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How to tune up your car audio system

Expert tips to make your music sound better

Whether you're a car audio newcomer or a seasoned competitor, there's nothing quite like adding new audio equipment to your vehicle. However, it can be disappointing when your carefully designed system doesn't sound the way you expected it to. But don't lose your cool — spend some time tuning your system before you go back to the drawing board. Here are a few suggestions for maximizing your system's potential.

installing a car speaker

If your stereo sounds a bit off, check your speakers first.

Check speaker phase

The speakers in your system should all be firing in phase — simply put, all the cones should be moving out and in at the same time. If they're not, you lose bass response, which makes your system sound anemic and unfocused. It's important to check all your speakers, even if your system was professionally installed.

To determine if a pair of speakers in your vehicle are in phase, listen to some bass-heavy music with your stereo's balance control all the way to one side. Now return the balance control to the center — you should hear significantly more bass. If you don't, your speakers are out of phase. Switch the positive and negative leads on a single speaker, and try again. If you hear more bass, leave it! Use this method to check the front and rear speakers independently.

Turn on your subwoofer system. Reverse the speaker wires going to your sub and listen for a change in bass response. Again, if it gets louder, leave it alone. Another tip — always make sure that multiple subs are wired in phase with each other.

Setting your equalizer and adjusting your subwoofer

It may be tempting to crank up the bass on your receiver, especially if you've just installed a sub. But you really need to tune your system first. When you do get around to playing with the EQ, remember to make small adjustments where you need them most. 

Start with the stereo's equalizer set flat — all tone controls at "0" and no EQ curve engaged. With the subwoofer off, turn some familiar music up to a moderate listening level, then slowly increase the subwoofer output until you hit the "sweet spot" — the place where the bass really kicks in without overwhelming the rest of the music.

If the bass sounds like it's coming from behind you, lower the sub amp's crossover point to "de-localize" the bass. If your amp has a non-adjustable crossover, try moving the subwoofer. For example, if the subwoofer is firing toward the rear, turn it around so it fires forward or sideways. Remember to check your phase again when the sub is in its final position.

Creating a soundstage across your dash

Your system should create a "soundstage." What that means is that when you close your eyes, you should hear the instruments as though they're directly in front of you, arranged from far right to far left, with (if you're listening to a little rock'n'roll) the kick drum, bass guitar, and lead vocal right dead center. When your soundstage is set up correctly, it's like the band is playing a set on your dashboard.

bass blockers

Bass Blockers remove low frequencies, which helps front speakers perform better

Some vehicles make it tough to establish a strong front soundstage, but there are several workarounds that can help you get the sound you want:

  • If your car has small front speakers, install some Bass Blockers. They'll filter out the low frequencies so your speakers will play louder and clearer, bringing the soundstage back in front of you. If your receiver has built-in crossover capability, use its high-pass filter to remove low bass from smaller speakers for improved performance.
  • If you have a subwoofer (or larger speakers in the back), use your receiver's fader to move the music forward and then turn up the overall level to bring the bass back into play.
  • If your front speakers are mounted low in the doors, that can have a negative impact on soundstaging. Some receivers feature independent front/rear tone controls or signal processing that raises the front image, so make those adjustments if you can. Or, if possible, install a set of tweeters up front.

The right amount of bass in your music

Great bass isn't just for rap, heavy metal, or reggae fanatics — if you're a fan of classical music or jazz, you might be surprised at the quiet authority a subwoofer brings to your music. Even at low listening levels, a sub can produce richness and impact you wouldn't otherwise hear.

Play some music that features active, powerful bass parts — all the bass notes should punch out at an even volume level. If you hear bass notes dropping out or booming, check your phase and experiment with different crossover points until it's smoothed out. Once your sub is tuned properly, you can use your receiver's equalization controls to make minor adjustments.

Instead of cranking the bass way up to increase your system's impact, raise the bass a little bit and lower the highs and mids. It's smart to keep equalization to a minimum — pumping up the bass control just robs your system of its effective power.

Anything missing?

After a few hours of listening, you'll be able to notice any weaknesses in your system.

  • System sound dull? Put a set of tweeters up front to strengthen your front image and add liveliness to your sound. Many receivers feature signal processing to enrich the sound, or extensive equalization which can do a lot to improve a dull-sounding system.
  • Vocals and instruments sound buried? If your receiver has a midrange control, boost it up a little bit; if it includes a parametric equalizer, try adding a little bump in the 400-1000 Hz range. Replace your rear full-range speakers with high-quality midrange speakers to bring out warmth and detail without adding more sizzle. Installing Dynamat in your vehicle will reduce road noise, which masks crucial midrange details.
  • System too bright? If your front speakers have swiveling tweeters, aim them away from you. If you have installed component tweeters, check the crossovers for output level switching — a drop of 3 dB can make a huge difference in the way your tweeters match up to the rest of the system. Experiment with your receiver's EQ. If that doesn't nail it, consider a receiver with more equalization control or (for an amplified system) an outboard equalizer.
    equalizer screen

    A built-in equalizer is a big help in tuning your system

Think ahead

Once you've taken the time to adjust the system, you'll know whether or not you've made smart purchases. Always buy with an eye to the future — you might be saving 40 bucks on your receiver now, but what's the point if it's missing some crucial features you'll need when you expand your system?

If you plan on adding a sub to your system later, spend a little more now and get a multi-channel amp (instead of a 2-channel) so you can power your front speakers and subs with one amp. Oh, and don't install 10-gauge power wire if your ultimate goal is a throbbin' multi-amp system. If you're thinking big, thinking ahead can save you a lot of time and money when you're building the car stereo system of your dreams.

For tips on how to build a great car stereo system in stages, check out this article about our Budget-Friendly Car Audio Buildup. If you need any recommendations, give us a call and one of our advisors will be happy to help you find the right gear for your vehicle, or check out our Outfit My Car tool.

For more information on improving the performance of your Crutchfield audio gear, check out these articles on tuning speakers, car stereos, subs, and amps or give our Tech Support team a call.

  • Chris Lemieux from Manchester

    Posted on 7/13/2021

    Great article here, my 2016 Silverado single cab has all new gear from mostly crutchfield, here's what's installed & my 2 issues I am having! alpine ILX-207 with the TuneIt app, infinity kappa 6x9 components in the doors, infinity kappa plate separates in the rear pillars, kappa tweeters& crossovers in the dash , custom built box for 2 10" JL audio 10tw3-4 subs sealed , JL audio rd1500-1 & the JL audio rd400-4 , all new wiring rca battery cables & fuses, very impressed with how loud this system is but I noticed if I turn down the volume to zero, roll both windows up & turn the volume up to the first notch I hear a humming noise coming from the rd400-4, double checked all wiring even installed a different amp which did not hum, maybe defective unit? Also I asked you if you knew any professional tuners in my area but you recommended local installers which was weird! I am no novice But I did pent over 3000$ on this set up & I would like a recommendation of a local professional tuner with DTA capabilities? I just want the best sound out of my installed system to showcase it a little bit & enjoy my hour ride to work all week! Thanks for your time & response! Chris

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 7/16/2021

    Chris, very envious of your system! Your best bet is to talk to our Tech Support team about the hum you're hearing. As far as a local professional tuner goes, our recommendation would still be your local installation shop. If they can install gear, they'd likely be a good resource for tuning too. Unfortunately, we don't have access to a specific network of recommended tuners.
  • Recharged95 from Dc

    Posted on 9/17/2020

    Intrigued. I've used my fader to bring my components forward for decent front stage, but I noticed when I raise the subwoofer crossover point from 80 to 120hz the bass feels like it moves forward too, opposite of what is said. 80hz definitely sounds like rear bias, but if I throw the bass under 60hz is becomes more muted, but deeper which makes sense. Yes I have 5x7 woofers aka mids in the front doors.

  • Eliezer Serrano from Cape Coral

    Posted on 9/14/2020

    Im using an external 7 band equalizer to separate my subwoofer amp, my front amp, and rear amp. Should I leave the radio eq flat and only work with the external eq settings? Im using 4 polk audio 6x9s that I bought from you. Two are my front and the other two are my rear. Then one 12 inch sub in a ported box. I ended up using the HP filter on both amps front and rear because it was getting too much bass. Any tips?

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 9/16/2020

    Eliezer, good instinct! Leave the radio EQ flat as you adjust your external settings for best results. Enjoy that system!
  • Vincent from Irvine

    Posted on 7/26/2020

    Is it recommended to adjust EQ settings in the car stereo or music app? Should one be flat and one adjusted to my liking? Or both adjusted?

    Commenter image

    Dave Delamere from Crutchfield

    on 7/28/2020

    Vincent, great question! For several reasons, I'd almost always default to the car stereo's EQ and have the app's EQ flat (or disengaged): 1.I never recommend separate EQs going at the same time. It's a good way to accidentally miss out on several frequencies a customer might want. There's also a potential to overdrive the signal, which could sound very bad. 2. We generally don't know how the app's smartphone is connected (wired or wireless) to the receiver. It may bypass the app's EQ, and we wouldn't know it. The only true way to keep that app EQ engaged is by using an aux input. 3. A car stereo's EQ could work for several sources, not just the smartphone. 4. If the car stereo has a crossover network, the EQ can be set in conjunction with it for the best results. Great with amplifiers in the system, too.
  • Raul Salinas from dallas

    Posted on 7/2/2020

    After reading your article How to tune up..., decided it was time to reach out for an expert's advice. I replaced my factory stereo with a Kenwood DDX6906s and also upgraded my factory speakers with Kenwood KFC-1696PS in both front & rear with baffles, have no sub nor amp installed. When I raise volume and get past half way sound starts to get distorted, where should I start troubleshooting? I have double checked all wiring, I did not see any issue there as well your items mentioned in this article. Does it mean I have to add an amp to resolve? Please seeking your professional advise and direction in getting my system up & performing where it should be!

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 7/7/2020

    Raul, for the best guidance, give our Tech Support team a call. They'll be able to walk you through the troubleshooting process.
  • Sal from San Diego

    Posted on 5/11/2020

    How come the left side of my car has more powerful sound because it's a big difference, the low side I hear no bass, appreciate some help please

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 5/12/2020

    Sal, assuming that you're sitting in the passenger seat when you're experiencing this sound difference and it's not a time alignment issue, you may have a damaged woofer. If you have a component system and you don't hear any sound coming from the passenger-side lower speaker, you'll need to replace that speaker. Give us a call and we can help you with an upgrade.
  • Gene from Bloomingtion, IN

    Posted on 11/27/2019

    Since the front door speakers are facing each other, wouldn't it logically make sense to purposefully wire them out of phase with each other?

  • Jeff Davis from Seal Beach

    Posted on 6/20/2019

    I have a 2005 Mini Cooper with a stock Harmon-Karden system. Can I use anything in this article to my benefit or am I just stuck with what I've got. It sounds good to me but I am always looking for better,especially if it's just my ignorance cause the short fall.

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 6/24/2019

    Jeff, I've passed your question along to our Advisors to help. It's worth talking through your options to see if there's anything you can do to step up that factory sound.
  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/15/2017

    Mike, depending on how long this system has been installed, you may want to give it a couple weeks to break it in. I've passed along your question to an Advisor. Someone will contact you soon to help. Depending on what you're interested in, a sound processor may help you gain that "warmer" sound.

  • Mike from Greenlawn

    Posted on 12/14/2017

    I purchased a new Jeep Renegade and I had a sealed sub box with two 10" Kicker L7 subs, a 1,500W Alpine amplifier for the subs, a 500W Alpine amp for the front-end, and JL Audio C5 components for the front and co-axials for the back seats. My question is what I can do to make the sound "warmer"? The soundstage is magnificent as is the clarity, but I'd love for it to be a bit warmer (not so harsh)