Our review of Kicker's KEY180.4 amplifier with automatic sound tuning
We installed it in two very different car audio systems
The Kicker KEY180.4 compact amplifier is more than just a tiny 4-channel amp that will fit behind the glovebox. There are plenty of those out there. The KEY180.4 also has built-in sound tuning capabilities that will deliver the best-sounding music at – literally – the push of a button.
Update: Kicker's KEY180.4 model amp has been replaced by their KEY200.4 model, which has the same KEY processing features plus more powerful outputs.
Tuning a car stereo sound system
Tuning a car audio system involves equalizing the frequency response to sound smooth and time aligning the speaker outputs so the stereo field gets centered on the driver's listening position. This is usually done by playing pink noise and using a real-time analyzer to guide equalizer adjustments, and measuring the physical distance between each speaker and the listening position and then entering the numbers into a signal processor's software.
The Kicker KEY amplifier also uses pink noise, but it doesn't need to measure anything. Kicker says the amp makes its own adjustments and hears when the sound is tuned perfectly, automatically, and at the push of a button.
We put it to the test, twice
Quinn, one of our newer Advisors, has an old ’94 Honda Civic. She and a few fellow advisors, including Cam, outfitted her car with an aftermarket stereo and speakers on their trainee "Install Day." As good as it sounded, she was excited about a further upgrade. The amp's about the size of my hand, so it made sense to install it under the front passenger seat to keep the wiring runs to the battery and stereo short.
Long-term Crutchfield employees Krissy, in Customer Support, and her husband Bryce, a Sales Advisor, have a spiffy 2014 Toyota Highlander with a factory radio. For their installation, we used the factory speaker wiring for the amp's inputs and set the amp to Auto Turn-on mode, so there was no need to run a separate turn-on wire to the receiver or fuse box. Each installation took about a half day, 4 to 6 hours, which is about normal for a small amp.
The Kicker KEY Auto Setup
We installed the amp in Quinn's car first. When we finished, we then prepared for the setup process. We followed Kicker's instructions to the letter.
We went to Kicker.com/test-tones and downloaded their pink noise test tone for the KEY amplifier, available as an MP3 or WAV file, to a thumb drive. We started playing the pink noise and raised the volume of the receiver to what the instructions call "slightly loud."
The KEY180.4 came with a calibration microphone and activation button. We plugged the mic cord into the amp and positioned the microphone face-up on top of the driver's headrest. A supplied rubber pad helped keep it in position.
We pushed the button and the KEY setup started by beeping loudly, letting us know it was time to get out of the car and shut the door. Kicker warns that the beeps and noises the setup process makes can be dangerously loud.
The KEY system played the pink noise, as well as some other tones and beeps, through each speaker individually, through pairs of speakers, and then through all of them together, presumably adjusting the tone and balance of the sound. The process took about 2 minutes.
Second time's the charm
The KEY Auto Setup process was supposed to end by playing a "happy" tune to indicate a successful setup. This was not the case with us at first. The sad song consisted of descending notes, indicating an unsuccessful setup. Then, it played a certain number of beeps representing the error code for the issue.
It seems we overlooked the fact that people in the next room were demoing home theater speakers rather loudly. The KEY180.4 heard it quite clearly, and refused to complete the automatic setup with all the noisy interference going on. So, we waited until the demo was over, redid the setup, and finally heard the KEY's little happy song of success.
We avoided this false start when we installed the amp in Krissy's vehicle, and got happy results on the first attempt.
It sounded good, amazingly good
After setup, the button that activated the KEY processing becomes an A/B selector, so you can switch between the processed and unprocessed sound for easy, instant comparison. Unprocessed music sounded like any amped-up car stereo — clean and plenty loud. After all, the little power pack/processor starts off by sending 45 watts RMS to each speaker — more than twice the power of a typical aftermarket receiver, and three or four times that of a factory radio.
Cam and Quinn liked what they heard
Then, when we pushed the button to activate the sound processing, the stereo field centered to the driver's position, the high end became crisper and cleaner, and the bass improved a lot. Here's what Bryce had to say about the impact of the sound processor:
Krissy liked it too
With ringing endorsements like these, it sounds like Kicker's come up with a hit product that everyone should consider putting in their cars. Give us a call and we'll hook you up with a Kicker KEY200.4 amplifier.