How to build the ideal car stereo system
Get your complete car audio system up to speed
What’s the Ideal 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. The first step is to figure out what your needs are. How do you do that? Read on.
re you satisfied with the sound of your car stereo system? Do you find yourself tapping your foot or drumming your fingers on the steering wheel? Does a guitar solo send shivers down your back? Or is the sound flat, dull, and tinny?
What about the features of your system? Today's cars don't just have radios. They have infotainment systems that provide music, information, navigation, and integrate smoothly with your smartphone. Do you want your system to provide you with all of these benefits?
The good news is that you have a lot of options to choose from when replacing the various components in your audio system.
Evaluating the sound of your current audio system
Maybe you're satisfied with the capabilities of your system but aren't satisfied with the sound quality. Where do you start, when you want to improve the sound? Replace the speakers? Add an amplifier? Pack a subwoofer into your trunk? Follow these steps to evaluate your system's sound.
- Listen for a few minutes while parked in the driveway.
Twist all the knobs and push all the buttons. Do all the functions seem to work okay? Listen to each speaker individually by adjusting the balance and fader controls. Turn up the volume and the tone controls. Are all the speakers working, or do you hear a slight rattle or a buzz?
- Drive around and listen carefully.
Hit the highway and turn your car stereo up loud enough to be heard above the road noise. What do you hear? How does it sound? What do you feel like you're missing?
- Find a place to park the car.
But don't turn down the music just yet. 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. You'll get the most bang for your buck by replacing the lowest-rated components first. If you know the receiver isn't the problem, or you just don't want to part with your current receiver, you can focus on building up the other components in your car's system. If your speakers sound okay 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 should probably replace them first.
New stereos are packed with modern features.
What else do you want your stereo to do?
Today’s car stereos do a lot more than just tuning in radio stations. Here are some of the many options available to you.
Acces your smartphone's navigation, music, and other apps from the receiver using Apple CarPlay® or Android Auto™.
Make calls and stream music using a Bluetooth® connection.
Tune in to satellite radio or HD Radio™ broadcasts.
Play CDs or DVDs.
Play music files that you’ve stored on thumb drives or memory cards.
Play video content on the in-dash display (when the vehicle is parked).
Knowing what you want your receiver to do makes it easier to choose the right one for you and your car.
So, what are your options for improving your car stereo system?
Now that you've evaluated your current stereo system, it's time to address the different needs you've identified.
Replacing your car stereo
You may decide that the car receiver is where you want to start. We touched on many of the cool things that today’s car stereos can do in the previous section, but we know there are a lot of decisions to be made. That’s why we created our Car Stereo Buying Guide to help you out. This comprehensive guide will help you figure out exactly what you want out of your car stereo, and how to find the model that meets your needs.
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 vehicle selector tool to see what's available for your vehicle.
Need to replace your old or broken car speakers?
Most factory-installed car speakers are made of lightweight paper or other cheap materials. Even "premium" factory speakers tend to wear down and distort a lot faster than aftermarket speakers, so even if they sounded good when you bought the car, they've probably dropped off a bit over the years.
A new set of aftermarket speakers will improve the entire range of your sound, from deeper bass to more well-defined highs. Best of all, they're easy to install and often more affordable than a receiver.
Aftermarket speakers are made with higher-quality materials, so they'll give you much better sound and increased 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 everything your music has to offer, use a set of component speakers (separate woofers and tweeters) to transform your dashboard into a concert soundstage.
Does your music need a little more "oomph?"
If your sound seems to lack that certain something, 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 new life by bringing out musical details and clarity, resulting in better sound quality at all volume levels.
Do you drive a noisy car?
Is your music getting serious competition from your car's exhaust note or road noise? You should look into sound-deadening materials. A little Dynamat in your vehicle will help keep road noise, vibration, and exhaust rumblings from interfering with your musical enjoyment.
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 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 powered subwoofer or a vehicle-specific subwoofer enclosure. These subs mount in your cargo area or under a seat, so you don't lose much storage space.
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 in the Crutchfield Specials Zone 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.
Find what fits your vehicle
You can do that right here, right now. Just use our vehicle selector to see which items will work for your vehicle. Once you enter your vehicle information, you can search our site for stereos, speakers, and everything else that will fit your vehicle.
You can also get an idea of how easy it will be to install the gear you're considering. Keep in mind that Crutchfield offers discounted installation gear and free installation 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 it's full of informative, entertaining articles about the latest car and home gear.)
When you do see something you like, 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.
Learn more about car audio
To learn more about any product category, take a spin through our extensive Car Audio/Video Learning Center. You can watch instructional videos, read helpful articles, 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 ideas.
Our Research Garage contains a number of Vehicle Profile articles that explain the ins and outs of car stereo installation for a variety of car and truck models — maybe even yours.
Still need help deciding?
By now, you're 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 used our Vehicle Selector so you know which stereos and speakers work with your car. And you probably also have a shortlist of your favorite components.
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.
We'll be more than happy to answer any questions you have — both before and after your purchase.