Building your boat's stereo system
A quick guide to marine-rated audio equipment
Tim Sprinkle is a talented writer and car audio enthusiast who wrote for Crutchfield for several years before life took him away from Virginia to Colorado, and onward to greater things.
More from Tim Sprinkle
Marine audio gear at Crutchfield?
Crutchfield is best known for our car audio and home audio expertise, but we have plenty of products and advice for boaters, too. We stock a wide variety of rugged, durable marine audio equipment, and with several boaters on staff, we know what works and what doesn't. In addition to receivers, speakers, subs, and amps, you'll also find a number of marine-rated products that allow you to listen to satellite radio on the water. We also stock all the cable and gear you'll need to hook everything up in your boat.
When you outfit your boat at Crutchfield, you get the peace of mind that comes from our more than 30 years of mobile audio experience, along with our lifetime technical support. Have questions? Just pick up the phone and call our friendly Advisors at 1-888-955-6000. They'll be able to help you decide what you need to build the audio system of your dreams for the boat you always dreamed about owning.
What to look for in marine audio gear
The water, salt, and sun that make boating so much fun can wreak havoc on your boat's electrical components. If your gear isn't designed to withstand this environment, it won't last a season. That's why it's so important to choose the right gear for your boat's audio system. From your CD receiver to your cables, everything needs to be ready for life on the water.
Here's a quick guide to some terms you'll see frequently when you're shopping for marine audio gear:
Water-resistant — Can handle splashes and light rain, but not built to handle submersion. Levels of resistance vary by manufacturer.
UV-resistant — Designed to withstand sun damage. Found on receiver faceplates, speaker cones and grilles.
Waterproof — Able to be fully submerged, though depths and the amount of time underwater vary by manufacturer.
Anti-corrosion — Specifically designed to resist rust and the corrosive effects of salt water. Examples of anti-corrosive features include coated circuit boards, plated connections, and a rust-resistant chassis.
Marine audio components
Receivers — You'll want to buy a marine receiver with a coated circuit board, a water-resistant faceplate, line-level outputs for sending signals to an external amplifier, and satellite radio controls. A weatherproof faceplate cover and a watertight remote control are great accessories to add on.
Speakers — When you're buying marine speakers, look for plastic cones (such as polypropylene) and rubber surrounds for maximum weather protection, corrosion-resistant mounting hardware, and enough power to pump out tunes over wind, water, and engine noise. Be sure to look at where you're mounting the speakers — if your speakers are near your compass, they should be magnetically shielded.
Amplifiers — A quality marine amp will feature coated circuit boards, plated, non-corrosive connectors, and plenty of power.
Subwoofers — Bass matters on boats, too, so it's smart to invest in a sturdy, powerful marine sub. Look for plastic cones and rubber surrounds for maximum weather protection. Free-air rated component subs or enclosed subwoofers are good for the challenging mounting locations you'll often encounter in a boat. If you do not plan on adding an external amplifier, look for a powered enclosed subwoofer.
Speaker wire and cables — Marine-rated wiring is an essential part of any marine audio system. All wires should be tinned; bare copper can corrode quickly in salt water conditions.
Satellite radio — SiriusXM satellite radio is truly a "must-have" marine audio component, because satellite radio reception extends up to 200 miles off shore. Many marine receivers are satellite radio-ready, which means you can add an external tuner, mount it out of sight, and run the cable into the radio. Even better, plug-and-play satellite radio tuners can be transferred from car to boat to home. Look for a marine kit for your plug-and-play tuner, including a marine-rated satellite radio antenna.
GPS — Okay, so it's not technically an audio component, but most boaters wouldn't leave shore without GPS navigation. When considering which GPS unit is best for you, look for conveniences like rechargeable batteries, a bright color screen that won't wash out in direct sunlight, Blue Chart compatibility, and, of course, weather resistance. WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System) compatibility is another good feature to look for in a marine GPS unit; WAAS-enabled GPS units have up to five times better accuracy, which helps keep you out of the hidden rocks or other underwater trouble.
Power Inverter — A power inverter is an incredibly handy thing to have on board, especially with smaller boats, because you can charge your phone battery, a laptop computer, or run small electronics. Be sure that the inverter has a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, which protects you against accidental shocks.
Fit and placement of components on your boat
Unlike most cars and trucks, there isn't one ideal place to install audio equipment on every boat. Different models have different power and space limitations, so each installation presents a unique set of challenges. What sounds great in a Carver might not even fit in a Donzi — and what's great for a motorboat might not be ideal for a sailboat.
If you're replacing your boat's existing radio and speakers, you can probably use the same mounting locations and wiring. Otherwise, you might need to cut some paneling or run new wires for the components. Most marine receivers are a standard single-DIN (2" tall) size, and connect to a 12-volt marine battery.
Amplifiers and subwoofers can go in a compartment under the seats, under the bow, or even on a wakeboard tower. Midrange and midbass speakers and tweeters can fit into side panels or the dash panel. It really depends on your boat, your needs, and your tastes.
Grounding your electrical components can be a challenge in a boat, though some do have specific, dedicated grounding plates. Consult your manufacturer for more information on where to ground components in your boat.
Here are some other things to keep in mind when you're looking for high-quality marine audio gear:
Materials that will stand up to the elements — Nothing ruins a party like audio equipment that can't handle the elements, so make sure that all of the electronics on your boat are protected against salt, sun, and water. If you need an extra measure of protection (or want to use an unprotected component on your boat), install a universal cover. It will shield your receiver from the outside world, then flip up out of the way so you can get to the controls. A waterproof, wired remote control is an excellent alternative to exposing your receiver to the elements — you can mount the radio inside a watertight compartment and not worry about shorting out your tunes.
Good specs — Better specs mean better sound quality, on land or at sea. For receivers, look for a high CD signal-to-noise ratio, a wide frequency response, and plenty of RMS power. If radio's your thing, check the FM sensitivity spec — the lower, the better. Speakers should fit nicely into your cabin panels, be made with UV-resistant materials, and handle plenty of power.
High power — Since you'll be listening to your music out in the open, you'll want plenty of power for clean, clear sound. Aftermarket marine receivers come with built-in 4-way amplifiers, but if you love it loud or want to drown out the nautical background noise, you might want to consider adding an external amp to your system.
Audio options — The days of the basic, one-trick CD receiver are long gone. From satellite radio controls to connections for your iPod, today's aftermarket components offer a wide variety of entertainment options. If you have a larger system in mind, get a receiver with an auxiliary input, which will allow you to add another audio source later. Multiple sets of preamp outputs make it easier to install component amplifiers and subwoofers. And if your cruising will take you out into the wild blue, consider the entertainment value of satellite radio — the signals can reach up to 200 miles offshore.
The Gear You'll Need
Marine remote controls let you control your receiver from the helm.
Marine covers and mounts protect your receiver from sun and water, and let you mount your handheld electronics on your boat.
Satellite radio has become popular with boaters everywhere.
These installation tools will simplify your installation.
Best Sellers in Marine Radio
Boss Audio Marine Receiver/Speakers Package
Includes MGR350B digital media receiver and MR6 marine speakers
Sony DXS-M5511BT Marine Package
Includes DSX-M55BT digital media receiver and 6-1/2" speakers
Boss Marine Receiver/Speakers Package
Includes MR752UAB CD receiver, MR6W marine speakers, aux cable, and radio cover