Installing a digital sound system in a cooler

We deck out a cooler, Crutchfield style


Jon Paulette

Jon Paulette is a veteran automotive writer who has spent a fair portion of his life hanging out at racetracks and talking to amazing people who make extremely loud cars reach ridiculous speeds. Despite all that, he still has enough hearing left to enjoy a stupidly large music collection. A native Virginian, Jon lives in the Charlottesville area, roots for the Nationals and would like a good BBQ sandwich right about now.

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cooler with kicker speakers

The coolest cooler around

The portable cooler is quite possibly one of the handier innovations of the 20th century. Without our coolers, we’d probably just hang around the house all weekend and stay close to the refrigerator. Instead, we’re loading up our coolers and hitting the road for a weekend of boating, camping, or tailgating. Life’s just a lot more fun when you have a cooler full of food and beverages.

But did you ever wonder how much more fun it could be if you had a cooler that was also a digital media sound system? We did, so we built one. And, as we suspected, it’s really, really awesome.

We used rugged, water-resistant, marine-grade gear to transform this ordinary 50-quart cooler into a high-performance portable stereo that still has room for a few sandwiches and a chilled six-pack. This cooler really is a “party on wheels.”

Check out our video and let our Car A/V Editor, Matt, tell you all about it:

Very cool – we build a cooler with a sound system

After deciding how we wanted to position the speakers and double-checking our measurements, we used a template to outline the speaker openings on the front of the cooler. We then used a jigsaw to cut the new openings. Cutting through plastic and foam can be tricky, so we worked carefully and let the saw do its job. Finally, we sanded the openings to ensure a smooth finish.


Our original design featured two Kicker marine speakers

Our initial design featured 6-1/2" Kicker marine speakers connected to a Bluetooth® enabled Kicker amplifier, and a compact battery designed for boats. The amp and the battery fit neatly underneath a shelf we made with lightweight foam and ABS plastic. This arrangement left plenty of room inside for snacks, beverages, and a few cooler packs to keep everything chilled.

plastic shelf above amp and battery

The lightweight plastic covers a sheet of soft foam, which protects the gear beneath

amplifier and battery installed

Here, we're just roughing in the location of the amp and the marine battery

The Kicker amp features built-in Bluetooth connectivity for wireless streaming. It also includes a wired remote for iPod® or iPhone® control, so we cut a hole in the front of the cooler and mounted it in an easy-to-reach spot.

The Bluetooth is great, but we also like the included 6-foot iPod/iPhone cable, which lets us play music and charge the device while it’s stored in the cooler.

Amazingly cool – we add more power and subs

Our basic system sounded great, but, being us, we just had to make it bigger and better. We wanted more bass, so we cut new openings, moved the original speakers up, then added a pair of 6-3/4" Kicker subs down below. A compact Kicker mono amplifier provided the power that took our cooler’s sound from, “Hey, that’s really neat!” to “Wow, that’s totally amazing!”

installing subwoofers in a cooler

When creating the openings, be sure to “measure twice, cut once”

installing subs and controller

The amp's weather-resistant controller (top center) is backlit, so it’s easy to find in low light

Totally cool – just for kicks, we add a hotspot

Sometimes, it’s great to get out and get away from it all. But it’s also nice to be connected to music and social media. An Autonet mobile router turned the “cooler cooler” into a 3G Wi-Fi® hotspot. The high-speed connection is great for streaming music, surfing the web, or (occasionally) checking in on the real world. A one-year service plan ($29.95 or $59.95) is required.

Want to build your own “cooler cooler”?

If you're thinking about doing it yourself, we have all the gear you’ll need, and we’ve even created an illustrated Crutchfield MasterSheet™ to help you along. It's just like our traditional MasterSheets that show you how to install gear in your car. And here's the rundown of all the gear we used:

Rugged, rockin’ Kicker 6-1/2" marine speakers sound great and stand up to the demands of outdoor life. They’re magnetically shielded, so they won’t interfere with compasses or sensitive marine electronics.

The Kicker PXi amp has a 6-foot long iPod cable, so you can base your system around an iPod or iPhone and a set of speakers. This water-resistant amp is ideal for 12-volt powersports vehicles. We used it to power the speakers.

We used a set of compact, powerful Kicker marine subs that are no longer available. Here is our selection of similar, non-marine certified 6-3/4" subwoofers.

Subs are ideal for your cooler project—or your boat.

To power those subs, we added the Kicker 12PX200.1 subwoofer amplifier. It fits in the palm of your hand—or the bottom of your cooler—and delivers up to 200 watts RMS of bass power to your subs.

Since the subs didn't come with grilles, we added some. Made with impact-resistant ABS plastic, Kicker GR650 grilles will protect your subs from damage.

We used an XS Power XP750 battery to provide up to 750 amps of power to the sound system. The ventless design means you can install this marine-rated 12-volt battery in tight spaces without worrying about leaks or corrosion.

Finally, to take the cooler "over the top," we added an Autonet Mobile router.

xp battery

This XS Power battery keeps our cooler rockin'.

  • Devan from 62204

    Posted on 6/8/2015 11:16:43 AM

    Hello, I am building a stereo cooler but i wanted a tray or insert to the top to put couple of bottles of drink. The components are at the bottles but the rest is waste of space and wanted something to sit at the top

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/8/2015 11:45:45 AM

    The best part of a project like this is that you have the chance to come up with a truly unique solution. You can start with ABS plastic panels like we did, or come up with something even niftier. It'll take some clever fabrication, but if you already have the gear installed, you're probably up to the task. Good luck!

  • David from Richmond, VA

    Posted on 6/20/2015 1:24:43 PM

    What a great project!!! How much play time can you get out of a charge? Also, how do you recharge the battery?

  • Robert Ferency-Viars from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/22/2015 11:22:37 AM

    David, I'm not sure how long the battery holds out, but it should cover a full day, at least. We installed a charging port in place of the cooler's drain plug, so we can just plug it in to recharge.

  • Ryan from Grapevine,Tx

    Posted on 7/5/2015 5:47:00 PM

    Great job guys! Couple questions as this would be my 3rd itteration on cooler radios. How do you keep the back of the speakers dry? I'm assuming you just use a separate fabric type cooler to put on your shelf? Lastly, how hot does it get under the shelf? Batteries and electronics don't really like heat and i would imagine being in a small compact space, all the equipment could get pretty hot pretty quick. Following up with David's question, have y'all had a chance to test the duration of a charge on the battery? Thanks for all the help!

  • Ryan from Grapevine,Tx

    Posted on 7/5/2015 6:04:04 PM

    Also, do you need the XS Power AK1000 Secondary battery wiring kit for the battery? Thanks again!

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/7/2015 3:26:40 PM

    Ryan, good point regarding the heat. Using ice packs in the upper level should help to keep the electronics cool below. And if you use a soft cooler inside the larger cooler as you suggest, that should protect the speakers from moisture. The battery has a capacity of 22 amp-hours, so depending on how hard you push the system, you should have enough juice to enjoy a day at the beach. As far as the XS Power AK1000 Secondary Battery Wiring Kit goes, that's probably more than you need for this job. Give us a call, and an advisor can help you put together a wiring package, or you'll find everything your need here. And if you're looking for more cooler inspiration, check out this article.

  • Chris

    Posted on 7/15/2015 5:56:36 PM

    Did you use ice in the cooler? If so how much water leaked to the bottom and and do it harm the electronics?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/15/2015 8:18:52 PM

    Chris, we used ice packs in place of ice. We don't recommend using ice with this design, but you might be interested in this customer's approach that took the cooler idea to the next level.

  • Kris Whorley from roanoke

    Posted on 7/25/2015 2:51:09 PM

    How much, and can I get a college team logo on one

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/27/2015 10:06:59 AM

    Kris, It depends on how much you want to spend, really. The size of your cooler is a big factor, because the more space you have, the more gear you can install. The cost of the gear itself will also vary. As for the logo question, we found some small-ish hard-side coolers with college team logos online. If you want to do something bigger, or can't find a cooler with your team's logo, you could always find (or paint) one in an appropriate color and add a sticker or two. There's plenty of room for creativity in a project like this, so have fun with it!

  • Michael from Anderson, SC

    Posted on 8/5/2015 8:34:08 AM

    How do you keep the melting ice from ruining the electronics below the plastic and foam shelf ?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/5/2015 8:43:52 AM

    Michael, we used ice packs in place of ice. We don't recommend using ice with this design, but you might be interested in this customer's approach that took the cooler idea to the next level.

  • Josh siefken from West Bend

    Posted on 9/7/2015 10:26:51 PM

    Are you guy able to build one of these for me to buy from you? How much would it cost? Thank you

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/8/2015 10:28:44 AM

    Josh, Unfortunately, that's not a service we offer. But we can sell you the gear for your DIY project, and you'll be able to take advantage of lifetime tech support. It's a fun project, so give it a try!

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