Car Audio Systems For the Total Newbie

If you’re a total newbie to the world of car audio systems, then there’s just one key fact that you should be aware of.

It isn't some byzantine formula that’s used to calculate speaker power levels or optimal speaker placements. It doesn't have anything to do with squeezing every last bit out of a car audio capacitor or adding an additional battery.

It’s not even a hot tip on where to get the cheapest prices on audio gear.

The Beginner's Guide to Car Audio Systems

Illustration of a woman connecting a laptop to a car with a subwoofer in the back

Lifewire / Tim Liedtke

The most important thing to remember is that your car stereo probably doesn’t sound as good as you might think it does. And that isn't a judgmental statement. The fact is that the sound system is one of the places that OEMs almost universally neglect in the name of higher profits, and most people don't even realize what they're missing.

If a car stereo sounds okay to enough people, then that’s all the OEMs are usually looking for. Even factory-installed “premium sound systems” usually aren’t up to snuff.

So how can you tell if your factory audio needs a little tender loving care? Here’s a test that just about anyone can do:

  1. Go sit in your car, close the doors, and crank up the windows.
  2. Put on your favorite CD and turn up the volume. Don't be afraid to go higher than you normally would, but we aren't talking “blow out your eardrums” high.
  3. Listen to the music.

You’re listening for a couple of different things, and you don’t have to be an expert audiophile to pick up on them.

If you find yourself turning up the treble due to a lack of clarity, that’s something that an upgrade can fix.

On the other hand, if you find yourself turning up the bass only to have the bass sound hollow or empty, that’s also something an upgrade can fix.

If the music sounds distorted when the volume is up really high, that’s another thing you can take care of with a little tinkering.

So where do you get started? There are a lot of different ways for a newbie to tear into a factory sound system upgrade, so there are a handful of questions that can help set you on the right path:

  • How important is your budget? Do you have much money to spend on upgrades?
  • Do you want to improve your sound while keeping your factory stereo?
  • Would you rather ditch the factory stereo and start fresh?
  • How important is bass?
  • Do you like listening to your music loud?

You might be surprised at how the simple act of pondering those five questions will set you on the road to building a great car audio system.

Budget-Conscious Car Stereo Upgrades

Car speakers

JVC America / Flickr / CC 2.0

The great thing about car audio is that there’s no right or wrong way to go about it, and the best thing about factory audio systems is that just about any component you replace will represent at least a marginal improvement.

If you’re working on a tight budget, then there are still some things you can do to improve your sound. You can even replace components one at a time, as your budget permits, and eventually, you'll have a completely custom car sound system.

If you are going the piecemeal, budget-conscious route, then it’s a good idea to plan out a roadmap for what you want your finished system to look like. If you do that, then you’ll end up with components that all work really well together.

One good place for budget-conscious newbies to start is the speakers. Factory speakers are typically pretty anemic, so you may notice a pretty big improvement in your sound by simply replacing your front speakers.

A decent set of front speakers might only set you back $50. Component speakers provide even better sound, but that’s a more complicated upgrade that's better paired with a brand new car stereo.

If you do decide to drop in new speakers, it's a good idea to make sure they'll work with your existing head unit. And if you plan on upgrading the head unit in the future, you'll want to take that into consideration as well.

Upgrading a Factory Stereo

Car audio amplifier JVC Arsenal

JVC America / Flickr / CC 2.0

Everyone has different opinions on car audio, and some people just love the look of their factory stereo. If you have a late model car with an integrated infotainment system, it can also be very difficult to upgrade the stereo. In either case, there are a number of ways to improve a factory sound system without touching the head unit.

The first step is to ditch your factory speakers and replace them with premium units. Premium speakers are made out of higher quality materials, so they sound better and last longer than factory speakers. That alone will typically result in a huge improvement over the factory sound.

If you’re ready to take it to another level, you might want to consider installing an amplifier that uses speaker level inputs. Most amps use line level inputs, but you’ll need one with speaker level inputs if your factory stereo lacks preamp outputs.

That might sound like a lot of nonsense, but it basically means that the amplifier will be able to sit between your factory head unit and your new speakers and allow you to turn your music up without any distortion.

When you add one or more amplifiers, you also have the option of adding a subwoofer. That will provide you with richer bass, but you can also add a digital sound processor to improve the sound from all of your speakers.

Building a Stereo System

hand holding iPod in car

Doug Belshaw / Flickr / CC 2.0

If you don’t like your factory stereo, then you probably want to start off with a clean slate. That’s great, but the sheer number of choices out there can be paralyzing. If you’re building a system from the ground up, then you can either start with the speakers or the head unit.

Either way, you’ll want to end up with a head unit that is capable of fully powering the speakers. On the other hand, you can also go with a head unit that has preamp outputs and an amplifier that’s capable of fully powering your speakers.

There are a lot of options when you build a car stereo system from the ground up, so a lot of newbies shy away from that sort of drastic change.

If you really want to dive in, you might want to start by considering the types of features you want out of your car stereo, which can help you find the perfect head unit. You’ll also want to decide on whether you’re going to use the full range or component speakers.

Adding More Bass

Subwoofer in a car trunk

Jon Rawlinson / Flickr (CC 2.0

If the only thing you’re really missing is bass, then you’ll want to add a subwoofer into your factory system. That can be accomplished in one of two ways:

  1. Adding an amplifier and a subwoofer.
  2. Adding a powered subwoofer.

Powered subwoofers are simpler, but adding an amplifier and a subwoofer gives you more flexibility. Either way, a subwoofer is the best way to get that bass pounding.

If you're after the absolute easiest way to add more bass to your car audio system, then a powered amplifier with speaker-level inputs is the way to go. These units combine an amp and a subwoofer into one unit, so there isn't any guesswork, and they can be hooked up to any factory or aftermarket head unit.

Turning It up to Eleven

Car audio amplifier installed

Jeff Sandquist / Flickr / CC 2.0

If you’re more concerned about volume, an amplifier is still the component you need to look at adding to your system. You’ll probably need an amp with speaker level inputs if you’re leaving the factory stereo in place, but some premium factory head units come with line level outputs.

When you add a powerful amplifier into a factory sound system, it’s easy to overpower the speakers. With that in mind, you’ll have to upgrade your speakers if you really want to crank up the volume all the way.

Doing the Job Right

Close up of car wiring harness

Pete / Flickr / CC 2.0

If you’re worried about the resale value of your car, or even if you’re leasing the vehicle, there are a few steps you can take to make sure that nothing gets messed up.

The most important thing to look for is a wiring harness that’s specifically designed for your vehicle. This harness will plug into the factory wiring, so you won’t have to cut into any of the wires in your car stereo system.

Some of these wiring harnesses are even designed to plug straight into your new head unit, which means there’s no wiring involved at all. This is the absolute easiest way to install a new head unit, and it ensures that you can pop the factory stereo back in any time you want.

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