My Top 10 Car Audio Myths
Charlie Pastorfield writes about car audio for Crutchfield. Raised in Connecticut and the U.S. Virgin Islands, he graduated from the University of Virginia, but was having way too much fun to leave Charlottesville. After a long, beautiful career touring the East Coast from Boston to Atlanta as a professional guitarist (Skip Castro Band, The Believers), he married Emilie, had two daughters (Morgan and Emma), and got his first full-time job at Crutchfield. Still an extremely active musician, he's now a member of The Gladstones, a 4-piece group that plays just about anything, and Alligator, an 8-piece band that plays late 60's Grateful Dead.
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1) I don't need a subwoofer because I never listen to loud music, just classical and jazz.
Subwoofers go great with heavy metal, rap, and other types of high-impact music, but they're not just for people who like to turn it up. In fact, a well-tuned subwoofer adds depth and richness to any type of music, and allows your full-range speakers to do a better job reproducing your music when you turn your bass control back down.
Plus, a subwoofer can actually lower your overall listening levels. Don't believe it? Try turning down your stereo and turning on the loudness button. A subwoofer will add the same fatness without all that boom caused by the typical loudness button.
2) I don't need an outboard amplifier for those new speakers. My car stereo already puts out 200 watts.
This misunderstanding is caused by the difference between peak wattage and RMS wattage. Your 200-watt stereo, for example, probably gets its power from an amp chip rated at 50 watts peak by 4 channels, and its real world RMS rating is probably in the neighborhood of 13-18 watts per channel. Good power, but it pales in comparison to a strong external amplifier.
Install an outboard amplifier that delivers 50 watts RMS per channel, and amazing things happen. First, you'll hear new dynamics to your music because the extra power translates the louder passages in your music accurately, where a less powerful amp has to struggle to reach the increased levels. Second, you'll hear increased musical detail because an amplifier that's not working hard delivers more accurate information to your speakers.
3) I can't blow my 200-watt subwoofer, because my amp's only putting out 100 watts.
The manufacturer establishes a subwoofer's power range as a general guideline for what the sub can handle. In reality, you're more likely to fry a subwoofer by underpowering it than by using too much power. Bass sucks up power, so a smaller amplifier has to struggle to deliver the power needed to reproduce lower frequencies. An amp that's working too hard produces distortion - a subwoofer's worst enemy.
Too much power is a different story. For example, you could run a 200-watt sub safely with a 350-watt amp. First, a typical 350-watt amp loses power to long power cables and to fluctuating voltage levels in your car's electrical system, so the actual wattage reaching your sub will be much lower. Second, a larger amp will cruise through bass passages that would have a small amp sweating, so you'll get much less distortion.
Here are a couple of tips if you're overpowering a subwoofer. Check your system for distortion while you're car is sitting still, because you won't hear it as easily when you're driving. If your stereo has a subwoofer level control, experiment with settings until you find the point where distortion sets in. Use your ears and your common sense, and you won't have a problem with too much power.
4) 4-way speakers always sound better than 2-way speakers.
It's true that 4-way speakers can sound better than 2-way speakers, but it's certainly not a golden rule. A midrange driver can improve the sound of larger oval speakers (particularly 6"x9"s) because their larger cones have a hard time reproducing the midrange frequencies just below the typical tweeter crossover point of 3,000 to 4,000 Hz.
However, most audio purists will tell you that a well-made 2-way speaker with a high-quality woofer, tweeter, and crossover network will beat the pants off a comparable 3- or 4-way speaker. Multiple drivers create dips and spikes in frequency response, caused by multiple crossover points and phase cancellations. But here's the catch - roll down your windows and any subtle differences you might hear just disappear. One thing you can count on - with very few exceptions, aftermarket speakers will sound better than factory speakers simply because they use better components.
5) I'll just put my new sub in that old enclosure out in the garage.
A subwoofer and enclosure fit together like a hand and glove. You wouldn't want to wear gloves that are too big or too small, and your subwoofer feels exactly the same way about enclosures.
Manufacturers design their subwoofers to work best within certain air space parameters. Install a sub in the wrong enclosure, and its performance will suffer dramatically. And you can actually damage your new sub by feeding it too much power when it's in the wrong box. So, if you intend to use that enclosure in the garage, measure it first to determine its air space, then buy a compatible sub.
6) I can't fix up my system because my climate controls are built into my factory radio.
More and more vehicle use factory radios that incorporate climate controls, factory navigation, or other useful features. Replace that radio, and you lose all those functions. Here's the good news, though - you can still create a great car audio/video system around your factory radio.
Many manufacturers offer factory sound processors that connect to your factory radio through its speaker outputs, allowing you to add amplifiers and subwoofers to your system. These processors also flatten out the preset equalization curves that most factory radios use to make their speakers sound better - a must if you want your subwoofer system to sound good. Most of them also include multi-band equalizers and many include time correction for improving your listening "sweet spot."
Other manufacturers offer factory system expanders that allow you to add Bluetooth adapters, satellite radio, iPod adapters, CD changers, and other entertainment options to your factory radio.
One way or the other, you can drive with a righteous sound system built around your factory radio.
7) If I replace my factory radio, my car's security system won't work any more. Plus, I think I'll lose some safety features.
You will find some vehicles with security systems tied into the factory radio. On other vehicles, certain safety features like audible warnings and door chimes work through the factory radio. And many GM vehicles offer OnStar®, which is also tied into the factory radio.
The good news is that you can install a new stereo in most of these "problem" cars. You can buy an adapter that maintains all factory functions when you install your new stereo. That's why you should buy car audio/video equipment from a knowledgeable dealer whose salespeople have access to a comprehensive car fit database. You'll be warned about the need for an adapter like this in advance, so you don't have any last minute surprises when you pull out your wallet or, even worse, when you're in the middle of an installation.
Here's how to find them on crutchfield.com. First, find the car stereo you're interested in, then identify your vehicle. Once you return to the receiver page, the Installation Details link will tell you everything you need to know.
8) My new stereo's satellite radio-ready, so all I have to do is hook up an antenna and I'm set.
Very few car stereos include a built-in satellite radio tuner. "Satellite radio-ready" means that your car stereo includes a connection for an outboard satellite radio tuner. Once that tuner's connected, you can use your stereo's controls to surf through satellite radio channels, store presets, and see artist and song information.
There are two different ways to add satellite radio service to a satellite radio-ready receiver:
1) Most manufacturers offer outboard satellite radio tuner boxes that work with their stereos. You'll need the tuner box, an antenna, and a subscription in order to get reception.
2) XM and SIRIUS offer universal tuners, along with brand-specific adapters that allow you to connect the universal tuner to different brands of car stereos. You'll need the universal tuner, the brand-specific adapter, an antenna, and a subscription in order to get reception.
9) I don't have room in my car for subwoofers.
There's always room for a subwoofer. Many manufacturers now offer high-performance 6-1/2" and 8" subs that handle lots of power and fit into very, very small boxes. Many also make free-air versions of these smaller subs that you can install in a door panel or on a rear deck.
Shallow-mount subs are another interesting option. Many manufacturers offer high-performance 10" or 12" shallow-mount subs, some with a mounting depth of only 2-1/2". You can custom install one of these in your door or on the rear deck, and power it up for some serious stealth bass.
You can also find extremely compact powered subs that use a built-in amplifier to power a smaller bass driver in conjunction with a second passive radiator. Install one of these under a front seat or in your trunk, and you'll be surprised at the full sound.
Why bother with a sub, you ask? See Myth #1.
10) There's no point in fixing up the sound system in my convertible, because there's too much road noise.
When you put the top down, you lose low-frequency impact and high-frequency focus. You can create a sound system for your convertible that'll sound great, even with the top down, with three essential ingredients: 1) a subwoofer, 2) separate tweeters, and 3) an amplifier.
Install a powered subwoofer in your ragtop, and the bass will stay fat without having to turn up the volume and the bass control. It also takes the bass load off your other speakers so they can deliver a cleaner sound at higher levels.
A component speaker system will also improve the sound. Install the woofers in the factory door openings, and then mount the tweeters in the door panel, sail panels, or any other convenient location. For many vehicles, you can also buy kick panel enclosures to house your component system. If a component system doesn't work in your vehicle, replace your dash and door speakers with high-quality aftermarket speakers. You get a much clearer sonic picture when the high-frequencies are fired toward your ears, instead of down low in your doors.
Power is the last ingredient. Crank up a factory radio or aftermarket stereo, and the built-in amplifier struggles to keep up with the road noise, causing distortion and harshness. An outboard amplifier gives you a reservoir of power, so your system can deliver high-fidelity sound without straining.
If you don't want to install an amp for your full-range speakers, buy a car stereo that offers high-pass filters for the speaker outputs. This allows you to trim the low bass out of your full-range speakers. You'll be able to get more clean volume from your car stereo, while your subwoofer supplies the bass.