Back to Basics: Car Audio Systems

When you’re in the market for a new car, you end up weighing together a whole lot of different features and options. Everything from cost, to safety ratings, and even future insurance rates can come into play. Some essential features, like anti-lock brakes, are pretty much standard these days, while other live-saving innovations, like smart airbags, are only found in select models. But let’s face it—researching and looking for safety features is about as exciting and sexy as watching paint dry. So what about car audio systems? They aren’t likely to save your life any time soon, but they’re far less cut and dry than most other features. Whereas an electronic traction control system either works or it doesn’t, there’s a whole lot of open road between a car audio system that “works” and one that really shines.
If you’re interested in buying a car with an audio system that trends away from the “it just works” end of the scale, here are a few questions that you absolutely have to ask—and answer—before you make a decision.
Does it sound good?
What components does it have?
Is it easily upgradeable?
Can it play my audio content?
OEM Car Audio System Sound Quality
The single most important question to ask about the sound system in any car you test drive is whether or not it sounds good. This is a totally subjective question, and your idea of good might be substantially different from mine, but there are a few purely objective factors to look at, and some tricks to finding out how a car audio system is going to sound in real world conditions.
One thing you may want to do is to bring along your MP3 player, or a favorite CD, so that you can see what your music sounds like. You may also want to try tuning to your favorite radio station while you are actually test driving the car, since that will give you an idea of how easy the head unit is to operate when you’re driving and show what kind of reception the radio gets.
If you want some more ideas on how to tell whether a car audio system really sounds good or not, you can check out our newbie’s guide to car audio.
Car Audio System Basic Components
Every car audio system consists of at least two basic components: a head unit and speakers. The third component that every single system contains is an amplifier, but that is a little more complicated since most new car audio systems come with head units that contain internal amplifiers.
When you first climb in behind the wheel of a new car, it can be difficult—or impossible—to tell what kind of audio system components it has. You’ll probably have to ask, but some things you may want to know include:
Is the head unit single DIN or double DIN?
Does it have an external amp?
Does the head unit have preamp outputs?
Does it have component or coaxial speakers?
Most of those questions will come into play in a minute, when we cover upgradeability, but it’s also important to know since certain types of components are hallmarks of better-sounding car audio systems. If the system comes with an external amp and component speakers, for instance, then it’s probably going to sound better than one that has no external amp and uses coaxial speakers.
Head Unit Basics
The one thing that you should be able to determine about a car audio system, just by looking at it, is what type of head unit it has. There are only two basic form factors that most head units fit into, in addition to a third “non-conforming” category. The smallest type of head unit is single DIN. If you see a head unit that is about two inches tall, then it’s a single DIN unit, and if you see one that is about four inches tall, it’s a double DIN.
On the other hand, you may go to test drive a new car and find that it is difficult to tell exactly where the head unit is. If the CD slot isn’t anywhere near the radio controls, which are accessed via a touch screen LCD, then you’re probably dealing with a non-standard head unit configuration that’s built into a more comprehensive infotainment system.
Although no single one of these types of head units is necessarily better than any of the others, there are usability and upgradability factors to consider. Single and double DIN head units can easily be swapped out for better aftermarket replacements, and integrated infotainment systems may be easier—or far more difficult—to operate.
Considering Future Upgrades
Even if you find a car that you love, and it has a car audio system that sounds great, there’s a chance that you may want it to sound better in the future. This is where the upgradeability of various components comes into play. Here are the basic car audio systems components that you may want to replace at some point:
Head unit
If the head unit doesn’t conform to either single or double DIN standards, then it will be exceedingly difficult to replace. There are options available, and those options are better and more widely available for popular vehicles, but you will always have more trouble upgrading a non-standard head unit than a standard one. Additionally, the widespread adoption of highly integrated infotainment systems further muddies the waters. If all of the cars that you’re looking at have built-in infotainment systems, upgrading the head unit just might not be in the cards.
Component Vs. Coaxial Speakers
Speakers, on the other hand, are relatively easy to upgrade regardless of what type they are. Factory speakers are typically built with substandard components, so it’s relatively easy to find properly-sized aftermarket replacements regardless of whether your car came with component or coaxial speakers from the factory.
The difficulty with aftermarket speakers comes into play when you want to upgrade from coaxial speakers to component speakers. If you think you’ll want to do that at some point in the future, it may pay to look for a car that comes with component speakers to begin with. It isn’t impossible, or even that difficult to replace coaxial speakers with component speakers, but a simply “drop in” upgrade just isn’t an option.
External Amplifiers and Preamp Outputs
The third most common car audio component to replace (or introduce) is an amplifier. Since most new cars don’t come with external amps, you’ll typically want to be on the lookout for one that has a head unit with preamp outputs. That feature simplifies the upgrade process, since you will be able to plug a new amp right into the preamp outputs whenever you want, and then just continue your upgrade from there.
Other Essential Car Audio Features
After you have considered important factors like sound quality and future upgradeability, there are a whole lot of other features that you can look for. Maybe you want a car audio system that includes built-in GPS navigation, or maybe Bluetooth connectivity is your jam. Some of the more vital, fun, and interesting car audio system features to be on the lookout for included:
Auxiliary inputs
Direct iPod controls
USB and SD card readers
HD radio or satellite radio tuner
Bluetooth connectivity
GPS navigation






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