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The Muffler is basically the exhaust system for your engine. It is specifically designed to reduce noise and emissions. It is typically located underneath the car at the rear and has a backbox and one or more tailpipes.
When your car goes through the standard state required smog tests an inspector will insert a probe into the tailpipe to read the emissions being emanated from the engine. Your Muffler should be checked out from time to time in order to ensure that it is working properly.
Every engine produces a tremendous amount of noise. The Muffler acts as an equalizer if you will, by creating pressure waves that collide with the waves generated by your engine, cancelling each other out. This does cause backpressure which can impact performance.
Mufflers can rust out over time or become rotted. As they are located under the car, many times the Muffler is overlooked. You should check that the clamps that hold the Muffler onto your car are secure as these can rust or rot as well.
The Muffler that is not working properly will fail the state mandated smog tests. You can tell it's time to change it when your car suddenly starts sounding much louder than normal.