How do I get the best sound out of my car's audio system?

Car Gadgets Image Gallery A new car stereo receiver can give you better options, but improved sound quality requires several components. See more pictures of car gadgets.
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The radio happens to be one of the relatively few parts on a car that aren't really vital to the transportation process. It has no effect on whether we get to our destination safely or on time, but most of us switch it on anyway. Some drivers couldn't imagine being in a car without music, talk radio or even an audio book playing through the speakers.

But the question is, how does it sound when we do switch it on? Is the sound quality decent? On most vehicles, unless the car came with a premium brand name factory option like a Bose, THX or a Mark Levinson system, the answer is likely to be, not really. Those types of high-end sound systems tend to be more prominent on luxury models.

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Most car audio sound systems and radios won't have ultra-high fidelity sound, thumping bass, or lots of extra features like MP3 player inputs. Also, while they may emphasize one area of sound, like bass or treble, they may be missing the overall picture. And that's why buying a new stereo system (or even simply car audio speakers), is a common way to get better sound in your car. While properly adjusting your stereo's equalizer settings can greatly improve quality, the results won't likely blow your mind as much as a custom car audio system can.

There are a number of ways to achieve maximum sound quality with new components. You can replace the stereo (which is sometimes called a receiver or head unit), replace the speakers, install sound-deadening materials to reduce vibration and even add an amplifier. These things can get pretty expensive; however, and fortunately for you, may not need to do all of these steps.

So, how do you get the most out of your car stereo equipment without throwing away money in the process?

Car Audio Speakers

A set of aftermarket speakers is often the easiest way to better sound.
A set of aftermarket speakers is often the easiest way to better sound.
Florea Marius/iStockphoto

Let's start by taking a look at speakers. These are perhaps the easiest way to improve your in car audio quality, since they produce the actual sound within the confines of your car.

While your standard speakers often try to produce bass, treble, and midrange sounds all with one unit, aftermarket speakers often feature multiple components like tweeters and woofers that produce their own sounds. You get a higher quality sound and a more pleasing, distinct audio range this way.

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Most factory speakers come with a flimsy paper cone and cheap foam materials that don't produce deep, lasting sound. They wear down over time due to continuous use, ambient dampness and even the sun's UV rays help degrade some speakers. Thanks to these factors, the quality of the sound drops. Replacement speakers can come with cones made of Kevlar, rubber, polymer composites (like polypropylene), Mylar film and a whole host of other materials [source: Yoder]. But keep in mind, the most durable and lasting materials aren't necessarily the ones that produce the best car audio sound. Speakers made of rubber provide excellent sound as well as longevity; foam and cloth units cost less, yet still offer great performance [source: Nail].

A quality set of speakers can be had for a few hundred dollars, but you should know that there are extremely complex and pricy ones out there, too. That is, if you have the cash. Just remember: more expensive doesn't always mean better sound.

Speaking of sound quality -- just how much does external noise detract from your overall listening experience? Is there anything you can do about it?

Car Sound Deadening

Speakers mounted in the car doors can create vibrations and harshness. Adding sound deadening material like Dynamat may be a good solution.
Speakers mounted in the car doors can create vibrations and harshness. Adding sound deadening material like Dynamat may be a good solution.
Mike Clarke/iStockphoto

Here's another fairly simple way to improve your car audio quality: sound-deadening materials. In most cars, the speakers are mounted in the front doors and behind the rear seats, usually facing up towards the rear window. The vibrations from these speakers can actually shake the car (or parts of the car), which can be noisy and will generally reduce the quality of the sound.

Sound deadening materials like Dynamat -- a cut-to-fit sheet of noise reducing material -- can absorb these vibrations when it's properly installed in your vehicle. Materials like Dynamat create a more stable platform to support the speaker, so the quality of the speaker won't be impaired by its own vibrations.

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At the same time, Dynamat, or similar system, will reduce the noise from the road itself. If you have a small car or even a larger car that has thin doors or poor insulation, you know how loud road and wind noise can be at highway speeds. With a sound deadening material in place, you won't need to turn your volume quite as high to compensate for excessive road noise [source: Dynamat].

Up next, we'll look at how car audio accessories like amplifiers and head units can improve your audio quality.

Amplifiers, Receivers and Other Car Audio Equipment

Your car may not need three amplifiers like this car has, but adding an amp might improve your system's output.
Your car may not need three amplifiers like this car has, but adding an amp might improve your system's output.
Petko Danov/iStockphoto

Upgrading the car stereo receiver is a good way to get more audio options, like a better equalizer, clearer radio signals and even CD or MP3 player capability. But for dramatic improvements in sound quality, you'll need more than just a new car stereo.

Amplifiers are used to supply extra power to your car audio components. They do exactly what their name indicates -- they amplify­ electrical signals to send more juice to your entire audio system. The standard car stereo actually comes with its own, built-in amplifier; however, it's limited by space. Usually, these built-in amps are too small to send the power a high-fidelity custom stereo system requires.

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As such, an external car audio amplifier is almost always necessary when you're running a lot of components in your system. If you're planning to purchase component speakers, tweeters and a subwoofer for your car, the stock power supply system just won't do this new car audio equipment justice.

With an amplifier, you can expect much higher quality sound from all of your car audio components. Amps can cost anywhere from $80 to several hundred dollars, depending on power output and the number of channels. The number of channels you need is dependent on the number of components you want the amp to power.

Proper tuning is also important to your stereo system. Even if you purchase all new sound equipment for your car, you'll still have to make sure the settings are right; otherwise the audio quality will remain poor. Set the car audio equalizer according to what you listen to most -- if you're into classical music or talk radio, maybe you don't need to the bass turned up to hip-hop levels. Most aftermarket stereos come with several pre-set options for tuning based on different types of listening. Select the one you like best, or tune it yourself.

One last piece of advice: Make sure the amplifier's gain control isn't set too high; otherwise you could face some nasty audio distortion issues. As for the radio, try to avoid excessive boosts in bass and treble, while turning the overall settings up a bit more [source: Fay].

You can learn more about automotive electronics and other related topics on the next page.

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 Sources

  • Dynamat. "General FAQ's." http://www.dynamat.com/faqs_faqs.html
  • Fay, Jeff. "Jeff's Tips for Getting Maximum Sound Quality in Your Car." Crutchfield. Oct 30, 2008. (Feb. 4, 2009) http://www.crutchfield.com/S-ZFuTc47FfcM/Learn/SQ/12_car_tips.html
  • Nail, Ken. "Car Speakers: What to Look For." Crutchfield. Jan. 29, 2009. (Feb. 4, 2009) http://www.crutchfieldadvisor.ca/S-52n3krMv3bd/learningcenter/car/speakers.html
  • Nakano, Roy. "Surveying The Best New Car Sound Systems." L.A. Audio File. (Feb. 4, 2009) http://www.laaudiofile.com/newcar.html
  • Yoder, Andrew. "Auto Audio." McGraw-Hill. (Feb. 4, 2009) http://books.google.com/books?id=vrVxzcljeRUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=auto+audio