Take a look in your driveway. See the thing out there with four wheels? According to the Financial Times, that's where the average American spends about 541 hours a year — over 10 hours a week, two hours per work day, and not counting days off! In all those hours, who wants to waste time with a poor quality sound system? Not you! Climb in as we speed towards finding the biggest sound system for the smallest amount of cash.
First off, if your car is more than 10 years old, it's probably time to upgrade your stereo system. In the last few years there have been so many major advancements in car fidelity (and audio fidelity in general) that living with an outdated stereo system is the equivalent of carrying around one of those old "brick" cell phones. And although the options are endless, here are six items we've hand-selected to liven your day-to-day commute.
Get a New ReceiverOK, first thing's first. Swapping out the stock receiver in your car is a no-brainer; aftermarket receivers feature better on-board amplifiers, upgraded power supplies, improved sound processors, and more options for tuning. Before you buy an in-dash receiver (or head unit, as it's often called) consider how you listen to music. Do you buy CDs? Do you burn them at home? Do you use an iPod or other MP3 player? Answering these questions will help you choose a head unit that will best fit your needs.
Most people, when upgrading their in-dash receiver, want a unit that plays audio CDs, as well as CDRs, MP3, WMA, and AAC data CDs. Up to date units feature a 3.5mm jack and a USB port to accommodate an iPod or other MP3 player. One of our personal favorites is the Alpine In-Dash CD / MP3 Stereo Receiver bundled with a Receiver Installation Kit ($80.98 via coupon code "3A825" with free shipping, a low by $6). It's got all of the above features, including a USB port, built-in iPod and iPhone control, 50 watts RMS x 4, wireless remote control, and more.
Having an awesome head unit is great, but it really means nothing unless you've got the speakers to handle all that awesomeness....
Upgrade Your SpeakersWith very few exceptions, speakers are usually an afterthought in the car manufacturing process. Installing an upgraded set of speakers will make decibels of difference in the quality of your sound system. More often than not, tighter bass, overall sound quality, and less distortion at higher volumes are the first things you'll notice with new speakers.
Often the choice of speakers is limited to the space inside your car. Most front speakers measure 5.25" or 6.5" and are located in the doors and/or dashboard. Some vehicles also have component speakers, like separate mid-range speakers (usually tucked in the door) with a devoted tweeter mounted slightly higher, often in the windshield post or at the top of the door panel. Having a variety of speakers allow sound to travel clearly and with a wider sound stage. The above-pictured MB Quart ONX216 6.5" Component Speakers ($82.49 with free shipping, a low by $7) are our top pick because they have an RMS rating of 100 watts per set / 50 watts each side, and offer clear stereo sound at a low cost.
Speakers in the back of the car are usually 6.5" and located in the rear quarter panels (or doors, if you have a sedan). Some vehicles also have 6x9" speakers in the rear deck. A set of Alpine Type-S SPS-609 6x9" 3-Way Speakers ($79 with free shipping, a low by $3) are a great buy for big sound in the back.
If your car stereo system setup requires something smaller, this set of Kenwood KFC-1362S 5.25" 150-watt Max Power 3-Way Speakers ($28.99 with free shipping, a low by $5) packs in sizable sound for just a few bucks. Features include more than just 150-watt power, but also a polypropylene injection cone and high-quality 1/2" Piezo tweeter.
Time to Get Amped!At this point your system should be sounding pretty sweet. You've upgraded the head unit and nabbed some awesome speakers. Your music sounds better and there's a lot less distortion. Now it's time to pump up the volume by installing a separate amplifier.
Adding a separate amplifier will bring those new speakers of yours to life. When choosing an amplifier, it's important to select one that has the same number of output channels as there are speakers in your car. Secondly, pick an amp that has a power output rated at least 50% to 150% of your speaker's power handling ability. (We're talking RMS ratings here.) For example, if your speakers can handle 100 watts RMS, get an amplifier that has between 50 watts RMS and 150 watts RMS per channel.
Let's say you have a 4-speaker system in your car that can handle 75 watts per speaker. A good amplifier for your setup is the above-pictured Rockford Fosgate Prime R300-4 300-watt Multi-Channel Amplifier ($118 with free shipping, a low by $8), which puts out 75 watts RMS into four channels for a total 300 watts.
How Low Can You Go?Most people's first experience with subwoofers is usually negative. (You know that guy who pulls up at the stop light blasting the latest Pitbull CD with the bass up so high it gives you heart palpitations?) While bass abuse is annoying, the low frequencies are vital parts of the music spectrum. Think of it this way: an artist can remove red from the color spectrum and create a picture, but the audience won't experience the vibrancy and fullness of the work with that color missing. The same holds true for bass. The first time I added a subwoofer to my sound system, I heard nuances in songs I had listened to hundreds of times before, but never noticed! A subwoofer really makes that big of a difference.
That being said, you don't have to install a wall of 15" subs in the back of your Prius to get good quality bass sound. There are plenty of solutions to achieving the proper amount of bass without blowing out your wallet. You just have do your research and to be a little creative.
One of the more popular solutions to boosting bass is easily installing a subwoofer with its own built-in amplifier, which is especially nice for people who lease their ride. This staffer's favorite amplified subwoofer (and one of the easiest to install) is the Bazooka Bass Tube 8" 100-watt Car Subwoofer Tube ($129 with free shipping, a low by $3). This self-contained unit can be installed in minutes, and won't take up a lot of real estate in your trunk, either. While this system won't rattle your next door neighbor's windows, it will give your music depth and clarity like you've never heard before.
Your Sound System: The Unfinished SymphonyPlease understand that this isn't the be-all end-all of upgrading your car's sound system. In fact, there are ways you can improve the sound quality without any electronics at all. But by following these guidelines, you should be able to put together an audio system in your car that can make your 541 hours a year much more enjoyable ... and that's a sound investment.
This article has been updated since it was originally published last year. Also note that all products in this feature were at the lowest total price available at the time of publication, however deals sometimes change quickly.
Front page photo courtesy of Dan Leadbetter
Bottom photo credit: St. Peter's Blog