Creating the ultimate car is a combination of different characteristics. A powerful engine, a slick-shifting transmission, a bulletproof rear, a suspension that makes the car handle like a Formula 1 car, a comfortable interior, a great paint job, and a spiffy wheel and tire package-these all move the car on down the path to righteousness.
Back in the musclecar days of old, slapping on a set of glasspacks and running dumps or open headers was considered music to a gearhead's ears. Loud exhaust systems and open headers will always remain cool. But the drone of that big-block will eventually start to wear on your nerves, especially on a long trip.
Enter the stereo system. While the radio-delete option was available to those just looking for speed and light weight out of their Nova or Chevelle, a decent sounding stereo system is more the norm on the cars rolling off of the assembly lines today. In addition, newer cars have quieter exhaust systems, allowing drivers to hear the tunes coming from the factory radios quite easily. If you swap out that measly 307 for a rompin' stompin' 383 stroker sporting a high-performance exhaust system and headers, though, you'll find yourself cranking the volume level up more and more to hear the tunes over the exhaust notes coming out of the tailpipes. If blowing out those factory speakers and listening to music degraded by the rattle of a busted speaker is annoying, then stepping up the power level and quality of your sound system is the last stop to making your Chevy the ultimate car.
With that in mind, we decided to install a full Alpine stereo system in this 1998 Z28 Camaro. The Fourth-Gen F-body came from the factory pretty well loaded up, with one of the options being the Monsoon stereo system. The Monsoon was pretty good for a factory system. Built with a higher-output head unit, a 12-disc CD changer, a Delco amplifier, and six speakers, one of which was a small subwoofer, the Monsoon held its own for a while. After many a trip down to the Jersey shore with the T-tops off, the windows down, and the music cranked up over the SLP Loudmouth exhaust (which we all know is one loud system), the speakers finally took a dive. They were replaced by a shop in New Jersey, but the replacements were of less quality than the price indicated, and a few months later, we were back to square one with the car. Add into that an hour commute to the Super Chevy home base and a busted CD changer, and it was time to upgrade the stereo before the driver (yours truly) lost his mind.
What we learned in doing this install is that putting a stereo system together is much like putting together an engine. Just as the heads, camshaft, intake, carburetor, and other engine components must be matched up to produce optimum performance, the same consideration must be paid to choosing stereo equipment. Gino Santaguida of Gino's Auto Sound and Security in Piscataway, New Jersey, was kind enough to sit down with us and explain the intricacies of installing the perfect system.
"When putting together a stereo system, in any car, care must be given to the components you choose," Gino explained. "The head unit must be able to work correctly with the amplifiers, and the amplifiers must have enough juice to power the speakers, components, and subwoofers. A wrong choice with any of the pieces you choose will lead to diminished sound. A good system will have a great bass level, astounding clarity at any volume level, and little to no distortion or noise."
In addition to choosing the right components, planning the system out and coming up with the proper wiring schematics is also key to making the music sound great. "When we put a system together, we have to be engineers, fabricators, electricians, and assemblers," Gino says. "I think what most people fail to realize is that there is much more that goes into improving the quality of your stereo system than just hooking up huge subwoofers, a couple of amplifiers, and installing new speakers and a head unit. Making everything work well with each other and having it look good at the same time is difficult."
We had Gino and employee Billy Renkart look the Camaro over and give us a list of what would work. They listened to our requests (hide as much of the system as possible, make it look factory, and keep the rear hatch space available so we could still use the T-tops), and gave us a grocery list of stereo equipment that would not only work together, but also bring the car into the 21st century.
While our install included the best of the best-such as the Sirius satellite radio install (for the NASCAR channel, of course), and an iPod hookup to replace the 12-disc CD changer-a good system, including parts and labor, will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000-$4,000. While this may be a bit pricey for some, when you turn the system on for the first time after it's completed, it will all be worth it. Take it from us. To try and put into words what the Alpine stereo system in the Camaro sounds like would be like trying to get Simon Cowell to be nicer to American Idol contestants. The install photos will show you how we got the job done, but only one word comes to mind to describe the final result: Bitchin'!
In addition to trusting the advice from the pros, we had CarTech Books ship over a copy of How to Design and Install High-Performance Car Stereo by Joe Pettit. The updated version was a good read that explained in terms we could understand what different components do in a stereo system. The text gave us insight into how parts such as the amps, enclosures, subwoofers, and head unit work, and how to install and hook them up. We still took the Camaro to Gino because we wanted the job done professionally, but any neophyte can gather what's needed to put together a system if they read this book.
In addition to installing the stereo equipment, we also did a quickie install of a couple of items from Vehicle Enhancement Labs (VE Labs). VE dropped their RadCap and Voltage Sponge in the mail for us to install on the F-body. The RadCap, besides looking cool with its chrome finish, is designed to pull electricity out of the coolant in the radiator. Why is this important? Electrolysis, a by-product of voltage in engine coolant, eats away at the aluminum in the radiator, causing it to spring a leak. Since we were running more juice through the car, the RadCap was put on to try to lengthen the life of the radiator. In addition, VE Labs' Voltage Sponge was installed to draw residual electricity out of the area around the amplifiers. VE Labs ran the Voltage Sponge through a series of tests, and with its usage around the area of the amplifiers, where there was increased static electricity, the part mopped up the extra static electricity, which ultimately leads to a clearer sound.
The original mounting location for the tweeters was in the door panel right behind the cover for the door speakers. According to Gino Santaguida, this was a bad location for two reasons. First, to mount it, the door panel had to be cut. Second, where it was mounted, the tweeter, which is responsible for the highs in the system, was directing the highs into my knee when I was in the car. The purpose of a tweeter is to broadcast the highs before they diminish, and the ideal location is to get them as high in the car as possible. Once Gino disconnected the old tweeters, Billy removed the door panel.
With the door panels removed, Billy removed the door speakers from both sides. While disconnecting the speakers, he also looked for any problems within the wiring.
Next on the hit list was the stock head unit. Billy first removed the dash bezel, carefully disconnecting the ASR (traction control) and fog light switch connections. Once the bezel was removed, he loosened the head unit, pulled it out far enough to disconnect the wires from the back of the radio, and then pulled it out completely.
Gino started with the driver side trim piece first. After mocking up the tweeter and marking off the area that needed to be cut, he used a small Dremel to carefully cut out a hole in which the tweeter would fit through. Once he was happy with the result, he duplicated it for the passenger side. He then mounted the bracket and the tweeter onto the door, sealed its perimeter with a small amount of grille covering, and then installed the trim piece on top. The finished product looks like it was installed when the car was on the assembly line.
Once the length of the RCA cables was determined, Billy marked each wire with a Sharpie marker to indicate where it would go (i.e. front, rear, amps). Once the wires were marked, he banded them every six inches with black electrical tape to make installing them under the carpet of the Camaro easier.
Here you can see the size difference between the factory head unit (right) and the new Alpine CDA-9857 head unit (left). The Alpine unit is smaller, meaning we would have to surround it with an aftermarket bezel when installing it in the car. This is because the Alpine unit is a DIN (industry speak for sizing), while the Monsoon unit is a DIN and a half.
Next, Billy removed the center console to run the wires under the carpet straight back from the head unit area. The reason why the wires were run down the center of the car instead of along the perimeter is that you want the wires to run the shortest route for the best sound quality. In addition to the RCA wires, Billy also ran a purple remote power wire. This wire will connect to the amplifiers, and ensure that power only goes to the amps when the radio is on. Once the wires were run, he also ran the iPod cable from the future home of the Alpine head unit to inside the glovebox.
Billy then moved to the rear of the car, where, after taking out the factory jack and doughnut (like we are going to use that on a Z28), he located and removed the factory Delco amplifier.
After the stock amplifier was removed, Billy made his way back into the cabin of the Camaro to install the new 6 1/2-inch Type R coaxials. The speakers bolted in with four small screws. After they were mounted, the wires were connected and the speaker covers snapped back on. He then made his way to the doors and installed the Type-R component speakers and hooked them up along with the tweeters.
Since the tweeters were moved to the upper part of the door, the door panels needed to be repaired or replaced. After we took the tweeters out of the door panel, we were left with this gargantuan hole.
Instead of popping for new door panels, we chose to try and repair these first. Gino cut a swatch of gray carpet from the console area (underneath the console of course) and, using some backing and a hot glue gun, cut the swatches to fit the holes and glued them to the backing.
After a few minutes of brushing, the holes were hardly noticeable. However, due to 82,000 miles of sunlight, the door panel carpeting was a bit faded as opposed to the carpet cut from under the consoleThough it's noticeable up close, from 10 feet away you can't tell the difference. Once Gino fixed the door panels, they were reinstalled on the doors starting with the passenger side.
Before we rolled to Gino's shop, we had F-Body Motorsports ship out a window switch trim piece to replace our broken one. Once the door panel was back on, the broken piece was thrown away and the new one was installed. This quick five-minute job greatly reduced the unsightliness of the door and will lower our aggravation level when it comes time to roll down the windows.
With most of today's cars coming with an option to install XM or Sirius satellite radio on the assembly line, it was decided that Sirius would make its way into the Camaro. The tuner seen here is made to work with an Alpine head unit. We could have gone with a universal unit, but then we would have had to fabricate a mount for the tuner. Since we wanted to hide as much of the stereo system as possible, using this part was a surefire way of keeping the factory look to the car.
With most of the easy stuff done, it came time to tackle the tricky part of the install, which was hooking up the wiring and mounting the amplifiers. To do this, we needed to remove the rear seats, disconnect the seat belts from the top portion of the seat, and take out the seat belt receptacles.
To install the tuner, the passenger-side kick panel was removed. After the removal, we saw a ready-made mount for the tuner. Granted, a little massaging was necessary, but when done, it fit like a glove. When we installed the tuner, we mounted it upside down so we could access the ports for the antenna, power, and output plugs. After we replaced the kick panel, we ran the antenna up to the defroster vent in the center of the dashboard. The antenna needs to have a clear shot at the sky, but we didn't want to mount it on the body or someplace where it would be seen. There was a handy bracket that we could lay the antenna on, so after shaving a bit of material off of the sides of the antenna, a metal plate and the magnetic antenna was slipped in. When the system was working at the end of the install, we called Sirius, registered our radio, and promptly swung the dial to channel 128, where we were listening to Jeff Gordon in no time.
While Gino was modifying the rear seat, Billy was installing the MTX subwoofer box and Alpine Type R 10-inch subwoofer. After mocking up the sub in the box, Billy had to shave a bit off of the box to get the sub to sit flush. Once he was satisfied, he put the sub in and used it as a guide to drill the holes into the box for the mounting screws. When the holes were drilled, he made his way to the car and mounted the box in the car. To mount it properly, he had to drill a hole through the floor. Once the box was in, he installed the subwoofer gasket around the box, and then installed the subwoofer. He had done the wiring for the sub beforehand, so it was just a matter of putting it in, checking the seal, tightening it down, and hooking up the corresponding connections.
The original plan was to mount the amps in the well where the doughnut is stored. After concluding that that spot wouldn't work, we went with plan B, which was mounting the amps behind the rear seatback. To do this, however, the seatback itself had to be notched so the amps would fit. Gino pulled back the seat cover, and then marked off the outline of the amps on the plastic seatback. When everything was to his liking, he used a band saw to carefully cut the seatback. Once the seat was up to par, he pulled the seat cover back down.
Instead of mounting the amps directly to the floorboard and taking the chance of putting a screw through the gas tank, Gino took a piece of wood board and, after taking measurements of the transmission tunnel and width of the cabin from side to side, cut the wood to mount to the floor pan. Molded to fit around the trans tunnel, Gino mounted it securely using two brackets on either side that screwed into the wood and the floor pan in less critical areas. To cleanly run the wires, he slit the carpet where the wires needed to exit, and pulled them through the slit.
When the subwoofer installation was finished, Billy reinstalled the rear hatch trim pieces (after taking out the old speakers of course), and then put the supplied subwoofer cover over the sub. Looks almost stock, doesn't it? Thanks to the MTX mold, which is made for this body style, the sub mounted easily-and we still have use of the entire rear hatch area to store the T-tops and other junk we carry around. Note: When the stereo is on and the subwoofer is in service, do not leave the hatch open for long periods of time as it will hurt the sub and cause premature failure. The subwoofer needs compression to work properly.
Last, but not least: the installation of the CDA-9857 head unit. This head unit is capable of playing CDs, along with playing the satellite radio and the iPod we installed as well. Since the head unit was smaller than the factory item it was replacing, a bit of fabrication was needed to fill in the surrounding area. Once the head unit was in, all the wires were hooked up, and it was time to hit the power button. By the time Gino and Billy were done tuning the system (through the amplifiers, not the head unit), the windows were rattling.