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Car audio doesn’t have to be expensive or complex

by Eric Frederiksen | March 11, 2018

Music plays a huge role in my life. I almost always have something playing. Sometimes I’m digging into the back-catalog of hip hop, educating myself on something like the Wu-Tang Clan, other times I’m confusing my brain with a mashup like Mouth Moods or some weird vaporwave. Whatever I’m listening to, I’m always listening to something. I have headphones for the cafe and headphones for home. I have earbuds for travel. I have one headset for PC gaming, and another for console gaming. This year, though, I decided to finally invest in some proper audio for my car, and it’s one of the best audio-related investments I’ve made in a while.

I’m not going to pretend I have the most epic car audio setup you’ve ever seen, nor am I going to suggest that it can break glass in neighbor’s houses. Instead, I’m going to suggest that you might be able to afford it, do it yourself, and notice a substantial difference.

When my eighteen year-old car died late last year, it finally became time to drive something from this century. I went buck wild and found myself a Toyota Corolla in a local used-car lot. The moment I got into it, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to live with the built-in stereo console. I haven’t played music off a CD in years, but I do use Bluetooth every day, so my first task upon getting the car was to get a modern console in place.

The other thing that became immediately clear was how junky the built-in speakers were.

After talking to some friends, I hit up Crutchfield, an online retailer that caters to car audio enthusiasts. With the wide variety of makes, models, and years of car on the market, it can be tough to figure out what equipment will work with your vehicle. Crutchfield will do that if you punch in the info for the car you’re working with so that you’re not looking at speakers that won’t fit into your rear deck or a stereo incompatible with your dash.

After a lot of feature comparison, I ended up with the Pioneer MVH-S600BS receiver as the home base for my new audio setup. For my needs, it had the right set of features for the price. Bluetooth connectivity, a bright screen, and a big double-height format, but without a heft CD player I’ll literally never use. When you pick out a piece of hardware on Crutchfield, the site gives you the option to add the necessary accessories to your cart to make it work with your car, including the harness that helps it blend cleanly into your dash and the necessary wiring to link things up. If your car’s wheel has built-in controls, the site will even present you with the adapter to make that business work. I should note right now that Crutchfield did not pay me to write this, they just have a dope system in place for getting the right pieces together for a great setup.

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I took a two-pronged attack for getting my audio setup working. I’d installed a car stereo once before, so I went about doing that myself. Even if you’re relatively inexperienced, as I am, this is often something that takes just a few hours. A nylon prybar, a screwdriver, and a wire stripper are often all you need to get started. There’s a lot of time spent twisting copper together, but none of it is rocket science. I’m not the kind of person who has piles of capacitors and resistors in my workshop – I’m a strictly plug-and-play guy when it comes to most of my electronics, and I’m much more comfortable inside a computer than under a dashboard – I’m not a car guy.

Not only does Crutchfield email you instructions to get started, YouTube is a veritable superstore of instructional videos when it comes to stuff like this. Before you buy anything, check out some tutorials for your car, and you can get an idea of what you’re getting yourself into.

For the speakers, those YouTube videos were what helped me make the decision to have professional installation done. Some cars will use removable harnesses for the stock speakers in your doors and rear deck, or have holes drilled in the right spots ahead of time. My Corolla doesn’t – it asks you to drill new holes and punch your screwdriver through the old speakers, destroying them in the process. There’s no going back once you damage the speaker membrane. With that said, it still isn’t highly technical labor. If you have a good drill and some spare confidence, actually putting speakers in is mostly just a bit of drilling and a connecting up a couple color-coded wires.

So I took my car to a local car-audio place and had them connect up the speakers I’d picked out – Kenwood’s 1665S and 6965S – while I ate Skittles in the waiting room.

I worried a little bit through the installation that I’d have a hard time discerning my new speakers from the old ones, despite the built-in speakers being of visibly low quality. As soon as I pumped some tunes into them, though, the difference wasn’t just apparent, it was like night and day. Drums sound like drums. Audio is cleaner and clearer even at lower volumes, while higher volumes don’t distort like they do on lesser setups.

The main components for my setup cost me less than $200, though splurging on the steering wheel adapter and some tools helped raise the price for parts north of $250. If I had installed the speakers myself, the investment would’ve ended there. Going with a professional tacked another $150 or so onto the total bill. In the process, though, I learned a lot about my car and ended up with a vehicle that’s a joy to drive. I can annoy the cars on either side of me with clean, crystal-clear curse words, and my favorite sounds sound exactly like I expect them to sound instead of being a barely-acceptable facsimile.

For how much time many of us spend in our cars, an investment like that pays for itself in just a few months. It might be something to save up for, for sure, but it’s far from a pipe dream. If you have a long commute each day or like to go on road trips, you’ll get, pun completely intended, plenty of mileage out of an improved stereo system. You don’t have to go over the top and get a touch screen, a beefy amp, and a huge subwoofer that consumes all your trunk space to make huge improvements to your setup and make the experience of driving significantly more pleasurable.

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Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...


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