1. Plan your audio system to fit your needs. First, examine what you want from your system: is it GIANT BASS?, is it an audiophile's dream system? is it just an upgrade to a factory ( original equipment) stereo? The list below might help you pinpoint your car stereo needs starting from the modest prices and going up to the most expensive price tags:
a) install a basic stereo, like a factory system..AM/FM cassette with pair of speakers
b) upgrade a factory system just slightly, adding speakers to get a bigger sound
c) upgrade to a system with CD player, amps and more speakers for audiophile sound, but not HUGE in volume
d) install a pounding audio system that will shake the car
e) install a competition-quality system that will drive the neighborhood crazy
2. Do some homework, learn what the gear does. Consider head units, amplifiers, separates (mids and tweeters), crossovers, equalizers and subwoofers. Learn what they do. First off, most of the head units that cost over a hundred bucks do pretty much the same thing, they tune in radio stations, play cassettes and offer presets for convenience. The ones around $150.-250 might offer in-dash CD player. The better systems use a CD changer, mounted seperately, to hold many discs at once. The CD changer will cost another $125.-350., so be sure you think you need it. There are some nice features available in head units, so go to a big place like Best Buy and fiddle around and research brands.
3. Power.The next consideration: are you buying more POWER? If you want Volume, count on buying amplifiers. The IC chips inside any head unit can only provide so much power, about 30 watts max, regardless what the chassis says. That is about enough to power a pair of 5" 2-way speakers efficiently. If you add speakers to that, you will be under-powering them and you'll get distortion. If you don't want it loud... this minimum-sized system will be okay. It's a basic factory stereo. If you want good, clean punchy music, buy the amps. For audiophiles: run about 100watts per channel into your mid and high frequencies, and another 200 watts dedicated to your lows (subs) pushing subwoofer speakers. With the right drivers (speakers), this system will sound like a studio monitoring system! For you guys who want to FEEL it in your gut... double or triple the bass power.
Midrange drivers (4 to 6 inches) and Tweeters (for high frequencies) don't require much power to get LOUD, so sixty watts or so goes a long way. The big money comes in when you want BIG BASS, meaning more watts driving more subwoofers. Many cars are pumping 800 watts and more into bass alone. Many pro installations cost $1,500. in gear, then another 1,000. to install. The big boys spend ten times that.
4. BEWARE of inefficient sound systems! It's not uncommon to see a shop install a 800 watt system that sounds like a 100 watt system. They are usually following orders from the client, who insists on a big 15" sub in a space that doesn't allow it to work properly. Remember: 8" subs in the right enclosure will produce more bass pressure than 15" subs installed "where-ever they fit". Throwing more power at poorly-thought-out speaker systems will not save you! The best sounding systems use multiple amps to power seperate frequency spectrums (bass, mids, highs), utilizing electronic crossovers to cleanly divide up the spectrum before sending each band for amplification. This way, each driver type is doing just it's job... efficiently.
In this way, you can power dome tweeters with 25 watts, mid range 4" drivers with 50 watts, 6.5" mid-bass with 100watts, and a 10" dual voice coil sub with another 200 watts... and you'll get a pounding, high fidelity system, worthy of a studio engineer!
Replace the sub/amp with 500watts and a pair of 12" subs and you are pounding the neighborhood and making enemies. Past that, the sky's the limit.
5. HINT: Cheapskates: the quickest upgrade is to add a self-powered subwoofer to your factory system! In this way, your existing system only has to push mids and highs, so it's not taxed as much...you can turn DOWN the volume on your deck, turn up the volume, carefully, on the powered subwoofer, and the music FEELS loud without blasting your ears. You percieve it as volume. Most factory car stereos sound horrible when turned up because they distort from the strain of trying to produce BASS. Allow a self-powered sub to do that, and the remaining system usually sounds fine!
The advice listed here is worth a fortune. Return the favor by ordering a CD or two!
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