12 tips for getting the best sound quality in your car


Jeff Fay

Jeff has worked in the car audio industry since college and has designed and installed hundreds of car systems. He spent a handful of years at Crutchfield, helping take our company to new heights. After a productive tenure with us, he has moved on to a new challenge, but his enthusiasm and expertise still guide us.

More from Jeff Fay

Happy driver

A car can be a great place to enjoy music, but many commuters still put up with marginal sound quality that they'd never tolerate at home. Others assemble sophisticated sound systems for their cars, then make common installation mistakes that keep the system from reaching its full potential.

I'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 live with bad sound in your car. Even the simplest improvements to your system can yield noticeable results.

Kicker KS series car audio speakers

Kicker KS Series speakers

Tip #1: Replace your car's speakers

In most cases, the speakers are just about the last thing a manufacturer thinks about when designing and building your car. Factory systems have gotten better over the last few years, but many so-called "premium" systems still use relatively inexpensive amps and speakers that don't deliver top-notch sound.

You can make a big difference in your system's sound quality by installing a nice set of aftermarket speakers. You'll hear tighter bass and more 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 maximum bang for your buck, so they're a terrific first step on the road to better sound.

Learn more about car speakers

Apple's iPod® touch®

Apple's iPod® touch®

Tip #2: Select a lower level of compression for your music files

Yes, you can store more music files in your music player if you use greater compression, and they'll sound okay when you're listening through earbuds. But you lose some high- and low-frequency information when you compress your music, along with some of the details that make your music interesting. And, on a good car audio system, you can really tell that something's missing.

Don't settle for the default setting when creating your files. If you want to use your iPod, smartphone, or MP3 player in your car, try using as little compression as possible. The higher the bit rate, the better your music will sound through your car's system.

Learn more about MP3 and other formats

Alpine CDE-HD148BT

The Alpine CDE-HD148BT uses a high-quality DAC to bring out the details in your music

Tip #3: Bypass your music player's built-in digital-to-analog converter

A digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, has the job of converting digital information — 0's and 1's — into analog music signals. Your music player's built-in DAC usually does a good enough job for casual listening with earbuds, but it doesn't deliver the same level of performance you can get from the more advanced DACs found in many of today's better car stereos. Fortunately, if you can connect your iPod or phone to your aftermarket stereo via a USB cable, you might be able to bypass your device's DAC. It depends on the individual stereo, so be sure to check the stereo's "Hands-on Research" info on the Crutchfield website for confirmation.

Learn more about getting the best sound from your iPod

Dynamat door kit

This Dynamat door kit will treat all four doors in your vehicle.

Tip #4: Use Dynamat or another sound deadening material

By reducing vibration and road noise, Dynamat does two things to make your system sound better.

First off, a door panel isn't the best place for a speaker — the thin metal vibrates as your music plays, which affects the accuracy of the sound. When you attach Dynamat to your door panel, it deadens those vibrations and creates a more stable platform for your speaker, more like the wooden baffle on a home speaker.

Second, have you ever noticed how 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 overly bright when you turn it up at highway speeds. Dynamat lowers interior noise levels in your car, so you don't have to turn your music up as loud when you're 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

Rockford Fosgate Prime R600-4D

Rockford Fosgate Prime amplifier

Tip #5: Add an amplifier

You may be saying "My factory stereo puts out 200 watts, and that's plenty of power." But there's a huge difference between 50 watts peak power per channel produced by your car stereo and 50 watts RMS from an outboard amplifier. A separate amplifier will provide more clean power than any car stereo, and that'll make a night-and-day difference in sound quality. Your system will sound better, whether you listen to Mahler at a conversational level or Megadeth turned up to 11. An amplifier is essential to getting great sound in your car.

Learn more about car amplifiers

Tip #6: Add a signal processor or an equalizer

The interior of a car presents some serious problems when it comes to sound quality. Glass and plastic surfaces reflect sound like crazy, while carpet, seat covers, and other absorbent materials soak it up. Add poorly-placed speakers to the mix, and you wind up with significant frequency response peaks in most car interiors. These peaks make your music boomy in the bass or shrill in the upper frequencies, causing "ear fatigue."

AudioControl's EQL trunk-mount 2-channel equalizer

AudioControl's EQL equalizer features 13 bands of equalization, and its level matching controls get maximum voltage to your amps.

Most car receivers give you treble, midrange, and bass controls — useful for global fixes but not for zeroing in on problem areas. You'll need an equalizer to kill these peaks, whether it's built into your receiver or in a processor mounted in your dash or near your amplifiers.

An outboard equalizer gives you multiple points for adjusting frequency response, so you can iron out those peaks in your system. A parametric equalizer allows you to vary the centerpoint and width of each EQ band, so you can really zero in on a problem area. Sound processors help you eliminate frequency response peaks and increase bass response, and some even include a microphone for analyzing your car's acoustics.

Learn about equalizers

Sound Ordnance sealed 12

Tip #7: Build a better sub box. Or buy one.

If you're building a sealed subwoofer box, make sure it's sealed properly. Air leaks can really hurt your sub's performance. If you're using a ported box, make sure you've got the right sub in there. You can destroy a sub that's designed for sealed box use by driving it hard in a ported enclosure. Also, it's important to build a box with the correct interior volume for the sub you've picked out. A mismatch can result in poor performance or a sub fatality.

You can also avoid all of these issues by buying a premade enclosure that'll work with your subwoofer.

Learn all about box building

Tip #8: Your crossover can really improve the sound of your system

Many in-dash receivers now include frequency filters that'll work with your preamp and speaker outputs. If you have a sub, use the high-pass filter to remove the low bass from your car's full-range speakers. You'll get more clean volume out of them, particularly if you're driving them with the receiver's built-in power. Or maybe your sub sounds really strong, 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'll be able to bring the bass up forward with the rest of the music.

JL Audio's Slash v2 Series 300/4v2 amplifier

This amplifier features front and rear frequency filters.

Many amplifiers feature subsonic filters that remove super-low bass below the range of human hearing. Go ahead and turn it on — your amp and sub will run cleaner without that subsonic sludge. Also, the compression you use to create your music files can cause a low-frequency sputtering sound in your subs. Your subsonic filter can remove or minimize this noise.

Common questions about crossovers

Tip #9: Set your amp gains properly

Our Tech Support people field calls every day from customers who can't understand why their new car audio system sounds so bad. The #1 problem? Most people think the gain control on their new amplifier controls the volume level. Naturally, they turn it all the way up, which causes bad things to happen. The gain control actually adjusts the amount of input signal coming into the amplifier. When you crank it up too high, you'll hear some seriously nasty distortion.

Sound OrdnanceT M-2100 amplifier

Setting the gains properly on this Sound Ordnance amp will keep your system distortion-free.

The general idea is to turn your receiver's volume control roughly 3/4 of the way up to maximum volume, then turn up your amp gain until you hear distortion. Back it off a little, and you're all set. Every amp manufacturer will have specific suggestions, so you'll want to check out your manual for the best way to set the gain on your new amplifier.

Learn more about setting up your new amp

JVC's KW-NT310 navigation/DVD receiver

This JVC navigation receiver offers a 13-band iEQ and plenty of user presets.

Tip #10: Don't max out your tone controls

Boosting your factory radio's tone controls up to 11 might make your system sound better in your driveway, but it just creates distortion when you turn it up on the highway. A heavy low-frequency boost, in particular, will put a big strain on your factory system. If you want to fatten up your sound, try using a smaller boost in the bass, lower the highs and mids a touch, and then turn up your overall level a little more.

But maybe you've replaced your factory radio with an aftermarket stereo that features a multi-band equalizer. The same rule still holds true — avoid excessive tone boosts or cuts if possible. A bad EQ setting can make a good system sound terrible, while an intelligent tone curve can make a good system sound great.

For a number of very good reasons, it's never a good idea to fool with your EQ on the road. If you can, program a few different EQ presets into your receiver, so you can see what works best in your car without having to adjust settings while you're driving. Or cycle through your receiver's preset curves to see if one of them sounds particularly good at highway speed, then customize that setting in your driveway.

What to look for in a car stereo

JL Audio ProWedge enclosure

JL Audio ProWedge™ enclosure

Tip #11: Add a sub and hear what you've been missing

I've installed a lot of car audio systems, and I still love to see that "Wow" moment when somebody hears a sub in their car for the first time. A good subwoofer will bring the bottom octave of your music back into proper balance, so you'll hear familiar tunes in a whole new light. A subwoofer will take a load off your full-range speakers too, since you'll be playing your tunes with the bass control set at "0" instead of "+5".

Some people develop a negative opinion of subwoofers when they sit next to a thumping, vibrating car at a traffic light. But subs aren't just about the boom — you can adjust any subwoofer to fit your musical tastes and your vehicle. And once you drive with a subwoofer, you can never go back to living without one. Or two.

Watch our video on adding a powered sub

T-Spec 1.5-farad capacitor

T-Spec 1.5-farad capacitor

Tip #12: Use a capacitor if you're going to push your subs hard

The people who designed your car probably didn't have subwoofers in mind when they built your vehicle. Big bass sucks up a lot of power, and most car electrical systems aren't equipped to deal with it. A capacitor acts as a buffer between your amps and your car's battery. You connect the cap inline on the power cable from your battery, as close to the amp location as possible. It stores up power from your battery, then releases it instantly to satisfy your amp's demand for the power needed to reproduce a big bass hit.

Have you ever noticed a big drop-off in performance after running your subs loud and hard for a minute or two? Or watched your headlights dim in time to the music while you're driving at night? A capacitor cures these problems by taking the brunt of those demand peaks away from your amp, so your amp sees a more consistent supply of power.

Frequently asked questions about installing a car amplifier

EFX patch cables

EFX patch cables offer excellent signal transfer with minimal noise.

Bonus Tip: Use high-quality cables for your amplifiers

Electricity is like running water. You wouldn't run a garden hose from your well to your house, because not enough water would get through to keep up with demand. That's why you don't want to use cheap, undersized power cable to get power to your amplifiers — the amp will 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.

High-quality patch cables promote better signal flow from your receiver to your amps, so you hear a more focused, detailed sound. And good patch cables will also reject noise caused by your car's electrical system. Don't believe it? Ask any guitar player about the importance of good cables.

Watch our amplifier installation video

  • Sanjeev Berry from New Zealand

    Posted on 5/21/2015 5:39:50 AM

    Thanks for sharing such a informative article. A good subwoofer will bring the bottom octave of music back into proper balance, so you'll hear familiar tunes in a whole new light.

  • Moses from Malaysia

    Posted on 6/17/2015 1:45:49 AM

    Hi My head unit does have "Loudness" function. should i turn it on when using amplifier?

  • Robert Ferency-Viars from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/17/2015 1:26:50 PM

    Moses, yes you can safely use your loudness feature with your amplifier. But often, if you have your amp tuned nicely, turning on the loudness can make the music sound muddy or a little distorted. So try it with and without the loudness, and adjust your amp so that you're happy with what you hear.

  • Alex from Texas

    Posted on 7/6/2015 1:22:54 AM

    I am going to install Rockford Fosgate R600X5 amp, what cables should I use?

  • Alex from Texas

    Posted on 7/6/2015 1:29:58 AM

    How good are the Nakamichi car stereos?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/6/2015 9:34:18 AM

    Alex, check out this Crutchfield staff review of one of the most recent Nakamichi CD receivers.

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/6/2015 9:40:01 AM

    Alex, depending on your application, Rockford Fosgate has a number of cable packages that will work with this receiver. Check out the "Accessories" tab on the Rockford Fosgate R600X5 page. You may also find our car amplifiers FAQ useful.

  • Gregory Guza from Berwyn, IL

    Posted on 7/12/2015 12:22:49 AM

    Hi, what options do I have for improved sound quality in my 2015 Dodge Journey SXT with the base stereo (4.3 screen unit)? It obviously sounds weak since this system doesn't have an amplifier at all and the music seems to lose power during the vocal parts of songs and then come back up during the non-vocal parts-which is extremely annoying. Replacing the head unit isn't an option anymore on today's new cars since they now incorporate the HVAC controls and other vehicle features and option controls in the head units. It's really stupid that they force you to deal with lousy sound by sticking other things in the stereo so you can't replace it.

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/13/2015 8:56:35 AM

    Greg, you're right -- dashes have become more complicated, but we have integration solutions for a growing number of new cars. I've passed your info along to a Crutchfield advisor who will contact you soon with solutions for your Dodge Journey.

  • tony moon from United States

    Posted on 7/19/2015 8:10:32 PM

    I have a pioneer 700bt double din. Will the d1 00 amp hook up with RCA cables in back of receiver and to the amp? I have 61\2 inch speakers in the doors will it work ok? My main question is how it is hooked up to receiver and amp! Thanks Tony!

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/20/2015 9:54:54 AM

    Tony, if you're referring to the Pioneer GM-D1004, you won't be able to power it through a connection with your receiver since your receiver uses a 10-amp fuse and the amp requires connection to a receiver with a 15-amp fuse. You'll have to power the amp directly from the battery. With that receiver/amp combo, you'll have your choice of RCA or speaker-level wiring. If your speakers are aftermarket, they should be able to handle that new dose of power just fine.

  • Garo from Montreal, Canada

    Posted on 7/28/2015 8:34:32 AM

    Hi! I'm still using tube amplifier at home. I reasantly bought a Mercedes e320 2000 and I would like to improve the sound system...what do you think of Alpine system with navigation? I like to hear from you. thanks

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/28/2015 9:21:08 AM

    Garo, An Alpine receiver with navigation is a great choice, but we need some more information about your vehicle before we can make a recommendation. You can use our vehicle selector to confirm which stereos fit your car or give us a call at 1.888.955.6000.

  • Lynn w. Blackman from San Leandro

    Posted on 7/30/2015 7:46:51 PM

    i just want to see more door speaker installations for components. For maximum performance

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/31/2015 7:06:03 AM

    Lynn, we have quite a few articles about component speakers and even more vehicle profiles that detail specific speaker installations. This list is a great place to start. You might also enjoy our Car Audio Proving Ground series.

  • Dale Robert Garcia from Fort Worth

    Posted on 8/8/2015 11:50:13 AM

    Why does my sub stop working at a certain point when I crank the volume? If I lower the volume,the sub will play again.

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/10/2015 2:50:14 PM

    Dale, it sounds like your amp is going into protection mode. It may be that you have gain turned up too far. Turn it down, and see if the problem continues. If it does, it may be that your sub's impedance is too low for your amp. Take a look at this article on wiring a sub and amp to make sure your system is wired correctly. Good luck!

  • Charles Rananto

    Posted on 8/11/2015 12:34:03 AM

    I have a what sounds obvious question but it's still not working out. My head unit is a pioneer FH-X80BS, wired to a S/O 4050 amp, wired back through speaker wires through harness Metra 70-1761 according to directions. Head unit is grounded to firewall at a good ground location. Metra ASWC-1 wired according to directions, RCA patch cables through kit from crutchfield with identical patch cables for other channel and sub-woofer amp. 4050 amp grounded to floor under front seat where it located to bare metal. Second amp grounded to sanded floor in back of van. All patch cables are from HU. Power cables (both 8 gauge) are on the left side of vehicle from battery and patch cables on right side of vehicle. Problem I'm having is this. When amps and three sets of speakers are hook up with car running there are no problems. When I start engine with no volume, I hear high pitch hum and when I turn volume up I hear ticking sound that does not increase with engine. When do the same but with only one patch cable to 4050 amp I have not issues. Grounding is good, second amps do the same. I don't install a lot of these but everything is the way it's supposed to be and somehow I'm getting feedback on second patch cable into 4050 S/O amp. This is in a 2009 Toyota Sienna. Should I ground amps together and possible to battery? Very frustrated and in need of help.

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/11/2015 9:29:40 AM

    Charles, it sounds like you bought your gear from Crutchfield, which means you can call Tech Support for free help troubleshooting your system. Give us a call at 1.888.955.6000.

  • Mike from Bay Area, CA

    Posted on 8/12/2015 8:07:50 PM

    I'm really curious to hear or see the sound systems that the Crutchfield employees have :) I know you guys definitely have all the good stuff!

  • Kaelon from Cape Town

    Posted on 9/4/2015 6:32:41 AM

    If I wanted to get a better sound in my car, would changing the factory fitted speakers with 4 x Kenwood 6" speakers work? Or would I need an amp? I think the speakers put out about 300watts RMS each

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/4/2015 1:32:09 PM

    Kaelon, replacing your factory speakers is a great way to significantly improve the audio in your car. You don't need an amplifier to play aftermarket speakers but they'll certainly perform better if you feed them with amplified power. Be sure that the RMS output per channel of your amplifier is comparable to the power handling of your speakers. A good rule of thumb is that amp power should be within the range of 75-150% of speaker's max RMS power. So, if your speakers are rated 2-60w RMS, an amp should have minimum of 45w RMS per channel and a max of 90w RMS. You might want to check the Kenwood speakers you're interested in again for their power-handling. Max RMS tends to be no more than 150 watts RMS on the very high end.

  • roy from hilo

    Posted on 9/6/2015 2:58:07 AM

    What's the best way to hook up 2 amps both 2 channel Kenwood 1000 watts n a Kenwood 400 watt I wanna hook up 2 door speAkers 2 rears n 2 tweeters with a 10in Boston acoustic sub I have a 2000 honda accord

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/8/2015 1:29:32 PM

    Roy, this article is a good place to start, but if you bought your gear from Crutchfield, you can call Tech Support for free help setting up your system. If you purchased your equipment elsewhere, you can still get expert Crutchfield Tech Support - 90 days-worth for only $30. Check out our tech support page for details.

  • Lewis from Ashton

    Posted on 9/16/2015 6:30:13 PM

    Hey. I have a JL Audio 360x4 amp with a Vibe subwoofer. My uncle has recommended getting some 6x9's on my rear shelf to fill it out and have a fuller sound rather than using the stock speakers for the high end. Is this a good idea or should I just replace the speakers in the door?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/17/2015 9:27:59 AM

    Lewis, go for it. Your uncle has the right idea. Aftermarket speakers are always going to send better than factory speakers. You can use our vehicle selector to confirm which speakers will fit your car.

  • Sterling from Midlothian

    Posted on 9/22/2015 7:05:36 PM

    What is the average cost for a pretty good sounding speaker system in a qx4?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/23/2015 9:09:37 AM

    Sterling, you can use our vehicle selector to confirm which speakers fit your car and get an idea for prices.

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