What make to choose

Brands, models and specifications

Sound is always a personal experience! You're building your personal car audio system, not someone else's. Sound not appreciated by a friend or car audio judge is not bad sound. You have to listen to your system, choose what you think sounds best!

Generally makes that specialize in one product make better quality, so if possible choose a speakers-only make for speakers and an amplifier only make for an amplifier. Below is a list of my personal opinion on some makes. This is certainly not a complete list because it only mentions makes I tried in my own car or makes I heard so many times I feel confident judging them anyway.

  • Alpine Makes the best head units around but at a price. Their tuners used to be terrible. Choose only if you want the best of the best but don't mind paying for it and you plan to listen to CD mostly.
  • Audison European alternative for Soundstream (which is pricey in Europe because of import duties).
  • Blaupunkt Makes excellent radios. If listening to the radio is your thing, Blaupunkt is your choice.
  • Becker Make the best radios in the world. May sound surgically clean. Prepare to pay a stiff price.
  • Clarion Best value for money.
  • Cliff Design Pure hifi loudspeakers for those who want clean sound that never tires. Expensive but worth it. Excellent modest subwoofers for hifi usage.
  • Clifford Difficult and often only appreciated by freaks. Clean almost surgical clean sound. Takes some getting used to and won't impress others. Clifford subwoofers make a very good combination with hifi speakers.
  • Focal Like MB Quart but just a tad bit better for about three times the price. Subwoofers highly recommendable.
  • MB Quart Crystal clear crisp natural sound. Should be used to play pop music, jazz and classical music all day but is very well able to blow the windows out of your car once in a while just to have fun. My personal all time favorite. Makes lousy subwoofers.
  • MTX Good budget choice. Makes enjoyable subwoofers and decent full range speakers at and affordable price.
  • Philips Good alrounder. A system with all Philips components is a good idea. From head units to speakers via amplifiers, it is all OK.
  • Phoenix Gold Overpriced but undoubtedly good. Their full range speakers are rather cheap and sound like that as well.
  • Pioneer Makes excellent cheap powerful load and strong subwoofers. I personally don't like their other equipment.
  • Rockford Fosgate The best choice for rock'n'roll, rock and hardrock. Rockford Fosgate can party all day and delivers a stiff and enjoyable sound. Clearly lacks detail and precision for jazz or classical music.
  • Sony Good alrounder. Radios are of less quality than those of Philips. Their commander is the best remote control of all brands.
  • SoundStream Makes the best amplifiers in the world. Ideal combination with MB Quart.

The only way to make a selection is by listening. Bring your favorite music with you (or consider using my DIY test CD) and listen. Shops often use music that ephasizes the qualities of certain brands and never show the bad sides. Besides, what good is it to listen to classical music when you're going to use a speaker for rock music? Keep in mind that it is a combination of speaker, amplifier, head unit and surroundings that makes the sound. Don't expect to get the exact same result after installing.

Finding a shop You can recognize a good car audio shop by their interest in you. A sales person should ask about your car, your favorite kind of music, your budget and your current system. A shop that says "this is the best ..." without informing about your wishes, means "I make most profit on ...". There's always the best solution for your specific situation, not one that suits all. Find a shop that advices based on your situation, they may be more expensive but with a better result it is worth it.

While listening to equipment in a store keep in mind that it will sound differently in your car. Enclosures determine most of a speaker's sound and you won't install your car speakers in a demo wall in a room. Subwoofers totally depend on the enclosure, full range speakers will sound more like in the store and tweeters are only affected by the angle of installation. Use the demo in a store to get a general idea of the basic characteristics of a system, don't expect the same result. You may well get a better result because your car is smaller than the shop making it easier to fill with sound.

More theory
Main fuse and battery

Powering the equipment

When shopping for equipment make sure you can connect it. First of all be sure you can power the amplifiers. See what power your alternator can deliver, find out what the basic electrical system (head lights, rear window heater, etc.) uses and how much is left for the amplifiers. For example:
Alternator power50 A
Electrical system uses20 A -
Left for audio system30 A

The power left is normally utilized to load the battery. After that the power can be used to feed an audio system. Look at the fuses of your amplifier of choice to find out its power requirements. If in this example the total value of the fuses exceeds 30 A you cannot feed the amplifiers. They will work but when running out of power may damage speakers or break down.

The power indication on an amplifier or headunit means little. When a head unit says it can deliver 4 x 35 watts this is true. However the manufacturer forgot to say the device will produce so much distortion that classical music can no longer be distinguished from hard rock. Also the manufacturer forgot to tell the device was running on 15 volts, not 12. Because of regulations American amplifiers will always deliver much more power than stated on the box. With European or Japanese amplifiers one can only find out afterwards how much power the device will deliver.

Make sure the amplifier can deliver more power than the speaker can handle. This may sound unlogical. When a speaker gets more power than it can handle it will sound bad but won't be damaged immediately. When an amplifier has to deliver more power than it can, it will damage speakers quickly. Makes sense now?

Here's the explanation in more detail, by MB Quart.

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