Did You Know Your ’96 Roadster HAD a Stereo?

Let me preface this entire article by admitting I’m no audio-maven…far from it. The true audiophiles out there can save themselves from wasting any time by skipping this article. I have a good grasp on what you expect, and it’s far different than where my meager goals will lead you. I would HIGHLY recommend following the efforts of gutsier enthusiasts like Robert Leidy, Alan Riley, Phil Ehlen, and Brian Powell.

Now that they’ve left, I suspect there are a number of you out there who, like me, have this overpowering preference to live with what you have…to make lemons out of lemonade, to accentuate the positives and ignore the negatives. Maybe it’s due to hearing of the horror stories of audio freaks who’ve ripped out their entire stock system only to be saddled with untraceable audio whine, botched installations, and the multi-thousand dollar price tags for a system that could be better spent on a fancy home theater. Maybe the the idea of letting some unfamiliar shop monkey rip into the interior cutting, testing, and sparking all sorts of wires makes you far nauseous than any weak stereo. I have owned my ’96 1.9L since September and have avoided cutting into it in any way. My audio needs were enough where having an audible stereo with the top up was sufficient. My system is full factory stock with consists of a speed-sensitive/theft-deterrent head unit, door panel tweeters, kick-panel mid-woofers and factory amp in the trunk. The HK upgrade wasn’t available at the time of my order and even if it were I’m not sure I would have ordered it without having heard the difference. In fact, I still haven’t spent any appreciable time evaluating a HK-equipped Z3. (All you HK comparison seekers can leave now too) Although upgrades like the CD Changer and rear speaker upgrade became available at better prices than the dealer, I still opted to stay stock.

After all this time, I think I can sum up the existing ’96 setup. The system sounds fine (to my amateur ears) when the volume is moderate and the car is quietly parked. The moment the car’s in motion, the sound is drowned when competing with wind noise. Cranking up the volume when tooling around town can only be done to the point at which 25% of the music peaks are legible. Any higher and all that’s being turned up is mud as the speakers begin distorting…a likely testament of the grossly inefficient amplifier and speakers. In addition, the ’96 setup presents the driver with a wall of sound from the front. Without rear speakers, there can be no immersion of sound. At highway speeds with the top and windows down, there’s no reason to expect any sound from the stereo. At best, I can distinguish a legible 5% of music peaks. Any more volume cranking and it’s all garbage from thereon. The whirr of tires from highway traffic was a death blow to any hope of legibility. There wasn’t much point to pursue the factory upgrades under these conditions.

This didn’t faze me much as most of my driving was off the highway. Once on the highways, I’d be preoccupied visually scanning for state troopers in the horizon anyway.

During a recent road trip with the top up, a friend attached a portable CD via cassette adapter to the roadster’s head unit. Until now, I knew the BMW CD Changer was supposed to be an improvement to the overall system, but couldn’t imagine by how much. The portable CD showed me that the system COULD sound better than it did…and that part of the blame rested squarely on the crappy FM tuner. Yes, I know that CD offers better sound, but I could hardly believe the fidelity I had been missing all this time in listening only to the FM tuner. I would equate this sound to enjoying music in your living room with throw pillows pressed against each ear. The tuner simply did a horrible job at detailing the highs and lows. I now knew that there was room for improvement without confronting my aftermarket concerns. It definitely involved adding the CD Changer as I was willing to abandon FM radio, but the full potential of that $523 investment wouldn’t be realized without also improving the speakers.

Calvin Jennings had mentioned the improvement he got when replacing the kick-panel speakers with ones from a company called MB Quart. I checked out their website and brochure. This Obrigheim, Germany company’s mobile speakers have won the majority of IASCA World Finals since their US arrival in 1987. Even more appealing was how their brochure mentions specific applications, like BMW, and how certain MB Quarts “can drop right into the existing speaker cut-outs…” Physical fit was one thing, but I knew nothing about the OHM (resistance) rating, how changing it affected the system, and whether doing so was foolish. Nonetheless, Calvin mentioned they dropped right in, so I investigated further.

Speakers 101. The gap between the audiophiles and no-nothings is a wide one. I was clearly in the latter category as I immediately came across vaguely familiar terms like coaxial and component. In speaker design, sounds do not come from one single speaker. In a two-way setup, highs come from tweeters and the rest from the woofer. With a three-way setup, there are tweeters, midrange and woofer speakers all working in unison. Coaxial speakers have tweeter and woofer mounted on a single unit. You can see how the tweeter is often suspended above the woofer. In a Component setup, the tweeters, midrange and woofer are separated and installed in different locations according to the car’s design. Your ears can distinguish where tweeter highs come from directionally, but woofer sounds are vague and thus can be located anywhere.

The ’96 Z3’s design has a woofer (or mid-woofer) in the kick panels and the tweeter/midrange located in the door grills near the side mirrors. This is clearly a component setup. Removing the door panels to access these tweeters has been known as a major pain. I reasoned that typically, volume-cranking distortion was heard on the low sounds, so let’s see what replacing just the kickpanels would do.

This meant sticking coaxials (woofer AND tweeter) down there was inappropriate. Trying to do so would mean we don the cap of stereo design engineer, and based on who should be reading this it’s out of our expertise! I needed to look into buying the large speaker from a component setup. Luckily, MB Quart does sell things separately, and what I needed in the Z3’s kickpanel was the MB Quart QM 130 TX3. This is listed as a 5¼” (130mm) component midrange loudspeaker.

Calvin mentioned the QM 130 TX3 cost $89 each. I stopped by a local electronics/appliance store and salesman Mike Blanchard offered them for $74 apiece. Their new mobile electronics room is a gee-whiz experience. I’d recommend stopping by if you get the chance. Check out their PC-controlled switching and price quote system. After waiting nearly a week for a special order, I was ready to proceed with installation.

For no particular reason, I chose to start at the passenger’s side kickpanel first. Each panel is held in place by a plastic cam. Use a simple flathead screwdriver to turn this 90° in either direction.

With the panel now unlocked, wriggle it out by first undoing the catch area shown by the arrow. There is a plastic extrusion that’s held by the door sill cover. The rest of the edges are simply wedged in place. Pay attention to which edges come out first though, as you’ll probably need to reinsert it in reverse order when you’re done.

Meet the factory stock kickpanel speakers. These are held in place by four screws. Use a 5/16th socket to remove the bolthead screws.

Remove the four screws and the speaker simply drops loose. As King has indicated in the past, the wires from the amplifier to this speaker are coded blue/red and blue/brown. The positive wire is held in place by a 5mm connector. The negative by a 3mm connector. Disconnect them to complete the removal.

A visual inspection of both speakers clearly show the reason why decent speakers cost what they do. The factory stock unit is manufactured in Germany by Nokia Audio Electronics. In addition to computer monitors, Nokia has been known to supply Mercedes Benz with speakers. Looking at this unit, I find it appalling that BMW gave these things the thumbs up. The cone looks to be composed of cloth laminated with some sort of slightly-tacky material. Other markings indicate 4 ohms and 40 watts. The MB Quart’s cone is smooth and feels stiffer. Its markings say 4 ohms and 40-100w. The depth of each unit is noticeable. At this point I decided that even if there was ZERO sound improvement, I’d never reinstall the factory ones.

A small hiccup arose when I saw the MB Quart tabs were each one size higher than the factory tabs. After an hour of weighing out what to do, I decided to cut and replace the factory connectors. The reasoning was that moving the connectors up from 3mm & 5mm to 5mm & 6mm respectively would STILL allow the factory speaker to be reinstalled for whatever reason, and more importantly, bring the connector sizes up to aftermarket norms. (a presumption) Luckily, I had the salesman throw in a handful of 5mm and 6mm connectors.

This was a MUCH simpler process than I figured it to be. Cut off the old connectors and stripped ¼” of jacket material to re-expose the wire, slipped on new connectors and crimped their collars to the wire. No soldering was necessary, but I did it anyway to obtain a gorilla-strength connection. I also slipped a piece of heat-shrink tubing over each crimp area to prevent excess moisture and corrosion. To be on the safe side, attach the uncrimped new connectors to the MB Quart tabs to check their fit.

The MB Quart’s bracket ring can ingeniously be flipped to provide two mounting depths. I chose the depth that positioned it deepest. I connected the freshly-prepared factory wires to the MB Quart tabs and mounted it into place using the old factory screws.

Replace the kickpanel by working it back into place. It might be easier to remove that plastic cam and reinsert it after the panel’s in place.

I placed a work light in the driver’s footwell, but made sure to have it sit atop a sheet of metal to prevent the work light housing from burning the carpeting. The kickpanel is molded to the footrest. Start by removing the hood latch handle. This will expose the plastic locking cam underneath. Turn that 90°. To simplify the kickpanel removalloosenen the panel covering the pedal sets.

…this is because there’s a catching clip at the top of the footrest. The pedal set panel doesn’t have to be removed, jloosenedened enough to get uncaught from the kickpanel’s footrest. Also notice the right side of that footrest has two plastic blades that sit inside gashes in the carpeting.

Again, pay very close attention to how this panel comes out. In addition to watching the clip and blades, you’ll need to clear the spot where the hood latch handle was. Once the panel’s off, remove the stock speaker and replace the connectors with attention paid to crimping the larger 6mm connector to the positive yellow/red wire. A 5/16th socket was used to reach the bolthead.

With the new connectors on the MB Quart speaker, put everything back together. Replacing that kickpanel proved trickiest of all. Patience will ultimately be the key. Be sure the footrest is pushed far enough to the left where those plastic blades will seat back into their respective carpet gashes. Use your fingers to feel your progress.

With the kickpanel in place, turn the locking cam, replace the hood latch handle, and lock down the pedal set panel. The project is complete!

So now comes the $148 question…how does it sound? Knowing that cranking the stereo up with the car parked won’t tell the tale, I struck out for the nearest highway. Instinctively, I turned the stereo up to the normal threshold level…a 270° clockwise twist from dead silence. Whoa! What’s this? I think I hear lyrics. I further turned the stereo up and headed into a wolfpack of cars deliberately seeking the sound of tirewash. YES! Music! I could feel the footrest vibrating from the MB Quart’s bass…if I ever turned up the old speakers to this level, all I would get was distorted mush…no thanks to the old crappy coated fabric cones. Will this new setup ever bdistortingoring? Yes. But unlike the old system, there is an appreciable span of volume travel with the top down, with the windows down, at highway speeds and amongst the din of tirewash where you can hear the music and lyrics with far greater detail than the old system ever hoped to give at 35mph with the windows up. This volume limit is where it will hamper the attempt at conversing with your passenger.

On my second run, I hooked up a portable CD Player to the head unit via cassette adapter to give me an idea what a future CD Changer upgrade will be like. WOW! These speakers go even further to show how night & day the move away from the FM tuner is. I had to readjust my bass/treble levels to tone down the shininess I never heard before. Listening to the clarity of the Cranberries’ “Dreams” with the top down was the reward for a job well done. This cassette adapter may have added more volume as I heard more volume even though I didn’t touch the knob. When I ejected the adapter, the volume from the FM tuner was lower. I’m not sure if this characteristic will occur when I get the BMW CD Changer. Finally, the last step I am looking forward to investigating is how adding the factory rear speaker and amp upgrade will improve things. The new amp supposedly delivers a hair more power in addition to the rear channels, but I don’t know by how much. And no one’s mentioned if those 3½” rear speakers are a coaxial type. Based on my new experience with MB Quart, I might look for an equivalent 3½” replacement when it comes time to add the factory rears. Having a rear set of speakers ought to provide a satisfyingly immersive experience. This modest approach to upgrading will position me where I’ll be able to hear at least 85% of the music at top-down cruising speeds and know that I haven’t lost any storage space or given passing thieves a hint there’s actually something worth stealing underneath those panels. I’m certain the audiophiles can show me how their $4000 setup differs from mine; how their fidelity can reveal Pete Townsend’s breathing during the faint guitar riff in “Who Are You”, or how the wife can feel them returning home by the ground tremors. Despite that, I’m sure I’ll remain happy with this simple, inexpensive, not-too-invasive upgrade. Guess I’m just an underachiever.

Items you’ll need to gather for this modification:

Two (2) MB Quart QM 130 TX3 midrange speakers

Flathead screwdriver

Phillips head screwdriver

Crimping pliers

5/16″ socket

Two (2) 5mm crimp connectors

Two (2) 6mm crimp connectors

Four (4) one inch segments of heat shrink tubing or electrical tape

Compact work light

Long Term Update:

The speakers featured in the article may no longer be available

Notice: The author assumes no liability nor offers any guarantees your upgrade experience will go as smoothly or result in the same improvements. All known issues have been laid down in the clearest manner possible. Despite this, the amount of redundant e-mail sent to the author is expected to be substantial. Not all questions will be answered…some might even get laughed at. Journalistic integrity ofarticlecticle has been backed up by theBaba. Send all complaints to him.

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