12 Tips for the Best Sound Quality in Your Car
The car can be a great place to enjoy music, but many travelers still put up with marginal sound quality that they would never tolerate at home. Others assemble fancy sound systems for their cars, then make common installation mistakes that prevent the system from reaching its full potential. many of these tips can be used for both existing systems and more sophisticated setups you may be contemplating.
Tip #1: Replace Your Car Speakers
In most cases, speakers are the last thing a manufacturer thinks of when designing and building their car. Factory audio systems have improved in recent years, but many so-called “premium” systems still use relatively weak amplifiers and speakers that don’t offer top-notch sound. and if your vehicle is a bit older, chances are your existing speakers have had a fair amount of wear.
Reading: How to review a car audio sound build
You can make a big difference in the sound quality of your car audio system by installing a good set of replacement speakers. you’ll hear more defined bass and greater overall clarity, and you’ll most likely notice details you’ve never heard before in songs you’ve known for years.
Replacement speakers give you the most bang for your buck, so they’re a great first step on the road to better sound. and if you want to know what are the best car speakers for bass, check out tip #5.
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more information about car speakers
tip #2: Don’t max out the tone controls
like a guitar, all of the best car sound systems work best when tuned correctly.
turning your factory radio’s tone controls all the way up may make your system sound better in your driveway, but it only creates distortion when you crank up the volume on the highway. a big low-frequency boost, in particular, will put a lot of strain on your factory system. if you want to fatten up your sound, try using a smaller boost on the bass, turn the treble and mids down a bit, and then turn the overall volume up a bit more.
but maybe you’ve replaced (or are thinking of replacing) your factory radio with an aftermarket stereo that features a multi-band equalizer. the same rule still applies: avoid excessive pitch boosts or cuts. bad EQ settings can make a good system sound terrible, while a clever tone curve can make a good system sound great.
if you can, program a few different equalization presets into your receiver, so you can see what works best in your car without having to adjust the settings while driving. Or scroll through your receiver’s preset curves to see if one of them sounds particularly good at highway speeds, then customize that setting to your driveway. If you have a co-driver, let them switch between the setups. And if you’re looking to dig deeper into sound settings, check out Tip #11.
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what to look for in a car stereo
Tip #3: Use a better digital-to-analog converter (like the one found in an aftermarket car stereo)
A digital-to-analog converter, or dac, has the job of converting digital information (0s and 1s) into analog music signals. in most cases, your music player is probably your smartphone. Its built-in dac usually does a good enough job for casual listening with headphones, but it doesn’t offer the same level of performance you can get from the more advanced dacs found in many of the better aftermarket car stereos. today.
connecting your smartphone to an aftermarket stereo via a usb cable allows you to use the stereo’s dac. this decodes your music with maximum detail and the most powerful sound.
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learn more about getting the best sound from your portable music player
tip #4: Use the best source material by using higher quality music files
yes, you can store more music files on your portable music player or phone if you use higher compression, and they will sound good when you listen to them with headphones. but compressing your music means you lose high and low frequency information and some of the detail that makes your music interesting. certain aspects of a song may not sound quite right (like swishy cymbals).
in a good car audio system, you can really tell something is missing. Using better quality source material is an improvement you’ll notice right away.
When you’re adding content to your digital library, don’t settle for default settings when creating your files or buying digital music. use as little compression as possible. the higher the bit rate, the better your music will sound through your car audio system. higher bit rates will require more storage space, but the sound quality advantage may be worth it.
and when you stream music, explore your favorite music app’s settings to improve audio quality. You can also use a music service that streams in a higher resolution, such as tidal or qobuz. just keep in mind that streaming at a higher bit rate will consume more data.
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more information about high resolution formats
tip #5: add a car amplifier
when my friends ask me “what are the best car bass speakers?” my answer is always: “an amplifier”. that’s because no matter how good your speakers are, you’ll get their best performance by adding more power (within their performance specifications, of course).
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You may be saying, “My factory stereo puts out 200 watts, and that’s a lot of power.” but there’s a big difference between the 50 watts per channel peak power produced by your car stereo and the 50 watts rms continuous power (a more realistic rating) from an external amplifier.
a separate amp will provide cleaner power than any car stereo and that will make a difference in sound quality day and night. Your system will sound better whether you’re listening to Mahler Symphony at talk level or Metallica at 11 level. An amplifier is essential for great sound in your car.
even if you keep your factory radio, you can still add an amplifier. check the amplifier you are considering to see if it includes “speaker level inputs,” which allow you to take advantage of the factory speaker wiring to acquire the audio input an amplifier needs.
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more information about car amplifiers
tip #6: set your amp gains correctly
Our technical support staff receives calls every day from customers who can’t figure out why their new car audio system sounds so bad. problem #1? Most people think that the gain control on their new amp controls the volume level. naturally, they turn it all the way up, causing bad things to happen. the gain control actually adjusts the amount of input signal going into the amplifier. when you turn it up too much, you’ll hear some very unpleasant distortion.
The general idea is to turn your receiver’s volume control up about 3/4 of the way to full volume, then turn up your amp’s gain until you hear distortion. back up a bit, and you’re all set. each amp manufacturer will have specific suggestions, so you’ll want to consult your manual for the best way to set the gain on your new amp.
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learn more about setting up your new amplifier
tip #7: Your crossover can really improve the sound of your system
many in-dash receivers now include crossovers that will work with the preamp and speaker outputs. If you have a subwoofer, use the stereo’s high-pass filter to remove low bass from your car’s full-range speakers. you’ll get cleaner volume out of them, especially if you’re driving them with the receiver’s built-in power.
or maybe your subwoofer is too loud, but the bass sounds like it’s coming from behind you. experiment with raising or lowering the crossover point on your low-pass filter, and you can turn up the bass with the rest of the music.
many amplifiers feature subsonic filters that remove very low bass below the range of human hearing. Go ahead and turn it on – your amp and subwoofer will run cleaner without that subsonic sludge. Also, the compression you use to create your music files can cause low-frequency crackling sound from your subwoofers. your subsonic filter will eliminate or minimize this noise.
important: when configuring junctions, only set junctions in one part of your system. For example, if you adjust the crossovers for all the speakers in your system using your car stereo, you should run your amplifiers at full range (crossovers off). conversely, the car stereo’s crossovers should be off or set to full range, if you’re making the adjustments on your amplifier(s) instead. If you use more than one component to adjust the crossover settings, your system may get conflicting frequency information, negatively affecting the sound.
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common questions about crossings
tip #8: add a subwoofer and hear what you’ve been missing
I’ve installed many car audio systems and still love seeing that “wow” moment when someone hears a subwoofer in their car for the first time. A good subwoofer will bring proper balance back to the lower octave of your music, so you’ll hear familiar tunes in a whole new light. a subwoofer will also take the load off your full-range speakers, since it will play songs from it with the stereo bass control set to “0” instead of “+5”.
Some people develop a negative opinion of subwoofers when they sit next to a car that vibrates and bangs at a traffic light. But subwoofers aren’t just about the boom – you can tune any subwoofer to suit your musical tastes and your vehicle. And once you drive with a subwoofer, you can never live without one again. or two.
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watch our video on how to add a sub feed
tip #9: build a better subwoofer box. or buy one.
if you are building a sealed subwoofer box, make sure it is well sealed. air leaks can really hurt the performance of your sub. if you are using a ported box make sure you have the correct woofer in there. you can destroy a subwoofer that’s designed for a sealed box by driving it hard into a ported enclosure. Furthermore, it is important to build a box with the correct interior volume for the submarine you have chosen. a mismatch can result in poor performance or a sub-fatality.
You can also avoid all these problems by purchasing a pre-built box that will work with your subwoofer.
How do you know which type of box is right for you? Please read our article exploring the difference between sealed and ported subwoofer enclosures.
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learn all about building boxes
tip #10: use a capacitor if you’re going to push your subwoofers
The people who designed your car probably didn’t have subwoofers in mind when they built your vehicle. big bass consumes a lot of power and most car electrical systems are not equipped to deal with it.
A capacitor acts as a power reserve between your amp and your car battery. Plug the in-line cap onto your battery’s power cable, as close to the amp as possible. stores power from your alternator, then instantly releases it to meet your amp’s demand for the power needed to play a big thump of bass.
Have you ever noticed a huge drop in performance after blasting your subwoofers at full volume for a minute or two? Or did he see your headlights dim to the music while driving at night? a capacitor fixes these problems by removing most of those demand spikes from your electrical system, so your amp sees a more consistent power supply.
read more about capacitors and power problems
tip #11: add a signal processor or equalizer
The interior of a car presents serious problems when it comes to sound quality. Glass and plastic surfaces reflect sound like crazy, while carpeting, seat covers, and other absorbent materials absorb it. Add poorly placed speakers to the mix and you end up with significant frequency response spikes in most car interiors. these spikes make your music boomy in the low end or shrill in the high frequencies, causing “ear fatigue”.
Most car receivers give you treble, mid, and bass controls, useful for global fixes, but not for homing in on problem areas. you’ll need an equalizer to eliminate these spikes, whether it’s built into your receiver or a processor mounted in your dash or near your amplifiers.
An external equalizer gives you multiple points to adjust the frequency response, so you can eliminate those spikes in your system. A parametric EQ lets you vary the center point and width of each EQ band, so you can really zero in on a problem area. sound processors help you eliminate frequency response spikes and boost bass response, and some even include a microphone to analyze your car’s acoustics.
setting the equalizer for the best sound
Proper use of an equalizer may require some tuning and a lot of listening, but that’s the fun part. start with everything set “flat” and tweak one or two things at a time. you will begin to realize what is missing in the sound and what is left over. in no time, with the help of the equalizer, you will have dialed it in correctly.
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more information about equalizers
Tip #12: Use Soundproofing Material
By reducing vibration and road noise, dynamat, hushmat and other sound deadening products do two things to make your system sound better.
First of all, a door panel is not the best place for a speaker: the thin metal vibrates while music is playing, affecting the accuracy of the sound. When you attach these products to your door panel, they dampen those vibrations and create a more stable platform for your speaker, more like the wooden baffle on a home speaker.
second, have you ever noticed that your system sounds really good at 25 mph, but gets a little harsh when you hit 60? Road noise tends to mask the lower frequencies first, so your system sounds too bright when you crank it up at highway speeds. Sound deadening material reduces noise levels inside your car, so you don’t have to turn up the music while driving. you’ll hear more musical detail and your amps won’t have to work as hard. and that’s all good.
watch our video on installing dynamat
bonus tip: use high-quality cables for your amps
Electricity is like running water. You wouldn’t run a garden hose from the main street to your house, because there wouldn’t be enough water going through to meet the demand. That’s why you don’t want to use a cheap, undersized power cable to power your amps – the amp will run out of power when you start turning up the volume control. a good power cord allows current to flow freely so your amp gets the juice it needs during peak demand.
High-quality patch cables promote better signal flow from your receiver to your amplifiers, so you hear more focused, detailed sound. And good patch cords will also reject noise caused by your car’s electrical system. Don’t you think cables can make all the difference? Listen to three of your favorite songs on your home audio system using cheap or “in the box” RCA cables. Write down what you heard (or didn’t hear) from each. then listen to those same songs after switching to upgraded rca cables and see if you can hear the difference. you’ll hear those same differences in a car audio system with upgraded cables, too.
plus, upgraded cables can look great, especially when you’re showing off the installation work you’ve done.
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Looking for more tips or ideas?
crutchfield is here to help! Give us a call or chat with us, and one of our consultants will work with you to find the right audio solution for your vehicle.