Beginner's Guide to Car Audio Systems

Speakers and amps and subwoofers, oh my!

If you're new to the world of car audio systems, there's one key fact that you should be aware of. 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 lowest prices on audio gear.

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 sound system is one of the places that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) almost universally neglect in the name of higher profits. Most people don't even realize what they're missing.

Connecting a laptop to a car with a subwoofer in the back

Lifewire / Tim Liedtke

Evaluating Your Car Audio System

If a car stereo sounds OK to enough people, that's all the OEMs are 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 anyone can do:

  1. Sit in your car and close the doors and windows.

  2. Play your favorite music and turn up the volume. Don't be afraid to go higher than you usually would, but don't go blow-out-your-eardrums high.

  3. Listen to the music.

You're listening for several things, and you don't have to be an expert audiophile to pick up on them.

  • If you need to turn up the treble due to a lack of clarity, that's something that an upgrade can fix.
  • If you turn 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 bit of tinkering.

So, where do you start? There are different ways to tear into a factory sound system upgrade. Answering a handful of questions can 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 the 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 sets you on the road to building a great car audio system.

Budget-Conscious Car Stereo Upgrades

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

If you're working on a tight budget, you can do some things to improve the 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, plan how you want the finished system to look. If you do that, you'll end up with components that work well together.

Car speakers

JVC America / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

One good place to start if you're budget conscious is the speakers. Factory speakers are typically anemic, so you may notice an improvement in the sound by replacing the front speakers.

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

If you decide to drop in new speakers, make sure they'll work with the existing head unit. If you plan on upgrading the head unit in the future, consider that as well.

Upgrading a Factory Stereo

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

Car audio amplifier JVC Arsenal

JVC America / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

The first step is to ditch the factory speakers and replace them with premium units. Premium speakers are made with high-quality materials, so they sound better and last longer than factory speakers. That alone typically results in an improvement over the factory sound.

If you're ready to take things to another level, 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 means that the amplifier can sit between the factory head unit and your new speakers and allow you to turn up the music without any distortion.

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

Building a Stereo System

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

hand holding iPod in car

Doug Belshaw / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

Either way, you want to end up with a head unit capable of powering the speakers. You can also go with a head unit that has preamp outputs and an amplifier that's capable of fully powering the speakers.

There are many options when you build a car stereo system from the ground up, so people who have never performed this task may shy away from that sort of drastic change.

If you want to dive in, consider the types of features you want out of your car stereo, which helps you find the perfect head unit. Also, decide whether you're going to use full-range or component speakers.

Adding More Bass

If the only thing you're missing is bass, add a subwoofer to your factory system in one of two ways:

  • Add an amplifier and a subwoofer.
  • Add a powered subwoofer.
Subwoofer in a car trunk

Jon Rawlinson / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

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 want the easiest way to add more bass to your car audio system, 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

If you're concerned about volume, an amplifier is still the component you need to add 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.

It's easy to overpower the speakers when you add a powerful amplifier to a factory sound system. With that in mind, upgrade the speakers if you want to crank up the volume all the way.

Car audio amplifier installed

Jeff Sandquist / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

Doing the Job Right

If you're worried about the resale value of your car or if you're leasing the vehicle, take a few steps to make sure that nothing is damaged.

Car wiring harness

Pete / CC by 2.0 / Flickr

The most important thing to look for is a wiring harness specifically designed for your vehicle. This harness plugs 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 designed to plug into a new head unit, which means there's no wiring involved at all. This is the 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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