Car audio has been around for almost as long as the car itself, and a lot has happened over the years. changes . Modern systems tend to be optimized for both cost and footprint, which often means sacrificing sound quality. Some cars come with premium audio packages, but even the car audio hardware in these systems can be customized and upgraded.

The topic of car audio may seem quite daunting at first, but there are only three main components that every system should include. The head unit delivers the audio signal, the amplifier amplifies it, and the speakers actually reproduce the sound. These components are highly dependent on each other, and the overall quality of a car audio system is determined by how they interact.

Head device

At the heart of every car audio system is a component commonly referred to as head unit . Most people refer to this component as radio or stereo, which are exact terms that don’t tell the whole story. Most of these components include radio tuners, and the stereo system has been around since the 1960s, but the head unit’s more general purpose is to provide some type of audio signal.

In the past, head units fed audio signals from 8-tracks, compact cassettes, and even a proprietary turntable. Most head units now include a CD player, but satellite radio, digital music and even internet radio are also popular sound sources.

In addition to the brain function of the audio system, some head units also support video functions . These head units are usually capable of playing DVD or Blu-ray discs, and some also have built-in LCD screens. Just as traditional head units feed audio signals to speakers, video heads can often be connected to external displays.

Modern head units are sometimes also integrated into infotainment systems. These head units usually have large LCD screens and are often capable of displaying navigation data, climate control and other functions.


Amplifier is the second main component that every car audio system needs. While the purpose of a head unit is to provide an audio signal, the purpose of an amplifier is to increase the power of that signal. Without power amplifier the audio signal will be too weak to physically move the speakers and create sound.

The most basic car audio systems only have a head unit and four speakers, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an amplifier in the picture. These simple audio systems actually contain a small power amplifier inside the head unit. Because space is of the utmost importance in many cars and trucks, it is often necessary to combine the head unit and amplifier into one component.

Some OEM audio systems include separate power amplifiers, but most do not. However, installing a new amplifier does not always provide a huge boost in sound quality. If the speakers in the car are designed for use with the anemic power amp that came with the factory head unit, this area will also need attention.


Speakers make up the final parts of a basic automotive audio puzzle. Majority car audio systems have at least four, but there are many different viable configurations. When the speaker receives an audio signal from the amplifier, the signal’s electrical energy is converted into mechanical energy, which causes the cone to move back and forth. This vibration displaces air, which creates the sound waves we hear.

Unlike home audio systems with discrete woofers, tweeters, and mid-range speakers, car audio often uses «full range» speakers. This saves space, but a full range speaker generally cannot produce the same sound quality as a true woofer, tweeter, or woofer speaker. Some car audio speakers combine the subwoofer and loudspeaker into one coaxial loudspeaker, also available special subwoofers . Replacing full-featured speakers with components is one of the the main reasons why people upgrade their speakers.

Putting it all together

To get the best possible sound from your car audio equipment, it’s important to pay attention to each of the three main components. A great head unit can produce mediocre sound without a competent external amplifier, and a powerful amplifier is useless when paired with factory «full range» speakers.

There are several different ways upgrades to your car’s audio system but the best approach will depend on factors such as budget, the strengths and weaknesses of existing equipment, and the overall objectives of the upgrade. Replacing factory speakers with better units is usually a good start, but every project is different.

Beyond the Basics

Once you’ve got your head around the three main components that every car audio system needs, you might want to dig deeper. Some of the components and technologies that can really bring a car audio system to life include:

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