Back in October, for Nik’s birthday, I bought some car audio equipment from an online retailer who shall remain nameless, except for the sake of the tale we’ll provide them with the pseudonym “Dutchfield.” At the time the gear I bought, a head unit from Pioneer plus a box to enable Sirius satellite radio and an iPod adapter, was good and available for a good price. HB offered his expertise and copious car-related tools to help get it installed and the end result was quite satisfactory.
It was due to this success that when December rolled around and Christmas loomed that I went back to the retailer to acquire additional components for Nik’s car. In this case she was asking for additional “oomph” to the sound so after doing several days worth of research I felt confident in buying an amplifier and a subwoofer. The amp was a relatively inexpensive model but well-reviewed on the site and the bass speakers came in a box with two ten inch subs. Plenty of bass goodness seemed available and my thought was that eventually the amp could be connected to a new set of aftermarket speakers to complete the package. But speakers can run pretty pricey for a complete set of four (they are almost always sold in pairs and Nik’s Civic has two front door speakers and two rear deck speakers that require upgrading).
The piecemeal approach seemed to fit both my budget and the requirements Nik had for her system.
Initially I thought about imploring HB to help again, but when I researched amp installations a bit it became obvious that installing an amp cleanly often requires either removing parts of the car that I didn’t feel comfortable ripping out or trying to install into places that aren’t terribly convenient. To avoid the hassle and potential damage to the car, I made a few calls to some local car audio installers to get pricing.
The first thing I noticed during these calls was that each person I spoke to asked similar questions—not about the locations of the installed components as was my expectation but much more so about the type and brand of the equipment. Eventually someone said they would take a look at everything but it sounded to them like the amp I had would not work with the subwoofer.
This confused me so I immediately called Dutchfield and asked to speak to one of their product advisors. I spoke to a very nice fellow who evaluated my order and confirmed that yes, what I had was at best unusual and at worst not what I was hoping for. He suggested that two ten inch, powered subwoofers paired with stock speakers powered by nothing but the head unit would result in thundering, window-rattling, richter scale-moving bass… and very little else. He performed a small demonstration of what this might mean.
Dutchfield representative: “So you know how normally a song like ‘Smoke on the Water’ goes: duhn dhun duuuun, duhn duhn da-nuuuhn! Duhn duhn duuuun, duh-nuuuuuhn!”
Dutchfield representative: “If you put in that sub, it would sound like: Booom. Booom, boooom. Boooom boom buh-booooom!”
Me: “That’s not what I want.”
We spoke for another hour or more debating the relative merits of other equipment options. He was very considerate and patient and in the end I felt more comfortable with my understanding of car stereo components and told him I just needed to check with my wife to confirm what she wanted and I’d contact him directly to set up the order.
When I spoke to Nik, whe was mildly annoyed that the delay meant her stereo would not be ready for a bit longer, but she agreed that the thundering bass-only sound was not what she had in mind. So I arranged to have the subwoofer sent back for a refund and implored Nik to look over some of the aftermarket speaker options the rep had suggested and pick which ones she liked best. The rep had been very specific and said that the Civic had something called component speakers in the front which separate the highs from the rest of the signal with a small secondary cone called a tweeter which sits higher up on the door panel than the rest. Component speakers are pricier than regular speakers and are also more difficult to install since they typically don’t fit the stock tweeter panel holes right out of the box.
The only problem with this was that I couldn’t find the tweeters in the Civic. I know I have them in my truck, I can see them clearly. But I figured they must be hidden in the Civic in some clever Japanese tweeter-camouflage location. My recourse was to simply call the Honda dealership and ask politely where they were hidden in my car.
But sadly the call to Honda introduced more confusion into the mix. When I called them they checked my model number and the available stock parts list again and again, trying to prove that they and I weren’t crazy. To no avail: It turns out that our particular model of Civic does not come with component speakers of any kind. There are certain higher end Civic models that do, but not ours. So I tried to call the rep back with this information to clear the problem up. I got voicemail. I got voicemail a lot. I tried weekly for three or four weeks to get hold of my guy at Dutchfield, but each time I left a message requesting a call back and got nothing. Finally Nik was getting frustrated and demanded that I make some progress on the Christmas present which was now threatening to be more akin to a Valentine’s Day present, so I gave up on the direct extention and called the main number to talk to whomever might answer the phone.
The representative I spoke with indicated that contrary to my operating theory, the earlier guy had not been fired. He, of course, was not working that day, but the new rep would be happy to assist me in any way he could. I calmly explained that something must be wrong with their database because they seemed to think that all Civics had the same type of stock speakers and that was not the case. I also explained that I needed to order some speakers that would work in my car and I needed them sent out pronto.
There were two sets of speakers that I was waffling between when it came time to make the actual order: One set was a pricey pair of Blaupunkt speakers and the other was a cheaper (but still not what I would call “cheap”) pair of Polk Audio speakers on special. Both were rated and reviewed well and were supposed to be compatible with the car and the amp I had purchased previously. Initially the Dutchfield rep talked me into the more expensive Blaupunkts but realized at the last minute that they were too deep to fit into the door wells, they only worked on the back deck. It seemed like that would actually work because the Polks fit into the doors so I got one set of each: Blaupunkt for the back and Polk for the doors. Done and done. They also indicated that I’d need lots of wiring harnesses, speaker wire and other peripherals to make the installation happen, a fact that had been confirmed previously by the installation places I’d called. So I had them add all that to the now remarkably significant bill and ship it. I figured the somewhat elevated cost would maybe make up for the time it was taking to get Nik’s Christmas present fixed up.
It didn’t take long for the stuff to arrive from Dutchfield, but of course once it did I procrastinated for a week or so before Nik got grouchy and sort of kicked me into gear. I called a bunch of the same installers and told them I needed an updated quote because I was no longer doing the subwoofer, but was instead interested in getting four speakers and an amp installed. Yes, I had all the wires and everything I’d need. Today, if possible.
Eventually I kind of arbitrarily settled on a local place, also nameless except the indecipherable code name “Dustom Audio Sounds” who got the business because another place (a slightly cheaper place) bumped my appointment to make room for a friend.
When I entered Dustom, the first thing I noticed was the manager’s distracted demeanor. He had a plasma TV mounted on the wall opposite the front desk and every time I spoke with him he seemed to be far more interested in whatever bullriding tournament or BET reality show was on than in actually assisting customers. But, I figured, it hardly mattered. What I was asking for must be so common, so typical that they refer to it via shorthand, something like “Hey, this guy wants a #3.” Like ordering a value meal. Replace speakers, add an amp: Cake. Right?
I spent that afternoon wandering around downtown, amusing myself as best I could considering I had no transportation other than my own two legs and there isn’t much to actually do downtown unless you’re really into getting your hair cut. Our downtown features the following attractions: One Subway chain restaurant; one coffee shop that closes at 3:00 pm every day; One deli that closes at 4:00 pm every day except weekends when it closes at 1:00 pm; one music store staffed by angsty-looking teenagers who respond to questions like “Do you have guitar strings” with blank stares as though they were really employees of the coffee shop next door but had simply gotten lost and put on the wrong name tag; and 4,623 hair salons, barbershops, day spas and manicure/pedicure specialty salons.
When I got back to the shop they took my money and showed me the car. It sounded sublime: Clear and very loud. I allowed myself a satisfied sigh: Maybe I was a couple of months late, and maybe I even missed Valentine’s Day (not that I stiffed Nik out of a V-Day present, I just didn’t get this overdue gift squared away in time for that, either), but by gum it was done. Mission accomplished.
I drove the ten minutes home enjoying the fruits of my labor. When Nik arrived home shortly after I excitedly ushered her downstairs to check out the new gear. She listened with a grin on her face for a few minutes, nodding along to the tune. Suddenly her smile faltered. “What’s that noise?” she asked. I listened closely.
“I don’t hear anything.”
“You don’t hear that little popping sound?” she insisted.
“No,” I said. She let it drop.
A few hours later we piled into the car to go somewhere and turned on the radio. Suddenly there was an unmistakable pop and suddenly the music cut out, replaced by an electronic hum. The hum changed pitch when the accelerator was pressed. I groaned. Nik fumed. I promised to get it looked at as soon as possible.
It turned out that as soon as possible was a couple of days later and I went back to Dustom Audio to find out what the problem was. I politely explained the situation and asked that they take a look. I watched as a technician crawled around in the trunk, fiddling with this or that wire on the amp, pulling off the door panel, popping out the head unit mounting bracket. Finally he called me over and pulled out the driver’s side speaker. “This is blown,” he said dryly. I asked how that could happen and he said, “These speakers are no good. I’ve never had anything but problems with them, they’re really cheap.”
You have to understand that while those speakers weren’t top of the line (not like the ones I’d purchased for the rear deck), they weren’t by any stretch of my imagination “cheap.” Shoddy, perhaps, but not cheap. I asked what the tech recommend I do and he said he’d get some better speakers in there. He just happened to have a couple of pairs in the shop that he recommended. Naturally.
I got on the phone with Dutchfield right away. I tried to remain calm, but I was pretty steamed. I explained that I had gone over and over the configuration with the previous product tech and I had been assured that the speakers would not be in danger of being blown. The customer service rep danced around the issue, alternating his story from “that shouldn’t have happened unless they were installed wrong” to “you have to break in a pair of speakers connected to an amp by leaving the gain down low and gradually increasing it over the course of a few weeks.” I told him that it had been professionally installed, so he stuck with the break-in period line for the rest of the call. Eventually I asked if I could get a refund since they’d sent me crummy merchandise. He said he guessed he could do that.
At that point I had to decide what to do with the current configuration. As it was the driver’s side front speaker had blown and was already removed from the car. In order to send them back I had to pay the installer to remove the other front speaker. I called Nik and tried to explain. She was agitated and indicated that it didn’t matter, I just needed to fix it. I told the installer to simply disconnect the front speakers while I tried to figure out what to do. I drove home with only the back speakers working, which sounds more or less like listening to the radio from someone else’s car while you’re driving.
The speakers stayed this way for almost two weeks. Finally Nik was flat angry. She demanded that I stop messing around with her now almost St. Patrick’s Day gift and get it working. I decided to pay one more visit to Dustom Audio and see what the story was. They had offered to sell me those two good speakers, right? I’d just buy those to replace the bogus Polks. So I dropped off the car and Nik and I went to have lunch. When we got back the manager informed me—eyes never leaving the plasma screen showing NASCAR reruns—that the real problem was not just the speakers but the amp as well, which had since my last visit blown up one of the rear speakers. How did I want to proceed?
Completely frustrated, I called Dutchfield and told them I wanted to send it all back. Every bit of it. They expressed regret, and they provided me with a return order. I asked Dustom Audio how much it would cost for them to pull all the Dutchfield gear out of the car. They said they’d do it for $40. I was all set to have them go for it when Nik indicated that there was no way she was going to be completely without speakers for any length of time. Lacking any real options beyond that, I simply went and picked up the car, now operating with a single rear speaker. Nik was hostile.
We tolerated the single speaker for a solid week. During this time Nik related her tale of woe to HB, who suggested that instead of dealing with some nobodies I found in the phonebook that I should go to the place he had worked with on his truck, Car Audio Depot. So on my first day off last weekend I called them up and told them the nutshell version of my story. They said, “bring it in, we’ll take a look.”
Here is what I learned from my visit to Car Audio Depot:
- The amp was not a good match for what I was trying to accomplish. This had been suggested in not so many words by Dustom Audio, but never fully explained. Dutchfield had assured me the amp was fine.
- The speakers were both brand name and shouldn’t have blown. This had been Dutchfield’s position, disputed by Dustom Audio.
- The initial installation of the amp and speakers was horrendous. It was so bad some of the cables were shorting and could have posed a fire hazard if left unchecked.
- To fully replace everything that Dutchfield and Dustom Audio had done with new equipment and new installation would cost almost twice as much as what I had already paid.
- Even just returning to a stock configuration (no amp, re-install the stock speakers) would cost almost as much as the speakers themselves.
- Reputable car audio suppliers are hard to find. Car Audio Depot says that something like 25% of their business comes from fixing things that other people screwed up.
So. Needless to day, I was a touch displeased. I ended up having Car Audio Depot pull all the Dutchfield stuff out, undoing the miserable work Dustom Audio had done. I had CAD install four new speakers but no amp. The sound quality is better than with the stock speakers, and louder, but not exactly as mighty as I was originally hoping for.
Everything I ordered from Dutchfield is going back. Everything. I’m getting a refund. Dustom Audio is getting the lowest possible recommendation and is getting the negative review treatment to everyone I meet who might possibly consider employing their services. I already had one friend mention that he needed to get some work done on the sound system in his new boat and I warned him away from Dustom with the harshest possible prophecy of doom and despair should my advice go unheeded. They will never get another dime nor another good word from me.
Perhaps when the refund has been applied to my account I will return to Car Audio Depot (assuming their work holds up, because I’m that pessimistic about the whole industry at this point) to get some of the other components added. It may depend on how fresh the wounds still are when that time comes. But one thing is for sure, unequivocally.
Next year, I’m buying Nikki jewelery.