Choosing Your Stereo Equipment

Anyone that has opened one of the many car audio related magazines, or gone to some sort of car stereo competition quickly realizes that there is a truly staggering selection of audio equipment available to the consumer.  Only a small fraction of this equipment will suit your needs and desires, but it can often be difficult to determine which components those are.  The key to finding the best and most appropriate equipment for your situation is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible, and to have a lot of patience.  Impulse buying will not get you what you want.
    The first step is to simply get out a pad and paper, and do some brainstorming.  Make an honest decision of what you want.  Do you want a hard hitting, bass thumpin’ ghetto blaster that can be felt from a mile away, or are you more interested in clear, accurate sound that brings your cds to life?  And most importantly, how much money are you willing to spend?  After you have thought about these questions, it is time to listen to some music.  Finding a couple of cds with good sound quality that you are familiar with will help you when listening to equipment.  A couple of my favorites are Eagles: Hell freezes Over and Norman Brown: After the Storm.

What you need:

A radio:
    The amount of equipment will be dictated primarily by your budget, but the first thing that everybody needs is a new radio.  You can get a decent Pioneer CD player for under $200 at Wall Mart that will do the trick.  Feel free to ignore the power ratings on all radios.  They are virtually meaningless, over-inflated claims.  What is important is a set of RCA pre-outs.  These are what send the sound from the radio to the amplifier.  As you spend more money, you get features like extra RCA outputs, cd changer controls, remote controls, digital signal processing, and finally some competition level features like 0-bit noise gates.
What does Jimbo Recommend?
    Stick with quality names.  Kenwood, Pioneer, Alpine, JVC, Denon, Sony, etc.  Lesser name radios like Jensen, Rockwood, Kenford are not good radios.  They are made cheaply, and perform likewise. Best Bargain: Kenwood or Pioneer
Expect to pay: $200 to $700

New speakers:
    If you are doing this system on a budget, then it is safe to assume that you are not buying everything at once.  After the radio, the speakers are the next thing to consider.  You have a TON of choices out there, and the selection process can be quite daunting.  For most applications, stock speaker locations will be used, which means 4×6" in the dash, and 6×9" in the rear pillars.  A pair of co-ax speakers for the dash is the easiest and least expensive choice for front speakers.  In Firebirds, there are some simple modifications necessary for installation, but in Camaros, most 4×6" speakers will drop right in.  If you want better quality, you can move up to a pair of separates.  With slight modification, you can fit 4" separates into the dash, or you can put bigger separates in the kick panels with custom made kick panel pods, or pre-made pods for about $200 a pair.  You can also fit separates into the doors.  On cars without power windows, it’s a pretty simple procedure.  For cars with power windows, it is quite a major task.  You want to listen to a lot of different speakers with the same music so you can do a direct comparison.  Listen to a really high end pair of speakers first to hear a good baseline to test the rest of the speakers against.  One important thing is to not make any quick decisions about the speakers when you first here them.  When it comes to speakers, first impressions rarely tell the whole story.  If you just listened to a speaker that was harsh and real crisp, the next speaker you hear may initially come across as dull and non lifelike until you warm up to it and begin to realize that it only sounded like that because of your impressions from the previous speaker.  This brings up another point.  Be careful not to simply choose the speaker that is sharpest or the most crisp sounding.  This may sound great at first, but those sharp sounding speakers will get very irritating after a couple days in your car.  One way to test this is to turn it up pretty loud.  If that sharpness begins to hurt your ears or sound sharp, you can bet that they will sound that way in your car too.  A smoother, more relaxed sounding speaker will not be so brilliant at first, but will be much more comfortable in the long run.  When buying speakers, make sure that you get the same brand and model line for both the front and back speakers.  Similar speakers all around will give the most uniform, equal sound.
What does Jimbo Recommend?
    Again, stick with quality names.  I HIGHLY recommend Kicker Impulse co-ax speakers, Boston Acoustics co-ax speakers, or a/d/s coax.  For separates, I like Kicker Resolutions, a/d/s and Boston Rally series. Other good speakers include Phoenix Gold, JL Audio, Infinity.  I dislike most Pioneer, Kenwood, or any other Japanese speakers.  Japanese electronics are second to none, but when it comes to speakers, you’re usually better off with American technology.  As an example, the Pioneer co-ax speakers tend to be very harsh and emphasize the upper vocal range.  Best bargain: Kicker Impulse
Expect to pay:    $200-500 for 4 speakers

Subwoofer/amplifer combo:
    This next jump is a combination of three major items, and because of that, is the most expensive part of most stereos.  To add bass to a system, you need a subwoofer, an amp for the subwoofer, and a box for the subwoofer.  You can get these in various combinations, but you need them all for good bass.  Subwoofers and amps are big, heavy, and expensive.  This is where you need to decide whether you really want to shake your neighbor’s house, or just get some good sounding bass.  Tooth shaking, gut busting bass requires big subs and a big amp(s) to push them.  Two 12" subs, in a custom box and a powerful amp can cost over $1500 for good equipment.  Likewise, for under $400 it is possible to get good clean sounding bass.  For a simple, budget minded stereo, a single 10" subwoofer in a tube style box and a modest amplifier can give surprising amounts of bass.  The rear hatch area of the f-body cars has a shape that compliments subwoofers.  A box for a single 10" sub can be built to fit down in the well, or a pre-made tube can even be used with a nice snug fit down in the well.  A good 10" sub will cost around $100.  The tube or box will cost between $50 and $100 depending on whether it is a pre-fabricated tube or a custom made box.
    If you have a higher budget and want more bass, then a sealed box with a pair of 10" or 12" subs is the way to go.  Expect to pay close to $300 for a pair of subs, $200 for the custom made box, and another $400 or more for a good amp.  Don’t buy a prefabricated box for any 12" subs.  Most pre-fab boxes are 1/2" particle board.  I’ve seen a pair of Kicker 12" subs blow one of those boxes apart.  The best way to go with ANY box is to have one custom made from 3/4" MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard).  Box types and construction will be addressed later.
    Stay away from low cost amps that advertise 400 watts for $200.  There is a reason that a 30 watt Kicker amp costs more than a 400 watt Profile amp.  Plain and simple: The Kicker is better.  It will play louder, cleaner, and more reliably.  The amplifier for a single 10" sub can be a modest amp.  A Kicker ZR120 is rated at 30 watts per channel, 120 watts bridged.  This amp will be more than enough for a single 10" sub, and will make your car louder than your buddy with 2 12" subs on a plate covering the well in the back of his car.  Look for an amp that has a built in subwoofer crossover.  Playing the full frequency range through the sub sounds bad and wastes power.  The Kicker ZR120 does not come with one, but for $30 extra you get a full 2 way crossover that will control a sub and other speakers.
    For a larger style system with more than one subwoofer, the amp and speaker relationship becomes more important.  If you have two 4 ohm subwoofers, you either need to run the amp in stereo mode, or buy an amp capable of driving a 2 ohm bridged load.  You will need an amp rated at at least 50 watts per channel.  This rating is under the assumption that you are looking at quality amps like Kicker or MTX.  A 50 watt Profile amp won’t even make headphones loud.  A kicker ZR 240 is the secret weapon in this range.  The amp will put out MASSIVE amounts of power when bridged into a 2 ohm load.  The amp will put out close to 550 watts in that configuration, and it only costs $330 including the crossover.  Not bad for an amp rated at 60 watts per channel.
    Another choice is to go with everything in one package, like a Bazooka Tube or something similar.  These systems have a sub, a box, and an amp all built into one package.  Some of these setups can sound pretty good, but those models usually cost as much as going with the separate components (Around $400).  The positive side of these type boxes is that they are easily removable.
    It seems like everybody with a camaro or firebird thinks that the plate system is the best thing since sliced bread.  For those that don’t know what a plate system is, it’s a flat board with 2 subs in it that covers the well in the hatch area of the car.  Plate systems do not adequately seal the front sound wave from the rear wave, and because of that, the bass can not get very loud.  Also, because of these leaks, the excursion of the subwoofers can not be adequately controlled, which results in poor power handling and poor output.  Using free-air subs will help, but the sound will still be slappy, sloppy, uncontrolled sound.  In most cases, a single 10" sub in a sealed box will go as loud and sound way better.
What does Jimbo Recommend?
Subs:  Kicker, JL Audio, MTX, Phoenix Gold, Pioneer IMPP (not the free air style), Kenwood (the small box series), Oz Audio, Rockford Fosgate, Orion, Boston Acoustics, a/d/s.  Brands I dislike:  Same as usual, Profile, Boss, Pyramid, Kenford, Rockwood, and the rest of that crap.  Best bargain: Pioneer IMPP TS-W253C.  It’s a 10" sub that you can find for around $70 if you shop around.
Amps:  Incase you haven’t already noticed, KICKER!  The Kicker ZR line of amplifiers is one of the most powerful lines available, and represent a fantastic value for the money.  They are all 1 ohm stable in stereo (2 ohms bridged) which makes them extremely versatile as well.  Other amps that I like:  Old-school Rockford Fosgate (the black ones, not the space ship style), MTX, Soundstream, Alpine, Kenwood PS, Jensen HLX model amps (the silver ones that aren’t made anymore. Don’t get me wrong, they’re no Kicker, but they are one of the only inexpensive amps that I actually think are worth the money).  Brands that I dislike: New style Rockford Fosgate.  When they redesigned their amps, they produced pure junk.  I’ve heard that they have since been re-designed internally since their initial release, but I have not tested them.  I also dislike Boss, Profile, Pyramid, Legacy, Kenford, Rockwood, Kraco, and any other flea-market style amp.  Any 100 watt amp that only has a 20 amp fuse and costs under $300 is a very bad idea.  Best bargain: Kicker ZR240 with crossover for $330.
Expect to pay: $400 to 800 for a single sub system (sub, amp, box), $800 to 2,000 for a multiple sub system

4 Channel Amp:
    Ok, I’m sort of back-tracking here, but it’s the best way I knew how to do it.  Instead of buying one of the amplifiers mentioned above, you can buy a 4 channel amp instead.  Use two of the channels for the front speakers, and bridge the remaining two for the sub.  This works best in a system with only a single subwoofer because of power and impedance considerations.  A single 10" sub will work great with an amp that will also be ideal for the front speakers.  Most 4 channel amps come with a built in crossover, so that you can get the cleanest, most efficient sound.  The 6×9" speakers in the back don’t really need as much power as the front speakers, because in a properly designed system, they will only be playing rear fill and won’t be as loud as the front speakers.  You can just continue using the deck power for these speakers.  If you’ve got a higher powered system, then it is advisable that you stick with a 2 channel amp for the subwoofers, but you can use a 4 channel amp to drive the 4×6" and 6×9" speakers.
Expect to pay: $250 to $1000

Rayfes Mondal’s Car Stereo Advice
Custom Car Stereo
Jimbo’s Stereos

Jimbo’s Qualifications:
MECP Certified Installer
IASCA Sanctioned Sound-off Judge
3 years of retail/installation experience
4th year Electrical Engineering Technology student at RIT