A Neat Experiment with the Car Radio, or Why There’s No Bass Knob on a Tuba

Less is so very much more. Most current auto radios have some sort of equalization circuitry. There may be bass and treble settings, you may have a three or five band equalizer, or maybe even those nifty presets (like “Jazz,” “News,” “Rock,” etc.). If you have a CD/MP3 player, the experiment will work better, but a familiar radio station will do.

Start your favorite song (or the radio) playing but with the volume completely off so that you cannot hear anything. Look through your tone settings and note the adjustment of each. For knobs or sliders, note the physical position. For menu-type controls, note the number value (usually -7 to 0 to +7). Of course for presets, just note the title.

Having noted your usual settings, adjust the radio to accent the midrange. For each model, here’s how:

  • Bass and Treble knobs: Rotate each to 8:00
  • Vertical Bass and Treble sliders: position each about 1/5th of the way from the bottom
  • Horizontal Bass and Treble sliders: position each about 1/5th of the way from the left
  • Three-Band EQs (Low, Mid, Hi): Low and High 1/5th from the bottom or left, Mid at center detente
  • Five-Band or more EQs: Make a frown where the highest part (the center most slider, left to right) is positioned at it’s center detente, and the left and rightmost sliders are fully down
  • Presets: Try “Pop” or if you’re lucky enough to have icons, find one that looks like a hump or a frown face

For any menu-driven tone controls, emulate the above settings. The number “0” would represent the 12:00 position of a knob or the center detente of a slider. Negative values would represent counterclockwise rotation or left / down sliding. Positive values would represent clockwise rotation or right / up sliding.

Whew. Okay. Now, set your volume at a comfortable level and listen to the song as you drive (or just sit still) for at least five minutes. It will most likely sound awful at first, but believe me that’s the feeling of poison leaving the ears. If you have the time, sample another track or station. Listen until you’re comfortable with the way things sound. For example, note the clarity and humanness of voices and precision in lower frequencies, most likely things you hadn’t noticed before.

Now, note the position or value of your volume setting, and again turn it completely off. While the volume is off, readjust all of your tone settings to the values they were at when you first entered the vehicle. Cue up the same song or the original station and turn the volume back to where you had it a moment ago.

This experiment shows how over-processed sound can cause ear fatigue. For brief instances, a huge amount of bass and sizzle is fun, but our ears were not designed to withstand it. Reinforced sound should certainly be enjoyable and above all withstandable. No one will ever ask for more bass on the timpani at Kleinhans, and your voice should be accurately portayed in your venue.

The above experiment works great on your television too. Cut back the contrast, color, and sharpness a bunch and the brightness just a bit. It’ll look odd at first, but give it time and start paying attention to how many levels of black, red and green you can pick out. Most TVs come with default over-processed settings to catch your eye in the store.