While driving the Miata to work recently, I tuned the radio from NPR’s What Now? Edition--pardon, Morning Edition--to all-classical KDFC 90.3, at which point I was happy to hear the very first emphatic moments of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor. It had been a few years since I’d last listened to the 25th, but I still remembered every note--which is a good thing, because that allowed me to mentally splice in whole passages obfuscated by the frequent static, the car’s tires droning over chunky asphalt, and the closed but nevertheless constantly-flapping soft-top.
Throughout much of my other writing on this site, I might come across as a driving purist whose only sonic interests would tune into vehicular frequencies--the rev of a (tiny roadster’s) engine; the rush of wind through the open cabin; the Parcel-Tongue shash of tires over fog-veneered tarmac. I do delight in such vehicular “compositions”, but my interests are not so one-channel.
I’m as much a music enthusiast as I am one of driving. And as with driving, I like to immerse myself in the experience (of listening in this case). I revel in hearing every passion-inspired note of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, every sampled echo from J Dilla’s Donuts, every breath Jonathan Biss takes between movements as he plays Beethoven's sonatas.
I seldom, however, listen to music while driving. Why not? Well, not being able to hear the nuances, the softer or delicate passages in a song, the lyrics at certain registers is simply frustrating for me and fills me with irrational, poor-audio-induced annoyance. Sometimes I willingly forget this and play one of my favorite albums, only to turn off the music with a scowl (I have issues and I’m here to share them).
Here’s the thing: my taste in cars--and, let’s be real, budget constraints--have me sitting in cabins that aren’t exactly Carnegie Hall-like. If I apply Paul and Todd’s spectrum of sacrifice to this sub-topic of auto enthusiasm, it’s evident that, while behind the wheel, I favor driving dynamics over audiophile-quality sound:
That doesn’t mean I don’t want the best of both worlds (vehicular and aural)--of course I do. I’ve done what I can with the Miata to improve the stereo (without taking on expensive upgrades or plastering the car with a bunch of heavy Dynamat): when I needed to replace the top, for example, I opted for somewhat quieter canvas instead of OEM vinyl; as soon as my budget allowed, I wired in headrest speakers; I sent the stock head unit to a specialist for service and to add an auxiliary cable that enables me to plug in a phone or MP3 player. As a result, I can now hear most of what’s playing through the sound system. Most.
I've considered replacing the stock head unit with a more powerful, better-sounding one that's Apple Car Play enabled. For now, though, I've decided to skip the hassle and expense, in part because doing so would only partially address the audio issues and would potentially send me down a modding rabbit-hole. And though I somewhat like the idea of retro-modding the Miata's audio system (as vintage-Porsche owners can now do), I still favor the old-school look and feel of the original kit (and besides, would a snazzy new Kenwood head unit have FULL LOGIC CONTROL like my current radio does? I don't think so).
The FR-S, by the way, doesn’t fare much better than the Miata in terms of sound dynamics, what with all the creaks and booming road noise, let alone the stock tires, which, in addition to performing poorly, sound terrible and chalky around tight corners (here's a thought: better tires could function as an audio upgrade!).
Sound and Corners
I can and still do enjoy music in cars, especially during moments when driving and music harmonize. Two brief examples: I once cranked up Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying too Close to the Ground” while driving top-down through California’s Central Valley on a hot summer night. When the song ended, I pulled over and star-gazed, which was kind of magical. And many years ago, a high school friend hooned his dad’s red 944 Turbo down La Honda Road while we listened to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor through what I remember was the Porsche’s very good (and very loud) stereo system (Blaupunkt, maybe?). Both of us took in the music--and the corners--with awe.
At such times, engine, lyrics, scenery, strings, and tires cohere to something I could never experience through the best home audio system. And as I write this piece, I’m revisiting my insistence on/obsession with great-or-nothing car audio. Perhaps I’ve turned a deaf ear to the pleasures of listening to music through less-than-perfect sound systems while enjoying a good drive. I’ve learned, once again, a lesson in being more fully present in the moment, fuzzy static, jarring potholes, and all.
What memorable music-while-driving moments have you experienced? Everyday Driver playlist, anyone?
Erik JP Drobey lives in San Francisco. He chronicles some of his culinary and vehicular adventures on Instagram as @zjpd.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.