A-Z Guide to Upgrade Your Car Audio
While the primary function of your vehicle is to transport you and your passengers safely from one destination to another, you can still enjoy several amenities such as music and entertainment while on the road. Car audio is a really popular industry for both consumers and car manufacturers who are serious about providing their customers with premium quality vehicles.
There are several different types of car audio systems available on the market all of which provide different elements in terms of the quality of sound, fullness, and clarity just to name a few.
If you’re serious about installing a new car audio system in your vehicle, you’ll need to take a few key factors into consideration in order to ensure that you get the sound quality and overall enjoyment that you expect. Installing a new car audio system in your vehicle can be a time-consuming and challenging task without adequate knowledge or assistance.
Luckily for you, there are several easy to install car audio systems that you can purchase to boost the overall experience that you have while listening to music inside of your vehicle.
However, if you want more serious audio quality, you’ll need to either hire a professional or do some in-depth research about how to install car audio systems. More powerful car audio systems require specific wiring and other components in order to work correctly so you’ll need professional assistance if you have no prior experience.
Depending on the audio quality that you’re trying to achieve, there are several different types of audio systems that you can choose from. If you want to simply change the way that you interact with music in your vehicle, you can replace the stock radio with an aftermarket option which really doesn’t require that much time or effort.
If you want to go deeper, you can build a custom car audio system however this option is a lot more expensive and requires a lot of physical effort in order to accomplish.
With so many moving parts to car audio systems, figuring out which one is right for you can be a bit of a challenge. Before making a final purchase decision on which car audio unit is right for you, you’ll need to consider things such as the make and model of your vehicle, it’s compatibility with the car audio system that you’re trying to install, correct inputs and outputs, vehicle design, and a lot more.
Because dealing with all of these factors can be so overwhelming, we’re going to give you a detailed breakdown of all of the things you need to know before proceeding with a car audio system upgrade.
In this guide, we’re going to cover all of the various factors that you need to take into consideration before buying a car audio system and how to choose the one that best fits your needs and vehicle configuration.
We’ll go over detailed information including some of our top car audio system recommendations for 2019 and everything you’ll need to know if you decide to build a custom audio unit or simply replace the stock radio.
Let’s start by looking at some of the most basic components that you’ll need in order to properly install a new car audio unit.
What to Look for In Quality Car Audio Equipment
Due to the wide array of car audio equipment options available on the market, it can be quite a challenge trying to find what features and technology you should look for in a quality car audio system.
There are several important factors to consider when purchasing a car audio system to ensure that you get the most value out of your initial purchase. Below, you’re going to find a comprehensive breakdown of all the key features and qualities that you should look for in a car audio system.
While many car audio systems come with a lot of these features as a standard option, not all of them do which is why it’s so important to make sure that you pay attention to the description of the car audio system you’re interested in purchasing before making a final purchase decision.
Let’s get into the must-have features that everyone who is interested in a new car audio system should look for.
All of the best car stereos allow you to fully integrate with your smartphone, enabling the best features such as Pandora and Spotify while allowing you to answer phone calls without touching your smartphone.
With recent legislation prohibiting you from using your phones while driving, it is becoming increasingly important for the best car stereos to fully integrate with your smartphone. Additionally, they will come with microphones with noise-canceling technology that will hone in on your voice and eliminate road noise.
Music Playback Options
Playback can be defined as the methods that your car stereo is capable of playing back audio. CD, DVD, MP3, HD Radio, Pandora, Auxiliary (Aux) Ports, Bluetooth; these are all examples of playback types that the best car stereos will typically have.
You will want to make sure that the playback methods that you intend on using are consistent with the playback features of the car stereo, otherwise, you may be stuck with a head unit that doesn’t play your music in the format that you have it. Here is a breakdown of the most popular playback features in the best car stereos:
- HD Radio: HD Radio is the same radio station that you listen to, but with higher audio quality and more metadata than traditional radio. Metadata includes titles, artists, albums and more.
- CD Player: CD players will play your favorite CDs in multiple formats, including CD, CD-R/RW, MP3, AAC, WAV, and WMA.
- Auxiliary (Aux) Port: Auxiliary ports allow you to connect any music device that you may have using a headphone connector. Typically, the best car stereos will have an auxiliary port on the front of the unit.
- Bluetooth: Bluetooth music allows you to connect to your music on a smartphone or other Bluetooth enabled device, playing all of your music wirelessly from your device via a Bluetooth connection.
- USB Port: A USB port will allow you to connect your music devices via a USB connection. It will allow you to listen to your favorite music from your device while charging it for endless listen time.
- XM Radio: XM radio is satellite radio such as SiriusXM, which allows you to connect and listen to thousands of channels of radio via a satellite connection. This increases the coverage of radio that you have, however, it requires a paid subscription.
Display features play a huge role in how stylish and user-friendly car stereos are. High-end car stereos will have a high LED pixel count and give customizable features like color and brightness in order to match the color of your interior.
Power Usage & Ratings
Power ratings are an extremely important feature to consider while choosing a car stereo. Without an external amplifier, the power output of the car stereo is what dictates the power of your speakers and ultimately the power of sound. There are typically two power output ratings that are given with car stereos:
- Max Power Output: Max power rating is the maximum amount of power that the car stereo can emit for short periods of time. It is the maximum amount of power that will be sent to your speakers (without an external amplifier)
- RMS (Continuous) Power Output: RMS power rating is the amount of power that the car stereo can emit at a constant or continuous rate. This is the most important power output rating.
Along with power handling and output, the level of control of the output sound’s shape is also very important. This control is typically made through a built-in equalizer (EQ). It will allow you to tailor the shape of sound, raising or lowering the level of certain frequencies in order to best optimize the output sound for the environment of your car.
The higher the number of bands that the car stereo’s equalizer has, the more you will be able to customize the frequencies and shape of your music and sound.
Versatility is what allows you to connect external components to your car stereo. The best car stereos will have at least three 4volt RCA outputs (Front, Rear, Subwoofer), Audio/Video (AV) input/outputs, rearview camera inputs (with compatible displays) and a microphone input.
Now that you know all of the key features to look for when purchasing a new car audio system, it’s time to look at the necessary components that you’ll need in order to successfully upgrade your car’s sound system.
Essential Car Audio Unit Components
If you plan to go the custom-built car audio unit route, you’ll need to purchase several different components in order to successfully complete the job. Below, you’ll find a list of all those components that are vital to creating the perfect car audio unit for your vehicle.
Keep in mind, there are various variations and versions of each component listed below and not all of them will be compatible with your vehicle. Before purchasing any of these components, make sure that you check the compatibility with your vehicle to avoid wasting money.
Also known as the car stereo, this is the most important part of your car’s audio system. It is the unit that sends the sound signals to the speakers and other elements of your car audio system. Today, there are head units that can perform a variety of functions.
Head units are the heart and soul of your car’s stereo. It’s what allows you to play music, make phone calls, listen to the radio, navigate to where you’re going and more. Knowing the features, you need before choosing the right car head unit is essential before you buy it.
There are single din, double din, CD/DVD/MP3 players, GPS navigation, multimedia and more. Some of them are capable of using Bluetooth technology, providing GPS navigation and playing music from your secondary devices such as your iPod, flash drive or micro SD card.
Depending on the features which you want and your budget, you can research and find a head unit that fits your requirements. You can then install it to replace your old one.
Most stock and aftermarket car stereos cannot provide sufficient power to your car speakers on their own. Thus, you need to install an amplifier to boost the sound signal from the car stereo to the speakers.
A good amplifier will enhance and boost the sound signals from the head unit and direct them to your speaker enabling you to hear every crisp note in your music. There are two types of amplifiers.
Without sufficient power, subwoofers and speakers are worthless. You can’t have a great sounding car stereo without the proper amount of power. Amplifiers are tricky to choose. Not only do you need to know how many channels you want the amplifier to have, but you also need to match the RMS power rating to the combination of speakers and/or subwoofers that you are going to power.
They include the mono channel and the multiple channel amplifiers. A mono channel amplifier can only boost the signal for one speaker while a multi-channel amplifier can boost the signal for up to 6 speakers.
It is advisable to buy a multiple channel amplifier so as to give you the flexibility to expand your car audio system in the future. There is a huge variety of amplifiers in the market for you.
They are of various models and power ratings. As you pick an amplifier, make sure that you pick one which fits comfortably in your budget. Moreover, remember to check the RMS rating of your speakers. Your amplifier’s power should match the RMS rating on your car speakers. This is so as to avoid overpowering and destroying them.
The bass thump in your music normally has a low frequency. A special type of speaker is required to play this low-frequency sound in a clear and crisp way. This speaker is known as a subwoofer.
There are three main sizes of subwoofers. They include the 8 inches, 10 inch, and 12-inch subwoofers. As you begin the journey of upgrading your car stereo, you can do quite well with two 8 inches or one 12-inch subwoofer.
Do some research so that you can pick a unit that fits in your budget. It is important to note that you should provide your subwoofer with an amplified sound. Subwoofers are speakers that are meant to cover the lower end frequencies in your music. They come in three key sizes: 8″, 10″ and 12″.
Depending on the type of music you listen to, you may be better off with a smaller 8″ subwoofer (or two), or just one 12″ subwoofer. This means that one or two of the channels on your amplifier should be dedicated to your subwoofers. This is how to deliver crisp, powerful sound to them and hear the deep bass in your music.
These are the main sound output channels of your car’s audio system. They are definitely an audio part which you should upgrade if you want to enjoy crisp, clear sound. There are many car speaker manufacturers in the market.
Examples of these are Kenwood, JBL, Rockford, Pioneer, and Polk Audio. There are also various types and sizes of car speakers that you can choose from. Examples of these are 6.5 or 6 x 8 and 6 x 9 car audio speakers. In addition to that, there are two categories of car speakers.
We all know what speakers are and what they do. It’s your car’s door speakers and tweeters that dictate how clear, smooth and full your car stereo’s sound reproduction is.
Different manufacturers have different sized speakers, so matching the speaker size to your car’s OEM hole-size is absolutely essential for easy installation, unless you are set on changing the size with a manual configuration.
These are the full-range and component speakers. Also known as coaxial speakers, the full-range type has the tweeter on the woofer. On the other hand, component car speakers have these elements separately.
An important point to remember is that your car speakers must match the OEM hole of your car. This is very important so as to ensure a smooth installation. If you are not sure about the OEM hole size of your car, simply head to the Metra website and perform a quick search. Enter your car model and the online system will present you with the size of its OEM hole.
Factors That Determine Which Car Audio System is Right
Now that you’re familiar with all of the various types and configuration options that you have to choose from when shopping for a car audio system, it’s time to take a look at some of the core factors that play a role in helping you determine which car audio system is right for your vehicle.
By reading the following section in full, you’ll be able to ensure that you’re making the right purchase decision when it comes to choosing an appropriate car audio system.
The Age of Your Car
You just bought a new car or truck – and you love it. It smells good, looks good, drives like a dream… and there’s not a single M&M or runaway french-fry under the seat. (Yet.) Awesome, congratulations.
Now, get in the driver’s seat and play the stereo. Loud. As in all the way up loud. Assuming you ‘ve already done this, two things: 1) We’re not here to bum you out or tell you anything you don’t already know, like your new car audio, is seriously lacking, and 2)
You’re not alone. Truth is, every new car and truck comes with a less-than-impressive sound system (even premium sound systems can be improved upon, believe it or not). You know your car like the back of your hand.
And though you can’t turn back the odometer or make it look showroom clean, it’s a good car in spite of its age. (Note: Eddie Van Halen is 62. Aretha Franklin is 75. Both still bring the house down.)
The good news: upgrading your car’s sound system won’t cost a fortune or require ruining your car’s clean original equipment manufacturers (OEM) look. More on that in a moment.
Our point is that no matter how old your car is, you can get that new car buzz back again with a killer sound system in one of two ways: 1) By replacing elements of the sound system – speakers, amps, touch screens, etc. – in a way that doesn’t change your car’s OEM look, or 2)
Going all-in with a balls-to-the-wall car audio system that’s more about blowing your mind vs. keeping a look.
Choosing the Right Speaker Size
It can be a little intimidating when shopping for new car speakers, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. There are so many varieties of speakers and details to consider: brands, materials, sizes, components, prices… the list goes on.
Overall, you’ll want to focus on the things that are most important to you. Is it sound? The price? Is it size? There are tons of car speaker size options to choose from. If you’re looking to keep your car’s OEM look, then you want to replace your existing speakers with speakers of the same size. (Have 6.5” speakers in the front doors of your Honda Civic? Get 6.5” speakers as replacements.)
Not sure what size speakers you have? Simply measure across the speaker at its widest points. Once you have your speaker measurements, determine the size you need by comparing it to the available speaker sizes. Round speaker sizes can be 3-1/2”, 4”, 5-1/4”, 6-1/2”, or 8”. Oval speaker sizes can be 4×6”, 4×10” 5×7”/6×8”, or 6×9”.
What Kind of Speakers Do You Want?
Terms like “2-way” or “3-way” describe the two or three drivers that make up each speaker. Drivers can include things such as woofers, tweeters, mid-range drivers, and/or super-tweeters.
Most people opt to replace what’s there with a similar-size (but obviously superior) car speaker kit. In other words: you can replace your car’s current speakers with far better speakers purposely designed to fit in all the same places.
When it comes to car speaker kit specs, here’s what to look for:
- Power-handling: There’s a wide range here, but look for the continuous (or RMS) power handling. Make sure that your power source (whether it is a car radio or amplifier) has enough juice to power the speakers well. Try to get the closest match you can, but it doesn’t have to be exact.
- Sensitivity: This is a way to measure a car speaker’s efficiency. Speakers that are rated 90dB or higher require only a low amount of power to run well. Any sensitivity rating lower than 90dB needs more juice, and you may want to consider getting a car amplifier so they get the power they crave.
- Mounting depth: This refers to how much space the speaker will take up when mounted in your car. You can always add spacers or mounting brackets to hold just about any speaker in any car door. But if you don’t want to, measure the mounting depth of your current speakers and make sure the new ones are either the same depth or less. To identify mounting depth, simply measure from the back of the mounting flange (the metal ring surrounding the speaker itself, where the screw holes are) to the furthest point of the speaker. Unsure of the exact depth? Roundup — never down.
Build Quality of The Car Audio Components
The right ingredients in your car audio system make a big difference.
Woofer cones – the pieces that play bass response and some mid-range – are usually made of paper or polypropylene, but exotic materials like Kevlar® or flax are often used as well.
Tweeters – these produce a high-frequency response – are generally made from synthetic materials, metals, or fabric (like silk). Again, exotic materials are sometimes substituted, but these three are typical. Tweeters push fine details forward, like voices and solo violins, and you want to make sure you get something that sounds natural to your ears.
Metal tweeters offer a very detailed response and excellent clarity, but some might find them a little harsh sounding. Silk dome tweeters sound really smooth and lifelike but aren’t always capable of producing the same level of clarity you get with metal tweeters.
While the dozens of car speaker brands out there each have their own ways of doing things, any of them will give you a better, richer and deeper sound experience than the audio system your car came with. Some are pricey, some are more budget-conscious. But try not to get overwhelmed.
Enhance Your Car Audio Sound
To help isolate the music inside your car and keep everything else outside, we always recommend sound deadening your car with a product called Dynamat. Dynamat’s sound-insulating material used inside car doors between new speakers and sheet metal.
It’s been around for years, and we love it because it drastically reduces road noise coming in from outside – making you car whisper quiet in the process (depending on how much you use.)
And Dynamat keeps more of your music inside the vehicle for you to hear and less outside for passersby.
Top Car Audio System Recommendations
You know everything you need to know at this point now it’s time to actually install a new car audio system. Below, you’ll find a list of our top recommended car audio systems that you can purchase and install in no time.
All of these recommendations come in various models, configurations, and types to keep that in mind before making a final purchase decision.
If you can skip some of the bells and whistles, the Pioneer DEH-X6900BT in-dash car stereo system is a fantastic choice for budget-conscious buyers. With a multi-segmented LCD display complete with LED backlight, the dual-zone color customization offers you total personalization of the on-screen colors, as well as color choices for each of the buttons.
With 10 brightness levels to select from, there’s something for day and night driving. Whether it’s already enabled in your vehicle or not, the Pioneer adds Bluetooth connectivity, so you can wirelessly stream music and answer (and end) phone calls hands-free through the car’s speaker system.
There’s also a front-panel USB and AUX input for hooking up various gadgets, including an iPhone or handheld music players. There’s also room for tweaking the sound, thanks to an onboard EQ five-band equalizer, which will come in handy for maximizing audio performance via the direct link to Spotify through the Pioneer unit and compatible smartphone.
With a whopping seven-inch display, the Pioneer AVH4200NEX in-dash receiver is an outstanding option for car owners who want a gorgeous display that’s full of functionality. With built-in DVD compatibility, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, there’s no shortage of device support.
Built-in Bluetooth allows for hands-free calling and supports two devices at one time for both the driver and a passenger. The Pioneer extends its support for Apple with Siri compatibility. Also for built-in iPod, iPhone and iPad control through an optional adapter that allows for the viewing of video content.
If neither Android nor Apple are your preference while you’re on the road, there’s extra support for SiriusXM so you can access music, traffic, weather, and sports.
Connecting any compatible iPhone or Android smartphone via Pioneer’s AppRadio Mode adds on-screen access to your contacts, calendar, maps and more. Additionally, AppRadioLive adds all the news and media info you’d want into a single interface designed for quick and easy discovery.
There are ways to get a larger touchscreen stereo system on cars that can only fit a two-inch-tall single-din head unit, including a flip-out or slide-out display. But the Alpine Halo9 iLX-F309 goes all-out, rocking a massive nine-inch screen that “floats” in front of the dash.
It blends in nicely with most cars despite the size, and the positioning is adjustable. The anti-glare touchscreen looks and feels nice, with an attractive and easy-to-navigate interface. The included feature set is wide. It has everything from custom shortcuts to Bluetooth to wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
The built-in amplifier on the iLX-F309 offers 4 x 18 watts RMS (50 watts peak) power and excellent audio quality. You can customize your sound with a nine-band equalizer or use the broad selection of included presets.
The system supports playback from AM, FM, HD radio, SiriusXM satellite radio (with subscription), FLAC and other digital music files, and AVI and MPEG4 video via USB. There are inputs for HDMI and a rear camera as well.
Serious music lovers should look no further when finding a car stereo system with clear radio reception. The Alpine Single-Din Bluetooth Car Stereo comes with high-quality HD radio signals for clean and clear reception.
The Alpine Single-Din Bluetooth Car Stereo system is a 9.06 x 3.94 x 10.63-inch and 4.41-pound car stereo system with a single DIN and faceplate security. Its peak power gives it an output of 50 watts through four channels while its RMS power offers 18 watts with four channels.
It has preamp RCA outputs for front, rear as well as a dedicated subwoofer. The device comes with a nine-band built-in equalizer with LCD text display with four selectable colors and includes a 105 dB with an AM/FM tuner and CD signal-to-noise.
It’s compatible with your iPhone and Android smartphones, too. What makes the Alpine stand out from the rest of the car stereo system is that it’s built for HD radio. It has a built-in HD radio tuner designed to capture the best reception and deliver the clearest sound.
You’ll have no problem streaming Pandora Internet Radio from your phone and capture Sirius XM satellite radio signals. Some customers have noted that the system has a tendency to glitch with Pandora if using a Samsung S3. Others have nothing to complain about, with one claiming that it has “every input known to man”. It comes with a one-year warranty.
Frequently Asked Questions
Replacing the car speakers unless they have gone it not necessary and it’s not worth the money and effort to replace them because you’ll also need to replace the power amps to actually hear a significant difference in quality.
Most of the time an amplifier will produce more quantity rather than quality. But, a good amplifier could make a difference in the sound quality depending on whether it uses solid state transistors, valves, or a mix of the two which ultimately results in a sound difference, some better, some worse.
Yes. If you play music through your phone over Bluetooth it can reduce the quality of the sound, which is especially noticeable if you want to play music at a higher volume.
Use all of the information in this article to help guide you in the right direction when choosing the perfect car audio system. Once you buy all these items, it is time to install them in your car.
If you plan to do it yourself, ensure that you perform all the safety procedures first. Wear some goggles to protect your eyes and gloves to keep your hands safe and insulated. Moreover, be aware of the electrical power around you.
On the other hand, if you plan to have a professional car audio specialist do it for you, make sure that they are insured so as to receive compensation in case your equipment gets damaged during the process.
After the new car audio system is installed, feel free to enjoy your music and hear it as never before. As long as you follow all of these tips, you’ll be able to enjoy your favorite tunes like never before.