How to Prepare for the Best Custom Car Audio
Who would not want a custom car audio? Every device in your system reflects you-your taste; your style. From the head unit down to how the each component is wired shows a glimpse of your DNA.
But have you ever thought about the process of having a custom car audio or even just a custom car stereo?
Delightful it may seem to the eyes (and ears!) to have your car sound system personalized, the process of building it is laborious and not to mention confusing. With the plethora of options you have in the market, you probably would not know where to start.
This is why I created this guideline to help you get on the right track of customizing your car audio.
Custom Car Audio: Where to begin?
Step 1. Plan your system
The first consideration you have to think about is the system design you want for your car. Why are you customizing car audio in the first place? What do you want from it?
Basically, there are three types of car audio system: basic, competition, and SPL.
- Basic. Improved sound quality is only what you’re after. You just want your car audio to sound better. Plus, you would like it to have a touch of you.
- Competition. Improved sound quality plus the intense desire to be awarded the best sounding are what you long for. You also want to parade your creation, making every person in the contest look at your car, and say, “sweeeeet!”
- SPL. Sound quality? Yeah, maybe. Best sounding car award? Uhm, OK. Loudest car in the world? Oh yeah!
Basing on these three systems, you can start picking your choice components. Here are the primary ones:
The audio source, or what we love to call the head unit, is probably one of the most important parts of your car audio system.
When choosing a custom car stereo, consider the following:
- Power. If you are customizing for the basic system, a head unit with 5-7 W per channel is fine. It can get the job done alright. But if you want a more powerful source for competition or SPL purposes, find one that has about 13-15 watts per channel. (Wanna know a secret? 40 W head units probably do not exist. It’s merely a marketing strategy.)
- RCA outputs. In for the basic system? Just find a head unit with sets of RCA: one for the left and right front speakers, one for the rear speakers, and one for the subwoofer.
- Planning to compete or get loud? Don’t settle for the number of RCA outputs alone. Note of the voltage as well. High voltage RCA outputs provide better noise immunity and higher headroom for setting gains on your amplifier.
Another vital components in the custom car audio system are the speakers. “Crappy speakers=crappy music.” I think I can't stress this enough. No matter how lossless your music or how high-powered your head unit is, if you have ugly speakers, you get ugly music.
When choosing speakers, here’s what you should remember:
- Coaxial vs. components. Although not all the time, component speakers tend to be better sounding than the coaxial ones for a number of reasons. In a previous article, I discussed how one can be better than the other. But since you are mostly here for a better sounding car audio, I highly suggest getting the component type.
- Sizes. How big your speakers are has a significant impact on how it will sound. Tweeters are meant to be small so that they can sound out high frequencies accurately and without getting damaged. Subwoofers have to be big for them to produce the lows.
- Materials. Although speakers materials do not have a direct influence on how the speakers will sound, it is the ultimate determiner of how long a speaker will sound the same way without getting damaged.
For the basic system, the average size and shape of the speaker will work well. For the other two, however, you have to be more attentive to details. Look for speakers that are labeled “competition” to be sure.
Power. Speaker power handling has a lot of say on how loud it can get without being distorted or, worse, blown.
If you are for the loudness, the higher the power handling in RMS, the better. For a basic system, however, 30 to 50 W for each speaker will already do wonders.
Each material used in a speaker has its own pros and cons such as the aluminum vs. copper voice coils, so choose which one works best for your system.
For competition and SPL systems, for example, it is best to use mica reinforced cones, and butyl rubber surrounds for extra durability. For tweeters, cloth materials usually have smooth responses so it may be a better option for the basic system.
Along with your choice of speakers comes the amplifier. This device ensures that your speaker has enough juice to perform at its optimum level.
Most head units have built-in amplifiers, but since you want a custom car audio, you definitely need extra power. Having an external one gives you more freedom to add components. This is good for competition and SPL systems.
However, always be careful of what the manufacturers advertise. Some may say they have a 1000 W amp when in reality it’s only 300 W RMS-wise. So how do you know the real power handling? Look for the RMS rating. Can’t find it? Divide the peak power rating by 3, that’s the RMS.
But how much power do you really need?
It all depends on your speakers’ power ratings and the number of speakers you will be hooking up at the same time.
Say, for example, you have 2 tweeters at 30 W each, 2 mids at 50 W each, and 1 sub at 150 W, you need an amp that has a power handling of at least 310 W.
What makes a good amp?
There’s no hard and fast rule actually, but you can always go for reputable brands. But in general, you can always rely on companies that incorporate bigger heat sink than needed. Why? Because the more power is released, the more heat is wasted. And, you know what happens when an electrical device gets too hot, right?
Aside from power, classes are what you have to know about amplifiers:
- Class A. Amps belonging to this class are usually big, thanks to the built-in cooling fans that go along with it.
- Class B. In this class, amplifiers use two transistors—one for the negative and one for the positive. As a result, it’s less hotter than Class A ones and it's more efficient.
- Class A-B. A combination of the two classes is another option for you. This type of amp switches from Class A to Class B as the need arises. Say, if the volume is low, it stays at Class A; otherwise, it switches to Class B.
- Class D. Amps in this class are the most efficient of all, but also the most expensive. It also rarely gets hot, resulting in more power handling, and is a space saver. If you are after the competition and SPL systems, this is definitely it.
These fans are necessary because Class A amps use only one output transistor, which basically runs all the time. Result? Excess heat. However, you get a sonically accurate amp in exchange. Not bad, eh?
So if you are for a better basic system or competition, you may choose this amplifier. Just make sure you place it where it won’t get hotter than it already is.
However, the problem with this class is that it creates a crossover distortion although there are companies that minimize this.
Another device that comes with your speakers is the crossover. This ensures your speakers do not get damaged by filtering what can and cannot be played by a certain speaker.
Crossovers also balance the frequencies. Without it, for example, a sub that can play 20 Hz to 1000 Hz and a mid that can play 100 to 20000 Hz will have an overlap from 100 to 1000 Hz. This overlap cause unbalances in the audio system.
When choosing a crossover for your custom car audio, consider whether you are getting the active or the passive one. The former may be connected directly to the head unit while the latter needs an amplifier as it works after the amp.
If looking for ease of operation, especially in the basic system, an active crossover is preferable.
Note: When planning your system, consider the future upgrades you want to make. Hence, you should buy components that accommodate more devices or ones that are flexible.
An example of which is the amplifier. If you are planning to get more speakers in the future, make sure your amp has the capacity to power these additions.
Step 2. Design your templates.
After you have chosen each of the components that should go into your system, the next thing to do is design how you are going to place them and where.
The boxes or enclosures for speakers, especially for subwoofers, must be carefully designed to make sure they sound great.
But for custom car audio, we don’t want it just to sound great. We want it to be eye-catching as well.
There are many templates you can make to customize your boxes, but it helps if you have the right tools, so you have more freedom.
For ideas, you can watch this video:
Step 3. Choose DIY or professional install.
After planning almost how your custom car audio will look and sound like, decide whether you will do the installation by yourself or ask for professional help.
The advantage of DIY is, of course, the effort and time you spend on doing it add up to the personal touch. However, this is also prone to errors.
Choosing a professional install saves you the time and hard work, but not your money. It may also be prone to not getting what you really wanted. However, it can be mitigated by working closely with them and handing them the plans and designs you have for your car.
Custom car audio sure eats up a lot of your time, effort, and money. But once you’re done, all the sacrifices will be worth it.
So if you are planning to have your car audio customized, remember the steps I mentioned above: plan your system, design your template, and decide who will get his hands dirty.