If you’re a total newbie to the world of car audio, there’s only one key fact you need to know.

This is not some Byzantine formula that is used to calculate speaker power levels or optimal speaker placement. It has nothing to do with squeezing all the bits out of a car audio capacitor or adding an extra battery.

This is not even advice on where to get the cheapest prices for audio equipment.

Beginner’s Guide to Car Audio

Illustration of a woman connecting a laptop to a car with a subwoofer in the back
Lifewire / Tim Liedtke

The most important thing to remember is that your car stereo, probably doesn’t sound as good as you think And this is not a judgmental statement. The thing is, the sound system is one of those places that manufacturers almost always ignore in the name of higher profit margins, and most people don’t even realize they’re missing out.

If stereo sounds okay to enough people, then that’s all manufacturers are usually looking for. Even factory-installed «top-notch sound systems» usually don’t work.

So how do you know if your factory sound needs a little loving care? Here is a test that almost anyone can do:

  1. Get in your car, close the doors and roll the windows.
  2. Put on your favorite CD and turn up the volume. Don’t be afraid to go higher than usual, but we don’t say «burst your eardrums» high.
  3. Listen to music.

You listen to several different things and you don’t have to be an experienced audiophile to understand them.

If you find yourself turning on the treble due to a lack of clarity, that’s what an update might fix.

On the other hand, if you find yourself boosting the bass just to make the bass sound hollow or hollow, that too can be fixed.

If the music sounds distorted at very high volumes, that’s another thing you can take care of with a little fiddling.

So where did you start? As a beginner, there are many different ways to go to a factory sound system upgrade, so there are a few questions that can help you get on the right path:

  • How important is your budget? Do you have a lot of money to spend on upgrades?
  • Want to improve your sound while keeping your factory stereo?
  • Would you rather ditch your factory stereo and start fresh?
  • How important is bass?
  • Do you like listening to loud music?

You might be surprised how simply thinking about these five questions will lead you to create a great car audio system.

Budget car stereo upgrades

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JVC America / Flickr / CC 2.0

The great thing about a car audio system is that there is no right or wrong way to do it, and the best thing about factory audio systems is that just about any component you replace will represent at least a minor improvement.

If you’re on a budget, there are a few other things you can do to improve your sound. You can even swap out components one at a time as your budget allows, and you end up with a fully customizable car audio system.

If you’re going down the partial, budget route, then it’s a good idea to plan out an action plan for how you want your finished system to look. If you do this, you will end up with components that work really well together.

A good place for beginners on a budget are speakers. Factory speakers are usually pretty anemic, so you might notice a pretty big improvement in sound just by replacing the front speakers.

A decent set of front speakers can cost as little as $50. Component speakers provide even better sound, but it’s a more sophisticated upgrade that pairs better with the new car stereo.

If you decide to connect new speakers, it is better make sure they will work with your existing head unit . And if you are planning to upgrade your head unit in the future, you should also take that into account.

Factory stereo upgrade

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JVC America / Flickr / CC 2.0

Everyone has different opinions about a car audio system, and some just like the look of their factory stereo. If you have a late model car with an integrated infotainment system, it can also be very difficult to upgrade your stereo. In any case, there are several ways to improve the factory sound system without touching the head unit.

The first step is to abandon the factory speakers and replace them with premium devices. Premium speakers are made from high quality materials so they sound better and last longer than factory speakers. This alone usually results in a huge improvement over factory sound.

If you’re ready to take it to the next level, you might want to consider installing amplifier, which uses the speaker level inputs. Most amplifiers use line level inputs but you’ll need an input with speaker levels if your factory stereo doesn’t have pre-outs.

This may sound like nonsense, but what it basically means is that the amp will be able to sit between your stock head unit and your new speakers and let you play music without any distortion.

When you add one or more amplifiers, you can also add subwoofer . This will give you richer bass, but you can also add a digital sound processor to improve the sound of all your speakers.

Building a stereo system

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Doug Belshaw / Flickr / CC 2.0

If you don’t like your factory stereo, you might want to start over with a clean slate. This is great, but a huge number of options can lead to paralysis. If you are building a system from scratch, then you can start with speakers or a head unit.

Either way, you’ll want to end up with a head unit that is capable of fully powering the speakers. On the other hand, you can also go with a head unit that has preamp outputs and an amplifier that’s capable of fully powering your speakers.

There are a lot of options when you build a car stereo system from the ground up, so a lot of newbies shy away from that sort of drastic change.

If you really want to dive in, you might want to start by considering the types of features you want out of your car stereo, which can help you find the perfect head unit. You’ll also want to decide on whether you’re going to use the full range or component speakers.

Adding More Bass

Jon Rawlinson/Flickr (CC 2.0

If the only thing you’re really missing is bass, then you’ll want to add a subwoofer into your factory system. That can be accomplished in one of two ways:

  1. Adding an amplifier and a subwoofer.
  2. Adding a powered subwoofer.

Powered subwoofers are simpler, but adding an amplifier and a subwoofer gives you more flexibility. Either way, a subwoofer is the best way to get that bass pounding.

If you’re after the absolute easiest way to add more bass to your car audio system, then a powered amplifier with speaker-level inputs is the way to go. These units combine an amp and a subwoofer into one unit, so there isn’t any guesswork, and they can be hooked up to any factory or aftermarket head unit.

Turning it up to Eleven

Jeff Sandquist/Flickr/CC 2.0

If you’re more concerned about volume, an amplifier is still the component you need to look at adding to your system. You’ll probably need an amp with speaker level inputs if you’re leaving the factory stereo in place, but some premium factory head units come with line level outputs.

When you add a powerful amplifier into a factory sound system, it’s easy to overpower the speakers. With that in mind, you’ll have to upgrade your speakers if you really want to crank up the volume all the way.

Doing the Job Right

Pete / Flickr / CC 2.0

If you’re worried about the resale value of your car, or even if you’re leasing the vehicle, there are a few steps you can take to make sure that nothing gets messed up.

The most important thing to look for is a wiring harness that’s specifically designed for your vehicle. This harness will plug into the factory wiring, so you won’t have to cut into any of the wires in your car stereo system.

Some of these wiring harnesses are even designed to plug straight into your new head unit, which means there’s no wiring involved at all. This is the absolute easiest way to install a new head unit, and it ensures that you can pop the factory stereo back in any time you want.

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