5 Ways to Get Better Car Audio Quality

Use these tips and tricks to boost your listening experience on the road.

Getting better sound in your car is more of a journey than a destination. It's an incremental process you can revise and tweak along the way, rather than an all-or-nothing proposition. You can make a surprising number of little tweaks and upgrades to your car audio system to improve the overall sound quality without a huge financial outlay.

Most suggestions involve upgrades such as a new head unit, premium speakers, or a subwoofer, but others focus on improving the acoustics in your car primarily by removing as much external interference as possible.

Here are five of the best ways to improve the quality of the audio in your car.

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Replace Your Factory Speakers

New car speakers against a white background.

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The problem: Factory speakers usually aren't any good.

The fix: Install aftermarket features that meet the same dimensions and play nicely with your existing head unit.

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

If your car has been on the road for a while, the speakers probably have deteriorated. You're likely to hear a marked improvement by dropping in replacement units.

You can also go the extra mile and replace coaxial speakers with component speakers, or add a subwoofer, but that's more complicated and costly.

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

A USB cable plugged into a car radio.

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The problem: If you're listening to music through a phone or MP3 player and an auxiliary connection, audio quality takes a hit.

The fix: Find a replacement head unit that has a USB connection.

Upgrading your head unit isn't always the best place to start, but it's always worth considering. This is especially true if your head unit is getting old, 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 listen to digital music in your car. If your head unit doesn't have a high-quality built-in DAC, adding a new head unit that does allows 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 equipped with a high-quality DAC requires a USB or proprietary connection, so you'll 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 Such as Amplifiers, Signal Processors, and Equalizers

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.

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The problem: Factory car audio systems are oversimplified.

The fix: Incrementally add components, such as a new amplifier, as part of the upgrade process.

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

If you're dealing with a factory stereo that didn't come with an amp, 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 High-Quality Music Files or High-Resolution Audio

high resolution audio

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The problem: If you're listening to digital music, sound quality can suffer due to overly compressed files.

The fix: Use bigger, less compressed music files.

One of the most overlooked factors in car audio quality is the source of the audio. An extreme example is AM radio vs. FM radio. Although high-quality AM radios exist, everyone knows 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 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, they're probably more compressed than they need to be.

Switching to a lower level of compression or even a lossless format can make a difference in sound quality. High-resolution audio is an option, although the large 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

dampen sound quality

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The problem: Most cars allow too much road noise in.

The fix: Use damping materials and other solutions to minimize road noise.

Cars make pretty erratic soundstages. The interior volume of a car or truck isn't going to match the dynamics of a home theater, but damping materials can help.

The easiest and fastest fix is to slot some damping materials, such as Dynamat, into the door panels. These products are sheets of sound-deadening materials that help keep out road noise and other sources of external crosstalk. The installation process involves popping off each door panel, sliding in a sheet of damping material, and then putting the panel back on.

You can apply the same process to other noise sources. For example, you can install a similar sound-deadening material under the hood and carpet to help cut down on engine noise.

Damping materials also help prevent speaker vibrations 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 might see an increase in sound quality.

If you install a big subwoofer in the trunk, the same type of damping material can help there, too. The basic idea is to line the floor, side walls, and inside of the trunk lid, leaving only the divider between the vehicle and the trunk uncovered. This can help cut vibration and improve the sound quality of your subwoofer.

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