Tips on How to Upgrade Your Car Audio System and Speakers
When you think of your favorite places to be in the world, your car on your way to work probably isn’t one of them.
But what if it could be?
Upgrading your car audio could mean the difference between a commute that feels like your typical trip to work versus one that feels like you’re traveling with a live band in your backseat.
After all, American drivers spend over 17,600 minutes in their cars each year. That’s almost 300 hours. For all that time you spend in the car, it could be made even better with a car stereo system that sounds as good as it does at home.
How to tell if your car audio needs an upgrade
If you're thinking about upgrading your car audio, there are a few things to keep in mind. And it all starts with whether or not you really need to improve your car audio system in the first place.
New car? Take the turn-it-up test.
You just bought a new car or truck – and you love it. It smells good, looks good, drives like a dream… and there’s not a single M&M or runaway french-fry under the seat. (Yet.) Awesome, congratulations. Now, get in the driver’s seat and play the stereo. Loud. As in ALL THE WAY UP LOUD.
Assuming you‘ve already done this, two things: 1) We’re not here to bum you out or tell you anything you don’t already know, like your new car audio is seriously lacking, and 2) You’re not alone. Truth is, every new car and truck comes with less-than-impressive sound system (with the exception of certain brands that come with premium sound packages, of course). The good news: upgrading your car's sound system won’t cost a fortune or require ruining your car’s clean original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) look. More on that in a moment.
Older car? Skip the turn-it-up test.
You know your car like the back of your hand. And though you can’t turn back the odometer or make it look showroom clean, it’s a good car in spite of its age. (Note: Eddie Van Halen is 62. Aretha Franklin is 75. Both still bring the house down.) Our point is that no matter how old your car is, you can get that new car buzz back again with a killer sound system in one of two ways: 1) By replacing elements of the sound system – speakers, amps, touch screens, etc. – in a way that doesn’t change your car’s OEM look, or 2) Going all in with a balls-to-the-wall car audio system that’s more about blowing your mind vs. keeping a look.
(Don't believe it? Click here to see how we transformed the sound system of a Jeep Wrangler.)
Whether you have a new car or your old faithful, one thing's for sure: if you're unhappy with the way your music sounds, it's time for a car audio upgrade.
Start with better speakers. (Easy.)
It can be a little intimidating when shopping for new car speakers, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. There are so many varieties of speakers and details to consider: brands, materials, sizes, components, prices… the list goes on. Overall, you’ll want to focus on the things that are most important to you. Is it sound? Is it price? Is it size?
While we definitely recommend speaking with an expert, here’s an overview of things you’ll want to be familiar with before upgrading your car speakers.
Choose the right speaker size to fit your car.
There are tons of car speaker size options to choose from.
If you’re looking to keep your car’s OEM look, then you want to replace your existing speakers with speakers of the same size. (Have 6.5” speakers in the front doors of your Honda Civic? Get 6.5” speakers as replacements.)
Not sure what size speakers you have? Simply measure across the speaker at its widest points. Once you have your speaker measurements, determine the size you need by comparing it to the available speaker sizes. Round speaker sizes can be 3-1/2”, 4”, 5-1/4”, 6-1/2”, or 8”. Oval speaker sizes can be 4x6”, 4x10” 5x7”/6x8”, or 6x9”.
Stick with your current car speaker style.
Before you start looking at new car speakers, you’ll want to know if your current speaker style is component or coaxial. Depending on which one you currently have, you'll want to keep it consistent when you shop for new speakers.
Many newer cars (plus some older cars circa 2000) have component-style speakers (like the Kicker 44KSS6504 speaker system below) installed in the front. Component speakers have outboard tweeters that are separate from the accompanying mid-bass drivers.
The other style commonly seen is a coaxial-style speaker system (such as this Focal 165AC speaker kit below). These speakers have the tweeters built into the mid-bass drivers for a one package solution. You usually see these in rear locations of newer cars and trucks, but some are found in the front and rear doors of older vehicles.
Do you want a two-way or three-way car speaker?
Terms like “2-way” or “3-way” (don’t go there) describe the two or three drivers that make up each speaker. Drivers can include things such as woofers, tweeters, mid-range drivers, and/or super-tweeters. Most people opt to replace what’s there with a similar-size (but obviously superior) car speaker kit. In other words: you can replace your car’s current speakers with far better speakers purposely designed to fit in all the same places.
When it comes to car speaker kit specs, here’s what to look for:
Power-handling: There’s a wide range here, but look for the continuous (or RMS) power handling. Make sure that your power source (whether it is a car radio or amplifier) has enough juice to power the speakers well. Try to get the closest match you can, but it doesn’t have to be exact.
Sensitivity: This is a way to measure a car speaker's efficiency. Speakers that are rated 90dB or higher require only a low amount of power to run well. Any sensitivity rating lower than 90dB needs more juice, and you may want to consider getting a car amplifier so they get the power they crave.
Mounting depth: This refers to how much space the speaker will take up when mounted in your car. You can always add spacers or mounting brackets to hold just about any speaker in any car door. But if you don’t want to, measure the mounting depth of your current speakers and make sure the new ones are either the same depth or less. To identify mounting depth, simply measure from the back of the mounting flange (the metal ring surrounding the speaker itself, where the screw holes are) to the furthest point of the speaker. Unsure of the exact depth? Round up — never down.
Speaker materials matter.
The right ingredients in your car audio system make a big difference.
Woofer cones – the pieces that play bass response and some mid-range – are usually made of paper or polypropylene, but exotic materials like Kevlar® or flax are often used as well.
Tweeters – these produce high-frequency response – are generally made from synthetic materials, metals, or fabric (like silk). Again, exotic materials are sometimes substituted, but these three are typical. Tweeters push fine details forward, like voices and solo violins, and you want to make sure you get something that sounds natural to your ears.
Metal tweeters offer very detailed response and excellent clarity, but some might find them a little harsh sounding. Silk dome tweeters sound really smooth and lifelike, but aren’t always capable of producing the same level of clarity you get with metal tweeters.
While the dozens of car speaker brands out there each have their own ways of doing things, any of them will give you a better, richer and deeper sound experience than the audio system your car came with. Some are pricey, some are more budget conscious. But try not to get overwhelmed!
Add Dynamat for dynamite sound.
To help isolate the music inside your car and keep everything else outside, we always recommend sound deadening your car with a product called Dynamat. Dynamat’s the sound insulating material used inside car doors between new speakers and sheet metal. It’s been around for years, and we love it because it drastically reduces road noise coming in from outside – making you car whisper quiet in the process (depending on how much you use.)
And Dynamat keeps more of your music inside the vehicle for you to hear and less outside for passersby.
Ready to upgrade your car audio?
There are tons of options when it comes to choosing the right audio gear for your car, but this should help you navigate what's out there. Still not sure what to go with? Talk to us. We’ve been doing car stereo upgrades going on 40 years, and we can help. We’ll ask you: what kind of music do you like, what are your favorite artists and how loud do you like your music? From there, we'll want to know all about your car audio system, what you’d like to spend and anything else you want to tell us.