Clarity refers to sharp definition between various sounds. In great audio, as in a live performance, you are aware of a physical distance between the instruments as opposed to the "wall" of sound we hear with mediocre audio.
If all that sounds intimidating, relax. You'll hear the difference just as easily as you can smell burnt toast. When comparing, it's that obvious. What is better, according to Marrero, is that audio technology is constantly improving. Indeed, it's probably better right now than it was when you began reading this article, which is great news for us nonbillionaires. Sure, $50,000 speakers are untouchable for monetary mortals. Yet we all profit from this high-end excess. As things improve at the top, the entire range below reaches up to meet it.
"Comparing today's audio quality, dollar for dollar, with what was available 10 years ago," Marrero says, "makes it look like we're living in an audio bargain basement." To prove this, consult our shopping list ("Real World, Real Ears") to match your budget.
Real World, Real Ears
The $200 Solution Custom Sight and Sound's John "The Ear" Marrero recommends the handy, portable Sony Sport Series CFD-980. It's a rugged, splash-resistant CD/cassette/ radio with 10-second shock protection for its CD player, which provides a signal for 10 seconds despite interruptions due to rough-water impacts. Bright yellow and tough, the CFD-980's sound is good enough to satisfy The Ear, but be careful-this unit doesn't swim. It lists for $199 but can be found for $149 or less.
The $500 to $700 Solution Marrero recommends the Poly-Planar AM/FM/cassette stereo ($320), ideal for a center console or sportboat, combined with either Poly-Planar Platinum Series speakers ($200 to $290 a pair) or MB Quart speakers ($300 to $400 a pair). Marrero, however, cautions against choosing Poly-Planar Premium Series speakers ($100 a pair): "They're for the guy who just doesn't care." The Poly-Planar head unit is marinized and has a weather-protected tape port and a floating remote. For integral CD, add $150 to the cost of the head unit. "You can find cheaper Taiwanese systems," Marrero says, "but they're poorly marinized and will most likely require replacement much sooner."
The $1,500 Solution A slightly bigger boat, or slightly more demanding ears, will be satisfied by selecting the $700 solution and adding the following. First, put in an automotive audio amplifier such as a Sony XM 475GSX ($400). "Most marine systems are underpowered," says Marrero. However, you must ensure that your boat's electrical system has enough power to drive a bigger amplifier. The bare minimum is 40 amps, but 60 amps is more realistic. This means upgrading your alternator and batteries. Next, buy a second pair of speakers ($300 to $400) so you'll have music in the cabin and on deck. It's important to add individual speaker-volume controls for the two sets, so one set isn't blasting the other out.
The $4,000 Solution There's not much improvement to be made to the $1,500 solution. But you can start building a serious onboard entertainment center. Add a Sharp flat-screen TV (about $1,100) and a Sony DVX-100 DVD player (about $1,200).