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Tuning your subs

How to make the bass in your car sound its best

Kenwood subs in a Sound Ordnance subwoofer box

In this article... I'll show you how to tune your amplifier to get your subwoofers to sound just the way you want them to. Just follow these simple steps for great bass:

One of the things I like most about subwoofers is that I can feel the musical emotion directly with my body. The low frequency beat often forces me to dance around, or, at the very least, nod my head along with the rhythm. That's why we all like music in the first place — it moves us.

It can take a little time and effort to get the exact bass sound you want from your subs, but the rewards of a well-tuned subwoofer system are overwhelmingly cool and physically satisfying.

Before we get started...

If you are looking for information about buying subwoofers, please read our Subwoofer Buying Guide and check out our selection of top-rated subwoofers, then come back here to learn more about setting them up to deliver great sound.

First, set your speaker level

Keep in mind, distortion is the enemy — it destroys speakers, subs, and eardrums. Distortion sounds like crackling, flapping, crunching, or hissing that interferes with the distinct sound of a musical instrument. If you power your full-range car speakers with an amplifier, it is crucial that the amp's gain is properly set to prevent distortion.

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Step 1: Remove the distortion

With the amp gain set low, play some music and turn up your receiver's volume until you hear the music distorting; then back off the volume until the music sounds clean again. Note or mark where the receiver's volume is. This setting is the maximum volume your receiver can go to and still play cleanly.

Now, turn the amp's gain up until you hear distortion again; then back off the gain slightly until the distortion goes away. The amp gain is now set, so you can lower the receiver volume to a more comfortable level. Even if your speaker system does not have an amplifier, you still need to find that maximum volume point on your receiver by turning it up to just below distortion level.

Now you're ready for some bass

Step 2: Flatten the signal, open the low-pass filter

Turn your sub amp's gain to its lowest, most counter-clockwise position. Switch its low-pass filter on and set it as high, clockwise, as it will go. If it has a bass boost, turn it off. If it has a remote level control, set it to its middle position so, later, you have the choice of boosting or cutting the bass on an individual song.

Adjust your receiver's bass tone control to its middle, zero, or "flat" setting, whichever it's called on your stereo. If it has a subwoofer level control, set it, also, to its middle, or "no gain" setting. Sometimes receivers have a crossover, low-pass filter, or bass boost on their subwoofer output. Make sure those are all turned off, too.

First, turn the gain down

Start by turning the gain down, and turn off your filters and bass boost.

Note: Do not use the low-pass filters, crossovers, or bass boosts on the receiver and the amplifier at the same time. Use one or the other, but not both. The reason is that something called phase distortion generates around each filter or boost's crossover frequency, muddying up the sound.

Step 3: Adjust the subwoofer gain and low-pass filter

Play music through your receiver at about one-quarter volume. Turn up the gain of the subwoofer amp until the sound from your subwoofer completely overpowers the other speakers, without distorting.

Turn the gain up

Turn the gain up until it distorts, then back it off until the sound is clean again.

While listening to the music coming out of your sub, slowly adjust the sub amp's low-pass filter downward until all the high- and mid-frequency notes disappear.

low-pass filter

Adjust the low-pass filter downward to eliminate high- and mid-frequency notes.

The low-pass filter eliminates the notes you don't want your subwoofer to play. It also acts like a tone control to capture the "edges" of the kick drum's sound; the attack and release of its boom. Filter out the cymbals, strings, vocals, and guitars. Leave the bass and the low drums.

Step 4: Bass boost and subsonic filter

If you have a bass boost, try carefully turning it up to hear what the bass drum sounds like when you do. Applying just a little bass boost will bring up the kick a lot. Be careful with the bass boost, if you choose to use it — this is where distortion is often introduced into a system. If you hear distortion, lower the sub amp's gain until it goes away. Use the bass boost to feel the beat in the air your sub moves.

bass boost

Now play with the bass boost.

For ported subwoofers, use a subsonic filter on your amplifier to tame any overly loud low notes. This will help decrease the levels of the notes at which the enclosure resonates. Fine-tune all the filters some more to make the bass drum sound tight and dry or loose and reverberant, according to your personal taste. I like reggae and soul, so my bass is plenty loud, but it's a bit drier than most people might like. The important thing is to keep adjusting your system until you hear something you like. When you're satisfied with the tone of your system's bass and kick, turn the sub amp's gain all the way down.

Blending all the frequencies

Now that each piece of the puzzle is set, it's time to bring all the music into focus.

Step 5: Matching the subwoofer level to the receiver volume

Turn up the receiver's volume to its maximum, distortion-free position. Then slowly turn up the subwoofer amp's gain until the bass sounds balanced with the rest of the music. That should do it.

Run your remote bass boost or level control up and down a little to hear what it does. Because of the size of the acoustic space in a car, subwoofers sometimes don't combine their sound constructively with the rest of a system's sound waves. If your bass has plenty of volume but seems to lack punch, you can sometimes help it by reversing your sub's speaker leads. This reverses the subwoofer cone's forward and backward movements, which might put all the sound waves together better than the other way. Whichever way sounds best is the right way.

Troubleshooting any problems

If you hear distortion coming from your subs, turn down the sub amp's gain. If, at this point, you cannot get enough bass out of your subwoofer to keep up with the other speakers without distorting, then you will need to get a bigger subwoofer and amplifier combination, with higher power-handling abilities.

You shouldn't lower the gain of your full-range amplifier to try and match your lack of subwoofer volume. Doing so could allow the amp to send out distorted, clipped signals to your full-range speakers, defeating your goal for clean, full sound, which is why you put in a subwoofer to begin with. More power, especially in the bass, is always better than not having enough.

Now you should be able to enjoy the robust fullness and beat of your music with your sub tuned up to match your system's capabilities and your ear's preference. Just remember to be polite, and turn your boom volume down when it might bother other people.

Learn more about sound tuning

For more information on how to tune your car sound stystem, see Adding a 4-Channel Amp. To learn more about getting the best sound out of your amplifier, take a look at our Amplifiers FAQ and Glossary articles.

  • Colby McDaniel from Sylvester

    Posted on 1/25/2022

    I have 2 shallow mount VD-12 skars 800wt peak 500 rms pared with a skar 1500wt monoblock and I'm having trouble setting the amp to get clear hard bass with no clipping any advice

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 1/26/2022

    Colby, Without knowing exactly what amplifier you have, it's difficult to say, but I think either your subs are wired together incorrectly for the amp to handle, or the amp is just too powerful for those subs.
  • NICHOLAS Pascullis from Statesboro

    Posted on 1/24/2022

    Having trouble wiring line output converter to factory radio. It an infinity system with factory amp. Everyone wants me to bypass the factory amp but the stereo sounds great it just lacks the real low punch of a sub. Dodge wants 60 dollars for the wiring schematics and there those that are sceptical about weather it will work . Got any good tips?

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 1/26/2022

    Nicholas, If your stereo sounds great but lacks bass, you can add a subwoofer to round out the sound. Give us a call, so an Advisor can help you pick the perfect sub for your vehicle.
  • Luis from Fresno

    Posted on 1/11/2022

    Just installed a JBL GT-BassPro12 in my car and everything sounds go except for one problem. Everytime I turn on the car my sub starts vibrating even if I have my stereo turned all the way down. It goes away after about 15 seconds and doesn't come back until the next time I have to turn on my car. Also notice that for some reason it goes away if I open any door but comes back when I close it, only happens if it's within the 15 seconds like I mentioned.

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 1/12/2022

    Luis, It's obvious from your description that your vehicle has active noise cancellation (ANC) that plays havoc with the sound. For help combatting its effects, check out Disabling active noise cancellation (ANC) in your car.
  • Vee

    Posted on 1/5/2022

    I have a Kenwood DDX9907XR using (4) C1-690TX, 1pr C1-100ct running parallel powered by JL Audio 300/4v2. (2) JL 10w3v3-4 powered by JL Audio 500/1v2. My head unit doesn't allow me to turn off the EQ/crossovers. It gives me an option of through 12db and 24db. What should I do? Should the AMP powering my C1-690TX to HPF or Full range when I sent the gain? I will try to tune my amp using the instructions given. Should I use a SMD DD1 plus or oscilloscope to check for distortion?

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 1/7/2022

    Vee, If you can't defeat your receiver's crossovers, use them to tone the signals. Then run your amplifiers full-range - they'll amplify the pre-tuned signals they're given.
  • Domenick Carani

    Posted on 12/31/2021

    I have an epicenter, and a line output converter for my system and everything seems to be working perfect other than getting that hard hitting low bass (like in rap and hip hop songs) I can't seem to figure out the issue. Because like I've said everything else is working perfect including other bass notes I'm just not getting those hard hits. Any recommendations?

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 1/4/2022

    Domenick, Even without knowing what gear you have, if you've gone through all the bass tuning procedures and are still lacking in bass, maybe you just need a larger subwoofer and sub amp.
  • Perry from Boca Raton

    Posted on 12/27/2021

    Per your advice, I'm tuning the speakers before I tune the sub. I have the Match UP 7BMW amplifier for my speakers (Focal), but the Match amp is 65 WPC and the speakers are 40 WPC. Will tuning the speakers by turning volume up until I hear distortion damage the speakers given the amp has higher power rating?

    Commenter image

    Bruce Southall from Crutchfield

    on 12/28/2021

    Perry, A short period of playing distortion shouldn't hurt your speakers. If you hear some distortion, turn the amp gain down until everything sounds clean.
  • Austin Tate from Ava

    Posted on 12/26/2021

    I'm fixing to run a single Alpine SWT-10S2 in vented box that uses all the space behind the seat of my 02 crew cab f350 and planning on matching it with my jl audio JX1000.1D amp this should be a decent pairing correct?

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 12/27/2021

    Austin, That 1000 watt amp will probably destroy that 350 watts rated sub - so no, they will not "be a decent pairing."
  • Derek Baker from Hot Springs Ar

    Posted on 12/23/2021

    If I have a crunch 1000w amp and 2 mtx terminator series preloaded box will I just be able to hook them up together or will I need to rewire the subs?

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 12/23/2021

    Without knowing precisely what amp and subs you're referring to, we can't help you with advice. If you want a question answered about a system, you must identify the gear by brand names and model numbers so we can get the right information to you.
  • Clifford from Glendale

    Posted on 11/22/2021

    I am running 2 15ow3 jl audio with a hifonics Gemini 2000w mono block, I hear distortion on da factory door speaker. Trying to tune it in

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 11/22/2021

    Clifford, I don't know what "da factory door speaker" is, but distortion is caused by overloading a speaker with too much volume from the source or poorly set amp gain.
  • Travon Price from Silver Spring

    Posted on 11/5/2021

    Thanks for the great tips, I have a question though. I have the JL Audi JD400/4 and your Sound Ordinace B8PTD, do I do ALL of these steps on the front and rear channels of the JL amp individually first and then the powered sub, or are there different steps for configuration. Thanks in advance.

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 11/6/2021

    Travon, There are no reasons for skipping steps when it comes to fine-tuning the audio in your car.

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