Marine Stereo Survival Test

By Lenny Rudow

Marine stereo systems aren't known for their longevity. So we soaked, battered, and abused three contenders for an entire season, just to see which would survive.

Stereo speakers under waterMarine stereos are subject to all sorts of harsh conditions when installed on a boat. (Photo background: Nuture/Getty Images; Speaker: Erzetic/Getty Images)

Marine stereos have a well-deserved reputation for failure — especially on small open boats where they're exposed to direct sunlight and sometimes salty spray. In this situation, both speakers and head units tend to have very limited life spans. So we threw down the gauntlet and challenged the major marine stereo manufacturers to subject their systems to a long-term torture test.

We had some additional stipulations: Each system had to come in at around the $1,000 mark, had to include both a head unit and speakers, either flush-mounts or "tower" that could be mounted to pipework, and they had to be simple enough that a DIY boater could install the systems themselves.

We warned potential participants that their gear would be sadistically soaked, splattered, splashed, battered, bashed, and utterly trashed in a season-long orgy of marine stereo brutality. In the end, just three manufacturers had the guts to put their products on the line: Clarion, Infinity, and Soundstream.

Enter The Gladiators

Clarion joined the melee with its GR10BT Gauge Hole Mount AM/FM/WB/Bluetooth Radio, driven by a XC2410 400 maximum watt (50 watt per channel RMS) four-channel mini amplifier. It was paired with a set of CM2223R 8.8-inch coaxial speakers and a pair of rail-mount CM7123T tower speakers. The GR10BT is an IPX5-rated unit with a 4.3-inch LCD display, a built-in 45-watt four-channel amp, USB smartphone charging, and MP3/WMMA USB file playback. Its svelte 3-inch round footprint is designed to fit in a standard gauge hole, which is going to be a huge plus for some DIY installations. The CM2223R flush-mount speakers are two-way coaxial speakers with a 100-watt RMS maximum power rating, a mica-injected polypropylene woofer, and a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter. And the CM7123T are self-contained 7- by 10-inch tower speakers, also with a mica-injected polypropylene woofer and a 1-inch aluminum dome tweeter, but a 90-watt RMS maximum power rating. clarion.com | Approximate street pricing: GR10BT $130; XC2410 $150; CM2223R $150 (pair); CM7123T $500 (pair) | Total cost: $930.

Infinity (Prospec Electronics) entered the fray with the INFPRV315, which pushed tunes out to a quartet of their INF622M flush-mount speakers. The INFPRV315 is a wired or wireless remote-ready head unit that puts out 50 watts through each of its four channels, has USB input, and a 3.5-inch color display. Infinity doesn't publish an IP rating for the unit but says the face "is waterproof." The INF622M two-way speakers are smaller than the other flush-mounts we tested, with a cutout of just over 5 inches, which means they could be a good option for boaters who are working with mounting surfaces a hair too small for other flush-mount speakers. Each can handle 75 watts RMS. The woofer cone is polypropylene. prospecelectronics.com | Approximate street pricing: INFPRV315 $300; INF622M $300 (two pairs) | Total cost: $600.

Soundstream came into the skirmish with the MHU-32SXM digital media player, boosted by a Rubicon Nano MR5.2000D amp, which output to a pair of WTS-8B tower speakers or a pair of MCS.80 flush-mounts, plus a MSW.102 subwoofer. The MHU-32SXM, introduced in 2017, is an IPX65-rated SiriusXM-ready unit with a 2-inch LCD display, USB input, independent subwoofer volume, three-zone output, and a built-in 300-watt four-channel amp. The Rubicon Nano amp puts out a total 2,000 maximum watts through five channels (four at 75 watts RMS and one at 500), and has 12 db Bass Boost increasing low octave harmonics.

The MCS.80 are coaxial two-way speakers with polypropylene-mica cones and 1-inch titanium dome tweeters, and can handle 125 watts RMS. And the WTS-8B tower speakers share most of the MCS.80's specifications but are fully encased and feature "Centrex" enclosures that Soundstream says are better able to handle extreme temperatures, weathering, and UV exposure. These get a shout out for being unusually light for tower speakers at less than 10 pounds each, which made handling and mounting them noticeably easier. We tested these as two alternatives, one with the flush-mount speakers and the other with the tower speakers. soundstream.com | Approximate street pricing: MHU-32 $200; Rubincon Nano MR5.2000D $325; MSW.102 $200; WTS-8B or MCS.80 $375 or $250 | Total cost: $975-$1,100.

Cruel & Unusual Punishment

Recognizing that a three-year test was out of the question — by the time the stereophonic suffering was complete, these units would likely be out of date — we had to develop a way of giving these stereos several seasons' worth of use and abuse in five short months. We needed to make sure they were exposed to salty breezes, saturating spray, blazing sunshine, and driving downpours without relent.

So instead of merely mounting them on a boat, we mounted them in the front, back, and sides of a large cooler. Then we placed that cooler in the bow of a 22-foot center-console, where it would be completely exposed at all times. Just to be absurdly cruel, we also mounted the speakers with the lower rims tilted slightly up so they'd not only catch water but also hold it against the speaker's membranes indefinitely. Tower speakers were mounted to the boat's pipework and were similarly tilted to hold water. We left the head unit covers off at all times, and every time we used the boat we made sure to give the whole affair a few blasts from the washdown hose. Not the freshwater hose, either, but the raw-water washdown, which sprayed a salty Chesapeake brine. Without a hint of mercy, we then left the cooler alternately open or closed, exposing both the fronts and backs of the units through the season.

Sounds Like A Winner

All of these units are Bluetooth-capable, so to keep the audio on a level playing field, that's how we tested playback. A giant cooler doesn't necessarily represent the best acoustical platform for a set of speakers. It does, however, accurately portray the common challenge of finding somewhere on a small boat to locate stereo speakers. In reality, your audio experience may be a bit better or a bit worse, depending on your boat and how the speakers get located. For this reason, going with tower speakers can be a smart move. But mounting speakers on pipework is no panacea; during our first trip off the dock with the stereo systems aboard, we discovered that our initial mounting spot on the T-top was ideal for creating cranial collisions. But if you have a good out-of-the way spot for them, their self-contained nature does aid in the acoustics.

Frankencooler served as test-bed for stereos and speakersOur Frankencooler served as an effective, if somewhat nontraditional, test-bed for the stereos and their speakers.

To our layman's ears, by a slim margin the least expensive system in the running, the Infinity, had the best and widest-ranging sound quality with the highest highs and the lowest lows. We could also adjust it to our liking, thanks to its equalizer settings. However, this was also the weakest system, with a maximum volume level that the others could drown out. The Clarion and Soundstream systems seemed more or less equally potent, but the Soundstream's subwoofer provided the richest bumps and booms. For those who may not have anywhere to mount a subwoofer, however, we should point out that, in its absence, the Clarion tower speakers seemed to have deeper bass.

Enhanced Interrogation

Now, for what you really want to know: Whose gear survived this merciless ordeal? Shockingly ... everyone's. In fact, not one speaker or unit ceased working.

That doesn't mean there was no damage; corrosion was evident in several cases. The rear casing of the Infinity was pretty much covered in a dusting of it, and the mounting hardware and some of the screws on the Soundstream tower speakers began bleeding corrosion a few months in. The Soundstream's wired USB port also turned orange and, though it was still useable, was in pretty bad shape by the end of the season. The other units' USBs have a rubber sheathing and cap, which kept them protected. In the real world, of course, one would hope that the rear ends of these units reside in a helm station where they get a little more protection.

The fact that all of these remained functional despite our torment proves that the manufacturer's confidence in these units was not misplaced. Clarion, Infinity, and Soundstream, we salute you. 

— Published: August/September 2018


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