Car audio is something that I haven’t discussed much on this site for one main reason – I honestly don’t know a whole lot about it. I’d like to change that though, so I had Shaun from New York write this article.
He’s a former professional audio installer, as well as both a North American champion and one-time World Record holder in competitions. Here’s what he has to say about upgrading your car audio on a budget:
In my ten years of experience in car audio, I learned one thing above all else, knowing what you want to spend and what you want your system to do upfront is the best way to save money. I have done everything from marketing, sales, and installation and I have also competed at the highest level from DB Drag Racing, IASCA, and USACi.
These five tips will help you to stay focused on your task and not spend money on stuff you do not need or want:
- Your source unit is the most important link in the chain
- Speakers offer the best “bang for your buck”
- Huge subwoofers aren’t required for a noticeable upgrade in bass
- Don’t go overkill on your amplifiers
- A proper installation will bring it all together
Your source unit is the most important link in the chain
More than any other tip you will read here, it is imperative that you do some research before choosing what option will work the best for your situation. Knowing what can be done in your car and what you want from a source unit can save you a lot of money.
You don’t want to spend money on things you can’t use or won’t ever turn on, unnecessary bells and whistles only serve to drain your bank account.
If you have an older vehicle (I’m sure many of the readers here fall into this category), it will most likely serve you the best to just replace your stock radio with an aftermarket head unit. The advancements in technology means that even an entry-level head unit will really be a vast improvement.
Unless you are trying to keep your classic car all original I would really recommend spending a bit of money here. Just make sure the head unit has the features you really want, if you are only worried about Bluetooth connectivity then make sure the head unit has it. Also, make sure to check the details – can you stream music through Bluetooth or will it just allow you to answer the phone?
You can read all about installing a head unit with Apple Carplay and Android Auto here:
Now, if you have a newer vehicle things can get much more difficult and/or expensive. It’s no secret that auto manufacturers have started to go out of their way to make it incredibly difficult to install aftermarket audio upgrades and the head unit is one of the biggest areas they have concentrated that effort. From odd dash kits to integration harnesses it is not uncommon for some vehicles to cost well over $200 just in parts, not including the source unit itself.
They do this because they want customers to buy the upgrade packages they provide instead of watching the aftermarket make all the money. Luckily the aftermarket has responded by making some great products that would allow you to keep the stock radio and upgrade the rest of the system while still really getting great sound quality. There are literally cars competing at a championship level in sound quality utilizing the stock head unit.
Doing your research is important here, it can save you a ton of money by going this route. Simply charting out the total costs will help make your decision much easier.
Speakers offer the best “bang for your buck”
Swapping out the speakers in your car for aftermarket replacements can be one of the cheapest and most noticeable upgrades you can do. Most speakers that come with vehicles are made very cheap and if your car is more than around ten years old then chances are at least one of those speakers is either blown or falling apart, they just aren’t made to last.
It is easy to find aftermarket speakers for $100 or less that will easily outperform any stock speaker, even in many of the Premium Sound systems.
When it comes to replacing your speakers there are two basic options, either a coaxial set or a component set. A coaxial speaker just means it is an all-in-one system, the mid-range and tweeter will be an all-in-one unit and will usually have a very basic cross-over built in to separate the frequency between the two.
A component basically separates all of those pieces, so for each side, you would get a mid-range, a tweeter, and a cross-over. Coaxial systems cost less money but components have the potential to sound much better. The important thing to remember is there is always a best place for each to be used.
Most modern cars come from the factory with components in the front and coaxial speakers in the rear. You will usually be best served to stick with the set-up the car came with, so if it has 6 inch components in the front then go with aftermarket 6 inch components.
Huge subwoofers aren’t required for a noticeable upgrade in bass
There is no way around it, if you want to add real low end to the sound in your ride then you will have to add a subwoofer system. You may think your stock system is producing good bass but it doesn’t come close to even the smallest of real subwoofer systems.
By the way, your stock speakers playing the entire frequency range from bass to highs is what is shortening those speaker’s lives.
The trick to getting good low end that you can feel is to match your subwoofer’s power range to the amplifier driving it. You can get very good bass at a low cost this way. It really comes down to matching your subwoofer with the proper enclosure and amount of power.
I know that my years of SPL competition might make you think I would be here telling you to get some huge subwoofers with a bunch of high-powered amplifiers but it just isn’t for everyone. How much bass will depend on your personal taste, so it’s a matter of preference.
Don’t go overkill on your amplifiers
Adding amplification can really bring the quality of your system to life but it can also add to the cost really fast. Amplifiers, more than any other part of the system, can really burn through your car audio budget. If you want to add a subwoofer then you will have to add some level of amplification but you can also amplify the rest of the speakers in the system.
Again, for the subwoofer system stick with an amp in the power range of the subwoofer you chose. Don’t waste money on a 1000 watt amp when your subwoofer can only handle 300. You’ll only be throwing away money while also putting excessive wear and tear on the subwoofer and possibly even the electrical system in your car.
If you decide that your budget can allow for more and you really want much better sound then by all means I would recommend amplifying the entire system. Adding more power to all of the speakers will add to the overall volume for your system while helping the overall dynamic range.
I would really say that if you want to go this route, make sure you set your budget ahead of time and stick to that budget. Over-spending can easily open the door to regretting your decisions.
A proper installation will bring it all together
I know the first thing many think of when it comes to installation is “Hey, I’ll just watch some YouTube videos and install it myself”. I really believe that paying a professional to do it right will always be the best option, just the knowledge and tools they possess alone will make it worth it.
It really comes down to two things: do you want your system to sound as good as it possibly can and what is your time worth. I cannot stress this enough, the installation can be the difference between your system sounding great or sounding worse than the factory stuff you replace! A professional installer will be able to get the job done much faster and in almost every case much better.
They will also be able to explain how to use every piece of the system to you, helping to make the entire experience that much better. I can tell you on a personal level that with my extensive install and competition background I will be taking my car to a shop to get my next system installed.
As with every other tip here, spend some time researching the installers in your area to help you make the best choice of where to go. Stop by and ask the installer some questions, any good installer will be glad to talk you through some of their background installing. Just be respectful of their time, don’t expect a long conversation while they are in the middle of working on someone else’s car.
If you haven’t already noticed, the biggest takeaway from all of these tips is that optimizing your setup as a whole will get you the most value. Take the time to research and talk to people who know more than you. Make sure that all of the parts of your system will work well together.
In the end, it isn’t a matter of spending the most money – it’s all about planning it out. That’s the best way to put a killer car audio setup together on a budget.
Canadian Gearhead contributor