Clarkson on: car stereos
Isn’t it Time is a song you don’t know, by a band you’ve never heard of called The Babys. I like it very much, so the other day I was delighted when some wise and resourceful DJ played it on the radio.
My delight soon turned to rage, however, because, all of a sudden, and without so much as a by your leave, a woman with the sort of voice you hear in daytime advertisements for patio doors interrupted to say the pelican crossing on Latimer Street was out of order.
How dare she? What gives her the right to barge in on one of my favourite songs, a song which is played on the radio only once every 2,500 years, to tell me about a broken light bulb on a street I didn’t know, in a town I wasn’t planning on visiting anyway.
To make matters worse, she then handed the microphone back to the station’s afternoon disc jockey who was so alarmingly Daily Mail-y that after just a few moments, I wanted to peel his face off with a linoleum knife.
Local radio stations all do this. They have the power to interrupt your listening pleasure with their irrelevant traffic reports, and none of them bother to turn off the ‘interrupt’ button when the announcement is over. They hope, of course, that you’ll be so impressed with their regular programming that you’ll continue to listen for the rest of your life. What you actually want to do is drive over and ram your car into their reception desk.
At this point of course, those under the age of seven will be jumping up and down, explaining to anyone who’ll listen that all car stereos have a button which can shut out the Pinocciochial-nosed local radio traffic announcements.
True, but the button in question never comes with a symbol on it, showing a thirty-something woman with a burning rag in her mouth. Nor does it ever say, ‘Press, to silence the bitch’.
In my Mercedes, for instance, you have to press the mute button for two seconds. Press it for less than this and the whole radio goes quiet. Press it for any longer and the instruction is cancelled. It’s also worth noting that if you press it for two seconds while the satellite navigation woman is talking, you’ll shut her up, and the local radio woman will soldier on regardless.
However, if you press it for two seconds, when the satellite navigation is engaged but no instruction is actually being delivered, you turn the local radio cow back on again. And to turn her off, you have to pull over, and rent a fork-lift truck to remove the 980-page instruction booklet from what used to be called a glovebox.
This month, then, the column is all about the bane of my life, the single biggest bugbear of 21st century living – the car stereo.
Only the other day, I was in a Mitsubishi Evo VIII FQ MR 340. Trying to understand the name was bad enough but, my God, you should see the radio which slides out of the dashboard and then rattles incessantly. Obviously, I wanted to turn it off and allow myself to be serenaded by the music of that growly engine, but I couldn’t. I pressed each button, for varying periods of time, but I couldn’t make the system shut down. All that happened is that the screen displayed a series of hieroglyphics that were completely and absolutely meaningless.
“This is a plea from the heart, to the designers of in-car entertainment. Please stop it”
I’ll tell you how bad this stereo is. When the car was parked at Birmingham Airport for a weekend, some youths broke a rear light, but didn’t even bother to nick it. I wished they had. At least it would have silenced the rattling.
Then you have the Nissan 350Z which comes with a huge sub-woofer in the rear bulkhead. Why? This is a £26,000 car and as such is out of reach of those who think their music should be played through a large dog. It’s bad enough being pounded by the suspension without having the booming bass line of every song being directed into your spine. I’ve been told that it can be turned off, but again, how? There was no button saying, ‘Press, to silence the St Bernard’.
We’re told, naturally, that over time we become familiar with the controls in a car, but this is just not the case. When you have a mobile phone, a BlackBerry, a computer, a DVD player, a self-tuning plasma TV, an iPod, a microwave and a CD burner, it’s inevitable that sometimes you forget which button does what.
If you get the new Land Rover Discovery, you’re in real trouble because it doesn’t have a remote CD autochanger. In many ways this is a good thing. Certainly, if you do have one of these machines, hidden away in the boot, I’d like to bet it still contains the six CDs you inserted when you first bought the car. My life is way, way too short to bugger about changing CDs but I must admit I am becoming heartily sick of the Stones and their 40 licks.
The Disco’s autochanger is located in the dash itself. Brilliant! Except all the CDs are loaded through the same slot which won’t open unless you press the right sequence of buttons in the right order. Who thought that was a good idea?
In the old days, of course, you could replace a crummy standard fit system with something from a discount store, but now hi-fis are integrated into the dash, this is no longer an option.
This therefore is a plea from the heart, to the designers of in-car entertainment. Please stop it. Step away from the microprocessor and find out what real people, in the real world really want.
I’m not a Luddite. My pepper grinder is motorised, and I know how to download porn from the Web, but on the average car stereo today, there are probably 30 or 40 functions that I just don’t need. My Merc, for instance, allows me to type in the name of the CD I’m listening to. This is madness. I know what I’m listening to because (unless the local radio woman has interrupted) I can hear it, and it’s 40 Licks. Same as it was last week, last month and last year.
So look. By all means, offer these enormously complicated modular music centres but why not, as an option perhaps, allow customers to have a stereo which sticks closely to my needs?
I do not want to be able to scan radio stations; I only ever listen to four of them. So four pre-programmed buttons, labelled 1, 2, 3 and 4 will suffice. I do not want traffic updates. I do not want a cassette player. I do not want voice activation. In fact, I only need two other buttons: one to turn the unit off and on – this should be at least one inch in diameter – and one to adjust the volume. That’s six buttons in total and under no circumstances should any of them be capable of two things. So I’ll leave bass and treble up to you and your anechoic chamber.
If you find all this a bit bizarre and complicated, have a look inside a 1969 Austin 1100. The system in there worked very well indeed.
This article was first published in November 2004.
Want to comment on this?
Too right, Clarkson! Miles Davis said "There are only two types of music; good music and bad music." The only thing anyone needs in a stereo is the functionality to: a) Choose whether or not to listen to music b) Find the good stuff c) Listen to it at a higher volume. All other functionality is extraneous and pointless.
Hmm... I don't recall this being a problem... Try driving a, wait for it... AMERICAN car. The stereos GM uses are simple, as seem Ford's as far as I can tell, but I've only seen pictures. All seem to have a button/knob labelled POWER. This button gives you the power to SHUT THE B***H UP!!! It's the biggest, and it's clearly labelled. Americans are stupid... (no offense, I am American) and they need simple instructions. No one wants to get sued because someone ran into something when they were distracted by a complex stereo. This is a country were someone can sue because they weren't warned not to leave the driver's seat while on cruise control.
You are extremely right. I'm an american, but we own a Land Rover Freelander. The radio is impossible to comprehend without reading the separate In-car Entertainment booklet. It actually has a separate booklet for the stereo. I own a Mercury Mountaineer. It's radio is simple, with simple, easy to use, easy to read buttons, and a large POWER button. Britain makes amazing cars, but the radios are just sad. Ditto to the GM radios. We had a Chevy Venture minivan, and the radio was the best thing about it.
HA! The stereo in my Volvo xc70 is sooo easy to use. all of the buttons are easy to read and they even took the trouble to make the S60 stereo more user friendly. Clarkson, you should've bought a Volvo. Anyways the stereo systems in American cars are also easy to use.
Hmm... I think I see a connection... at the time of the XC70's release (all gens) Ford and Volvo were rather well connected...