Rob Hephner
Rob Hephner: Auto Sound Expert

Featured On:

  • Car Sound Performance
Rob Hephner has over 20 years in automotive electronics. He was Editorial Director of Car Sound & Performance and Automedia magazine. Rob is a consultant, writer, professional musician, electronics installer, and worked as a national training and sales executive. He shares his passion and experience for the mobile sound industry by helping people bridge the gap between new technology and understanding with his consulting company, Mouse Consulting, Inc.

Rob was one of the 2009 judges for the CES Innovations in the Mobile Electronics division.
  • Best Auto Sound Navigation Systems
    Full-fledged in-dash navigation systems are the aftermarket answer for a vehicle that did not have a premium audio offering. Not only do these systems include navigation, but typically are the center for a full vehicle entertainment system, including satellite radio options and DVD audio and video offerings.

    As with any control center, it is important to spend some time hands on with these units as ease of use for the driver is important in eliminating driver distractions. While not all features are enable while driving, it is also important to understand how the system works before heading out on the road with one. For this reason, it is usually better to buy a system like this from an Authorized and Trained installation shop as one-on-one training is available.

    Most of these units will work with an existing factory system, but it is important to make sure they will before purchase, as some will require the additional purchase of amplifiers to operate properly. Also, the addition of modules and service plans are sometimes required to enable all the features, check on this to be sure of the details before your final decision.
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  • Best Car Subwoofers
    At sometime during the 1970s, somebody decided to drop a home woofer in a car and the rest is history. No single component makes as big of an improvement on sound quality in a vehicle as a subwoofer. While most people think that a woofer is just about going boom-boom, they don’t understand how much the subwoofer improves overall impact and clarity of music if properly used. When I sold car audio in a retail store, we used to have a setup that allowed us to play a woofer in a customer’s vehicle. This demo, while rather simple, was highly effective in helping improve systems. Once you hear a woofer in your own car, you’ll have a hard time listening to music without one.

    The basic technology of a subwoofer hasn’t changed much since the 70s but the refinement of materials and how the subwoofer is designed and built has helped to make subwoofers more efficient and much more durable in an automotive environment. A modern subwoofer for an automobile may look just like a woofer from a home stereo, but in reality they are worlds apart. If you are a music aficionado, one subwoofer will most likely suit your needs, but if you want the hard core slamming experience of bass that you can only get in a vehicle, you’ll be buying as many as you can fit.

    Regardless of the experience that you want, all of my top five list are excellent subwoofer. The overall amount of bass just depends upon how many subwoofers you add and how much power (see amplifiers) you put to them. I picked these based upon two criteria, first that they provide the most accurate bass reproduction and second by which ones have the most durable performance.
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  • Best Amplifiers
    If want a real sound system in a vehicle it requires an amplifier and much like anything the more power, the better! There are a ton of amplifiers available and it seems you can find them just about everywhere including your local grocery store. It is important to know what you are buying and here are a few tips to guide you along the proper path.

    Number 1 – be careful of the brand name. You might be looking for Alpine and you will see Alpine or maybe you are looking for Rockford and you will see Rockwood. There are a lot of unscrupulous companies out there trying to make a quick buck off of someone else’s hard work, so be careful of what you are buying.

    Number 2 – power ratings are not regulated. In other words a company can put whatever they want on the side of a box and they don’t have to prove that the amplifier will actually provide that power. There is however a recognized standard called the CEA-2006 and if you see that rating on a box it is a good way to compare one amplifier to another. While not required, this standard is a test that if a company participates in the program you can be assured of the resulting rating.

    Number 3 – make sure when you buy a product that they place you buy it can offer support. This could also be stated as, “Always buy from an authorized dealer.” If you are ever unsure you can always contact the manufacturer direct and they will verify the dealer.

    Modern amplifiers are way more powerful than the older ones of just ten years ago and they are also feature rich with extra items such as built in crossovers and even equalization control. Make sure you buy what you need and are not paying for something you will never use. If you go with multiple amplifiers, and why wouldn’t you? Don’t mix and match brands as the overall experience will not be matched performance-wise and it just will not look good when mounted and displayed.

    If you are looking to hide all of your components then you should look into multi-channel amplifiers as they maximize flexibility all while minimizing the space they take up in a vehicle.

    I’ve picked my top five based upon power, reliability, durability and flexibility. My top five best buys are picked based upon reliable performance coupled with good power output. You can buy any of these brands and feel confident you are getting a good product, the higher you go on the list means how durable a product will be and how good of a sound you can get. Any amplifier can be loud, good ones get loud and sound good when they do it.
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  • Best Rear Video Systems
    Most every rear seat video purchase falls into two categories. They are either to complete the overall bling factor for a vehicle in which they will rarely be used by passengers or they are for the very important reason of keeping children occupied and not asking “Are we there yet?” every five minutes.

    Honestly, both reasons for buying are practically the same. I rate reliability as the highest factor in buying a rear seat entertainment system, with fit and finish a very close second. Some people say they don’t care what it looks like as long as it works. But, you must consider that your vehicle may not be sitting in a locked garage all of the time and having something that does not draw attention to your vehicle because it looks like it belongs, could be an extremely strong buying point.

    DVD is the preferred format for rear-seat entertainment. As of yet there are no Blu-Ray players for the vehicle. Honestly, I see no reason to worry about the HD format in a vehicle until enough discs are available that you would want use the ones you have in your home. Most children don’t care if Barney is in HD or not and otherwise you may not want the more expensive Blu-Ray discs lying around in your vehicle.

    There are three types of stand-alone rear seat video systems; headrest mount, flip down, and portable. I don’t like the portable systems because they are potential hazard in an accident and they are just asking to be stolen. You will see that I rate custom headrest systems the highest because they better integrate into the vehicle and look as if they belong. You will also notice that my best buy picks are similar to my top five picks with some differences. There are a lot of brands of monitors for vehicles and I purposely only list the ones that I would use in my car as durability and reliability should be the top concern when buying one of these systems. You can feel comfortable that all the choices I list will not fail you in those areas.

    Above all make sure you ask for a driver seat mounted turnoff switch that allows you to take control of the system as there is nothing worse than trying to get the attention of a child in the middle of their favorite Be-Bop dance.
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  • Best Head Units
    The head unit category is the one that literally heads it all up - if you want to add sizzle to your system, this is the place to do it. From user selectable colors to multiple media options, head units are packed full of features, so many in fact that they are the single most confusing category to shop or even sell. I picked the top five based upon both the company’s ability to package the features but also for their ease of use.

    The real secret to shopping for a head unit comes down to just a few things. First of all, if you can stop at a store and physically play with the controls, you’ll be able to narrow your choice by brand since most companies have a similar design from the bottom of their line to the top. Nothing is more important in buying a head unit then determining if the buttons are easy for you to use and if their operations are logical to you. Forget what anybody tells you and see if you can easily use volume up and down, mute, and if songs can be skipped easily.

    The second thing you need to consider is how the design fits into the vehicle in which you’ll be getting the head unit installed. You can either go for the total bling approach where the unit stands out or you can go for more of the integrated look. Don’t forget if you go for bling that you will want to consider something that has added security features like a removable face.

    The final consideration is price and here is where the real secret lies. Head unit companies don’t really need to have 6 different units in their line, in fact the only reason they have a unit below their top of the line is so they can hit a price point. So, once you find the interface you like and the style, all you need to do is determine what features you want and buy based upon the features, in almost all cases there is not sound difference from the bottom of the line to top unit.
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  • Best Component Speakers
    Every car audio systems needs speakers if you want to hear the music, but the type can drastically change the overall sound. If you just want to replace a bad speaker any drop in replacement will work and their quality does not really differ by that much. To make a real difference you will want to use amplification and step up to components separates and they truly add a distinctive “voice’ to your sound.

    Picking component separates are sort of like picking a fine wine. While there are standards of excellence, there still is personal choice and an acquired understanding of how the music should be presented. In the audio industry we call the difference in sound from original “color.” In other words, if the sound is warmer or brighter than the original sound we call that coloration - it is key to the difference in the type of components that you buy and will make the overall voice of your system. No single purchase will make more difference in how things sound than component speakers, so if it is possible to listen to them before you buy, you should. If you can’t listen to the speakers it is OK, you just need to define the type of music you want and you can go from there. If you want music to sound the exact way it was recorded that is how I rate speakers.

    In my top five, I rated the speakers based first upon their overall lack of coloration and then based upon how accurate they would behave through the range of volume listening levels from low to high, it is a term called linearity.
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