8 Steps to Upgrading Your Car Audio

Here’s a few tips to help set you on the right path to building a great car audio system.

Your car is a great place to enjoy music, especially with those long commutes to and from work but lately, you’ve become weary of listening to your underwhelming car audio system. You’ve noticed that wide assortment of music sounds rather muffled while your speakers rattle and hiss with every beat.  You’ve finally decided it’s time to breathe a new life into your music by building your car audio system according to your needs but don’t know where to begin. Thankfully, we’ve put together some suggestions on how to improve the sound in your vehicle, with tips for both simple factory systems and more sophisticated setups. You don't have to spend thousands of dollars to achieve major improvements to your listening enjoyment inside your car. Even the simplest improvements to your system can yield noticeable results. Here’s a few tips to help set you on the right path and get you on the road to building a great car audio system.

1. Planning Your Budget

When planning an audio upgrade there are several key factors you need to consider before spending your hard-earned money. Do you just want a basic head unit and speaker upgrade? Or do you want a full multimedia system with multiple screens for your back seat passengers? We suggest spending time researching on the various components to come up with a wish list. In doing so, you can tally up the final costs and determine if this project is within your current budget. 

After adding up your wish list did you go a little over budget? Fear not. If you don’t have the budget at the time to accommodate this big of a project all at once, you can still do it, but in stages which is more affordable and forgiving on your wallet. When budgeting, don’t forget to set aside funding for additional installation fees, labor and parts, such as head unit mounting kits and amplifier wiring.

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2. Finding a Reputable Audio Shop and Installers

Finding car audio installation experts that can make the right connections and fine-tune your system for stellar sounds can be a daunting task. With thousands of audio installers available online, it’s important to narrow down that list by determining the shop's reputation as well as checking previous online reviews. It also doesn’t hurt to ask for referrals from friends or family for their experience with a specific shop for their audio installations.  Take that audio list you previously put together to your selected shops to discuss your audio goals and upgrades as well as what you want to accomplish for your car. Any reputable shop will give you their honest opinion on your options and work within your budget. Also be sure to ask about labor rates and warranty on installations.​

3. Factory Stereo Upgrade

From the factory, most cars do not come equipped with the optimal car stereo. With hundreds of aftermarket head units to choose from, it all comes down to what features work best for your audio needs such as playing MP3 music, making a phone call, listening to the radio, navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility and more. Knowing the features you need before choosing the right car head unit is essential before you buy. There are single din, double din, CD/DVD/MP3 players, GPS navigation, multimedia and more. Pay due diligence in selecting the best unit that matches with your needs.

Read More: How to Install a Pioneer AVH-4200NEX in 30 Minutes

4. Speaker Upgrades

Speaker replacement is the most cost-effective car stereo upgrade you can perform. 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. Most factory speakers are comprised of a cheap single or dual paper cone. The flimsy paper cone and cheap foam materials don't produce deep, lasting sound and wear down over time due to continuous usage or degrade from weathering. Car manufactures offer cheaper speakers in order to offset the price of the car, thus exhibiting underwhelming sound quality. Upgrading to a quality set of component speakers or even an average coaxial set would be a big improvement. Websites like Crutchfield are an excellent source in determining a quality replacement speaker and size that will work for your specific vehicle.

5. Adding an Amplifier

Standard factory car stereos usually have no more than around 10 watts RMS maximum output power per channel. That's usually not enough power to overcome road noise without over stressing your factory speakers. A power amplifier will breathe life into your music, giving your audio system a clean power source that can drive your speakers without causing unnecessary power stain or sound distortion which allows your music will sound cleaner and more defined at all volume levels. Once again, researching the type of amplifier that will work best for your audio system is important. Not only do you need to know how many channels you want the amplifier to have, you need to match the RMS power rating to the combination of speakers and/or subwoofers that you are going to power. If in doubt, consult a professional audio installer to find the perfect amp.

6. Subwoofer Install

A subwoofer improves the sound of your system by enhancing bass and adding depth to an otherwise flat-sounding system that your car speakers have trouble producing. A subwoofer can make the difference between a good-sounding and a great-sounding system. In order to get more bass in your ride, you need to decide what size subwoofer or subwoofers work best within the confines of trunk cabin space and different type of enclosures. Manufactures offer custom-fit enclosures that vehicle specific as a great alternative to saving trunk space. Once you know what type of subwoofer or system you'd like to buy, comparing specs can be helpful in making your decision on specifics such as power output, sensitivity, frequency range, number of voice coils, and impedance. Manufactures go into great details on recommended enclosure sizes to determine the perfect subwoofer for your ride.

7. Using Quality Speaker Wires and Cables

If you use cheap or poor-quality audio cables, especially during longer cable runs, the audio signal will degrade. Professional audio installers offset this issue by using a cable or wire with greater thickness. A common practice is if the distance from the speaker to an amplifier is less than 80 feet, then 16-gauge wire will be sufficient. If the distance is between 80 and 200 feet, you should use 14-gauge speaker wire. If the distance is greater than 200 feet you should purchase 10- or 12-gauge cables. Using insufficient or smaller gauge wires will cause the amplifier or speakers to be starved for power when you start pushing up the volume control. A good power cable allows current to flow freely so your amp gets the juice it needs during peak demand.

Good speaker wires and/or cables can make all the difference in the world. They promote better signal flow from your receiver to your amps, allowing improved sound quality coming from your speakers. And will also reject noise caused by your car's electrical system. In fact, the right cable can reveal details in music you’ve been accustomed to listening to but never experienced before upgrading with a good seat of wires

8. Sound Deadening Material

Depending on how far you decide to take your audio upgrade, we recommend installing sound deadening as the final step to help improve sound quality. By reducing vibration and road noise, sound deadening material offered by manufactures like Dynamat. Applying the deadening material on metal panels helps to eliminate metal vibration and creates a more stable platform for your speaker, while helping to lower interior and road noise, so you don't have to turn your music up as loud when you're driving. You'll hear more musical detail, and best of all you won’t have to crank up your audio system to hear your favorite music.

Read More: Upgrade to Android Auto or Apple CarPlay for Under $850

When coming up with a budget, keep in mind the old adage "you get what you pay for." Don't expect great sound quality or the latest features from ultra-cheap, low-end car audio components. Spending a little more for high-quality components will help you achieve a satisfying audio experience.

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