How to upgrade your car stereo

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A 1967 AMC Marlin - a full-sized "personal luxury" two-door fastback made by American Motors Corporation. Front passenger compartment in this 1967 Marlin. This car has automatic transmission on center console, power windows, as well as original AMC factory options that include an 8-track stereo tape player and dash mounted tachometer.

It's time for a car stereo upgrade. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/CZmarlin/Wikipedia)

If your car still has the same old stock stereo system and you’d like something better, it is possible to do it yourself. Before undertaking any upgrade project, however, it is important to be prepared. Here are some things to keep in mind when upgrading your car stereo, with an eye toward minimizing cost while maintaining functionality.

Keep your head unit about you

The head speaker unit and subwoofer in your car stereo can fall prey to dry rot over time. That doesn’t mean you should just yank out the head unit, however. Many modern vehicles run all auxiliary electrical systems into the chassis of the OEM stereo. Simply pulling the old head unit out can cause these important systems to fail. Thus, it is necessary to use an OEM integration kit or identify and relocate the wiring.

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If this wiring configuration isn’t used in your vehicle and the car’s auxiliary electronics function normally after the stereo is removed, an aftermarket stereo bracket and wire harness can be used. Simply buy a replacement head unit and have it installed (or do it yourself, if you’re comfortable). Cost of cables and the installation fee run about $130 total.

Rock the bass, don’t rot the bass

When it comes to replacing a subwoofer, the first thing to do is to decide on your budget. Also, consider whether you simply want more bass, or a louder, clearer system. For the limited budget, it’s generally cheaper to just go for a greater bass bump with a powered subwoofer upgrade. A single-channel, 350-watt aftermarket amp with a built-in crossover is ideal for quality and price (around $300), as it will produce high-frequency audio without distortion. If the amp also has a high-level input or at least a line-out converter (LOC), all the better.

Then comes the subwoofer. Go for established brands like Rockford-Fosgate, Alpine or JBL, as bargain-basement brands aren’t worth the woefully limited life and performance they provide. A good, 8-inch subwoofer should cost around $160 or more. Just make sure your subwoofer is the right size for the area into which it will be installed. If you want to go larger and perhaps go to the trunk, you’ll need a box enclosure. As for power, make sure your new subwoofer’s power rating isn’t lower than the output of the amp, or distortion and a blown subwoofer can occur. If speaker and amp are the same brand, power matching is easier.

Looking for more?

If you’ve upgraded your amp and subwoofer and have more spending cash, you may also want to upgrade the remaining speakers in your car stereo system. More hardware will be involved, but many of the replacement rules are the same. If you are going for a more expensive system, the amp should also be at least a four-channel unit, rather than monaural. Match the power ratings of all speakers with the amp outputs, sticking with the same brand when possible to save some of the guesswork of component and power matching. With wires, cables, brackets and installation, you can assemble a powerful 500-watt system for around $1,300. Add a digital signal processor (DSP) for another $500 and you have a car stereo that’s top-of-the-line.

Thankfully, when you’re seeking a better car audio experience, you don’t have to upgrade every piece at once. Start with a better amp and subwoofer and see if that meets your needs. If not, move on to the speakers, and maybe even add a second amp or DSP. Finally, if you have your car stereo parts installed, find a 12-volt-qualified installer you trust with your investment. Online forums like Yelp can help in this regard.

The ‘big three’ of car stereo upgrades



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