Car audio head units with digital output

UPDATE – 9/4/14 – The new Alpine INE-W957HD model does feature an optical output!  It’s not really obvious as it doesn’t appear to be a feature they are pushing, but it does have it.

I recently received this email from a reader regarding digital output from aftermarket head units for use with digital audio processors.  Joe brings up a great question!

Audison Demo Car at CES 2012 featuring a Full Digital Audio System

There are a number of audio processors promising extensive time alignment and EQ that seem to finally be close to retail availability. Alpine has the H800, Rockford Fosgate the 3sixty.3, and Arc Audio is working on the PS8. It would be ideal to run a digital signal to the processor to avoid unnecessary digital/analog conversions. I know there are a few head units that have digital output, but it’s never mentioned on marketing materials. What current or near-future head units do you know of that have this type of signal output?

Oh how true it is that it’s never mentioned in any marketing materials!  I remember being so stoked when my Alpine rep told me that the INA-W910BT was going to have an optical output.  I was so excited about it that I managed to sell one along with an Audison Bit One based largely on the fact that it could be an optical connection from the head unit to the processor.  You can imagine how disappointed I was when my husband came back from the install bay, stereo in hand and said,

“There’s no optical out.  Where is it?  Can you see it?”

Sure enough, I didn’t see where you could possibly make any optical connection.

“I f***ing hate Alpine; those ***holes do the same sh** to us every year!”

After calling tech support, I found out you need an additional adapter to add an optical output pigtail.  With the KWE-610A, you could run an INA-W910BT to a processor like the Audison Bit One and from there to an Audison Voce amp with digital connection.  Audison calls it their AV bit IN.

I did not have a chance to check out their full digital audio system while at CES 2012.  They were not at the convention center this year; they were off site at some hotel that we never had a chance to make it over to.  But this video from Audison helps to fill us in on the details of what a full digital audio system is and how it will vastly improve both sound quality and ease of installation.  Full digital audio is here now.

Check it out:

OEM Integration solutions for aftermarket sound

Audison Bit One Processor
Audison Bit One Processor
Can’t change your car stereo? Check out the Audison Bit One.

Looking for a high quality aftermarket car audio sound system while maintaining the factory appearance in your vehicle?

As car manufacturer’s design more and more complex vehicle interiors, it can become more difficult for integrating aftermarket stereo components to improve sound quality. It doesn’t have to be difficult though. Thanks to products like Audison’s Bit One, there are excellent options for integrating high fidelity audio components into an OEM system in a clean and seamless way.

In the past, it’s always been an option to upgrade speakers, add an amplifier or amplifiers along with a subwoofer to a stock system without changing the stock head unit. But this is kind of like taking 2 steps forward and one step back. You’ll always be limited to the sound quality and output of the stock stereo. Not only that, your only option for connecting these components this way are through speaker level connections, rather than RCA cables (which is the cleaner way to integrate amplifiers).

Most stock stereos are self attenuating. The manufacturer doesn’t want you to blow up the stock speakers, so internally they’ve engineered their stereos to adjust output as you crank the volume knob. This is not the case for every manufacturer, but it is especially true in most “premium” or amplified audio systems. You turn the volume up and may find that your bass and mid range levels seem to stay the same, but only treble and upper end frequencies are increased.

So the solution has always been to start with a good clean source, something with a high voltage pre-amp that will allow you to easily install an aftermarket amplifier, integrating with the pre-amp through clean, high quality RCA cables. Well, what if I told you, you could do better than that with going the OEM integration route.

First, let’s look at the traditional set up: replace head unit, replace speakers, add amplifiers and subwoofer. With this option, we have to wire up and install a new aftermarket head unit. Then, from the preamp of the new head unit, we need to run RCA cables to the location of the new amplifier. We also need to run power and ground wire for the aftermarket amplifiers as well as speaker wire from the aftermarket speakers to the aftermarket amplifiers. That’s a lot of wiring. Throughout this wiring it can be easy to pickup interference noise from things like the power wire, computers in the car or radio frequency interference emitted from the amplifiers themselves.

If we look at some of the more advanced audio systems coming from car manufacturer’s, you will see they only have one conversion and that is at the stock amplifier. Take a look, for example, at these 3 car manufacturers. Audi, BMW and Porsche. All of these manufacturers have platforms for many of their stereos that operate on the MOST bus system. MOST stands for Media Oriented Systems Transport. It’s a fiber optic network that communicates audio, video, voice and data signals to multiple components. This means there is one optical cable running from the head unit to the amp where it is then converted to analog. That’s it. No RCA’s, no speaker wire, no power wire, no chance for audio interference or audio degradation. From there it goes to speaker wire and then to the car stereo speakers.

Fiber optics in cars? You would think this would make it even more difficult to interface aftermarket car audio products. At first it was, but thanks to company’s like Mobridge, there are some pretty cool ways to add aftermarket amps and speakers that will make wiring this type of set up easier than a traditional aftermarket audio system. Mobridge makes a digital preamp for select MOST bus systems. The digital preamp allows you to remove the stock amplifier and connect an aftermarket amplifier. This preamp will the convert the fiber optic output to an analog RCA output, which can then go to aftermarket amplifiers and then, ultimately, aftermarket speakers. This means you can maintain your cars fiber optic system, maintain the stock head unit and appearance, but change the stock amp to a higher quality aftermarket amp that can then power higher quality aftermarket speakers. It’s an easy way to upgrade your audio system, but maintain the stock look. Since they’re very little wiring involved, it’s also just as easy to convert it back to original equipment.

Mobridge Digital Preamp DA1000
Mobridge Digital Preamp DA1000

But wait, it gets even cooler. Throw in an Audison amplifier, like a new Voce series amp, and you gain a digital input at the amp. That means you can stay digital from the head unit to the amp. With fiber optic connections, you can eliminate the need for RCA cables which means you’ll have even cleaner sound quality and no chance of introducing any type of noise or interference into the audio system.

So that’s pretty awesome right? OEM look, aftermarket sound with minimal wiring required, but it gets even better. Hook it all up to an Audison Bit One with an optical toslink cable and you now have more control than most will know what to do with. The Bit One is an amazing piece of equipment all on its own, but using it in this type of setup means you’ll not only have a pure, clean and noise free signal, but you’ll have a completely customizable and correctable audio system.

The Bit One supplies car audio enthusiasts with an 8 channel output, a 31 band EQ per source, per channel, digital time alignment and a whole lot more. What will this do for you? Let’s say you have a stock 6 channel speaker system and you want a full audio upgrade in your BMW with a MOST system. After having your professional installer install your high quality aftermarket speakers, aftermarket amps, subwoofer, your digital preamp (if not using a Voce amp with digital in and out) and your Bit One, he’ll need to complete the Bit One tuning process.

Bit One Tuning in a BMW 3 series
Bit One Tuning in a BMW 3 series

The Bit One will supply your installer with a USB connection to hook up to a lap top. It also comes with tuning software. The installer can then measure, from where your head sits in your car, the distance to each speaker in the car. Using the Bit One tuning software, he can then calibrate how much to delay each speaker by milliseconds so that each speaker hits your ears at exactly the same time. This process will completely center your sound stage right to where you’re sitting. When done correctly, you can’t pin point exactly where the sound is coming from; it envelops and surrounds you. This is especially helpful in bringing the subwoofer up (acoustically) to where you’re sitting in your car.

The 31 band EQ allows a knowledgeable installer to further correct and perfect your audio system. By playing pink noise (all frequencies) and measuring the frequency response with a real time analyzer (also known as an RTA) he can see with his eyes where there is too much of one frequency, too little of another, and adjust those frequencies accordingly to provide smooth and pleasing sound reproduction.

As car manufacturers improve and create more technologically advanced systems in their vehicles, you will see more innovative solutions in the aftermarket industry to utilize and integrate with these systems. It was originally thought by many in the mobile electronics industry that these types of changes in OEM operating systems would kill the car audio industry. It’s been quite the opposite. For those willing to learn about and embrace new technology, the possibilities for expansion in the industry become limitless.

What mobile electronic innovations have you been impressed with? What do you think has been the greatest innovation in car audio in the past 10 years? I’d love to hear your feedback. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more innovations in the industry.