Cheap Car Audio

The way that a lot of us get into modifying cars is to swap out the stock stereo.  If you are like me and got your license in the 90’s you probably were very accustomed to swapping out the stock, completely crappy, head unit with an aftermarket one.  One that had either a CD player or tape deck, this would replace the less than stellar stock head unit that came in most vehicles back then.  This is where I learned how to tinker with the electronics in a car.  With the advent of companies like Crutchfield, installing your own audio system has never been easier.  You can even put in a full navigation unit by yourself and upgrade all of the speakers without even thinking about it.  For most people, those two simple upgrades would be more than enough to satisfy their craving for high quality music in their cars.

This post is going to be about getting your car outfitted with cheap car audio!  These will be fairly inexpensive options for you to purchase that will allow you to get decent quality equipment in your car without spending too much money.  The most important part about cheap car audio is the specifications.  You need to pay attention to things like RMS power, Frequency range, and Peak power.  Matching components up properly using the correct specifications will allow you to get good quality sound out of your cheap car audio system without spending too much cash.  If you listen to the radio, you will need to make sure the FM Tuner is good enough for your needs and that it has all the features that you want.  You will also need to consider what kind and how much equipment you will be putting into the car.  If you want to put any amplifiers in your system you will need to make sure that the head unit you choose has enough pre-amp outputs to accommodate the equipment that you want to install.  You don’t want to sacrifice too much quality in the name of saving money, but you don’t want to pay a lot of money for an upgrade that you may not need.

Cheap car audio doesn’t necessarily mean that your system will be low quality.  It may not be laden with brand names, but a passenger in the car will not know the difference.  There are a lot of good deals out there and with sites like Crutchfield and others, you can install the equipment yourself and save on the installation costs.  Installations in the newer cars are super simple, they have harnesses that you just plug into and the new head unit will work.  The only issues that you may run into is getting the plastic on the dashboard off without breaking the little clips that hold it in place.  Using just a little bit of patience will keep this from happening.  Crutchfield even has speaker kits with harnesses to help you install those as well, just pop the door panels off and screw in the new speaker.  I have managed to put together a couple of pretty high quality systems in the past for under $500, and that is including subwoofers, amplifiers, and head units.  Of course I did all the work myself, but $500 for a nice audio system in your car is worth it, and after researching prices for this blog post it seems I could set up something similar or even better for less!

Part of getting big sound out of cheap car audio is to get some cheap subwoofers!  Subwoofers are what generate BASS, that wonderful deep sound that you hear when a system is turned up loud and is shaking everything in your ride, the nice hum that you feel throughout your body that gives all music feeling!  Cheap subwoofers are pretty easy to come by, just do a quick search on the internet and you will find quite a large variety of them.  I’ve seen brand name 10” subwoofers for around $30 per sub, and I’ve seen lesser brand name 15” subwoofers for around the same price.  These “lesser” brand subs are rated at higher power outputs and should put out a lot of sound.

When considering purchasing a cheap subwoofer, a lot of options will need to be considered.  You need to think about how much power you will have or want to have and how much bass you will be looking for.  If you want lots of bass, you will probably be looking at larger subs which can handle lots of power.  The larger the surface area of the subwoofer, the more air it can move and the deeper the bass it can produce.  If you want your bass to be “tighter”, a smaller lower power subwoofer will probably do the trick.  People usually just think that more power and bigger items are better, but in order to get cheap subwoofers to work in a cheap car audio system you will need to match the power output of the amplifiers that you purchase (or don’t purchase) with the power output of the speakers you plan on using.  This will allow you to maintain a relatively high quality of sound without breaking the bank.

Unfortunately, if you plan on getting cheap subwoofers, you will need to power them.  This is when you will start looking for one of the most expensive parts of putting a cheap car audio system together, the amplifier.  Good deals can be found if you look in the right places and only buy what you need to power the subwoofers that you are purchasing.  When talking about powering cheap subwoofers we are usually talking about power in the range of 200-300 Watts RMS.  At the wattage you should be able to find an amplifier that is available for under $50, which makes getting a cheap subwoofer setup that much more appealing.

Now that we have talked about cheap subwoofers and amplifiers to power them, we will need a way to mount them.  We will need subwoofer boxes to mount the cheap subwoofers that we have planned on purchasing. 

There are three main types of subwoofer boxes to consider, and the type that you should get will vary by the type of music that you listen too.  This is the case because the different boxes produce distinct sounds that may or may not strike your fancy.

The first type of subwoofer box is a sealed enclosure.  This is the simplest of the boxes and is just a box with a hole in it for a speaker.  People who like crisp, quality sound will prefer the sound of the sealed enclosure due to the exactness of the audio that is produced.  The only downside is that the sealed enclosure typically requires more power to get the sound that you are looking for.  In the quest for cheap car audio, more power may not be in the cards.  But if you are looking at “lesser” name brands, this may still be an option.

The second type of subwoofer box is a ported or vented box.  This type of box is very similar to the sealed enclosure but has an additional vent in it which allows for the back motion of the subwoofer to also produce sound.  These enclosures are typically tuned and are not easily built by someone who does not know what they are doing.  Purchasing these boxes are fine and some of the benefits are that they do not require as much power to get a similar amount of sound as with the sealed enclosure.

The third and last type of subwoofer box is a bandpass enclosure.  These boxes are very complicated and I personally do not recommend going this route.  This entire post has been about building a cheap car audio system and to recommend a bandpass box would be against what this post is about.  Bandpass boxes are specifically tuned to allow a specific range of frequencies to be allowed out of the box through vents in the system, so the entire system (subwoofers and all) is enclosed except for vents to allow the tuned frequencies of the box to be allowed out.  The issue with these boxes is that if the subwoofers are too powerful for the box, they can be damaged by the circulation of air in the system.  We don’t want to spend this money frugally to just damage our equipment now do we?  If on the other hand you are just using this post for information, competitive audio systems may use these types of boxes for the magnifying effect of the system.  It takes a lot less power to get a lot more boom when using this type of subwoofer box.

Now for the price equation of subwoofer boxes, I have seen single (and even dual) sealed enclosures online for as low as $25.  With the sealed enclosure, you don’t need to worry too much about the dimensions of the box due to the design and function of it.   I’ve also seen ported subwoofer boxes online for as low as $30.  I would be more concerned with the ported/vented style boxes since the dimensions are more important to produce quality sound.  So, if you really wanted a ported box, consider spending a bit more money to get one that is known to produce quality sound.  Like I stated earlier in this post, specifications and dimensions are the most important thing when building a cheap car audio system.

Last, but definitely not least in the quest for a cheap car audio system is the head unit.  This is where I normally get a little carried away with looks and fancy features.  All of that is fine when searching through head units but most features are just that, features.  They are not necessary to obtain a quality cheap car audio system, and most of them just add to the cost.  Unfortunately, I have a lot of wants when I shop for my head units, like hands free calling, IPod connectivity, and dual pre amp outputs.  I would also like it to be a Navigation unit, but those features don’t always come cheap.

Planning becomes very important when picking out head units.  You need to know what you want out of your system and how you will be playing your music.  Personally, I use an IPod to play all of my music so I would be looking for IPod connectivity.  If you still use CD’s, a CD player will be just fine.  Just be aware of the direction of playback technology and how you will be integrating that into your life.  Even though I use an IPod, I use it through an AUX port which doesn’t give the greatest consistency with the quality of sound due to the wearing of the connectors in the IPod.  If you use an IPod I would recommend the proper cable for connecting it.

I am not above being a minimalist.  Depending upon the setup that you plan to run, you may just want one set of pre-amp outputs to power your subwoofer, in this case the most important items you will be looking for are RMS output of the actual head units themselves.    This will tell you how much constant power will be going to the factory speakers, which will improve the sound.  Underpowered speakers sound terrible!  You will be hard pressed not to find cheap head units that have CD players as the default.  Even if you download MP3’s on a PC, the cheapest head units will still be able to play them.  Doing a quick online search using Google, you could pick up cheap head units used for very little money.  If you don’t want to go the used route, I’ve seen very affordable head units on Crutchfield for under $100 with 18 Watts of RMS power and pre-amp outputs.  I was particularly fond of the Sony DSXA40UI which was just a digital head unit with no CD, but that is more my speed.  This may not be what you are looking for.

If I decided to try and get everything I wanted, the head units would need to have Navigation, IPod connectivity, and hands free calling.  It would also need to have at least two sets of pre-amp outputs, one for the subwoofers and one for the door panel speakers.  Wattage on the actual head unit wouldn’t really matter because I would be running the door panel speakers through an amplifier to get better sound quality.  The head unit I would choose would be the Clarion NX605, with the 6 channel pre-amp outputs and subwoofer pre-amps as well, it would suit my needs quite nicely and at a reasonable price.  I wouldn’t call it a budget head unit but it is definitely reasonable.


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