Don’t overbuy your car stereo. Budget Car Audio Buyer's guide.

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Don’t overbuy your car stereo. Budget Car Audio Buyer's guide.

  • Hopefully a mod will sticky this for a while.

    First off, this guide is based on my experiences in twenty years of stereo, and not true for everyone. It occurred to me, that for most people the $200 $300 stereo systems of today are better than the high end car stereo’s of the eighties. And for many people, the specs are a maze of numbers, so they look at spending $350 on a head unit (HU), $200 per pair on two sets of speakers, $200 on an amp for the speakers, $500 on subwoofers, and $300 on subwoofer amps, for a total system cost of around $1700.

    Now who am I writing this for? This is for people who simply want very good sound in their car on the way to work or on long trips. I am not writing for audiophiles or competition sound enthusiasts, or people who want to rattle the windows of the cars next to them at traffic lights (although I will include suggestions for that).

    How did I come up with the $200-$300 price tag? Well, I am assuming one of the budget CF car stereos ($89-$129), there are a lot of models in this range, and two pairs of the near budget 6-1/2, 6x9, or 6x8 speakers ($49-$69 a pair). So the low end we are looking at $100 for speakers and about $100 for the HU, and mid-high-end, we are looking at about $140 for speakers and around $160 for the HU. Most cars will support speakers in these sizes, but of course, some will not.

    So what does this little bit of money get you?

    Head Unit - Generally (if you shop carefully) units in this price range will include both CD and MP3 support, likely 18 FM pre sets, features like auto loading of the strongest radio stations, pre-set equalizer settings, generally 1 (but sometimes 2) sets of RCA jacks for connecting external amplifiers, wireless remote control (in some cases), and generally at least one auxiliary input. The FM tuners and CD decks generally seem to be the same quality as the more expensive models from the same manufacturer. What are you missing out on? Generally, built-in support for a satellite radio tuner, pre-amp outputs for a subwoofer or front speaker amp, direct control of an I-Pod, ability to connect a thumb drive or USB HD to the unit via a USB connection, or really flashy display graphics.

    Amps - Most of these units have an average of 20 Watts RMS per channel. The low is 16 and the high is 22. That might not sound like much, but keep in mind that in the 80’s aftermarket stereos were about 4 W and the “high power” units were 8-12 W. In most cars with the right set of speakers, 20 W per channel will play loud enough to shake the outside rear view mirrors and cause hearing damage. Also, b/c of the way audio works, 30W per channel will not be much louder than 20, so if this isn’t loud enough for you (and usually that would just be if you wanted to park your car and hear the stereo 50 yards away), you would probably need to go to 60 W to 125W per channel, and better speakers.

    Speakers - Speakers in this range will at least go down to 50 Hz, and in some cases down to 30 Hz. Human hearing is optimally 20-20,000 Hz, and many subwoofers don’t go much lower than this, so this is a good range. The main thing you are giving up with a budget speaker set is usually high power handling. They may handle 40-60 RMS, but generally not much more than that. For me, I am looking to use them with the internal HU amp at 20 Watts, so this isn’t a great loss.

    Subwoofers - No, you aren’t getting a subwoofer at this price point. Whether you need one is debatable. They do add a lot of depth and presence to an audio system. Generally, you will hear the bass notes with the systems above, you will feel them with a subwoofer (thanks, Spruce). For classical or pop or soft rock or country, the system above will likely be okay without a subwoofer. For hard rock, a small sub will provide a lot of added “punch” to the music, and for rap, hip hop, or techno, it is almost required, but I will let you judge the usefulness and figure that part out later.

    Anyone want to add any comments or questions?

    [edited by: TigerHeli at 12:10 PM (GMT -5) on Mon, Jun 18 2007]

    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • Excellent thread TigerHeli!

    A good general rule of thumb when selecting a HU is to keep in mind that the basic quality of each unit in a particular manufacturers line-up shares the same overall build quality from start to finish. What you are paying for as you go up in the line is essentially added features. While keeping in mind that added features generally mean added cost, make a list of the features you are want the new HU to have and then shop according to what HU’s offer those features. If price at this point is too high, then bargain with yourself as to which features you are willing to give up to bring the cost down. This keeps one from overbuying a HU with features that they do not need and keeping the price accurate to the features they are after.

  • Malcolm,

    Tell me about it!!!! I am running into exactly that same problem in choosing my Focus replacement car stereo.

    I decided MP3 playback was probably more important than HD Radio to me.

    I really like the clean looks of Alpine for the dash.

    The CDE-9870 does basically everything I need, but with 15 or 16 albums on a CD, it is tough to find one by name using the unit. (I will likely have
    the clock displayed most of the time). I would be fine with the unit, if I could select the Album tag and then scroll through the folders and have it display the album info on screen, but it looks like I have to press folder UP, then Title about 4 times to get to Album Name, then folder UP again, then Title about 4 times again to get to Album Name again, etc.

    The CDE-9885 displays clock, Album Name, Song Name and volume continuously, but is almost three times the price, and the red buttons won't go as well with my dash (something about spending that much for a unit that isn't perfect seems wrong to me.)

    The CDA-9857 (last year's model), is almost perfect (green buttons again), but is only available from the outlet and is the same price as the 9885.

    The Pioneer 5900 would work well also and is more reasonably priced, but I'm not crazy about the volume control/joystick interface.

    Decisions, Decisions . . .

    Okay, I decided to edit this thread rather than pollute the guide further.

    What I would be happy with is if the single-line HU’s would display folder/album tags as I selected a folder.

    The Alpine CDE-9870 only displayed F05 or F06 until I pressed the Title button to get to the ID3 tag for the album name.

    Then again, it showed “Not Supported” for the folder and file names.

    I set my MP3 folders up as:
    “Artist - Year Released - Album Name”
    and my files as:
    ”Track No. - Artist - Song Name .mp3”

    I suspect (hope!) that it had a problem with dashes and might display the album name if it could read it. (And maybe if the setting for “SCR AUTO / SCR MANU” was changed.) I made two test discs, one with underscores in place of dashes and one with spaces in place of dashes and plan to test it out later.

    OTOH, the JVC KD-HDR1 handled this very nicely. It took a very long time to read and start playing the disc, but once started, if I switched to a new folder, it scrolled the ID3 tag for the album name once, then the ID3 tag for the song name once, then returned to clock mode. This is what I would like to happen. (In an odd way, it is very possible that the JVC could not read the folder or file names either and would have normally scrolled through these as well, so with the JVC it actually was working better because it could not read the information).

    Will let you know how the test comes out.

    Test Results: The CDE-9870 seems to be really fussy about folder file names.  Not only dashes but underscores are also not recognized, and I don't think it's very happy with apostrophes either.  I tried SCR Auto and SCR Man, and couldn't see much difference in the results.  In any case, if I had the clock displayed, I couldn't ever get the unit to show anything besides F06 or F07, etc. when I changed folders.

    [edited by: TigerHeli at 4:39 PM (GMT -5) on Wed, Jun 20 2007] [edited by: TigerHeli at 9:27 AM (GMT -5) on Tue, Jun 19 2007] [edited by: Jeff Kitchen at 4:09 PM (GMT -5) on Mon, Jun 18 2007]

    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • I want to add a little bit of info to the guide (And I will be borrowing info from related threads here and here.

    A question that comes up often is "Okay, I can get a pretty decent system according to you for around $300, but I only have about $150 to spend right now.  That will get me 4 decent speakers, an amp and two decent speakers, or a decent head unit with the current set of speakers, but not speakers and a new HU together so how do I know what to choose?"  This is a pretty contentious point, so I will give my advice but if it doesn't fit with your feelings, feel free to ignore it.

    First off, I suggest you look at the age and condition of your current speakers.  Adjust the balance and fader to each speaker individually and see if you hear any buzzing or popping from one speaker to the next.  Speakers in a rear deck are exposed to sunlight and UV rays, and door speakers can be exposed to moisture.  I have seen speakers that had the surrounds (the part connecting the woofer to the edge of the casing) completely rotted away that still played.  I recommend visually looking at them.  If they are obviously deteriorated, or if you hear one sounding bad (and can't confirm it to be a vibration problem, the speakers get replaced first.

    Second, how do you feel about the current HU?  If there are features like MP3 support that you really want and don't have, than the receiver upgrade moves to the top of the list.

    Well, now what if you are generally okay with the features of the HU, the speakers look fine, but the SQ is still not what you want.

    In this case, you need to decide where the SQ problem is coming from and what to do to fix it.  It has been my experience that on most modern cars, the factory speakers are decent (not great) and the biggest problem is the amp or the FM tuner in the HU.  While an amp would generally fix this, it can be hard to add to a factory radio, and the amp is usually about as expensive as upgrading the HU, which gives you more features anyway, so generally an amp upgrade is not recommended.  Generally, if you have to do only one, I would upgrade the head unit first and the speakers later. Aftermarket speakers will play cleaner and pick up a greater range of frequencies, but an aftermarket HU will give you more power, generally more presets, possibly MP3 support, CD playback, aux input options, etc.  In addition, many aftermarket HU's have sound tailoring controls that let you optimize the sound to your current speakers, so while the aftermarket speakers will play down to 30 Hz and the factory ones will only go to 80 or 100 Hz, the aftermarket radio likely has a high-pass filter that will allow you to keep sounds below 100 Hz away from them.  Remember to keep the volume below fully cranked with an aftermarket receiver, as your factory speakers likely can't handle the power output of the new receiver.

    If you still want to know which component is causing the problem:

    Try listening to CD's and then FM.  If the CD sound is considerably better than FM, your problem may well be with the FM tuner.  NOTE:  CD's sound better than FM anyway, but if the FM tuner sounds fine sometimes and muddy in other locations, that is a sign that the FM signal is not being properly received and an upgraded FM tuner will help.

    As far as whether the problem is with the amp distorting or the speakers lacking frequency response - Ask yourself this - Is the current system okay at low volume, but the bass sounds "muddy" and distorted at mid to high volume, (or good at all volume), but just not as loud as you like? In this case an amp will help. Is the current system lacking bass at low volume as well? Then speakers will help.

    It can be tough to tell the difference, and in my case most HU's now have about a 20W per channel amp and a new HU was the same price or less than a replacement amp. Also, as previously said, your stock speakers can't handle an aftermarket amp or HU at full power anyway, so eventually you will probably end up with both anyhow.

    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • First off, thank you for breaking it down for people like me who don't know too much but still would like to have a nice sounding system for a relatively low price. 

    I am looking to replace the HU and door speakers for my 98 Chevy Ext Cab P/U.  I have an older amp that I am looking to use, a Kenwood KAC-608S, RMS is 50W I believe.  I am looking at a Alpine CDE-9874 for my HU, but need some help with speakers.  I don't really want to spend more than $100 and want 6 1/2"s.  What is your opinion on the Alpine SPS-17C2s?  It appears to me that the RMS wattage matches up.  Do you have any other speakers to recommend?

    Thanks in advance for the input.

  • Here's some recommendations that fit your truck.  The Infinity's and Polk's lack some bass, so I wouldn't get them unless you were adding a subwoofer.  The Alpine, Sony, and Pioneer look about equal so it would be best if you could listen to them yourself.  Also, the Kenwood's are a bit less money and I don't think the extra 10W RMS will hurt them.

    Hope this helps!!! 


    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • such a helpful article TigerHeli, thanks for that dose of reality. i really needed to know that.

    so for my 1989 toyota camry station wagon, im gonna get a new head unit that will hopefully get rid of my fm radio problems, but when i comes to speakers im not sure.

     you said budget end 6" speakers or bigger sound alright, but my car only has space for 4" in the front dash and 5 1/4" in the boot.

    if i buy some low priced coaxials to fit will i have ok sound? or is it worth while creating some bigger holes to accomadate some 6x9's in the back, or even some 6's in the front as well?

     it doesnt need to be fantastic, i just want to be able to turn it up with a few mates in the car without the sound becoming cringe-worthy distorted mush like it does now.

    thanks for your work on this site, these forums have been so good!


  • There are a couple of things to consider (been a long time since I posted this and I'm not re-reading it) -

    • First, I would listen to as many speakers and combinations as you can locally.
    • Second, if the stock speakers are okay (take them out and look at them), I wouldn't change them out right away - the new deck will give a lot more power to them and they will sound better, and you will have a better idea of where you need to go.
    • The key to getting good bass without a subwoofer is power - you might do okay with just the HU, or you might need to add an amp for the speakers - that can get expensive, but it is good to plan for that, so you don't have to upgrade speakers twice.
    • I have heard some Pioneer TS-A 5.25 speakers that I thought had decent bass, but I don't have the model numbers or know really how they were powered.
    • If you decide the 5.25's won't give you the bass you need, you can consider a small powered sub under a seat, or 6x9's in enclosures, if you don't feel comfortable modifying the structure.
    Hope This Helps!!!

    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • thanks for your help, ill change the HU over first to see how the stock speakers sound.

     i just found out that the front actually accommodates 3 1/2" speakers. from reading around, its clear that you cant buy 3.5"s with any bass.

    will it matter that there is no bass coming from the front at all? will it sound disjointed and crap? i cant really afford to install an amp or sub but am ok with putting larger speakers in the back.

    the HU i am looking at is 4x50W, which for these sizes of speaker seems big enough no?

    [edited by: ocean at 6:56 PM (GMT -5) on Thu, Apr 02 2009]
  • ocean:
    will it matter that there is no bass coming from the front at all? will it sound disjointed and crap? i cant really afford to install an amp or sub but am ok with putting larger speakers in the back.

    Where are the rear speakers located?  Low bass is omni-directional (you can't hear what direction it is coming from), and the 3.5's would essentially be tweeters - but I never had much luck with 3.5's on a previous car - kept blowing and I eventually just disconnected them - that was 1984 and they likely have improved, though.

    the HU i am looking at is 4x50W, which for these sizes of speaker seems big enough no?

    4x50W Peak, probably 17W-20W RMS, but most HU's put out about the same amount of power.  See how it sounds - I wouldn't run more power than that to the 3.5's, but the 5.25's could take more power, and if you go larger, they definitely could probably handle 100W RMS - but to go more powerful, you are looking at a 2-channel amp and wiring kit, so probably minimum $120 - maybe more than you want to invest.

    Hope This Helps!!!

    2002 Ford Focus JVC KD-A815 Sony CDX-GT410u Sony XT-100HD HD Tuner Stock speakers, no amp, no subs

  • i have had great luck with running mid price range speakers from pioneer and kenwood.  Both of these were run with pioneer HU's.  THey sounded great and loud and full.  Until i now this was great but ive always desired the pound and vibration of a sub.  THe sound is much more full but not necessary for great listening enjoyment.  My needs are purely out of a love for extreme bass.  Also as far as head units go.  I have always had great luck with pioneer. <Mod Edit: Removed price discussion. Please refer to our Code of Conduct and price discussion policy. Thanks.> 


    [edited by: TigerHeli at 6:58 AM (GMT -5) on Thu, Apr 09 2009] Was: Not to pull sales from this sight, auction sites like ebay provide great bargains on new and used items.