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A budget-friendly car audio buildup

Building a car audio system in stages

2010 Dodge Charger

In a nutshell: In this article, we'll take a look at a budget-friendly, step-by-step audio system build-up. Use our vehicle selector to find the gear that will fit your vehicle, and give us a call if you need some system-building advice.

Some budding audiophiles look at building a car stereo as an “all or nothing” proposition. In other words, they make a wish list, look at the total cost, get nervous, and do nothing. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. With a plan and a budget, you can install a great-sounding system in stages. It’s easier on the wallet, and you’ll enjoy hearing your system get better and better with each new step in the process.

Our 5-stage system buildup

Brittany loved her 2010 Dodge Charger, but she wasn't as thrilled with the weak factory stereo. When she asked us for advice on how to build a system on a budget, we surprised her by asking if we could use her car for a project we’d been discussing with our friends at Kenwood. Needless to say, she said yes!

Kenwood Excelon gear offers a tremendous amount of value for the money, so it’s perfect for a project like this. The components are beautifully designed, well built, and they sound great. Plus, they come with a 2-year warranty. When you’re building a system on a budget, that kind of peace of mind is a real bonus.

So, while Brittany didn't have to worry about budgeting her new system, the rest of us would! When planning your system, it's best to focus on the long term so that you know what to buy at each step along the way. Here is how we suggest building a big system like Brittany's over the course of five stages:

  1. Install a new receiver, and a pair of coaxial speakers in the front doors
    (Approximate cost: $400)
  2. Add component speakers up front, move the coaxial speakers to the rear
    (Approximate cost: $200)
  3. Add a 4-channel amp to power the new speakers
    (Approximate cost: $500, including wiring and wiring kit)
  4. Add two subwoofers and an enclosure; use the rear channels of the amp to power them and (temporarily!) put the rear speakers on deck power again
    (Approximate cost: $350)
  5. Add a mono amp to power the subs; reconnect the rear speakers to the rear channels of the first amp
    (Approximate cost: $300, including wires and cables)
kenwood excelon receiverThe Kenwood Excelon receiver was a massive improvement over the factory radio

Beautiful beginnings

A new receiver is the best first step

Our experience has shown that installing a new receiver makes any system sound better immediately. The Kenwood Excelon KDC-X896 receiver* we chose for Brittany’s car sounds great, plus it’s incredibly versatile. Brittany can enjoy music from her iPod® or CD collec­tion, Pandora® or an HD Radio™ station, plus it’s SiriusXM ready if she wants to add satellite radio. Built-in Bluetooth® gives her the convenience of hands-free calling on the road.

*While the KDC-X896 is no longer available, check out our current lineup of Kenwood car stereos.

speakersThese 7" Kenwood Excelon KFC-X183C full-range speakers are a great fit for the Charger's front doors

Sounds more like it

Full-range speakers add volume and value

We wanted Stage 1 to be a real difference-maker, so we installed a pair of Kenwood Excelon KFC-X183C speakers in the front doors. The massive 7" woofers and 1" tweeters deliver solid bass and crystal-clear highs, so the improvement was noticeable. As a bonus, they also fit in the rear deck speaker location, which will come in handy during Stage 2. Brittany was impressed. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “It already sounds so much better than it did with the stock speakers!”


With tweeters in the sail panels (left), Brittany enjoys a much-improved soundstage

Higher highs, lower lows

Component speakers add depth and detail to the sound

Stage 2 added refinement to the system without blowing a hole in the budget. The Charger’s front and rear speaker openings are the same size, so we were able to move the full-range speakers from Stage 1 to the rear deck, then swap in a set of Kenwood Excelon KFC-XP184C component speakers up front.

The 7" woofers fit into the door, while the 1" tweeters were surface-mounted on the sail panels. This “high-low” arrangement separates the bass and treble, elevates the soundstage, and adds new detail to Brittany’s music. All this, combined with powerful fills from the relocated full-range speakers, makes the factory 4-speaker system seem like a distant (bad) memory: “That system was terrible," she said. "I love that I can turn this one up and it still sounds good.”

wiring diagram

The wiring diagram for this system


Powering up and planning ahead

This 4-channel amp gives the system a real boost

The third stage of our buildup project combined instant gratification with long-range planning. The instant gratification came from a powerful 4-channel Kenwood amp that gave the system a real kick. We used it to power the front and rear speakers at this stage, knowing that this versatile amp would allow us to change things around as the buildup progressed.

We planned to install a sub and a mono amp shortly after, so while we were putting in the 4-channel, we pre-wired the car for our future installations (see diagram at right). We ran wire for the six channels we’d eventually need by running a third RCA cable for the subwoofer amp (to be added later) along with the two cables for the amp added at this stage.

We took full advantage of the Charger’s rear-mounted battery – what a convenience for a car audio installation! To improve the efficiency of the system and our installation process, we used two 3-way power distribution blocks. That made it easy to hook up everything when we got to Stage 5, and we didn’t have to remove the Charger’s interior panels and seatbacks twice. That was a big time-saver on a project like this one.

subwooferTwin 12" Kenwood Excelon subs look great in the Sound Ordnance Bass Bunker

A space full of bass

Adding two subs for a bigger boom

In stage 4, we’re powering the subs by bridging the rear two channels of the amp. The rear speakers are powered by the receiver, but we’ll move them back to the 4-channel amp when we install a dedicated mono amp for the subs.

After adding power and raising the soundstage, it was time to focus on low-frequency performance. Brittany likes music with a lot of bass, so we mounted a pair of 12" Kenwood Excelon subs in a Sound Ordnance Bass Bunker. Since we’d already pre-wired the Charger’s spacious trunk, the installation was relatively quick and painless.

Each sub is rated for up to 400 watts RMS, so two of them can handle anything Brittany wants to blast. They’re also built for heavy use, with a dual ventilation system that keeps things cool, even on long drives at high volume. The Bass Bunker reduces vibrations and resonance to help the subs reproduce the deepest frequencies of Brittany’s favorite tunes.

amplifierBrittany helping with the amp wiring

The final step: more power

A dedicated mono amp delivers maximum thump

Brittany’s new stereo system sounded terrific, but we weren’t quite finished yet. Bridging the rear channels of the 4-channel amp was a good short-term solution, but big bass requires big power. A mono amplifier gives the subs the juice they need to give Brittany the bass she wants. It’s the perfect finishing touch to our budget-friendly buildup.

You can have an amazing aftermarket stereo system in your car, too. Installing a system in stages isn’t just frugal, it’s kind of fun. Give us a call, send us an email or log on to chat. Your Crutchfield advisor can help you plan a system that’s right for your car, your budget, and your schedule.

Brittany loves the way her Charger sounds now. “I’m all about bass, but I like being able to hear everything else. When I really turn it up, the bass hits hard, but I can hear the singing, too. The whole system is amazing!”

  • Blake Shores from Ronda

    Posted on 2/26/2019

    In step 4 you switched the rear speakers back to the receiver. Is this better than wiring them in parallel with the front speakers and powering all 4 with the front amp channels?

    Commenter image

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield

    on 3/6/2020

    Blake, With questions like that, it's always better to have a conversation with a real live human. Give us a call and talk to one of our advisors. We can help you choose the right gear and give you the right advice on how to install it.
  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/8/2017

    Patrick, With questions like that, it's always better to have a conversation with a real live human. Give us a call and talk to one of our advisors. We can help you choose the right gear and give you the right advice on how to install it.

  • patrick honeywell from brockton

    Posted on 8/8/2017

    Hi , this is awesome , i have a mint 2010 charger R/T thats my baby , but i do lack on good quality sound the system is complete original from factory , i do not necessarily want to replace my receiver , can i skip that one step and still get good audio with all the other stages ? also it sounds like you added tweeters to her doors , can you send me a photo on what they looked like installed in the doors? im not sure if i have the four speaker or six speaker setup at the moment , if i only have the four can i upgrade to six? would the wiring be there but just not used ? how do you tell if you have four or six speaker setup , where should i be looking for the speaker placements ? it is a R/T HEMI , 2010 thanks!

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 2/6/2017

    William, We don't have anything exactly like that yet, but we can still help you build your system step-by-step. Check out our Vehicle Profile on the 500 to learn more about what you'll need to do to upgrade your audio system. Then, when you enter your vehicle's info into our Outfit My Car tool, you'll see all the audio gear that fits. If you have any questions, our advisors are available via phone or chat to help you design a system that's right for your car, your budget, and your schedule.

  • William A Peete from Cape Coral

    Posted on 2/4/2017

    Wow, is there like a program where you guy do this for any costumer? like i would only shop though this site if someone could just build a 5 step program for my 2014 Fiat 500. just deposit a few hundred each month and get the product. and a goal for the next level like an audio Lay away. seriously m.ake it a thing

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/28/2016

    Richard, There's not a lot of sub space in your truck, but there are a few bass options that might work. I've sent your question to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • Richard from Nevada

    Posted on 11/28/2016

    Is it possible to have a same setup in a 1995 Ford F-150 single cab? I don't know the exact mesuments behind the seats but I for sure can't fit 12" would 10" be fine? Also could I do this around $1000? Thanks in advance

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/14/2016

    Marc, We can help with that. I've sent your question to our sales team for the best answer, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • MARC ANTHONY from Cuthbert

    Posted on 11/13/2016

    How much with a great sounding system for my 2014 Nissa Altima cost. Can I get a good system for around $1000? I need something loud and clean.

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/1/2016

    Anthony, To the best of our knowledge, no one has combined all that tech into one aftermarket stereo yet. You might be able to locate a "new old" factory radio, which would allow you to play CDs again -- but you'd still be stuck using an adapter for your iPod. Another (probably cheaper) solution is to track down a quality home stereo cassette deck, connect it to your computer, and digitize your cassette collection. Either way, that's a cool old car, so keep enjoying it!

  • Anthony from Lebanon, PA

    Posted on 10/31/2016

    I have an old cassette/cd/am fm radio combo in my 1999 Cadillac Deville. It works fine except the CD player broke and no longer works. If I want to use cds, or my iPod even, I have to rely on a cassette adapter. So I'm glad to have a cassette player because it provides a great backup for using other things. Not only that, but I've found I actually can play tapes again, imagine. So, I want to replace the stereo so that I have a working CD player again and I like how the newer stereos have a USB port for iPods, but I've gotten used to the old school cassettes again and don't really want to give it up just yet. But I've always looked at my stereo, with am fm, cassette and cd, and wished it also had a USB port too, then it would be perfect. But I can't find anything like that anywhere. Do am fm/cassette/cd/USB combos even exist? Can they be ordered and custom built? Because with USB all I can get with it is cd. And with cassette all I can get with that is cd. You can either get cd and cassette or cd and USB. But is there a way to get all three? I realize there is no market for that, but it seems like it should be easy to build such a device. Thanks!

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/23/2016

    Robert, Opinions vary. Some say that it'll lead to cracks and damage, but we've never seen anything like that. You're just attaching something to a piece of wood, so as long as you drill starter holes first (to help prevent cracking) and avoid drilling into the box seams (corners, edges, etc.), you should be fine.

  • Robert from Fishers

    Posted on 8/22/2016

    They say it's not wise to mount your sub amps to your subwoofer box. I see in the example that you did this with this young ladies box. What's your take on this?

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/3/2016

    At "Stage 4", we got power to the subs by bridging the rear two channels of the amp. The rear speakers are powered by the receiver. When you buy your gear from Crutchfield, you can call Tech Support for free help troubleshooting your system. If you purchased your equipment elsewhere, you can still get expert Crutchfield Tech Support - 90 days-worth for only $30. Check out our tech support page for details.

  • hazimin from miri

    Posted on 8/2/2016

    If i dont want to add stage 5, what changes do i need to do in the wiring diagram

  • David

    Posted on 7/26/2016

    Nearly $2000 isn't frugal or budget friendly. How about a real budget build? $500 maybe. $250 realistically. On computer builds they usually give tiers.

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 2/22/2016

    Ryan, No, we used the stock wiring.

  • Ryan Barrett from Edmonton

    Posted on 2/20/2016

    Do you run all new wiring for the speakers for a setup like this?

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 2/8/2016

    Rima, With a hybrid car, a big subwoofer is a bad idea anyway, because of the amount of current it would draw from the system. There are some alternatives, though. I'll forward this to our sales team, and someone will contact you by email soon. Good luck!

  • Rima Krutulis from Gary, IN

    Posted on 2/7/2016

    I have a Honda Accord hybrid with limited trunk space, due to the battery. Obviously a trunk installed subwoofer would not work. What alternatives could you recommend in this situation? Thank you.

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/29/2015

    Justin, It was indeed.

  • Justin Duncan from Gladstone, MO

    Posted on 10/29/2015

    Was this system running on the factory alternator and/or standard battery?

  • Commenter image

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/21/2015

    Chris, Kenwood'a always an excellent choice. As for the wiring kit, I sent your question to our sales team for the best answer. They'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat. Good luck!

  • Chris from Dubois pa

    Posted on 9/20/2015

    Ok I'm doing the same set up for my 02 Jeep Liberty all I need to know it's what wire kit do you guys use for the amps and speakers 4 or 8 gauge ? I love Kenwood I think this set up will be perfect for my lil suv get back to me as soon as you can thank you !

  • Mike from California

    Posted on 5/27/2015

    All fine and dandy, but my 92 Honda accord LX has limited dash space and will accommodate only a receiver. Otherwise, external equilizers, can't be accommodated, unless they are hung in an unsightly manner. Also, the speaker cutouts in the doors and rear trunk deck will only accommodate 6" round speakers. I suppose I could do some cutting and hacking to make larger speaker fit. However, I am not going to go through that. It definitely is not an ideal world to mount things in cars, and I am not an audio extremist that's going to cut up my car.