Car Audio Basics

bin of car audio gear

Cruising in your car isn’t complete without a killer song on the stereo or a talk-show radio chattering away. For music lovers and podcast enthusiasts, the car is a key place to hear new songs and discover fresh information. Yet these things are contingent on having a superb car-audio setup.  

Audio systems in cars have come a long way since their start in the 1930s. It’s certainly no longer the 1950s age of AM/FM radio, and even the CD players that graced nearly every car for decades are beginning to fade away. Car stereo systems nowadays are advanced tech hubs that offer numerous exciting options, including Bluetooth capability, digital streaming, and touchscreen displays. 

Considering all the available items, it’s understandable if you don’t know where to start when it comes to building a car-audio system. When deciding which one to purchase, or whether you should replace your stereo system altogether, consider the following things: your needs, what you want, and the space in your car. Making that list before you swipe your credit card or lay down some cash will be highly beneficial. 

Most drivers would agree they want a stereo system that’s going to last, but it’s important to think about how to purchase the right one. Replacing the entire setup at once could come with a larger price tag, but replacing components one by one can also be costly. Therefore, establishing a budget and knowing beforehand what system works best for your needs is crucial. 

A car-audio setup is an important investment. Whether you’re an audio enthusiast, a stereo-brand loyalist, or completely new to building a stereo setup, this guide will serve as a starting point for understanding and finding the best car-audio setup with the best sound quality

Breaking Down Your Audio System

Before you start aimlessly scrolling for new stereos online, it’s essential to understand the basics behind how audio works within the confines of your car. You may find that your stereo system can drastically improve with the simple fix of one specific component in your setup. 

When thinking about how to build your ideal system, remember that three distinct components make up the basic car-audio setup: the receiver, the amplifier, and the speakers. After that, additional features can be added to these components to make your sound louder, sharper, and more precise.

The Receiver

As the home to your radio and digital display, the receiver, also known as the “head unit,” is the component that sits front and center on your dashboard. In older cars this could be a cassette or CD player. Receivers in newer vehicles may resemble a Star Trek-like display with a touchscreen, different music or navigation apps, a USB port for smartphones, and countless other digital features. 

Receivers vary widely based on their sizes, functions, and aesthetics. What’s cool is that you can find a head unit system that’s as unique as you are. Remember, this is the part of your car-audio setup that you’ll interact with the most. That includes tinkering with your sound settings, and that’s a lot of fun.

Standard receiver sizes are commonly called single din or double din. A single din radio system is 7 inches wide by 2 inches tall, whereas a double din radio system is 7 inches wide by 4 inches tall. Double dins are becoming more popular in newer vehicles because they provide the necessary stereo space for a backup camera or touchscreen on your dashboard display.

What a Receiver Does

close up stereo controller

The receiver is how you control the audio, entertainment, and communication system in your car. It prompts your audio setup to play the exact songs you want, when you want, at the volume you want. Replacing your head unit is the key to improving the entire spectrum of audio-signal qualities in your car. 

If you’ve never updated or replaced your car-stereo system before, you likely still have the stock factory head unit installed. This radio-system factory setup was installed by the manufacturer, and often it’s subpar. Luckily, there are components you can add or replace to improve the sound quality in your car. 

New receivers are often referred to as “aftermarket head units.” Audiophiles favor these units because of their ability to send a clearer, stronger audio signal throughout the car. With so many aftermarket receivers available, you’ll definitely be able to find one for your vehicle, one that best fits your needs and matches your personalized style. 

The head unit is the “brain” of your audio setup. It controls sound settings such as the bass, treble, and balance of audio throughout the car as well as volume. But the receiver is so much more than that. Modern ones are the ground-control station for your car’s temperature, your phone calls, your GPS, and much more.

The Amplifier

Flat, poor sound in your vehicle may not be due to your speakers or head unit—it could be because your audio system doesn’t have the power to drive clear audio signals to your speakers. 

Enter the amplifier. 

The amplifier is the component of your car-audio setup that controls the oomph behind the music, giving it true force. Like a good conductor, it communicates the directions from your receiver to your speakers and, ultimately, impacts the clarity of sound within the car. Amplifiers enhance music quality to top-notch levels regardless of whether the volume is loud or soft. 

It’s important to note that the head unit in your vehicle likely has a preamp built into its system. The preamp ensures clear communication between the receiver and the amplifier. However, it’s important to check your factory-head unit to see if it comes with preamp outputs. If it does, then look for amplifiers with line-level inputs. If it doesn’t, you need an amplifier with speaker-level inputs to match your receiver. 

The amplifier is an essential component to boost the sound in your car. The best car-audio setups for sound quality are absolutely the ones that have an amplifier in some capacity. Without an amp, your audio will sound weak or distorted.

The Speakers

Car speakers are the final component in your car-audio setup. They’re the items that take the signal from your head unit, as well as the force from your amplifier, to create a frequency of high-quality sound. Replacing the factory speakers in your car is one of the easiest ways to instantly upgrade the sound. 

Originally manufactured speakers are often made with inferior material than aftermarket speakers. That’s because manufacturers produce lower-cost sound systems that are passable for drivers but nothing great. Conversely, aftermarket speakers are built to last and can produce more robust, clearer audio throughout your vehicle. 

There are several types of speakers you can choose from for installation. To find ones that don’t have a tinny, fuzzy, or ringing quality to their sound, you need to consider the size of your car, the type of sound quality you want, and your budget.

Full-Range Speakers

full range car speaker

Full-range speakers, or coaxial speakers, are the best bet for drivers who want to replace their entire factory-speaker setup. This is a straightforward, cheaper option for improving the sound in your car. These speakers typically come with all the major components of a stellar speaker: a woofer, a tweeter, and midrange. 

For folks who don’t know much about speakers, the woofer helps create the lower sounds in a speaker’s frequency range; the tweeter produces higher sounds; and the midrange (true to its cool-sounding name) helps produce sounds and frequencies in between the two. 

Full-range speakers are almost guaranteed to fit in the space that factory stereo speakers occupy, which is convenient. Coaxial speakers can fall short, though, for drivers who value sound quality above all else. They’re available at numerous price points and designs depending on what you want.

Component Speakers

Component speakers offer a more expensive but higher-quality car-audio setup. This speaker system comes with separate woofers and tweeters and requires more hands-on installation. 

Component speakers are like a deconstructed full-range speaker: You get all the main components necessary for your speaker systemthey’re just all separate. But this allows you to find woofers and tweeters with features that explicitly fit your sound-quality desires. Component speakers are the best option for producing clear, intense sounds in your audio system, but they’re more difficult to install and are sometimes overwhelming for speaker newbies. In that case, you can always have them professionally installed.

Drivers hoping to impress others with their speakers’ wicked sound quality should aim for component speakers to build an exact car-speaker system that fits their specifications.


subwoofer and other components

A product you’ll undoubtedly come across while researching the audio system you want is the subwoofer. The subwoofer is not a standalone audio system, but it can make a significant difference to your music-listening experience. Subwoofers enhance the bass and low-end sounds in your stereo system while adding punchiness and depth to music. 

Subwoofers come in several sizes, and each size dramatically impacts the kind of sound you may want. Ten-inch subwoofers create a tighter sound and fit best in smaller cars. Twelve-inch subwoofers are the middle man’s choice, blending the punchiness of smaller subwoofers with the depth of larger ones. Finally, 15-inch subwoofers are for music listeners who value deep, heavy sounds. They require a lot of power but are game-changers for music lovers. 

The subwoofer will need to be connected to an amplifier in your audio system in order for it to deliver the proper punch.

Car-audio Terms You Need to Know

Now that you have a better idea of what your receiver, amplifier, and speakers can do for your car-audio system, there are a few more terms you should know before making a purchase. Below are phrases or words you’ll likely come across. If you’re an audio-system novice, it helps to understand them and how they affect your stereo setup. 

  • Power handling: Measured in watts, power handling is the amount of energy or power your speakers can handle when translating audio signals from the receiver or amplifier. 
  • RMS: Short for “root mean square,” RMS is the standard unit of measurement for the power handling of speakers. RMS represents the maximum amount of power a speaker can receive from a head unit or amplifier. 
  • Mechless: Though not a particularly well-known term, a “mechless” receiver is a digital-media receiver that does not have CD- or cassette-playing capabilities. A mechless receiver has features such as USB ports, Bluetooth, and smartphone and MP3 compatibility.
  • Crossover: A crossover device receives signals from the head unit and amplifier and organizes those signals into their appropriate speaker section. Lower frequencies are sent to the woofer and higher frequencies go to the tweeter. 
  • OEM: Short for “original equipment manufacturer,” this is the factory-stock equipment that comes with your car.

Bass and Treble: For those who are new to music or audio setups, the “bass” is the lower-frequency sounds in audio. It contains the lowest, deepest musical pitches, and it’s a priority for creating the best car-audio system. “Treble,” meanwhile, consists of the higher end of sound frequency. Adjusting the treble via your car’s head unit can significantly change the audio or a song’s clarity.

Determining What You Need for Car Audio

After grasping the beginner’s guide to a car-audio setup, the trick now is to test your knowledge of your car’s current system to discover what may need to be added or replaced. Car stereo systems take on wear and tear as they age. Maybe the audio sounds fuzzy or distorted, or the head unit is starting to lag. These issues can cause significant headaches, so it’s crucial to find the root of the problem. 

Test Your System

For starters, test your audio system bit by bit. Do all the dials work on your receiver and is the touchscreen still functioning quickly? Is the balance and fade set to the middle when you check the sound settings on the head unit? Is the sound emanating clearly through each speaker? 

Check to see if your music sounds distorted as you turn up the volume or if it sounds thin throughout your car. A new amplifier or a simple speaker replacement could be all you need to make an outstanding audio overhaul. 

Search for a Solution

After isolating the issue or issues—whether it’s with the head unit, the speakers, or the amp behind the music—you can start searching for audio components that will work best for your vehicle. Build a wishlist of items that you want in your car-audio setup. 

If you find yourself reaching for your smartphone frequently while driving, a very dangerous thing to do, consider buying a receiver with Bluetooth capabilities. This type of receiver offers sharper audio signals in your car, allows you to stream music or play satellite radio, and directs calls straight to your dashboard. This option improves your car’s sound system and, more importantly, halts the extremely bad habit of messing with your phone while driving. 

Your wish list should consist of anything you want from your car-audio system. Measure the space in your car for a stereo system and then establish a budget. After your parameters are in place, you can dive into the exciting features you’d like in your car-audio system.

Key Tips

Remember, it’s easy for anyone to get overwhelmed while navigating the stereo-system market. Even experts have to take the time to research and try different components before finding the speaker system that best fits their needs

Keep things simple as you begin your search. If the receiver, amp, or speaker is difficult to understand or use, it may not be a fun or practical option for your car. Safety in a car comes first. You don’t want to be frustrated while fiddling with your audio system to get the radio working while driving in the middle of a road trip or work commute. With so many tech options on the market, just be patient as you do the research to find a car-audio system that works best for you. 

Final Thoughts on Car-audio Basics

You’re armed now with solid knowledge and an understanding of stereo systems for vehicles. Now you can take the next steps in building a unique and high-quality setup. Knowing what you want and need for your vehicle will save you stress, time, and money when shopping for the perfect car-audio setup

Trust us that understanding car-audio basics is an investment that pays off, especially when you hear how your favorite song never sounded so awesome.