Welcome to our mobile audio listening lab

Testing mobile audio gear in the Crutchfield Labs

By

John Pollard

John Pollard spent the first six years of his time at Crutchfield on the phone helping people as an Advisor. He later joined the writing staff, focusing on car stereo gear. A native of Charlottesville, VA, he left our rolling hills for the idyllic wonderland of Seattle. Despite the distance, John still works for us, leading up a special project for our vehicle photos database.

More from John Pollard

Jordan posing in front of the Focal speaker board

Jordan Greenstone, Crutchfield Labs Manager, stands next to our speaker listening station #1

When we started planning out the mobile audio/video section of the Crutchfield Labs, we wanted a setup that would let us critically listen to different brands of speakers, amps, and subs side-by-side, in an environment that gives every product equal footing. With the completion of the Labs earlier this year, it became clear immediately that they’d be even more helpful than we’d anticipated. Writers and researchers now have an area where they can get hands-on experience with the latest products, while our merchandisers can test out gear to see if we should carry it. Meanwhile, our advisors can listen to various sets of speakers and establish their own opinion of what sounds great, so they can help you find a better match for your system. In short, the Labs have made us better at what we do — and now we’d like to take you behind the scenes.

Amps for Focal board

These JL Audio amplifiers provide twelve channels of amplification for the speakers, and plenty of power for multiple subwoofers.

Speaker listening station #1

Quick and easy comparisons

Speakers are an incredibly important part of any mobile audio system, because they physically create the sound. But because manufacturers use different designs and materials, speakers can sound very different from one another. So we built two speaker stations in a sound-dampened mobile audio room that helps reduce external noises — it lets us compare speakers more critically.

The first station lets us do quick comparisons between different pairs of speakers. High-end speaker company Focal provided us with a large display that holds six pairs of speakers, along with a car stereo we use as the source. A switchboard lets us turn different speakers on and off so we can compare pairs easily. While most speaker displays use a single amplifier to power all of the speakers on the board, we decided to use three 4-channel JL Audio amplifiers, for a total of twelve channels of amplification. This way, we can set the level of each speaker to be the same, which helps account for sensitivity differences between the speakers. This means that when we evaluate speakers on the board, we can listen for differences in how they sound without having loudness bias our opinion.

Removable baffles for quick speaker changes

These baffles let us change out the speakers in the enclosures quickly in station #2.

Speaker listening station #2

For critical listening tests

The second station consists of two custom-made enclosures with interchangeable baffles into which we can mount various speakers. The enclosures provide lots of air space for each speaker, simulating a car door panel. And we don’t have to worry about unwanted vibrations, because the panels of the enclosure were built from 2-1/4" thick medium-density fiberboard.

We power the speakers with a high-end Focal 4-channel amplifier and a top-of-the-line Pioneer CD receiver. Each enclosure holds two speakers, and listeners can swap the pair they’re evaluating instantly with a hand-operated switch. This way we can compare speakers as they would sound in a car door while listening critically for differences in sound quality.

The trigger switches between the two pairs of speakers.

The trigger switches between the two pairs of speakers.

Subwoofer listening station

How low can they go?

Subwoofers come in many sizes and are made from many different materials that shape the low-frequency sound they create. For listening purposes, we have two large 13" subwoofers and two smaller 8" subwoofers in our Focal speaker display connected to one JL Audio amplifier, and we can connect two additional subwoofers outside of the display. We wired in a switch to let us flip between all of the various subwoofers to hear how their sound blends with certain full-range speakers, and to test for loudness and sound quality.

Three sub boxes

We have enclosures on hand for comparison testing on various subwoofers.

What about amps?

Amplifier comparison station coming soon

Amplifiers can sound very different, so we plan on installing an amplifier comparison station in the near future. The switch we’ll install will let us connect multiple amplifiers to a single pair of speakers so we can toggle back and forth to listen for differences. We’ll adjust the gain for each amplifier to the same sound level so that variances in loudness don’t interfere with the overall sound quality in the comparison.

Jordan with two amplifiers

Jordan, the "Lord of the Labs", manages all testing done within the Crutchfield Labs.

You can read more about the Crutchfield Labs in our article about creating the listening spaces.

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