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How to get the best stereo imaging & soundstage

Your car can be a great place to enjoy music

Properly tweaked, your car or truck can be a fantastic place to listen to music. But in order to achieve that level of enjoyment, you need to compensate for some of the vehicle's natural limitations. Achieving great imaging is a matter of understanding your components, and how they interact with your vehicle and the people sitting in it.

imaging is essential to great car audio

With the right gear, you can achieve great stereo imaging in any car, giving your music lifelike dimension across your dash.

Imaging

Imaging describes the extent to which a stereo system reproduces the timbre and location of the individual instruments accurately and realistically. In a system with superior imaging, you should be able to close your eyes and envision where the instruments were positioned on stage, from right to left. Everyone who really appreciates music in an automotive environment cares about stereo imaging — from the casual enthusiast to the serious competitor.

The speakers themselves should seem to disappear, replaced instead by a spatial arrangement of music sources, or soundstage. Although the front and rear speakers create the soundstage, it should seem to come from in front of you, filling the space from left to center to right.

"Side-biased" listening

When you listen to tunes at home, you probably don't make a habit of planting yourself smack dab in front of your left speaker. If you did, you'd be missing out on the detail the right driver has to offer, as well as the spaciousness of a complete stereo image. Yet when you listen to music in the driver's seat of your car, and you have conventional speakers in your doors or dash, you probably get the same type of imbalanced listening experience.

"Side-biased" listening has its disadvantages. The music on your left reaches you before the music on your right. Within certain bandwidths, this imbalance may seem to alter your system's response, emphasizing some frequencies over others. The sounds on your left may also seem louder, distorting the soundstage.

Equalizing path lengths

To get proper imaging, the path lengths between your speakers and your ears need to be as close to equal as possible. These paths should be unobstructed as well. If your left door speaker lies about 2-1/2" feet from your left ear and your right door speaker about five feet from your right ear, you won't hear balanced sound. Playing with the receiver's balance control can help the driver's listening experience, but it throws the image out of whack for the person in the passenger seat.

You can overcome this problem by installing component speakers mounted in a set of custom kick panels in your car. While this option used to cost a bundle, products like Q-Forms from Q-Logic have made the process easier and more affordable, because they come ready-made for a wide variety of cars and trucks on the road today. With the separates installed in the pods by your feet, you're ensured the equal path lengths vital to good imaging, restoring your music's detail, dynamic balance, and natural soundstage.

You can also overcome unequal path lengths by purchasing an in-dash stereo with digital time correction. Time correction allows you to compensate for speaker placement by adjusting the speed at which the audio signal reaches individual speakers. Using the speaker furthest from your ears as a reference point, you calculate the amount of time that speakers closer to you need to be delayed so that all sounds arrive at your ears at the same time.

Speaker imaging

Certain brands like Alpine design their car receivers to work with smartphone apps that allow more precise EQ settings.

Other mounting options

Despite the growing popularity of products like Q-Forms and angled tweeters in full-range speakers, many of us still choose to improve our imaging with matched components or by mounting the mid-woofers in factory locations and tweeters up high on the dash or door. You should keep the mid-woofer and tweeter as close together as possible so that the two drivers act together as a single point-source.

While a conventional component speaker set-up does leave path lengths unequal, usually the tweeters have a direct line to your ears, and this lack of obstruction improves the level of detail and the quality of your stereo image. Many matched component sets also let you adjust the firing angle of the tweeters to further optimize imaging. (Keep this feature in mind when shopping for add-on tweeters.)

Adjusting for rear fill

Once you have your front speakers installed to your liking, you'll want to make sure that your rear speakers are doing their part to create an ideal soundstage. While personal taste plays a role here, most experts agree that you should adjust the volume level for rear speakers so that you're barely conscious of their presence.

While your front speakers should give you the best midrange and high frequencies possible, your rear speakers can be conventional coaxials or low frequency drivers. Their purpose is to add ambiance and depth to your forward soundstage. If they reveal too much high frequency information, they'll "pull" the stereo image to the rear of your vehicle, away from where you want it.

Setting your subwoofer

If you're running a subwoofer in your trunk, you want to avoid the sensation that all the bass is coming from the rear of the car, or that the bass player is dancing her way from your trunk to your front kick panels as she plays higher up the neck. If your amp or in-dash stereo includes a built-in crossover, set the high-pass filters to feed your front speakers the lowest frequencies they can safely handle. Start with your low-pass filter set as low as possible, then raise the crossover point until you hear the "sweet spot", the point at which the bass notes sound clearly defined, punchy, and in front of you. This setup allows some bass to filter from your front speakers and restricts your sub to low bass that is very difficult to localize.

Testing your system

When you have all your components in place, test your system to see that it's imaging properly. As you tweak your system to perfection, spend some time listening to other people's set-ups, informally or at sound-off competitions. Rather than attempting to precisely duplicate the systems you like, try to pick up general concepts and techniques, keeping in mind that every vehicle differs acoustically. What sounds great in a trophy-winning Camaro may muddy up the sound of your BMW. Besides, some of us like very precise imaging, while others among us prefer sound that is a little more spacious and open.

In the final analysis, the stereo image that suits your tastes is the one that's right for you. So, trust your ears.

  • Dav Cee from San Francisco

    Posted on 4/20/2021

    I drive a van with no seats in back and I love the concert hall effect I get from fading the sound rearwards a little. It goes against convention, but maybe because it's a different space it works for me. Also, having the sound coming from farther away seems to be less wearing, and easier to conversate over, but maybe turning it down more would do the same? Just throwing another opinion into the discussion!

  • David Gonzalez from TAYLOR

    Posted on 10/20/2020

    I have a 2016 Mazda3 sedan. I'm using an Audison bit ONE HD. I'm happy with the stage height and the center point but lacking in the expansion. It feels like the band is only using 50% of the stages length

  • Shane Fine from Pittsburgh

    Posted on 1/4/2019

    i just recently installed kicker KS 6.5" in my front doors with the tweeters in the a pillars. I also installed KS's in the rear doors but i mounted the tweeters on the woofers as coaxials. They are being everything is tuned 100% as far as gains, crossover, and power from the amp. Unfortunately i did not know too much about sound staging before installing these speakers and was wondering if i screwed up by mounting the tweeters as coaxials in the back. I can definitely tell the staging is off from the front tweeters and will be trying the time alignment setting in my headunit but im not to sure on what to do for the rear tweeters. I also have two kicker 12's in the trunk providing more then enough bass so that part is covered.

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 1/7/2019

    Shane, give our Tech Support a call for free help troubleshooting your system if you bought your gear from us. 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.
  • Hendri Kleyn from CapeTown,SouthAfrica

    Posted on 6/5/2018

    Hi to Crutchfield team. I am a regular reader on your site in spite of me being located in South Africa. As i recently ''upgraded'' my in-car sound i found many common issues discussed on this forum. Car = 2017 Ford Focus Ecoboost sedan(R/H drive). I also experienced louder sound from left(passenger) speaker than the one close to me in the door sill.I had the 4 doors done with DrArtex Gold which made a huge improvement to the mid-bass front sound quality. The OEM's were retained but the low volume split tweeters were upgraded to RockFord Fosgate units. The sound stage is now at ear level. The rear OEM door-mounts are hardly audible as the rear output volume seems to be lower from the HU than the front splits. Initially a Kicker Hideaway was mounted in trunk but a severe time delay caused(forced) me to relocate them to driver under-seat position and this made a huge difference. Still an audible time-delay to the golden-ear listener(me..!) but it proved that different locations creates meaningful change but not so easy as a HomeTheater setup would call for. I am trying to improve the rear levels by adding two small ''low power'' tweeters flat up against the door trim on the horizontal plane but this is in close proximity to my ears and might change the sound stage to shift with unknown results. First prize is the EQ / time-aligned HU but this model does not have this luxury. The above is merely to underline what has been said already.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/3/2018

    HG, that'll likely come down to taste and possibly the layout of your vehicle. If you can, try out as many listening scenarios as you can. That'll help you determine what suits you best.

  • Scott Saunders from Morgan , (Utah)

    Posted on 4/27/2018

    Great article here, on the importance of installing rear fill speakers, but the article suggest coaxials are OK for rears. In my experience, treble behind you smears soundstaging by localization. In home theater tweeters in the rear are fine.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 1/31/2018

    Tyler, not sure that angled brackets would help, and I'm assuming balance adjustment hasn't fixed the problem either. If there's a chance that your driver side speaker is damaged/blown, you could give us a call for options on a fresh start.

  • Tyler Painter from Rimersburg

    Posted on 1/29/2018

    My front passenger side speaker is louder when sitting in drivers seat. My leg blocks the speakers pathway. Is there anything I can do to help this issue? Would buying angled speaker brackets help? The best I've done is subtract DB from the front right, using my speaker level, on my HU

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/30/2017

    Rickey, you're certainly right — your engine is a big noise source and finding ways to suppress that sound will help. Check out this video about Dynamat. We installed Dynamat in a Ford F-150 and noticed a major difference. Perhaps it will inspire some ideas for you.

  • Rickey from Seabrook

    Posted on 10/26/2017

    Hey guys I have my doors dynamatted really well and my rear deck on both sides. Working on trunk lid at the moment. Where does the most road noise make its way into the cabin? I'm adding even more dynamat and got to order sum! It seems to me when I really listen and think about it that most of the road noise makes its way into the cabin where my feet are by my break and gas pedals or that's where I catch most of the noise because I'm closer to it, my front stage is where it's all happening and that's so close to my front door speakers.. but that dang vibrating floor lol I hear it and I'm picky.. Where should I put more dynamat? I'm looking for that secret location to hear a noticeable difference in SQ when heading down those striped highways at 75. Thanks! You guys have been around for awhile it's great to see everyone is still eating and enjoying listening to the universal language, MUSIC :)