Beginners Guide: Car Audio Systems

By: Carl Malley

The first step is to determine what your needs are. If you're unsure, we will first look at the individual components that make up a complete system.

The Head Unit

AKA Source Unite. This is the most important part of your audio system. The decision you make here will either make or break your system, never mind you hearing.

What to look for in a head unit:

Manufacturer: Look for a well know manufacturer i.e. Sony, Alpine, Clarion, Blaupunkt, JVC etc.

Sound Re-production: Accurate sound re-production is a must, forget looks.

Warranty: Good warranty is also a must, avoid Grey-Market units.

Build Quality: Make sure its robust.

Low budget features:

Forget Fascination: Forget colorful displays, flip down panels, inbuilt equalizers, bass boost etc.

Higher budget features:

CD: If your music collection is on CD, then consider a CD head unit or one with a CD changer.

MP3 & WMA: If you have a vast music library then you may want to look for units that can read MP3 and/or WMA music formats.

VCD & DVD: Long journeys will benefit from this feature and keep the kids out of trouble too.

Amplifier: If you planning to add an amp to your car choose a head unit with RCA outputs.

Speakers

This is the second most important part of your audio system. Speakers convert electronic signals into sound waves.

What to look for in speakers:

Spending: Speakers come in several types, sizes and power ratings. Be careful before spending more money then you need to.

Power: Speaker power is one of the most over-rated features in head units and speakers.

Numbers: Don't get pulled in by numbers like 300Watts or 450Watts etc. Even the big company's use this.

Ratings: Don't buy speakers based upon the company's ratings like PMPO, Peak Power, Max Power etc.

RMS: Root Mean Square ratings are equivalent of the actual power rating delivered.

Installation: This is one of the most important points of the speaker, "proper installation". Direction, Height and Placement is key to the sound and if not installed properly can make the sound feel lifeless.

Manufacturer Locations: Usually speaker locations provided by the car manufacturer are not the best, but you can install the speakers in the provided spaces.

Speaker Types:

Coaxial: They are two (or more) speakers' built-in the same unit. They usually consist of a mid-bass and tweeters. They are cheaper than separate component speakers and easier to install.

Component 2-Way: They consist of a mid-bass and tweeter. They are harder to install then coaxial.

Component 3-Way: They consist of a separate woofer, mid-bass or mid-range and tweeters. They are harder to install then coaxial.

Mid-Bases: Usually 5" to 8" speakers that are designed for low frequency sound and fill the frequency gap between the woofer and the tweeter. Because of there size they are hard to fit but do make the sound more lifelike.

Horns: These are funnel shaped speakers that are for staging, they are particularly good for vocal frequencies but are the hardest to install.

Tweeters: Usually 1" to 3" in size and great for high frequency sounds. They can be hard to install in some cars as there mounting is usually done around or in the dashboard.

Sub-Woofers: The largest speakers raging in size from 8" to 24" and sometimes bigger. They are the most important if you want to feel the beats and not just hear them. The woofer is usually found in the trunk in an enclosure but installations may vary.

Speaker Locations:

Front Speakers: Commonly located in or under the dashboard or in door panels.

Rear Speakers: Located behind the rear seats or in door panels.

Woofer: Depending on size, behind the rear seats or in the trunk.

Tweeters: Usually on the front pillars, front doors or dashboard.

Note: Try out your speaker positions before installing them so that you get the best sound.

Amplifiers

Amps amplify or multiply the input signals from the head unit to the speakers. The Amp not only make the sound louder they also make it clearer.

What to look for:

Class: Amps are classified according to their amplification, Class-A, B, AB, and D.

Channel: They can also be classified by their channel, Monobloc 1-Channel, 2-Channel, 4-Channel etc.

Crossovers

They are a combination of series and parallel placed induction coils and capacitors, or either of them. They are given the job of frequency distribution among different types of speaker for distortion free sound reproduction. Inductors stop the high frequencies from passing through.

A combination of these together make a band pass which cut through a certain portion of both the high as well as the low frequencies and are rightly called band-pass crossovers.

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