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Lead image

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.

A

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.

Jessie in car

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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
JVC in dash

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.

Installing a head unit

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.

Installing speaker

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.

Alpine KTA-30FW Tough Power Pack Compact all-weather 4-channel amplifier

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.

Dunamat install

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.

Jessie installing subs

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.

Outfit my car web page

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.

JR in his car

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.

Last updated 5/4/2021
  • Christopher L Matteson from edmond

    Posted on 9/16/2021

    I'd like to see a feature on your website that helps people match head units with speakers. So that I know what receiver goes with what speaker and if I need an amp or something else.

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    Ken Nail from Crutchfield

    on 9/17/2021

    Thanks for the suggestion Christopher - we're always examining the best ways our website can help our customers!
  • Randy Cummins from Aberdeen

    Posted on 7/7/2021

    I have a 2020 Dodge Charger Scat Pack that come with the base 6 speaker Alpine sound system and nothing I do makes this system sound good. I have upgraded to Infinity Ref 3032cfx speakers in the dash, put MTX Terminator 6X9 speakers in the read deck on a Pioneer GM-3702 amp and put a set of MTX 10s in the trunk on a Pioneer GM-A5702 amp. The clarity and quality of sound that i am looking for just isn't there. I have a 98 Trans Am with an old Kenwood head unit and Rockford Fosgate P1675-S Punch Series in the doors and the quality of sound is much better than my new car. I took the MTX 10s out of the Trans Am and put them into the Charger and they don't sound near as good either.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 4/12/2016

    John, adding aftermarket speakers to the rear doors won't have a dramatic effect for you in the driver's seat, but your passengers in the backseat will definitely benefit from this upgraded sound. I've passed your question along to our sales team, and an advisor will contact you soon to help find the right speakers for your vehicle.

  • John from Belton, MO

    Posted on 4/12/2016

    I own a 2006 gmc envoy denali, which I purchased used about 18 months ago. it has a 6 cd changer as the head unit, with smaller speakers on the front dash, and two sets of door speakers in the front and rear doors. I listen to most hard rock and rap, some R&B. the front speakers and dash are awesome, I can crank it almost max, and they have no distortion, even a the higher "bass" setting on the unit. however, the two in the rear doors, have almost no bass, and the highs could use help as well. my question is would aftermarket speakers in the rear help to even up the sound with the front speakers? or would it make more sense to add speakers and a four channel amplifier? thanks a lot for any help you can provide.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 1/4/2016

    Rodney, I've passed your question along to our sales team. An advisor will contact you soon to help find a stereo and installation gear that's right for your Camry.

  • Rodney from Elizabeth City

    Posted on 1/3/2016

    Looking for a replacement radio for a 2009 Toyota Camry Hybrid. Including steering controls, backup cam, satellite radio, and handle dub step type music to rock to country. For my wife.

  • Commenter image

    Dave Delamere from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/19/2015

    I've forwarded your questions to Crutchfield's Sales Advisor Team, and a member will get in touch with you by email to offer suggestions and help you choose the right gear for you and your vehicle. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • M. Melton from Charlotte

    Posted on 11/17/2015

    I listen to dub step and some techno with heavy drop beats(nightclub music). I explained this to the Best Buy audio team who came out to listen to what I already had in my car. Together with help from the geek squad they built what I had hoped was a banging system in my car.... but two kicker subs, and a set of front and rear infinitys later I am frustrated. The amp is the only thing working together with everything... I think. I know nothing of input/output, watts or compatibilities.... :( HELP PLEASE

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/12/2015

    Albert, your first step would be to use our vehicle selector to confirm which stereos fit your Porsche, but more than likely a navigation receiver is not going to fit in your dash and the additional gear needed to read vehicle information is not compatible with your Porsche.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/12/2015

    Dave, I've passed your information along to our sales team. An advisor will contact you soon to help you find the right gear for your classic Chevy.

  • Albert Dewey from Luray, VA

    Posted on 10/11/2015

    I have an older 2001 Porsche Carrera and I have non-factory wheels which I want to get air pressure sensors for. I want the kind that will work with a receiver in my dash to display tire info so that I don't have to put a clunky display box on my dash. To this end I am looking for both a receiver and the air pressure sensors but I have no clue as to which brands are compatible. In so far as the air pressure sensors are concerned, I want ones that have a solid metal body and not a rubber one and for the receiver I am looking for double height so I can have GPS navigation on a decent size screen. Not looking to blast my tunes so factory power output sufficient to drive the stock speakers will suffice. Any thoughts?

  • AndyB from San Pedro, CA

    Posted on 10/11/2015

    Dave, Space is your biggest problem... or a lack thereof! Consider 8" subs under/behind the seat. I am a huge fan of JL Audio 8" subs, specifically, the 8W7. If you have bucket seats, then a custom center stack sub enclosure could be made, with a single 10" or 12". The doors have tons of room, but they are all metal. I would sound deaden them and put in some kind of three way speaker in there. Or, something made into the kick panels. Consider a home built 3-way set up with a 4" coax and a nice 6" midbass. As for power, Focal makes some great amps that are very space efficient. Again, under the seat! I have the Pioneer 800 watt mono amp, 1 ohm stable. It is killer for power and super durable. Great price, too. Focal has as small 2 channel amp that still pushes out 100 watts per channel... http://www.crutchfield.com/p_091FD2350/Focal-FD-2-350.html?tp=35757 http://www.crutchfield.com/p_130GMD8601/Pioneer-GM-D8601.html?tp=35834 Look into the Kenwood head units. The eXelon line, I have the 797, which is now, I think, the 799. Great features, great price, GREAT sound. The RCA outs are 4 volts - that is a premium feature. http://www.crutchfield.com/p_113KDCX799/Kenwood-Excelon-KDC-X799.html?search=kenwood_799&skipvs=T That's about that! Hope this helps!!

  • Dave Boyle from Redding CA

    Posted on 10/10/2015

    I am working to (re)build my dream vehicle -1966 Chev C-10 Shortbox Stepside. At present it is rough and has no sound system. At 57 years old, I have been through the audiophile phase, having owned and experienced clean, powerful sounding systems. I appreciate and know that I would like a complete system that includes AM/FM, MP3, iPod, GPS, touch screen, Bluetooth phone interface and backup camera video screen and surround sound speaker setup. Quality is of prime importance. I need some assistance with designing and spec recommendations. Thank you.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/31/2015

    Raul, it's not uncommon to have front and rear speakers be different brands. Yours sounds like a good plan, although you'll want the RMS output of your stereo or amp to be within the range of 75-150% of front and rear speakers' max RMS power handling. So, just make sure the speakers you choose have comparable power handling.

  • Raul

    Posted on 8/31/2015

    I have a new 2015 Hyundai Accent and its my first car with front and rear passenger speakers. I'm upgrading the receiver and speakers, but was wondering if I'm supposed to use the same speakers for both front and rear? Originally I planned on having clean/mid heavy speakers in the front (6.5" Polks) and bass heavy in the rear (6.5" Kickers). Is this a good idea, or do I run the risk of one set of speakers totally overpowering the other? I listen primarily to rock, rap, and edm.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/19/2015

    Sarah, I sent your questions to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • Sarah Boyd from Cranberry Township

    Posted on 8/19/2015

    I want to get my girlfriend a "system" for her car. I don't know the first thing about what to get. I would say my budget is probably no more than $300/$400. It's a Hyundai Elantra (2013 I believe). Any suggestions?