Anatomy Of An SQ Champion
By Ari Rubin/Photos by Rob Hephner
Posted on Sep 16, 2004

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into making a true sound quality champion, this is your lucky day. CAR SOUND & PERFORMANCE recently had the chance to speak to Ronald K. Buffington, who gave us a detailed explanation of the system in his BMW318ti.

The 1996 IASCA world champion pays great attention to detail and will do anything to improve his sound, up to and including rebuilding and modifying the individual components of his system. So, open your notebooks and get your pencils out, ‘cause you’re about to be schooled by a true master.

The signal starts with a highly modified Sony CDX-910 CD player, which is used only as a transport. There’s no FM tuner left in the unit, and all of the RCA connectors have been removed.

“We made some modifications to the back of the unit to use a higher quality digital cable that didn’t originally fit,” Buffington explains. “I removed some of the unnecessary components that aren’t needed to use it as a transport.”

Buffington elected to go with the CDX-910, even though it’s an older unit.

“We used it because of the features that it has that few else on the market currently have,” he reports. “It’s got an amber display, to match the BMW’s interior; it’s got a digital output, which allows me to use a higher quality digital to analog converter; and it has a remote control that can be mounted anywhere, and be effective, as opposed to most units, which only have the hand-held remote. Sony’s got the joystick, which I installed on the steering column and illuminated with lights to match the factory lighting, and aluminum to match the rest of the install.”

The signal travels from the head unit to an a/d/s/ EQ30 digital EQ, which is mounted in the rear door panel using a custom machined aluminum bracket. “I chose that piece because I could do all of my equalization in the digital domain,” Buffington states. “A lot of people have trunk EQs, and they have to get out of the car and go to the back, whereas with the EQ mounted in that side panel, all I have to do is reach behind me, and I can make adjustments without getting out and opening the doors.”

A McIntosh MCD 5000 digital to analog converter is hidden behind the EQ.

“I’ve found it to be an excellent piece from a sound quality standpoint,” Buffington asserts. “It’s also built like a tank — you’d think it was a large amplifier, not a D to A converter.”

After passing through the McIntosh unit, the signal moves to a Precision Power PAR 245 preamp. Buffington has modified this piece extensively.

“I upgraded the capacitors on the circuit board and upgraded the op-amps,” Buffington explains. “I took the volume control off the board, replaced it with an Alps Black Beauty volume pot, and ran an extension wire up to the center console. It makes it real easy to reach from both seats when judges are in the car, and it’s ergonomic while driving because you don’t have to take your eyes off the road. Your hand naturally falls to the volume control.”

The signal then goes to a Linear Power X-03 crossover that, like the preamp, was upgraded with Burr Brown op amps and Wima caps. The crossover is housed in a compartment underneath the sub box.

“The sub box is removable,” Buffington illustrates. “You have to take it out to get to the crossover. It’s the heaviest part of the installation, and if I ever want the car to be lightweight, like for track racing, I could take it out and leave it home. I built a removable access panel underneath the sub box. It’s held on with six RC car body clips. All I have to do is remove those six pins, and I can make all of the adjustments that I need to with my crossover.”

Mounting the crossover under the sub box also minimizes the length of the interconnect to each amplifier, according to Buffington.

“It’s a good idea, from a sound quality standpoint, to have as short a run as possible,” Buffington elucidates. “By placing the crossover there, it made it a short run from the preamp to the crossovers, and, in addition to being a short run to each amp, each amp is equidistant from the crossover, so I can use the same length cables.”

Buffington has four Genesis Dual Mono amps in his vehicle, though only three are used at a time. One amp powers the JL Audio 12W6V2 subwoofer, one handles the Genesis Absolute 18 W midrange drivers that are mounted in the kick panels, and one handles the tweeters (R1’s in the kicks, and D1’s in the A pillars).

“When I originally built the car, I had a sub up front,” Buffington explains. “With the JL sub, I didn’t need the sub up front anymore, but I left the extra amp in the installation in case I was ever at a show and had any problems with the other amps. It also continues the symmetry of the install — there’s two amps on each side, so it works out well.”

The amps are mounted on acrylic and aluminum mounts that were hand cut, routed, and machine polished. They’re back-lit with Streetforce LEDs that turn on when the trunk is open and turn off when it’s closed.

“Genesis amps usually come with a gold genesis logo, but the gold didn’t match my install,” Buffington says. “Genesis custom machined logos for my amps, at my request, in silver to match the install, and, not only that, but the custom badges identify what each amplifier is for — they’ll say ‘high frequency’ or ‘midbass’ or ‘sub.’ I made up the design and they were able to make them for me.”

The JL sub also features custom cosmetics at Buffington’s request. Instead of the normal plastic insert, a custom aluminum one has been machined to match Buffington’s install. JL liked the look so much that the company used the same modification in its MINI demo vehicle, Buffington reports.

“I did a 139 dB with this sub at the Steel Valley regional with one 12,” Buffington asserts. “ That was with my sound quality setting and a bass disc — I didn’t even tune for SPL. That’s a big prop to that sub.”

Power for the system starts under the hood with a SoundGate Intelligent Circuit breaker, then flows through JL Audio power cable and fuse blocks to two Batcap model 800 batteries.

“These super lightweight, high storage batteries are mounted in a custom welded aluminum enclosure that’s sunken beneath the floor of the BMW trunk,” Buffington states. “Moving the batteries to the rear of the car enables a short path for power to travel before getting to the amps.”

Buffington’s install was done with a racy theme.

“We used materials that were used in other BMWs and that have a racy theme to them,” he says. “Ninety percent of the installation is made from aluminum because when you build a car from wood or fiberglass you can bolt things together once or twice, but after a while, it’ll start chipping and cracking. What I wanted to do was build a modular system — if you want to change an amplifier, you could do it in 20 minutes instead of having to spend all day taking out a Fiberglas tub.”

All of the speakers are upholstered using Alcantara, and the all of the screws in the system are tapped and threaded military spec stainless steel fasteners. Buffington added an illuminated BMW logo in the doors that fades like a dome light when the doors are closed. Modified StreetWires fuseblocks are located beneath the C pillars in the factory rear speaker location.

“The original LEDs have been removed and changed so that each specific fuse had its own color — red, yellow, blue, and green,” Buffinton states. “You can show the judges at a contest which components are fused based on the different colors.”

Dynamat products are used throughout the install for sound deadening.

The BMW’s performance has also been beefed up. Ground Control added custom springs for the back of the car to support the weight of the system.

“They took the spring rates from a regular T318ti, looked at the rear axle rate, and factored in the weight of the stereo system to recalculate the spring rate and make custom coilovers for the back of the car,” Buffington says. “I wanted a car that can actually be driven. A lot of competition vehicles are trailer queens that don’t enjoy any street time. I like to drive this car, and I drive it to all the shows I compete at.”

Other performance mods include 17-inch BBS Mota Wheels with Yokahama ES100s , European headlights, an M3 front bumper and mirrors, a BMW motorsport rear wing, and a TC Kline racing chip and performance exhaust.

“Most of these things are designs that I picked up from T. C. Kline,” Buffington reports. “He built some cars that I liked, so I built my own.”

Buffington began competing with this car, which used to be his daily driver, in 2001, but the car almost didn’t make it to finals that year.

“I was getting real behind for the show, so I called a couple of buddies of mine, including fellow competitor and world champion Mark Richmond,” Buffington recalls. “They showed up on the Thursday before the Sunday of the show, and I didn’t have a sub enclosure. We stayed up for three nights straight and completed the install and I ended up finishing third at finals that year.”

Buffington, who competes in IASCA and SLAP in Pro 601-up Ultimate, finished fourth in IASCA finals in 2002, and second in class in 2003, to Gary Biggs.

This year, he finished second in class to Biggs again in Spring Break Nationals — by just 1/2 point — before finally finishing first (over Biggs) at the Steel Valley Regional in IASCA, with a 4th place showing in the top 40 soundoff competition, setting up a showdown at finals between the two long-time rivals.

“We will be at World Finals this year hoping for the best,” Buffington asserts. “There are a lot of great cars there. It’s going to be a gun fight.”

I Would Like To Thank....
“No car out here,” Buffington says, “no matter who’s name is on the car, is a one man show. They all have someone helping them.”

With that in mind, here are the people who have helped Buffington in his quest to regain the IASCA world championship:
— My loving wife Julie for putting up with all the long nights and expenses
Gary Winfield and Gordon Taylor of Genesis amplifiers (provided amps and speakers)
Manville Smith of JL Audio (provided subs and tech assistance)
Lucette Nicoll of Nicoll Public Relations (general pr assistance)
Kevin Mutters of Dynamic Control (provided sound deadening)
— Music Interface Technologies’ Brice Brisson (provided cables and assistance)
Clayton Oxendine (passive network design assistance)
Marc Richmond (install assistance with sub box)
Paul Pirro and Rob Garza of Select Products (install materials, gauges)
Steve Mulnick at McIntosh labs
Joe Hobart of SoundGate (supplied Intelligent circuit breaker)
Larry Chijner (great friend and fierce competitor)
Michael Blair (aluminum supply and install assistance)
Dominique Thompsen (BMW parts delivery and sourcing)
John Marsh (custom floor mats)
Ray McKenzie of Batcap
John DelMonte of Streetforce LEDs (provided LEDs)
— BMP design, UUC Motorwerks, Sparco, Gound Control Suspension, TC Kline racing, and all of the competitors and friends who have helped me along the way, and my good friend Scott Reid (1972-2003) who got me hooked on Bimmers, may he rest in peace.

Movin' On Up
Buffington didn't always compete on the highest level. He started out as just another enthusiast, and worked his way up to the championship level.

"When I was in high school, a buddy of mine showed up with a box and a bunch of JLs in his vehicle. I thought it was cool, and I wanted one."

He began competing in local shows around Columbus, OH, and did not enjoy much early success.

"At the time, I couldn't afford to pay somebody to do my install, so I had to learn how to built the thing myself," Buffington, who had some building skills from his time in a construction unit in the Navy Reserves, recalls. "In my first competition, I took 7th out of 8 cars. I had a two-channel amp powering the whole system, and I had my right and left channels reversed."

Buffington continued to learn, but he found that the cars from PJ's Autosound in Earie, PA, kept defeating him in competition. He contacted the company 1995, and Will Orth, of PJ's Autosound, helped him with learn how to be competitive and how to build a winning vehicle, Buffington reports.

Buffington then began to pull ideas from home audio to further improve his system.

"I started taking things from home audio that weren't present in car audio at the time, things like high quality cables, enclosure design, D/A converters, and materials you can use to deaden the inside of an enclosure," Buffington says. " I was lucky enough to hook up with a company called Music Interface Technologies, a home audio cable company that wanted to develop a mobile line. I'm still using and promoting their products to this day."

These days, in addition to competing, Buffington can be found on the forums.

"I've found that with the CS&P forums and the Internet, being a competitor now is a lot different than being a competitor in the 1990s," Buffington states. "People contact me daily through the forums, and ask me advice, which sometimes leads to a flurry of emails and lasting friendships. Also, e-mail makes it easier to communicate overseas. One of my main sponsors, Genesis, is in England, and I e-mail back and forth with them a couple of times a week."

Buffington continues to adapt with the times, and hopes to continue his success with the BMW.

"Nowadays, in IASCA, you can't walk into any class and take a trophy," he says. "If you do take one, your car is really awesome and you deserve it."

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