Marine Stereo Shopping Guide

How to choose the marine stereo that's right for you


Tim Sprinkle

Prior to writing for Crutchfield, Tim Sprinkle was a small-town journalist covering fascinating events like school board meetings, power outages, and vegetables that look like celebrities. He is a graduate of the College of William & Mary and an avid runner, hiker, and all-around outdoorsy-type guy. He wrote for Crutchfield for several years before life took him away from Virginia to Colorado, where he continues to write about consumer electronics.

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choosing the right marine audio gear for your boat

For great sound on the high seas, you need quality, marine-rated stereo equipment.

What makes marine audio gear different?

From punishing sunlight to driving rain to extreme temperatures, a marine audio system has to endure a lot of abuse. And that’s just when the boat is tied up at the marina. If you want great sound on your boat, you need marine-rated gear that's designed and tested to stand up to the elements. 

Unlike car audio components — which live in the watertight interior of your vehicle — marine equipment has to be able to stand up to the elements. The water, salt, and sun that make boating so much fun for you can wreak havoc on your boat's electrical components. If your gear isn't made for this sort of abuse, it won't last a season. 

Marine gear undergoes hundreds—even thousands—of hours of extensive pre-production testing. Ultraviolet test chambers simulate years of sun exposure, while special “salt fog” chambers simulate years of exposure to harsh salt water environments. Blasts of water test every seal to ensure that every button, switch and port is moisture-proof. And special conformal coatings provide additional protection for the internal circuitry.

There are three key things to consider when you're comparing marine audio equipment:

Water resistance — If your gear is "water resistant," that means it can handle splashes and light rain, but isn't built to handle submersion. Levels of resistance vary by manufacturer. Waterproof products, on the other hand, can be fully submerged without damage, though the specifics vary here, too.

UV resistance — Quality marine gear is designed to withstand sun damage. It's a key feature to look for on receiver faceplates, speaker cones and remote controls.

Anti-corrosion protection — Salt water can turn great gear into ballast in no time. Marine gear is designed to resist rust and corrosion, with coated circuit boards, plated connections, and rust-resistant chassis components.

Clarion CMD4

Water resistance is essential for marine electronics. If your gear can't stand up to the elements, it probably won't last a whole season.

What should you look for in a marine stereo?

Get Everything You Need

Get what you need to connect satellite radio on your boat. Of course, make sure your marine receiver is satellite-ready.

Control your new stereo with a weather-resistant marine remote.

Covers and mounts will protect your boat's in-dash stereo from sun and spray, plus let you mount youe handheld electronics anywhere on your boat.

Don't forget the wires, including patch cables, plus power and speaker wire.

Good specs: Marine gear is just like car gear in that better specs mean better sound. For receivers, look for a high CD signal-to-noise ratio, a wide frequency response, plenty of RMS power, and plenty of USB ports, of you need them. If radio's your thing, check the FM sensitivity spec — the lower, the better. For speakers, you'll want plenty of power, plus weatherproof cones, rubber surrounds, and UV -resistant grilles.

High power: Since you'll be listening to your music out in the open (as opposed to within the acoustic confines of a car), high power is a must for clean, clear sound. Most marine receivers come with built-in 4-way amplifiers, but if you love it loud or just want to drown out the nautical background noise, you might want to consider adding an external marine amp to your system.

Useful features: The days of the basic, one-trick CD player are long gone. Today's marine receivers are every bit as powerful and feature-packed as their automotive cousins. Built-in Bluetooth® lets you stream music or make calls without taking your hand off the helm. SiriusXM satellite radio tuners let you enjoy your favorite music, sports and talk up to 200 miles offshore. And multiple USB and aux connections let you enjoy your entire music collection by plugging in an iPod®, thumb drive or MP3 player. Today's aftermarket marine receivers have everything you need to stay entertained at the dock and on the water.

Expandability: If you have a larger system in mind, look for a marine receiver with multiple sets of preamp outputs. That makes it easier to connect and control external amplifiers and subwoofers as you build your ultimate marine audio system. Many marine receivers are available with waterproof, wired remote controls. These remotes allow you to mount the radio inside a watertight compartment if you need to, plus they give you and your passengers convenient control over what's playing.

Kicker KM6000 marine speakers

Kicker KM6000 marine speakers

How are you going to install it?

Installing a stereo in a boat can be a bit tricky. Unlike most land-bound vehicles, boats don't generally offer one obvious, ideal place for audio equipment. And, depending on the various power and space limitations, your boat installation could present a unique set of challenges.

If you're replacing an existing radio, you can probably use the existing mounting location and wiring. Otherwise, you might need to cut some paneling or run wires for the components. Most marine stereos are a standard single-DIN size, and connect to a 12-volt marine battery.

Some boats are equipped with grounding plates, but not all. If yours doesn't have one, grounding a stereo can be challenging. Consult your manufacturer for more information on where to ground components in your boat.

There are a wide variety of durable, high-quality marine stereos on the market today. In fact, just about any A/V configuration you can imagine in your car can now be tweaked to work on your boat. With that flexibility in mind, there are many things to take into account when shopping for a marine audio system, so be sure to study each product carefully before deciding which is the best one for you.

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