CD Player Maintenance

Taking care of your car's CD player
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It's impossible to imagine zipping down the highway without the dulcet tones of Kid Rock, U2, or Keith Urban being wafted through the car. To make sure you keep rockin' while you're rollin,' we have a few tips on the care and feeding of your CD player. First, though, a brief look at the history of automotive audio.

Audio File

The car audio system debuted in 1929 when Paul Gavin invented the first car radio. He called his new gadget "Motorola," a clever combination of motion and radio. Eventually, from radios-dependent on the strength of a frequency signal and someone else's taste in music-the musical demands of drivers and passengers sent us evolving forward into the now nearly obsolete 8-track tape deck. Appropriately enough, right in time for the disco era, another lunge sent road dancers shopping for another new type of media, the smaller and more portable, tape cassette, which was great as long as one was willing to pretend to ignore the constant "hiss" of the tape. Of course, portability had its price, finicky little heads in the tape players, if not kept clean, would "eat the tape." Although they required a bit of compromise in terms of sound quality, cassette tapes remained mainstream right up into the 1990s.

Fast Forward

Today, Compact Discs, or CDs, dominate. Even though history teaches us that something better will eventually replace them, for now, they are as close as one can get to having Bono in the backseat. Vinyl records, which never seemed to make their way into car stereos, and tape formats, have finite life spans, even if well taken care of. Simple exposure to elements like dust and just plain air can abbreviate the waiting time of meeting their ultimate demises. 8-tracks and cassettes used analog systems to transfer data from their plastic parts into listeners' ears. These systems were too mechanical and required too many moving parts and reused surfaces. Information from digitally encoded CDs, on the other hand, is transferred optically rather than mechanically by way of a laser reading data from the disc. The disc itself never comes into contact with anything that actually reads the music, so there's basically nothing to wear out or tangle up. In addition to superior sounds quality, CDs offer great conveniences that tape-based systems didn't, such as the ability to immediately skip through songs and the ability to read what track number one is listening to. As of the past decade or so, automakers have been including CD players in a broad range of cars and trucks. Most new vehicles have their systems so fully integrated-controls on the steering wheel, for instance-it's become nearly impossible, and really not necessary from a quality standpoint-to replace the equipment.

Upgrading

If you have an older CD player that has proven temperamental (probably because you haven't treated it like the sensitive piece of electronics it is), then you should be advised: car audio technology has advanced exponentially. It's generally worth simply replacing your older unit with a new one, rather than making an attempt at a repair. Prices range from about $130 to just under $1,000. For those whose idea of heaven is rattling down the back roads with Garth Brooks blasting away, you're best off sticking with a lower priced unit. That's no slur on Garth, but the extra $870 worth of technology can't really be fully appreciated unless you're hermetically sealed in a Rolls-Royce listening to Yo-Yo Ma on an 18-speaker system.

So, with that advice in mind, now we shop, but first, a few features worth considering. Large, well-spaced buttons along with a large, informative display will help you keep your eyes on the road. Next, the most powerful amp you can afford. Amperage is to a sound system what horsepower is to an engine: you might not ever use all the power, but what you do use is of higher quality. Of course, an amp is optional, a CD player is perfectly capable of carrying music to your speakers without one, but when properly selected and installed, it does give an extra boost. Finally, speakers. Make sure they are of good quality, and are able to handle the amperage you plan on feeding them from your stereo unit, and make sure they are of the right size and shape to fit into the slots they are going into. Additional consideration could be given to woofers, tweeters, mids, and subwoofers, the sizes and quantities of which entirely depend on your level of desired audio sophistication.

Options

With all that said, there is a world of additional options to choose from. Single-disc players versus multi-disc changers. In-dash players or in-trunk players. Then come some newer types of consideration, such as units that are satellite radio-ready, units with auxiliary input jacks for connected external audio sources like iPods or MP3players, units that can read MP3 files from CDs. All of these options can become overwhelming and can further complicate the decision-making process, make sure you know what you want when you go shopping for your new stereo and then take your time with making your decision. Once everything has been selected and purchased, you will need to get it all into your car. Unless you're an electronics wizard, go for the professional install. With some manufacturers in fact, this is a condition of the warranty.

Care for your new CD player begins with first caring for the CDs themselves, and that all really just boils down to using common sense. Handle the discs by their edges so fingerprints won't end up all over the music and lyrics, and, of course, don't write on the discs, not even on the labels. Keep your discs dry, a water droplet can affect the laser beam's focus. And finally, don't leave them under direct sunlight or locked up in hot cars as heat can cause severe damage. Disc cleaning and scratch-removing kits are available at all electronics stores. Regular cleaning after 15 plays is the general recommendation.

Disc Care

By keeping your discs clean and scratch-free, you are prolonging the life of your music and your CD player. For additional care of your CD player, various lens-cleaning formats are available on the market. Some are intended to simply remove dust from the player's lens, while more sophisticated devices go even further and help free the machine of the static that attracted dust in the first place. In some extreme cases, a CD player might be so dirty and dusty that it will require a more costly professional cleaning. If you really treasure your music, try to maintain the most contaminant-free atmosphere you can in your vehicle. Even in sterile environments, dust happens, so do your part to not exaggerate that point.

There are many different types of CD player cleaners available for purchase. The pluses and minuses from system to system have long been an issue of great debate for many audiophiles. The single-strip format incorporates a brush (similar to an eyelash) that sweeps past the lens, knocking the dust off of it, and sometimes whacking the lens out of alignment. Double strip formats operate exactly as that sounds-two brushes with twice the dust clearing capacity and twice the chance to whack the lens out of alignment. The wet/dry strip method works like a windshield washer and wiper, it wets the lens with a cleaning solution, then wipes it dry. This method is grand, unless there's an inordinate amount of dust on the lens in which case it can backfire. Think of a really dirty windshield after one squirt of washer fluid and one swipe of the wiper blade. Smudge. Then there are other, more expensive lens cleaners available that use clusters of micro-fine filament brushes for cleaning with. These tiny brushes can get into the lens compartment and remove contaminants, typically without disturbing the lens alignment.

Whichever approach you choose, regular maintenance of both the player and discs is worth the effort. Once you get used to them, you'll miss the subtle nuances of Willie's "On the Road Again," if you let them get mired in road dust.

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