Audio Upgrade Guide, Part 3: You Don’t Drive From the Back Seat

PART 3: You Don’t Drive From the Back Seat
a.k.a. Sound stage, and what rear speakers are really for.

Examine the 3 photos below, then ask yourself this: When it comes to audio, what do a Nightwish concert, an orchestra performance at the Sydney Opera House, and a play on Broadway have in common?

Answer: They all have an elevated stage (soundstage), and it’s centered in front of you.

To be fair, many people never put thought into this concept. Most people who just enjoy music will generally prefer the music to surround them from all directions – like if you were in a dance club, with speakers everywhere blasting music and engulfing your auditory senses in this “omnidirectional” manner. Turn that volume up and let’s party! If this is the type of person you are where you just want to be bombarded with sound, there’s nothing wrong with that – that’s a personal preference.

But if you are looking for improved audio performance, then you need to understand the point of creating a soundstage. Yes – we’re not talking about sitting in a perfectly square room with perfect speaker placement and a central seating area – we’re talking about a small enclosed cabin of a vehicle where most of the speakers are within arm’s reach and your sitting offset to the front and left. But just because we have more obstacles to overcome, it doesn’t mean you can’t get a pretty good soundstage in a vehicle, it just takes more work. I’ve experienced listening to music in more than a few IASCA and MECA competition-level car audio vehicles over the years where if I closed my eyes I could have sworn I was in the front row of a live concert – granted, this level of car audio is way beyond what I want to talk about here (and beyond what most people will ever even get a chance to experience themselves), but it was incredible.

So back to soundstage; in the ideal scenario, if you play quality music and close your eyes, it will sound like you’re literally in the center front row of a live concert (just like I mentioned above). The singer’s voices will seem like they are coming from in front of you, all of the instruments will sound like they are being played live (like if they were spread out on a stage), and it will have so much clarity that it will feel like each member of the band is right there on the hood of your truck! Note that I emphasized “front” – that’s because this level of audio clarity can be achieved without rear speakers.

Focus Forward
When most people start window shopping for new speakers for their Frontier, they tend to factor in the cost of rear speakers as part of their budget – they figure if they are upgrading their audio, they have to replace all of the speakers in the vehicle. But whenever someone asks me about this, I always recommend to bias the budget towards the front speakers if they’re looking specifically for sound quality. In other words, instead of buying 4-6 decent speakers for all 4 doors (and the dash location) of the Frontier, I tell people to consider allocating most (if not all) of the main speaker budget on a good set of 6.5” or 6×9” component speakers instead for the front:

This way you’re spending more money on improving the equipment that is in front of you – which not-so-coincidentally is the same place where your soundstage is supposed to be! (Fact: many of the best competition level SQ vehicle audio systems do NOT have any rear main speakers at all!)

Some of you reading this might say “That doesn’t make sense, how come good home theater audio systems have rear speakers then?” and the explanation is simple: home theater audio is designed around the fact that most cinema audio these days is 5.1 – or 5-channels of audio (front left, center, front right, rear left surround, rear right surround)  + 1 channel for bass. That’s why you need 5 speakers and a subwoofer in your living room to enjoy cinema audio as it was meant to be. Contrary to that, music audio is 99% stereo – stereo as in 2-channels. Those two channels just happen to be front left + front right – not coincidentally, humans only have 2 ears, and they are… front left + front right.

Avoid Multiple Full Range Speakers Up Front
Since we’re discussing audio in the Frontier, there’s one more topic I’d like to touch on – many Frontier owners see the extra dash speaker location and assume that they will get improved sound quality if they installed a full-range speaker as they would have done in the doors AND install a full-range speaker in the dash (as opposed to just a tweeter form a component system). However, the problem here is that this “more is better’ line of thinking is detrimental to an improved soundstage and/or a waste of money. Here are two bad reasons why:

  • Bad Reason #1: Detrimental to Proper Soundstage – As explained earlier, soundstage is about directionality. If you have a full range speaker in the dash and a full-range speaker in the door both playing the same midrange voices in your music, then your ears won’t be able to localize where the voices are coming from. It will not sound like a live band on a stage in front of you. It will sound omnidirectional, and the only way to try to ease the soundstage back to in front of you is to limit the lower frequencies the dash speakers play and limit the higher frequencies the door speakers play… which brings me to reason #2:
  • Bad Reason #2: Wasting Money – If you paid for multiple-driver full-range speakers for both the front doors and dash locations, but then use crossovers or filters to limit their frequency output to achieve some sort of pseudo “component” system, then what’s the point of buying full-range? You basically just paid for 2 full-range speakers and then you’re only using half of each.

What Rear Speakers Are Really For
So – if sound quality means focusing on improving the soundstage up front, why do all vehicles have rear speakers? There are only two reasons: space, and back seat passengers. If you go way back to when car audio was still in its infancy, you’d see vehicles with these large rear speaker enclosures (with 2, 3, or 4 drivers in each) bolted to the package shelf area under the rear window, or the sidewalls of a hatchback, or the back wall of a pickup truck:

This method was super popular back then simply because there was more room back there to install more speakers. As far as the second reason, car manufacturers started putting dedicated rear speakers (in the rear doors of a 4-door or the rear side panel of a 2-door) so that they can sell it as an added feature (“look! Music for everyone in the vehicle!”) on the equipment list.

That doesn’t mean though that you can’t let your rear passengers enjoy some music too. When it’s just for entertainment (and not focusing on ultimate sound quality) a decent set of rear speakers can make your passengers rock out like you are up front. I upgraded my rear speakers for the benefit of my rear-seat passengers, but the secret to still retaining my soundstage and sound quality when I’m driving is that I disable the rear speakers when I’m driving solo or with 1 passenger up front. I only activate them when people are riding in the back.

Take it Personal
In the end, just think about your quest to improve your Frontier’s audio like this: who are you buying these aftermarket speakers for? You. Who is doing this work to hear the improved sound? You. Where do you always sit in the truck? You sit up front. Except for certain specific (rare) circumstances, your method of choosing aftermarket speakers should be focused around making the sound as good as possible to the person in the driver’s seat. This means selecting speakers that enable the possibility to have a good soundstage and to do that you have to set your sights initially on front speaker quality, as opposed to full vehicle speaker quantity.

In Part 4 of this series, regardless of if you listen to EDM, Hip-Hop, Top-40, Rock, Classical, or even Country, you will need more than just door speakers. Hint: Even guitars play bass.

Guide Posts Listed Below
Intro: Your OEM Stereo Sucks.
Part 1: It All Starts With the Source.
Part 2: Speak(er) the Right Way.
This Post: You Don’t Drive From the Back Seat.
Part 4: Dogs Underwater
Part 5: Less is More
Part 6:
More is Less?
etc. TBD