The Task Of A Capacitor In Your Car Audio System

You’ve got a rockin new sound set-up in your vehicle, right? But have you ever noticed a strange effect that happens whenever the bass line punches up to maximum? The car lights dim; the high end drops in brightness and clarity, and the sound may even get a little…messy.

Congratulations! You’ve just entered the clipping zone. All these effects (and more) are all caused when the power needs of your sound systems amplifier are greater than a mere car battery can provide. After all, your battery isn’t worrying about providing the maximum power to the amplifier that is pushing the subwoofer speaker that gives your system its best bass beats. No, it’s concerned with trivial issues like keeping the engine ticking over.

So what to do? Like Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise, you “need more power!” And that’s where capacitors come in. Unlike a battery, where power is collected and distributed in a slow, steady stream of juice, capacitors store up electrical energy and release it in powerful jolts. Mounted right next to your amplifiers, capacitors (also known as “stiffening capacitors” because they stiffen the strength of a sagging bass response) provide the additional electrical boost required to drive the subwoofers speakers when the power they need is being used up by other systems (like the headlights or the neon undercarriage trim).

So how do capacitors perform this miracle of power punching? It’s all a question of resistance. Resistance is kind of like an energy gate; it determines how fast or slow power can enter or leave an electrical storage system. Batteries collect electrical power slowly and release it slowly because they have a high level of resistance; the narrow floodgate means that it takes a while to charge a battery full of juice, but it also means that it takes a while to drain the juice out of it. Capacitors have a very low resistance. They can be filled with energy very quickly, but the width of their “flood gate” means that this energy also releases in a rush as well.

Why don’t we use capacitors to power everything? Simple; if we did, you’d turn your system on, it would power up with crystal clear sound, thumpin’ bass and smooth midrange for about fifteen seconds—then all the power would be exhausted and your music system would die in the first two bars of the latest Coldplay cut. Batteries give you smooth, long-term power that will get you through the whole album and into the next few hours of musical enjoyment. The catch is when a sudden shot is needed to drive your subwoofers speakers/a harder than the trickle of power a battery can provide. A stiffening capacitor detects this drop in power and releases a compensating jolt to fill the gap, keeping power levels uniformly high and preventing that sagging bass and clipping of tone that wipes out the perfect music experience. Stiffening capacitors are to your sound set-up what spinach is to Popeye — that special energy source that keeps your music “punchy to the finish!”

So the next time your subwoofers speakers are sagging, reach for your sound systems’ own personal spinach—stiffening capacitors—and get the blastin’ bass that even Bluto Blutarski would envy. You’ll be glad you did.

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