Three Degrees of Car A/V Happiness
The gift of better car audio
Lynn worked as part of the Crutchfield car audio writing staff in 2013. She left to pursue a greater opportunity, but made a strong mark on our team while she was here.
More from Lynn Thorne
Everyone has a different opinion of how important car audio is. Some folks invest in a simple upgrade that offers decent sound quality. Others think it’s worth it to totally overhaul their system with only the top-of-the-line products. Where do you fit in?
The gift of better car audio
No matter what you want to spend, you can improve the sound in your vehicle. Whether you want a step up from your factory system, a major sound upgrade, or the absolute best, there are plenty of options.
In this article, we’ll showcase three different systems – we’ll call them good, better, and best – that fit a variety of budgets. All of them provide sound and features that are leaps and bounds above a factory system. But don’t feel limited to using the systems exactly as we’ve designed them here. Think of it as a virtual buffet of audio components, and you get to choose what best suits your individual taste and needs.
“Good” system: the wow factor
After selling audio systems to our customers for years, Crutchfield Advisor Kramer was thrilled to focus on his Honda Element’s sound system when we approached him with the idea of an upgrade.
A. Kenwood Excelon KDC-X395 CD receiver
B. Alpine MRP-F300 4-channel amplifier
C. Infinity Reference X 6-1/2" component speakers
D. Infinity Reference X 6-1/2" full-range speakers
E. Alpine MRP-M500 mono amplifier
F. Alpine Type-S 10" subwoofer
We started with a Kenwood Excelon KDC-X395 CD receiver that’s economical, yet offers rock-solid sound. Kramer really likes its “unusually high level of tuning capability,” including a three-band equalizer that lets him tweak the audio to suit him.
We chose Infinity’s Reference X speakers for clarity and detail. The Alpine V-Power 4-channel amp brings power and versatility, while the Alpine Type-S sub, powered by another Alpine V-Power amp gives big bass output.
"Wow" sound on a budget
The whole upgrade runs less than $1,000 — not an unusual amount for a total system upgrade.
The “wow” factor of hearing it the first time was undeniable, even for someone as experienced as Kramer. He loves driving with the windows down yet still having great clarity, and being able to turn the volume up without taxing the system. “I always lacked a nice soundstage in my car, but now my drive to work is one of my favorite times of the day because I can just enjoy the music.”
Read all about Kramer's system in our Car Showroom.
“Better” system: phenomenal sound
Duke, a Crutchfield Advisor, was running all of his sound out of his front car speakers because one of his rear speakers had blown. That made him a perfect candidate to demo our full Sony system upgrade.
A. Sony XAV-701HD DVD receiver
B. Sony XM-GS400 4-channel amp
C. Sony XS-GX1720S 6-1/2" component system
D. Sony XS-GS6920 6"x9" full-range speakers
E. Sony XM-GS100 mono amp
F. Sony XS-GS120LD 12" GS sub
Sony’s new GS Series is designed to significantly enhance audio quality. Reminiscent of their popular, high-end ES line, the new series is laser-focused on performance. Even before tuning his new system, “the sound was immensely better, lively, and more detailed.” After? “It jumped into the stratosphere of sounding amazing.”
Duke’s system provides extra power for what’s called “headroom,” which means he can hear the subtle nuances at low volume and still maintain cohesiveness when he cranks it. His component speakers feature a crossover network that keeps the highs balanced with the mids and lows, and lets him power the tweeters and woofers separately for efficiency and performance.
The system rocks because it was engineered specifically to take signal and max it out while keeping it pure. These amps and speakers support each other to produce a far more robust sound while operating at full throttle.
Duke’s “better” system means he’s done being embarrassed by his car's audio performance.
Read all about Duke's system in our Car Showroom.
“Best” system: rekindling an old love
Jeff, Crutchfield’s Senior Car Merchandiser, uses his 2004 Ford F-150 as a mobile listening lab to test out our best products. (His current system is part of our comprehensive Proving Ground project; check it out for the full story.)
A. Alpine INE-Z928 HD navigation receiver
For his speakers, Jeff installed Focal’s Utopia series components, which create an unparalleled image and soundstage that truly put the music front and center, as if it’s being played right in front of him. “These speakers are the best I’ve heard for the money.” They create a stereo image that lets Jeff escape into the music’s details.
An Alpine signal processor lets him precisely fine-tune his system the way he wants. And a JL Audio Stealthbox® custom-fit subwoofer box houses the sub that gives him the thump he likes without being a space hog. Jeff lined the truck with Dynamat to help reduce rattles and defeat road noise, making his sound nearly flawless.
Jeff wanted a “best” system that would produce high fidelity in every sense of the word. And he got it. “These components come together, and everything else fades away. I’m not focused on anything but the sound. The music truly envelopes me.”
You might expect such outstanding audio quality at home, but Jeff’s system proves you can get that same performance in a vehicle. The result of his “best” system upgrade?