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How to set your equalizer in the car

The benefits of properly setting your EQ

The secret to great sound is in the fine tuning. In this article, we'll explain what an equalizer does and how to use it to dial in the sound of your car audio system.

E

qualizers are hardly a new thing in car audio. But whether you’re a dedicated tweaker or a set-and-forgetter, adjusting the settings on an equalizer (EQ) can make your music sound even better.

Let’s talk about using an EQ for great sound. My first recommendation is to have some fun setting up your EQ; this doesn’t have to be a chore. Equalizers let you raise (boost) or lower (cut) the emphasis on certain frequencies (known as “bands”) in your music. They’re a great way to add some personalized touches to your system. Think of yourself as a music engineer, setting up your music the way you want to hear it.

So, what is an EQ?

An equalizer provides several adjustable frequency bands, which are the numbers you see that fall within 20 to 20,000 Hz  (the range of perfect human hearing). Equalizers go far beyond simple bass and treble controls, which are essentially a two-band EQ, so it’s a good idea to begin with all other audio settings – like treble, bass, loudness, and bass boost – set to a “flat” or “off” position. You might find that you don’t even need to use them after setting up your equalizer.

If you’re using multiple components that include an equalizer, such as a new car stereo and an outboard digital signal processor for example, you’ll want to use the equalizer in only one of them. We’ll talk more about that below.

AudioControl software on laptop display

AudioControl's software lets you really dig deeply into the crossover and equalizer settings for your system.

Some basic guidelines

My first piece of advice is to have your vehicle in "park" and the parking brake on. These settings should not be made while you're driving. Safety first, readers. 

Set your crossovers first

If you’re also using crossovers in your system, you’ll want to set them first. While they’re extremely handy in getting your sound just right, crossovers are not equalizers. An equalizer lets you raise or lower the level of a specific frequency. A crossover directs ranges of frequencies to the speakers that are designed to handle them.

For instance, you can set a low-pass crossover on an amplifier to direct lower bass frequencies, such as all frequencies below 100Hz, to a subwoofer that’s made to handle them. This crossover will cut out higher frequencies that the sub can’t play. For more information on crossovers, check out our How to Choose a Crossover article.

HD radio display on Alpine INE-W987HD receiver

A CD-quality or high-res song selection is a great choice for setting your EQ. TIDAL is a popular choice for streaming high-res music.

Pick a good source

Set yourself up for success. You’ll want to have some music ready that’s been recorded well, using some recordings (or even test tones) that are highly regarded for testing and a song with which you’re familiar. 

Do NOT use the AM/FM radio or music streaming over Bluetooth for setting up your equalizer. Over-the-air radio doesn’t operate on the full frequency response of 20-20kHz, and Bluetooth compresses audio, so they’re not ideal.

Instead, you’ll want to use a well-recorded CD or a USB drive loaded with a variety of CD-quality or high-res music. If you haven't dabbled in high-res music yet, the HDTracks site offers a free sampler with high-res music you can load on a USB drive and certainly use as a great source for setting your equalizer.

If you have Android Auto™ (AA) or Apple CarPlay® (AC), you can stream some high-res music from a service like TIDAL, Qobuz, or Amazon Music HD. Just keep in mind that when you're setting the equalizer in your car stereo, you'll have to hop out of the AA or AC interface to get to the stereo's EQ. 

Tips for choosing good songs

As to the songs, choose them with the following in mind:

  • Use a song with strong vocals and instrumentation, but not synthesized. Our longtime Tech Support Advisor, Joe, suggests something like Johnny Cash’s Hurt. For me, I like using a strong female vocal, like Melody Gardot’s Amalia.
  • A song that covers a wide frequency range that contains high-pitched tones and deep bass. Joe says AWOLNATION’s Sail is a solid choice for this.
  • A song with distinct stereo separation and movement, like Pink Floyd’s Money or The Cars’ Moving In Stereo.
  • Pick your favorite song(s), since you probably know them well. That way, you’ll know exactly what effect the EQ is having on them.

If you prefer using test tones, one of our great vendors, MTX, offers some you can download and use directly from their site.

EQ screen on Pioneer DMH-1500NEX digital multimedia receiver

Pioneer has a preset EQ setting called "Powerful" that scoops out a little mid-range, but emphasizes the low and high frequencies. It's fun to try the presets.

Time to start tweaking the sound 

With your music assembled and ready, let's head out to the car. 

Try the EQ presets on your car stereo

Every car audio manufacturer has their own EQ layout, usually including some EQ presets for different styles of music (rock, hip hop, jazz, etc.). Those are a great way to start. When you select a preset EQ, you’ll see the frequency levels change. More importantly, you’ll hear the music change.

Tip: if your EQ section is grayed out and not selectable, it's probably because there's no music playing. It happened to me during my research for this article. So, get the tunes going.

AudioControl EQX 2-Channel Equalizer & Crossover

Look at all those dials. This outboard AudioControl EQX combines an equalizer and crossover to refine your music's sound.

“If I have more than one equalizer, which one do I choose?”

Earlier, I talked about using the equalizer in only one component, even if you have multiple components that offer an EQ. Once you choose which EQ you want to use, the other components should remain at a “flat” setting.

That's because equalizing an equalized signal is not a good thing for your sound, or potentially, your gear. You can inadvertently miss out on some frequencies you wanted and overdrive the signal, causing distortion and potentially damaging stress to your audio gear.

So which component’s equalizer should you use?

The one that works best for you.

I’m not trying to be evasive, but let’s say you have a new head unit and an amplifier or digital signal processor with a built-in equalizer. If you’re someone who likes to tweak your settings a lot, you may find the convenience of using the EQ in the head unit, especially if has a touchscreen display, to be super handy.

However, some outboard amps and processors offer more robust adjustability than the head unit. And many manufacturers have made it a little easier to adjust them by using compatible apps for your smartphone or tablet – much easier than climbing into the trunk or getting under a seat to make adjustments on small dials. So, it’s all in how you’re going to use it.

Sony DSX-GS900 Digital Media Receiver

Many car stereo makers, like Sony, offer compatible apps that even let you set the EQ right from your smartphone.

Boosting the levels

Adjusting the frequency levels on an equalizer is done by simply sliding levels up and down, and you’ll instantly hear the results. The lower frequency numbers represent the bass, the ones in the middle represent mid-range (go figure!), and the highest frequencies are the ones for treble.

If you’ve seen the movie Risky Business, you may remember the part where Tom Cruise’s character cranks all the levels on his Dad’s home equalizer to totally jam out to some Bob Seger. You can certainly try that, although you may or may not like the results.

And unlike the movie, you'll probably want to start with small boosts or cuts to see how it affects your music, instead of going all the way up or down. These sliders let you reduce frequencies that may be overpowering, or increase those that aren't getting it done. And don't panic, most equalizers are easy to reset in case you want to start from scratch. You can also save settings you really like.

JL Audio TUN mobile app

It doesn't get much more robust than JL Audio's TUN app, which lets you control and save every aspect of your sound.

What's a parametric equalizer?

You may have heard the term “parametric” EQ, which is generally known as a step-up feature in car audio gear. This type of equalizer still has the sliders for boosting or cutting a given frequency. But a parametric EQ also gives you the ability to adjust the center frequency of each band, sliding it "sideways" to raise or lower the actual frequency number for a more refined frequency adjustment. This adds a new degree of tweaking and will help you get just the sound you're looking for. 

We're here to help

Whether it’s a simple equalizer built into a new car stereo or a complex EQ network in a digital signal processor, equalizing your sound can help you get more out of your music. And it doesn’t have to take much time to set one up. If you have questions on which setup is best for you, we’re ready for you. You can contact our Advisors via chat, email, or phone.

Last updated 5/28/2020

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