Best Ways to Get Better Car Audio Quality

The process of getting better car audio sound quality is an incremental one, rather than an all or nothing proposition, so there’s actually a surprising number of little tweaks and upgrades that you can do to improve the overall sound quality in your car.

Most of the ways to get better audio quality in your car involve upgrades, like getting a new head unit, or installing premium speakers or a subwoofer, but others are actually focused on improving the environment in your car primarily by removing as much external interference as possible.

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Replace Your Factory Speakers

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Factory speakers can be replaced with direct fit aftermarket units for an easy upgrade, but you don't have to stop there. Martyn Goddard / Corbis Documentary / Getty

The easiest way to hear at least some type of improvement in car audio quality is to replace the factory speakers with higher quality aftermarket units. When you do a direct replacement and put in speakers that conform the dimensions and basic type of the factory speakers, this is literally a plug and play type job where you pull out the old units and drop in the new ones.

If your car has been on the road for a while, there’s a good chance that the speakers have started to deteriorate, in which case you’re likely to hear a marked improvement by simply dropping in replacement units. You can also go the extra mile and replace coaxial speakers with component speakers, or even add a subwoofer, but that type of upgrade is both more complicated and costly.

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Upgrade Your Head Unit and Ditch Your Phone’s Built-in DAC

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While your phone or MP3 player is perfectly capable of playing music, you'll hear in increase in quality if your head unit has a good DAC. Jeffrey Coolidge / Photodisc / Getty

While upgrading your head unit isn’t always the best place to start when you’re specifically looking to get better audio quality, it’s always worth considering. This is especially true if your head unit is getting a little long in the tooth, or if it doesn’t have preamp outputs and you’re looking at installing an amplifier.

Another reason to consider upgrading your head unit is if you like to listen to digital music in your car. If your head unit doesn’t have a high-quality built-in DAC, then adding a new head unit that does will allow you to offload the heavy lifting of digital audio conversion from your phone or MP3 player to your car stereo.

Taking advantage of a head unit that comes equipped with a high-quality DAC requires a USB or proprietary connection, so keep in mind that you’ll have to connect your phone or another device to your car stereo via USB cable rather than an ordinary auxiliary input. This allows the head unit to read data from the device and convert it into analog audio signals that get passed to the amplifier and speakers.

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Add Components Like Amplifiers, Signal Processors, and Equalizers

amplify your car audio quality
Stacking amps isn't the cheapest way to get better car audio quality, but the right amp can be instrumental in building a better system. mixmike / E+ / Getty

Adding an amplifier, or another component like a signal processor or equalizer is typically going to be more expensive and complicated than dropping in speakers or even upgrading the head unit. However, an amp can allow you to slot in better speakers and really transform the quality of your car audio.

If you’re dealing with a factory stereo that didn’t come with an amp, then it’s important to find a unit that comes with speaker level inputs. The best way to do this type of upgrade is to install a head unit that has preamp outputs, but an amp that includes speaker level inputs is at least a workable alternative. Another option is to use a speaker to line level converter.

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Use Higher Quality Music Files Or Even High Resolution Audio

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Jump on the high resolution audio highway. Rich Legg / E+ / Getty

One of the most overlooked factors in car audio quality is the source of the audio. An extreme example would be if someone insisted on listening to only AM radio, rather than FM radio, and then complained about the sound quality. Although there are higher quality AM radios out there, and the issue of AM vs. FM is far more complicated than this reductionist example, everyone knows that they’ll hear better sound quality if they listen to an FM station.

In the same way, CDs provide better audio quality than FM radio, and you can hear even better quality if you switch to digital sound files—or suffer a drastic loss in quality. The issue is that digital music files aren’t all created equal. For instance, if you have a lot of music in your collection that you purchased—or acquired through other means—a decade or more ago, the chances are pretty good that they are more heavily compressed than they really need to be.

Switching to a lower level of compression, or even moving to a lossless format, can make a tremendous difference in terms of sound quality. High-resolution audio is even an option today, although the larger file sizes mean you may not be able to bring your entire collection along anymore.

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Dampen External Noise Sources With Sound-Deadening Materials

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There's nothing you can do about sounds originating from inside the car, but cutting down on external noise can help you get better audio quality. Daniel Grizelj / Stone / Getty

Most of the ways to get better car audio quality involve actually upgrading your car audio system, but they totally gloss over the fact that cars make for pretty erratic soundstages. The interior volume of a car or truck isn’t ever going to match the dynamics of your home theater, but damping materials can really help out.

The easiest and fastest fix in this category is to slot some damping materials, like Dynamat, into your door panels. These products are essentially just sheets of sound-deadening materials that help keep out road noise and other sources of external crosstalk, which is why it’s so easy to install them in your door panels. The process basically just involves popping each panel off, sliding in a sheet of damping material, and then putting the panels back on.

This same process can be applied to other sources of noise. For instance, you can install a similar sound-deadening material on the inside of your hood to help cut down on noise from your engine, and the same type of material can be installed under your carpet to further cut down on road noise.

Similar damping materials are also available to prevent vibrations from your car speakers from propagating into the metal of the doors and other areas where they are mounted. By cutting down on vibrating metal, and sticking to vibrating air, you may see an increase in sound quality.

If you end up installing a big subwoofer in your trunk, the same type of damping material can also help there. The basic idea is to line the floor, side walls, and the inside of the trunk lid, only leaving the divider between the vehicle and the trunk uncovered. This can help cut down on vibration and improve the sound quality you get out of your sub.