Sounds at Sea

Build the right marine audio system

28th August 2000.
By Burnet Landreth

I honestly can’t remember ever catching a fish aboard a boat that didn’t have a good stereo playing Jimmy Buffett at sometime during the day. For many people, a day without music is a day without air — impossible to survive. But installing a standard automotive-type stereo system aboard a boat qualifies as burning money. It won’t last as long as an teenager’s clean room. Here are some tips for choosing and installing a marine stereo.

Anyone with half a brain can go to the auto parts store and buy a stereo and speakers and hook them up on a boat, right? Absolutely. But getting the right stereo for the harsh marine environment, matching a pair of indestructible but awesome-sounding speakers, flush-mounting it in a protected but accessible spot, running the correct wire to power, breakers and radio and matching a good antenna instead of the silly little dipole that you use at home — now that’s all another story.

The Brains

Today’s stereos often go well beyond an automotive-style AM/FM receiver. Many handle cassette tapes and even compact discs. But tape and CD doors are far from watertight. In fact, don’t be fooled by the term “marine” when considering a sound system for your boat. If they were truly waterproof, you wouldn’t have such a healthy business in “marine stereo waterproof mounting kits.”

“Look for enhancements that will protect the unit from humidity,” says Marine Audio Engineering & Sales’ Vince Fiorda, whose company handles all Clarion’s marine products. “All too often, a boat owner will come back to the dock, wash down the boat, getting the carpet wet in the process and then close the boat up or put the cover on. The humidity build-up is incredible. A marine stereo should be built to stand up to that kind of environment.” These enhancements might consist of specially coated microprocessors and gold-plated terminals and connectors among others.

Another thing to remember is that unlike your home where you can listen to the stereo in an otherwise quiet room, your music must compete with engines, bilge pumps, live baitwells, wind, waves and many other noisy competitors. A weak system just won’t cut it. All the experts interviewed for this article agreed that a minimum of 25 watts per channel should be the bottomline. And of course, the more power, the better the sound. You may want to consider a separate power amplifier to crank out that latest Fugees recording.

If your system has a compact disc player, make sure it has good vibration-canceling abilities otherwise whenever you hit a wave or a bump, you’ll be skipping tracks like an old 45 record with a scratch on it. And if the CD does jump, it should automatically track back to where it left off.

Other considerations as to placement include making sure no drink holders, other electronics units or compass are above the stereo unit. “Today’s high-powered systems have ventilation holes in the top of the chassis,” says Fiorda “so the back and top of the units need protection from any possible leaks.”

The Speakers

Certainly you can mount your stereo belowdecks or in a dry storage box or console. But the speakers must obviously be out in the open where waves, hoses, drinks, fish and sharp objects might come in contact with them. Be sure you purchase high-quality waterproof speakers to match the RMS (Root Mean Square — the most logical measurement of power rather than peak-to-peak) power of the main unit. Cones should be impervious to water. Contacts should be gold-plated and magnets should be protectively coated with paint or plastic. Front grills should be UV-stabilized. And if the speaker doesn’t come with it already, making a small drain hole in the bottom of the front grill will allow water to drain out. Not to belabor the obvious, but don’t drill a hole in the cone. It also won’t hurt to seal the speaker to the bulkhead with a gasket or silicon caulk if it is mounted out in the elements.

Mounting

According to Kenwood’s Matt Queener, “Marine grade means many of the [most susceptible] parts are designed against corrosion, but the units are not waterproof.”

Bottomline is, no marine stereo system can claim waterproofness, though some have gasketed covers so that should it take a wave on the front or a direct blast from a hose, it can surface unscathed. However, perhaps the best way to assure longevity of your onboard tune machine is by mounting it in a safe spot, such as below deck or inside a storage compartment. A number of high-quality systems offer full-feature remote controls, meaning you can adjust just about everything but bass, treble, fade and balance from the helm while your stereo remains sheltered below.

If you happen to have a radar aboard, mount the stereo receiver’s antenna out of a direct line with the radome as the microwaves from the radar will play havoc with your tune reception.

And speaking of antennas, if you live in a remote area, spring for a decent marine antenna from Shakespeare, Dantronics or some other marine antenna specialist. However, if you live in a major urban area like Boston or New York where the radio stations push out some real power, a 30-inch stainless-steel automobile radio antenna mounted sideways up under the gunwale in the bow, away from instruments, alternators, bilge pumps etc., can probably provide excellent reception.

Finally, even though you’ve made every effort to prevent water from getting to the back of the radio, coating the plugged-in connections with a waterproof connection sealer like those from Starbrite or CRC will help keep moisture from those crucial contacts.

Whether you’re an avid audiophile or just like some music aboard, there’s a specially-designed marine stereo system to fit your needs. Selecting the right one for your boat and installing it with care will ensure greatly increased longevity.

Marine Stereo Manufacturers

Audiovox
Anaheim, CA 92807
(714) 695-3900

Clarion
16137 Westwoods Business Park
Ellisville, MO 63021
(800) 754-9876

Maxxima Panor
125 Cabot Ct.
Hauppauge, NY 11788
(516) 434-1200

SMR Marine Electronics
1401 NW 89th Ct.
Miami, FL 33172
(305) 591-9433

Standard
PO Box 92151
Los Angeles, CA 90009-2151
(310) 532-5300


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