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Car Audio Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

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Woman listening to her car stereo

High-quality audio for your vehicle is simple with a few changes to your car audio system. This car audio buying guide will give you some basic knowledge to use when choosing the best components for your car stereo system.

Buying Car Audio:

  1. Car stereo receivers: The car stereo that sits in your dashboard is commonly known as the audio receiver, and it's the heart of your car audio system. It connects all the various parts of your car radio to the speakers and to power through your vehicle's electrical system. Your car stereo may include a built-in CD player, radio tuner or perhaps a controller for a multi-disc CD changer. More recently, car audio receivers have started including interfaces for digital music players, connectors for HD or satellite radio and connections for car video systems.

  2. Digital music: Car audio systems support digital music in different ways, including USB interfaces or SD card slots to let you easily transfer music from your computer to your car. You may also be able to use MP3 player adapters to connect your player to your car stereo.

  3. Speaker power: An important point in receiver selection is matching the power output to the speakers. Receivers and speakers work together best when their RMS (sustained power) output wattages match. Too much or too little power to the car speakers can damage them or distort your sound quality.

  4. Inputs: Look for a car audio receiver with the exact inputs and outputs that you need. A dedicated subwoofer output with a low-pass filter will give your car audio system powerful bass without distortion.

  5. Amplifiers: If you'll be powering all of your speakers with external amplifiers, then you can safely ignore the output power of the car audio receiver's speaker connections.

  6. After-market speakers: Upgrading the speakers can give remarkable results in improving the audio quality inside your car. If you're planning on using the existing car audio receiver, then you'll need to pick speakers that both fit your car and closely match the RMS wattage handling of the receiver's RMS output.

  7. Two-way speakers: A typical factory-installed car speaker is a two-way speaker, meaning that there are two separate drivers (also known as speaker cones) in each speaker. One driver reproduces the lower frequencies coming from the car's audio receiver; the other one reproduces the higher frequencies.

  8. Three-way speakers: Three-way speakers take this notion one step further by having three separate drivers inside of each speaker, with each driver handling a narrow range of frequencies. This gives you sound that is both clearer and more powerful across the entire hearing spectrum.

  9. Speaker size and shape: When it comes to choosing new speakers for your car audio system, you'll want to pay attention to the sizes of your existing speakers.

  10. Size: Many factory-installed speaker systems include either 5.5-inch or 6.5-inch speakers in the front door panels and either 6.5-inch or 6-inch by 9-inch speakers in the rear speaker panels. If you're planning on replacing the speakers yourself and you want the fewest complications, look for speakers of the exact size as your existing speakers.

  11. Depth: Check the depth and shape of your new speakers to make sure they'll actually fit in the existing speaker enclosures as well. If round speakers won't work for your door panels, you may find other car speaker shapes that will work just better for the enclosure you have available.

  12. The subwoofer: A subwoofer completes the aural coverage of your car audio system by producing low bass sounds. Even 6-inch x 9-inch speakers can't reproduce sounds as low as a good subwoofer can.

  13. Power: Your car stereo alone is unlikely to be able to power a subwoofer, so you may want to find a powered subwoofer or connect an amplifier to your car audio system. You'll want to match the RMS wattage output of the amplifier with the RMS power handling of the subwoofer and the ratings for the rest of your car audio components.

  14. Enclosure: If you're going to purchase a stand-alone subwoofer driver, it will need to be mounted in an enclosure, which you can purchase or construct yourself. You can then run speaker wire from your car audio system to the enclosure.

  15. Speaker wire: Your car audio system is tied together by speaker wire, which runs from the speakers to the receiver and possibly an amplifier. A high-powered car audio setup with low-resistance speakers will use a larger gauge speaker-wire, which also has a lower electrical resistance. You can make your car audio system more durable and safe by using insulated speaker wire.

Ideas from Overstock.com:

  1. If you like the idea of bringing all of your music with you and being able to listen to it through your new car audio system, a digital music player is the most portable and versatile option. Check out Overstock.com's complete selection of MP3 players and iPods and find a player that can work well with your car audio.

  2. In-car entertainment doesn't have to stop with car audio. With mobile video devices, such as in-car DVD players, long car trips can seem to fly by. There are flip-down models, in-dash models, even models you install in headrests, all connecting to your car audio system or to individual sets of headphones for passengers.

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