Car Stereos: The Layperson's Guide To Good Sound
Updated: Dec 17, 2021
Felt like talking about something near and dear to my heart, stereo systems. I’d like to focus on car systems and give you my take on what's out there and how to make your car more enjoyable.
First off, right now is an awful time to buy a car stereo. In fact, one of the most negatively affected areas of the supply chain problems is with these. Very very limited supply right now and getting worse. Finding something nice is really hard right now, and quite often you’ll have to wait months for many popular models.
But that aside, here’s my philosophy regarding car stereos and I’ll be honest and a bit arrogant about it. My way is probably the best as far as 98% of drivers out there. The other 2% are the enthusiasts who go in a different direction with their stuff. I’m not knocking them, but feel it’s overkill for most people.
Here’s the first and most important thing to realize. Replacing your car’s stereo is not as easy as it was back in the day. Nowadays it depends on the car as far as ease of replacement. First, the manufacturers have moved towards a ton of proprietary systems, so just fitting an aftermarket system in your dash can be really difficult. Companies like Crutchfield are outstanding in this area and have the fittings and kits to make it happen. Great outfit, very honest and knowledgeable people from the old school.
But the game is a lot different now. The traditional auto radio, like the one in the pic, is known as the single din radio. That form factor was all they used for decades. Nowadays, double din radios are quite common, and those are the ones that are double the height of the traditional single din. Adding to the confusion are all the touch screens, Android and Apple Auto, Bluetooth, you name it. So replacing is not as straightforward as it used to be.
Another problem is that late model cars often have the sound system matched to proprietary amps buried in quarter panels, and it’s not uncommon for an aftermarket radio to not play well with those systems. You’ll get hum or it won’t work at all. So fitting a new radio may require wiring mods and bypassing, which can affect your warranty. It also is not unheard of for check engine lights to come on with new radios and other electronic ills. So whoever is doing the job needs to know what’s up.
A lot of these problems have led to sharp decreases in overall sales of aftermarket radios in recent years because people don’t want the aggravation of replacement. And this can lead to heartache for drivers. For example, I’ve seen 3-5 year old vehicles that struggle to pair with a new phone because the software is out of date. The dealer has to flash the system, and it’s either really expensive or not supported. Saw that on a few Hondas recently. You could easily pay a few hundred bucks to flash the system, when a replacement aftermarket unit is cheaper and better. And flashing the aftermarket system is often free. They'll have the firmware on their website, download to a flash drive, and do it yourself.
So my personal opinion on new cars and their systems? If I were buying a new car now, I’d try to skip the fancy touch screens and navigation that comes with these new vehicles if they’ll let you. A simple radio and four speakers is ideal for a car off the lot if you can get it that way. You can add an aftermarket one and get far better.
Now as far as the new aftermarket stuff, I have to admit it say that of all electronic gadgets, car audio is at the top of my list as far as wow factor. Never have I seen so much for so little in my lifetime. Even the cheapest radios can do a lot and sound wonderful. The only sore point with me is aesthetics. Some of these units, especially single din, are ugly bastards that don’t match your dash well. But most of the $150 and up models have adjustable lighting colors, so you can match the display to your dash illumination colors. There is another company called Retro Sound who puts out OEM looking radios for classic vehicles that have the modern amenities. Interesting stuff.
The most impressive part of the technology is the connectivity to your media and phone, it’s brilliant. Most models also have apps that allow you to control the unit from your phone. The icing on the cake is the brilliance of modern technology where you don’t see it. In the ass end. Modern radios have amazing muscle that not too long ago was unheard of.
Here’s what’s amazing. The kid with the thumping Civic and the amps all over the place? He’s a dinosaur now. You can still do external amps if you want, but I’m telling you right now it’s a technology of the past. Modern chip based amplification is so brilliant that it can put out Class A power on par with traditional car amplifiers, and it’s all built into the radio now. So you too can have the thump without the aggravation and expense.
At this stage, I’m of the opinion that the only time you really need an external amp is if you’re running a big subwoofer in the trunk. Subs are inefficient and need a lot of power to make them go. But even with those, you can now buy integrated ones that have an amp already. I’ve seen some that are built for specific car models and tuck away in areas where you won’t even know it’s there. They still require proper wiring, typically a very low gauge wire run directly to the battery and proper fusing. Some even require a large capacitor in line to reduce stress on the electrical system If you ever see the kid in the Civic with his headlamps flickering to the music, yeah, he doesn't have one of those and he's damaging his electrical system.
But I am telling you that for all intensive purposes, a separate amp for your speakers isn’t really needed anymore. The 2007 Kia you may drive to work that has the 5 WPC factory system can be swapped out for a nice Pioneer that puts out 25-50 WPC. No dash mods, no interior rip outs, no rewires, nothing. All from the radio. Some require an amp wire and fuse run direct to the battery as I mentioned, but that’s nothing compared to a full custom system.
So I can tell you that the aftermarket car audio is the best it’s ever been. It is struggling somewhat because of the proprietary crap. But if you’re buying new, try to skip the factory installed crap if you can and go with a basic system off the lot. Replace with an aftermarket radio of good quality and you’ll be thrilled.
As far as my brand favorites? Pioneer has always been the top dog and still is. Can’t go wrong with them. They’re especially renowned for their tuners, so if you’re a radio fan, Pioneers are among the best. Since I prefer a nice match to the dash, Pioneer does a good job at keeping things fairly simple and their units look good. Some say Pioneer wrote the book on car audio, and there's a lot to support that notion. Great stuff, and they've done it for a long time.
Kenwood is now the same company as JVC and their Excelon line is very nice. Some are confused by the Kenwood Excelon vs Kenwood brands. They have non Excelon radios that are a little cheaper and look identical. Excelon radios have higher preamp voltage and slightly more refined amplifiers. They are also sold exclusively by authorized Kenwood dealers. The mass market stores are not typically authorized, so Kenwood won't allow them to sell Excelon. Again, another well known brand with lots of choices and good quality. The Kenwood name has always been synonymous with quality, and buying one of those? Let's say you can do a lot worse. As good as Pioneer is with tuners, Kenwood is even better, with some of the best sensitivity in the business. It isn't surprising, because Kenwood and radio are one in the same. They've always been one of the leaders in communication and Amateur Radio for several decades.
Sony is good, but I find them a little too busy as far as controls. But they do have the high powered models with 50 WPC+ and it's real watts. They're impressive. I have one in a car of mine, and it's amazing. 2001 era vehicle, and now it's state of the art. Don't get me wrong, the complicated aspect of it may take time to get used to, but if you master what it can do, the customization of the sound is mind blowing. Sony has always been a great brand for car stereos, so I'd recommend them as well, but just realize that there's a learning curve with them.
Alpine is known for great sound quality. For many years they were considered a luxury brand, and still are. I just think they’re aesthetically not where it’s at, but that's strictly my opinion. They're awesome performers and well made radios, I'd own one, but I do find them to be a little too flashy for my tastes right now. But that's not a deal breaker because they sound terrific, and that's where it counts. Their radios aren't as powerful as others, about 20 WPC on average, but that's still plenty for the average listener. But if you want to go the amp route, Alpines match up well with those, and they even have this little power pack amp that tucks under the dash that boosts things up a bit, and it even can be used with your factory radio.
JVC is very popular and they have a lot of choices. Where I feel they shine is in value. Considering they are now under the same umbrella as Kenwood, you get a lot for your money. Their radios, in my opinion, are a slight notch below the above companies as far as performance, but they make up for it with great build quality and very affordable pricing. They're like Kenwood except a little less expensive. I do find that their single din units are a bit blingy these days, similar to Alpine, but you won't dislike your performance. Where I'd highly recommend them is with a second vehicle or older model that you don't want to overspend on. JVC is terrific at producing modestly priced units that will perform well beyond the price point. So if you have that older Hyundai that Junior drives over to the high school, a JVC unit is a no brainer.
As far as speakers go, there are lots of choices. JL Audio is great stuff. Focal is really high end (and pricey). Infinity I’ve always felt was a “can’t go wrong with” brand. JBL is too. I’ve had excellent luck with Pioneer’s speakers. They’re very well priced, sound great, and if you’re a Ford owner, they’re perfect. They have a 6x8” speaker that says “made for Ford” on it and they drop in with no modification and just sing like a Robin. You can get crazy with speakers; some are component systems with separate tweeter requiring drilling and interior mods. I prefer the drop-in replacements, and all of the above manufacturers have stellar solutions for that.
That's pretty much what I have for you today in regards to car audio. The biggest takeaway I feel you should have from this is not to overdo things. A big amp and custom system? Nothing wrong with that and if it's your passion, go for it. But I'm also saying that technology is your friend, and you can dramatically improve you car's audio utilizing the existing wiring and infrastructure. The new radios have great power and clarity, and make separate amplification unnecessary in many cases. Some folks will say you need 200 WPC. Hogwash! 25-50 WPC is more than enough, and with good speakers, there's little difference between 50 and 200 WPC. But also make sure that if you're buying a new car, find out if the existing radio can be downgraded to something basic. Factory systems these days can be a bear.