You wouldn’t settle for lousy performance from your Plotter or radar. Why not hold your stereo to the same standard?
One of the best parts about owning a boat is best captured in the words of a fast-food ad campaign: Have it your way. You’re the skipper—you’re in charge. After all, you do the work on the boat, and you get everyone home safe. You set up your helm electronics the way you want.
Your boat is a reflection of all you hold dear. And maybe you like to add music to the experience—your music. And you want it to sound good. No shame in that. Maybe you’ve noticed that some boats have plenty of sound-system horsepower, but it’s misdirected and ineffective. What can a boater do to solve this challenge to improve the onboard experience through good tunes played loud? As you probably already know, boats offer challenges to creating the best sound experience. From the difficulties presented by an onboard installation to the variance of needs presented by tightly enclosed indoor spaces and wide open outdoor social areas, a sound system needs to be tuneable and tweakable to get the desired effect.
We asked the team at Fusion Electronics how we should think about boat sound systems. Since the company designs audio-system components and speakers specifically for boats, rather than converting automotive systems, they have some very strong ideas about what boaters need.
First, you need to start with good-quality sound. “Good loudspeakers are not adding coloration to the music,” says Fabian Vuine, a senior development engineer for Fusion (www.fusionentertainment.com). “To achieve this, they must play back all different pitches without emphasizing one over the other or distort audibly. Most speakers have some character, meaning they change the general timbre slightly and so cater to individual taste and application.” Choosing your speaker array with the help of an electronics professional should give you a better chance to create a satisfying experience. It’s the good side of the “garbage in, garbage
“Depending on available space, power, and environment this will lead to some preferences for individual-use cases,” Vuine says. “Designing marine loudspeakers, we face the challenge of combining high-quality music reproduction, strong background noise and harsh environmental conditions with often not-ideal placement and limited power availability from the battery.” Boats can be a challenge to wire for sound. There’s not always a ton of space to drop in a new subwoofer.
“Obviously the conditions that marine entertainment products can be subjected to on boats are brutal for electronics or speakers: I’m talking about moisture and humidity, salt, UV, wide temperature variations, and vibrations,” says Chris Baird, managing director of Fusion Electronics, a division of Garmin based in New Zealand. “At Fusion, we are boaties and not car-audio-centric. As such we understand what is important on board, like simplicity of use, which includes big, easy-to-use volume knobs, dedicated keys for simple operation, and large, easy-to-read LCD screens. Everything we have designed and engineered over the last 10 years has had boaties and boatbuilders at front of mind.”
The idea is to design sound systems specifically for boaters who are also music mavens. “At Fusion we believe that excellent speakers are best engineered by a combination of measurements and listening,” Vuine says. “There are several aspects of loudspeakers that are only revealed after longer listening and may only occur with a certain type of music from our customers but that can easily be measured. On the other hand, loudspeakers are essentially built to be listened to, and so listening sessions have a key place in our development process. Ideally, the speakers themselves become unnoticeable and the listener can enjoy the fun of listening to music without the feeling that it is distorted by
Assess Your Sound System
Stop: Check body position when tuning—is it awkward to reach the control head? Does it take you away from good helm position?
Look: A visual review of speaker location can tell you if your system is close to balanced.
Listen: Does it sound as good as it should? Because it’s all about the music.
Even the best equipment available can succumb to some of the challenges presented by boats and the needs of boaters looking for a top-flight audio experience. Sound zones come to mind, where the volume can be set in different areas to optimal levels. That means that the crowded party in the cockpit and swim-platform areas can rock out with the music blasting, but someone doesn’t need to don shooting-range ear protection to sit in the saloon and enjoy a spot of air conditioning. That’s an aspect of a sound system that a purveyor of automotive systems just wouldn’t get.
One thing cars do have now is integrated helm systems, where the navigation and entertainment systems all share a single screen. “Fusion-Link allows our stereos to be operated by marine electronic multifunction displays,” Baird says. “We operate with every major brand of marine electronics. We understand connectivity on boats, NMEA requirements, and system setups.”
That’s not a small consideration in terms of required hardware and also helm-dash real estate, which can be precious. Sometimes components can be placed within easy reach, but little thought is given to being able to use them effectively, since the screen is not easily visible, or the labels on buttons cannot be read, creating more problems. But having the music integrated into the helm navigation displays (both upper and lower) can ensure the best programming experience—let your inner DJ take over. Additionally, wireless or wired remotes, remote-mounted fixed control heads, and even a smartphone or tablet app can solve control and tuning problems on boats of nearly any size.
Another similar problem bedevils many boats, even those with high-end stereos. “If you go to a concert or you have a good home system, the speakers are facing you and, funny enough, your ears!” Baird says. “They are not in a ceiling facing down or down at your ankles…we don’t have ears in our ankles. Stereo sound is exactly what it says, and you should be able to equally hear the two speakers and not have one speaker at head level, and one down near the floor as I see very regularly on boats.” So, challenging though it may be, moving speakers to where they can provide the best sound is definitely worth the effort, particularly if you’re focused on the quality of the onboard experience.
“To choose the best components for your boat’s sound system, consider where you can place speakers, how many separate sound zones there will be, will the zones need remotes?” says Graham Brain, lead industrial designer for Fusion. “Is there room for a stereo head unit or would a black-box solution be better? And how loud do you want your music?” If you know the answers to what you want, you may be ready to make a move. Ask the installer for references and check them. You’ll be glad you did.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.