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Crutchfield Labs Video: Aftermarket vs. Factory Sound in the Car

Our Car Stereo Proving Ground, Part 1

Testing factory vs. aftermarket sound

We wanted to answer the most basic question about car audio: is it really worth it to upgrade? With the help of the Crutchfield Labs, we set out to prove just how much better music sounds when it’s played through a high-quality aftermarket system.

Check out Jeff, Crutchfield's Senior Car Merchandiser, as he leads us through the first round of testing. You can read  about our testing process in our Car Stereo Proving Ground article.

Read video transcript

We're here at the Crutchfield Labs and we're trying to answer one of the age-old questions which is "When I'm building a car stereo system, what do I do first?" So buckle in, it's gonna be a long, bumpy ride. But I think we're gonna have a lot of fun doing this and I think that we'll all benefit from this, because we'll actually be able to finally answer the question, "Where do I start first and what benefit do I get by starting there?"

So what we've now added to the whole mad scientist equation here is a Real Time Analyzer or a spectrum analyzer. And this is an AudioControl piece, and basically what this allows us to do is it allows us to listen to all of the frequencies that the human ear can hear: roughly from 25Hz to 20,000Hz.

We want to know what this head unit looks like with this speaker combination. And in order to do that, we've put in a stereo pink noise signal. Pink noise sounds a lot like if you've ever heard white noise generators, you know people use those to drown out noises in the background. What pink noise is is basically stereo information, basically random throughout the spectrum and theoretically all the same volume.

I tend to like a typical waterfall response. So pretty much plus 6db from, say, 25 all the way to about a hundred and twenty five.and then at 125, I like it to slope down until it gets to about 200, then 200 flat all the way out here to about 12-1/2k, and then I like it to drop down again. I want to be able to get my response as close to the perfect curve as I can.

So what we've done is we've captured what the frequency response looks like. You'll notice that [with] some of the frequencies, it does a pretty good job of matching where my target curve might be, which is, you know, maybe around 125. That might be close to where we want it. But it's really over-accentuated in the 80 to 100s so, you know, bass guitar, things like that might sound really present, whereas in the midrange to high midrange like 1.2k there's gonna be a major suck out in the vocals.

And then especially that transition point between what would typically be the woofer, the midrange to the tweeter, you'll seek a spike there because they tried to compensate for that, and then it's a real deep dropoff in that high frequency response. So that's probably due to the fact that that paper whizzer cone tweeter in there can't handle 2-1/2 to 2k very well. It's gonna sound like factory speakers. So with that we'll move to the next step, which will be putting in aftermarket speakers with the factory head unit and then we'll rerun all of these same set of tests.

Okay, so now we've got the RTA set up again with aftermarket speakers and the factory head unit. And you can already see that those rogue frequencies, the ones that were really out of whack, seem to be coming back into line. I think you'll see that all of the spectrum fits easily on the screen now, which is about a whole lot better than it was when we started.

So if we look at this you'll see that again we still have really no low frequencies, real no deep fact, nothing that we would consider really bass at this point. It all falls off quite rapidly. We've still got that spike that the factory head unit seems to be really liking, which is around 100Hz - pretty smooth throughout. Again, you'll see a little bit of a flavor curve.

Each manufacturer kind of has their own idea of what their signature soundprint should be. These speakers particularly like a little bit more highs. And again, overall a much better response, much smoother through the midrange. I would expect already that the midrange will sound much smoother. I still think there's going to be a lot of muddiness to the bass and the bass guitar and the bass drum, because the amplifier in here just really can't play those frequencies well. So next let's replace the factory head unit with an aftermarket head unit, and let's put the factory speakers back in the car.

So wow, look at that curve. Already a whole lot better. You can see that the mid bass and the low bass is still quite smooth, much better that it was before. A lot of these instruments will probably sound a little bit better down there, but I still suspect that we're gonna get this fall off on those low frequencies, just because we don't have anything bigger in here than a 6x8. But the midrange, all the way through the highs, much better response all the way through.

It's not perfect, of course, but look at how much better that midrange, the vocals will probably blend. Also those highs where the cymbal was coming in a little bit hot before, I think you'll see that smooth out quite a bit through here and it should make an overall better presence all the way across the music spectrum.

Okay, so now we've got aftermarket head unit, aftermarket speakers, and I think you'll see that this curve looks even better than the last one we saw. Certainly the highs are much more defined. That has to do with having a real tweeter, right. I think we've got a 1" silk dome tweeter in here, so already better frequency response up here.

Much smoother bass response. It's a little more flat than we probably like, but again, we're not really playing much below 80 to, 60 to 80Hz. But overall I'm pretty impressed with the two basic changes that we've done, and made the improvements of the RTA already very noticeable. So next is to listen to it and see how it sounds.

[Music track playing] I feel like I'm in the kit almost. You get kind of that panning with the drums.

Okay, so a pretty intensive install day, because we've had speakers in, speakers out, head units in, amps out, head units all over the place. But what we're trying to do is trying to define for you, the customer, what's the best step to do first. And I think that with the data that we've collected today we can clearly say that there's one huge winner and that's replacing your factory head unit first. That makes easily the biggest difference, at least for the sound quality and the sound performance.

Plus you're gonna get, you know, great iPod control, HD radio, Bluetooth, things like that-the stuff that you really want in your car today. And all in all, I think this is a really great learning experience for all of us. We're gonna keep plugging away in the labs and hopefully bring you all the information that you need to know.

  • Michael from Cincinnati

    Posted on 9/29/2017

    This corresponds with what I discovered when I replaced the head unit on my old 1996 Contour (with the "premium sound system") with a Kenwood lo these many years ago. The Kenwood made such an improvement sonically that I never really felt the need to replace the speakers with aftermarket ones. When the time came to fix the 2000 Malibu, however, I had to tackle the speakers first because 2 of the 4 didn't even work. That's not an ideal situation to be in, but the immediate need trumped what might have been the better bang for the buck.

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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/31/2016

    Cody, that's right, but check out Part 2 of the series in which we add an amplifier.

  • Cody Franceschi from Winters

    Posted on 5/29/2016

    So for the aftermarket speakers in this video, were they just plugged into the stereo with no amplifier?

  • Leo from Los Angeles

    Posted on 3/17/2016

    I was hoping to see iF a DSP would normalize the OEM head unit sound enough, and pull a strong enough signal that is a full range frequency that can rival and match a high quality aftermarket head unit. This test is great for the very beginner, but not very hard to perform this test, as you wont need a RTA to notice this wide a difference

  • Matt from Colonial Heights

    Posted on 11/7/2015

    Awesome information. Although i went for the speakers first on my car, Polk shallow mount, and made a huge difference in my subie. Wife is getting a new head unit on Monday in her sienna.

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