How to Build the Ideal Car Stereo System
The 'ideal' car audio system is not necessarily the loudest one, or the most expensive one. It's the one that best meets your needs. So, the first step is to figure out what your needs are. Start off by asking yourself: what is the one thing you want your new car stereo to do for you? If you don't come up with an answer right away, then try looking at your current system.
What type of car stereo system do you have now?
How does the sound of your current system make you feel? Do you find yourself tapping your foot or drumming your fingers on the steering wheel? Does a funky rhythm section get you smiling? Does a blues guitar solo send shivers down your back?
No? Then is the sound flat, dull, tinny, or wimpy? You're probably suffering from listening to a car radio that's struggling to drive flimsy factory speakers. The good news is that you have a lot of options to choose from when replacing the various components in your audio system.
But what if you're unsure about exactly which component is the problem?
It's not always easy to diagnose what's causing problems in a vehicle's audio/video system, even when you know that you're not satisfied with its performance. But there are some simple steps you can take to help you narrow it down:
Listen while parked in the driveway for a few minutes.
Twist all the knobs and push all the buttons. Do all the functions seem to work OK?
What would you like your radio to do that it won't do now?
- Play CDs or MP3 files?
- Tune-in to satellite or HD Radio™ broadcasts?
- Control an iPod® or other portable audio device?
- Play louder without distorting?
- Play DVDs on a retractable or built-in display?
Drive around and listen carefully.
Hit the highway and turn your stereo up loud enough to be heard above the road noise.
Now find a place to park the car.
Keeping the volume at "highway level" (but without the road noise to confuse your ear), do you hear a lot of distortion?Set the balance, fader, and tone controls right smack in the middle. How's the overall sound of the speakers? What's lacking? Bass? Treble? Clarity?
Rate your current gear.
Make a list of the components in your system, and rate them on a scale of 1-10. It usually makes sense to begin by replacing the lowest-rated components.
If the car receiver ranked the lowest, then consider either buying an adapter so it meets your needs or replacing the whole receiver. Replacing your receiver is usually one of the first steps to achieving better sound since the audio signal sent to the other components in your system is much cleaner coming from an aftermarket source.
However, if you know the audio signal isn't the problem or you don't want to part with your current receiver, then you might want to build up the other audio components in your vehicle. If your speakers sound OK at moderate volume, but not at highway volume, you may want to start by adding more power. If the speakers sound bad all the time, you know to replace them first.
So what are your options?
Need to replace old or broken speakers?
New speakers improve the entire range of your sound, from deeper bass to more well-defined highs. Best of all, they're easy to install and usually more affordable than replacing the receiver. Most factory installed car speakers are made of lightweight paper or other cheap-to-produce materials in order to keep down the purchase price of your vehicle. They also tend to distort and wear down a lot faster than aftermarket speakers, so even if your speakers sounded good when you bought the car, they've probably changed after a few years.
Aftermarket speakers are made of higher quality materials for a more faithful reproduction of sound and for added durability. Full-range speakers (some combination of a woofer, a midrange, and/or a tweeter) fit easily into your car's factory locations and are probably your best bet for improved sound. If you want to hear all that your music has to offer, use a set of component speakers with separate woofers and tweeters to transform your car into a concert soundstage.
Does your music need a little more "umph?"
You need to give your speakers more power. An amplifier increases the volume of your system without distorting it, so you'll have no trouble hearing your tunes with the windows down and the sunroof open. Amplifiers also give your music life by bringing out musical details and clarity, resulting in better sound quality at all volume levels.
Drive a noisy car?
Is your music competing with your muffler for your attention? You should look into vibration damping materials. A little Dynamat in your vehicle can go a long way in reducing the interior noise level.
Do you want to feel the beat?
If you like your sound, but want some added depth, a subwoofer is a great addition to any system. Augmenting your setup with a subwoofer driven by an appropriate amplifier, for instance, will fill in the low notes that small full-range speakers aren't designed to hit, giving you a richer overall sound. You can choose from component subs to customize your sound or preloaded enclosures for easy installation.
If you want a sub, but are concerned about how much space it might take up in your car, then you might want a vehicle-specific subwoofer enclosure. They mount in your cargo area or under a seat, so you don't lose much storage space.
What is your music style?
Think about what kind of music you listen to, and especially how you listen to your music. If you like it loud and heavy, you're going to want outboard amplifiers and a subwoofer or two for sure. Is soft classical music your style? A new receiver should provide plenty of RMS wattage to full-range speakers — though you would certainly still benefit from the low-frequency output of a subwoofer.
Now, let's get to the source
If the car receiver ranked the lowest, then you have several options. Think about your driving and listening habits to decide which features you want. It's important to think about what your other primary sources of music are, and whether or not you can enjoy them in your car.
Do you like downloading music from iTunes or other music-sharing sites?
Buy a CD/MP3 receiver that will play MP3 files burned to discs. Or, if you own a portable audio player or iPod®, buy a receiver with an auxiliary input. Newer adapters will charge your iPod when it's connected, and offer direct audio connection for faster signal transfer. If you get a receiver with a large monitor, you'll get the added convenience of touchscreen control and easy viewing of songs and playlists, even album art and video.
Another option is to get a receiver that features a USB port. You can play digital music files stored on your thumb drive or plug in an MP3 player with a USB connection.
Is your car your office?
Receivers that have Bluetooth® capability are really convenient if you make a lot of phone calls in your car. In most cases, you can hear callers over your speakers simply by pressing a button on your receiver. And if you have a display screen, you can see the Caller ID and dial via touchscreen.
Do you travel a lot?
If you spend a lot of time in your car, you should consider investing in a new receiver that offers MP3 playback and has an auxiliary input for your portable MP3 players or satellite radio tuner. When you hook up your portable MP3 player, you'll get hours of music at your fingertips with the added benefits of not having to fumble around for scratched discs. Satellite radio gives you a wider variety, with commercial-free music and live sports and talk. Best of all, you get coast-to-coast coverage so you won't ever lose a station again.
Like to take the family on long road trips during school vacations?
An in-dash DVD receiver can change your driving experience. Or better yet, go for backseat video. Your passengers can be quietly entertained in the back seat, so you can concentrate on getting everybody there safely. Replace your headrest with one that has a built-in screen, or purchase a model that simply slides over your existing headrest. Overhead monitors, which mount on your vehicle's ceiling and fold up when not in use, are also a convenient option. Keep in mind that some DVD players also let you connect video games or camcorders.
And for those, um, "directionally challenged" individuals amongst us?
End the "should we stop to ask for directions?" debate when you install a GPS navigation system in your car. Just enter your destination into the trip computer and follow the voice prompts and visual directions. You can also see points of interest and updated traffic information. Most in-dash display monitors are also compatible with easy-to-install rear view cameras, to help the "spatially challenged" avoid backing into other cars or lampposts.
And don't forget?
Most receivers these days offer more than one of these features, so you don't have to choose just one. The new technologies are endless, and your installation options are enough to give you what you want without totally disassembling your car or taking a bite out of your wallet.
What if I can't change my stereo?
We also carry a wide variety of adapters and other solutions for adding most of these options to your factory stereo. Use our "Outfit My Car" tool to see what's available for your vehicle.
How to shop the Crutchfield website
What kind of budget do you have in mind?
Think about how much you want to invest in your car A/V system. The goal, of course, is to get the system that you want without paying extra for features that you don't need.
Do you want to purchase everything at once, or would you rather build your system one or two pieces at a time? A gradual approach to system building can put even high-end systems within anyone's grasp.
If you're paying attention to price, check out our weekly specials on the Crutchfield home page to find popular products at great discounts. You'll also want to check out the "Outlet Store" for more great deals, including "open box" and "scratch and dent" items.
Look up what fits your vehicle.
You can do that right here, right now, online. Just click on "Outfit My Car" to see which items will work for you. It's fast and totally easy.
Once you identify your vehicle, you have the POWER to:
- Search the car audio site for in-dash receivers, car speakers, and all of the other vehicle-specific gear, and see a list of all models in any particular category that will fit your vehicle.
- Get an idea of how easy it will be to install the gear you're considering in your own particular vehicle. Keep in mind that Crutchfield offers free installation gear and information for most orders for car A/V equipment.
Surf the site — make a list of components you like.
Surf through the site and keep an eye peeled for products that appeal to you. You can shop by brand, price, or category at any time, and can even locate a specific component based on the item number that you saw in our catalog. (Speaking of our catalog, why don't you go ahead and request one? It's free, and we're always updating it to reflect the changes in shopping trends.)
When you do see something you like online, drop it into your shopping cart (you can always take it out later) or save it to your "Wish List" using your free Crutchfield account. This is a great way to use your cart as a scratchpad or to remember where you left off when building your ideal system.
Find out more about...
To learn more about any product category, take a spin through our Car Audio/Video Learning Center. You can watch instructional videos, read helpful how-to or about articles, read reports and reviews on products that we've tested for you, or even see what improvements other Crutchfield customers have made to their vehicles to help you get some more ideas.
By now you've really come a lot closer to creating your ideal stereo system. You've listened carefully to your current system and pinpointed the ways you would like to improve it. You've clicked on "Outfit My Car," so you know which receivers and speakers work with your car. And you probably also have a short list of your favorite components.
Still need help deciding?
A few clicks are all it takes to send your new system straight to your door. But if you need a little more information before deciding on your purchase, don't hesitate to get in touch with us.
You can start a live chat online with one of our Crutchfield Advisors or email your questions to us with the click of a button starting from our home page. Feel free to call us at 1-888-955-6000. Your answers to questions we've asked throughout this article will help your Advisor set you up with the components that satisfy your needs and wants.