're going to be the ones working on it," Meek said, and by high end, he means high: The shop installed a half-million dollar custom stereo system in one car in recent years. Meek walked me back to the garage area and showed off a new Honda Civic coupe, a $25,000 car, that's getting $22,000 worth of stereo equipment, exhaust, wheels and trim items poured into it by a customer. I am definitely too old for that to make any sense.
Still, you can get a full entry-level system with a quality head unit, four aftermarket speakers and a subwoofer for somewhere between $1,600 and $2,000, Meek said. The cost isn't small potatoes, but compared to what you might pay for an optional Bose system or the like, it's definitely reasonable, and the shop can turn a simple job around in a few hours. "What you buy today is installed today," Meek said. "That's our motto."
Josh Montgomery, one of the lead installers, has been at the shop for almost 10 years. During his time there, he said the shop's installed stereos in boats, golf carts, off-road go carts, you name it. The shop does everything but engine work. Customizing a car, Montgomery said, is a way of making it just a little different from everybody else's.
"We have everything from 16-year-old kids to 80-year-old men who come in here," he said. "Your car, unless you own your house, is your prized possession. ... If you're making payments on that thing, you want it to be yours."
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