D.I.Y. or PAY: How Will You Upgrade Your Car Audio?

As I mentioned previously in this series on Car Audio, I test a lot of premium factory car stereo systems, and while I am impressed with the quality they achieve I have found they still cannot stand up to the sound quality of aftermarket components installed properly. If you are ready to upgrade that factory stereo system, read on.

Car Audio D.I.Y. or PAY/Images by David Goodspeed

Car Audio D.I.Y. or PAY/Images by David Goodspeed

Recently I discovered that many of the companies producing some of the best aftermarket car audio equipment have ties to global automakers. Some of the aftermarket companies are consulting on the factory stereo systems or supplying the components to be installed in your new car while others are actually working in the automotive facilities to assist automobile designers and engineers in creating a premium car audio experience.


I recently spoke with Chris Dragon, Senior Director, Marketing Car Aftermarket and Events, HARMAN, who told me his company holds a 70 percent market share of OEM car audio equipment. In other words, Harman supplies more than two-thirds of the world’s new vehicles with the car audio equipment that rolls off the assembly lines. At the same time, Harman produces quality aftermarket equipment to upgrade or completely replace the factory system in your vehicle.


Once you have made the decision to upgrade your sound system, the next step is deciding whether you are capable of doing it yourself or having a car stereo specialist install the aftermarket equipment for you…AND what exactly you want to upgrade.


I have been a DIY-er since before I could even drive. The first sound system I installed in a vehicle was for my driving instructor. I traded driving lessons for a “quadraphonic” stereo system I installed in his van. Shortly after that I discovered just how good the 6×9 co-axes in my first car could sound when putting some type enclosure behind them and not just throwing them on top of the rear window shelf.


In the early ‘80s I met a car stereo shop owner who had just returned from California where he spent time with some of the car audio industry pioneers. The shop owner was kind enough to pass on his knowledge of all the crazy things folks on the west coast were doing inside their vehicles, replacing rear seats with multiple woofer enclosures and filling trunks with racks of amplifiers. I spent the best part of the next decade doing the same thing to my vehicles, even competing (successfully, I might add) in car audio competitions.


Folks are still doing the same thing today although driving around advertising all the car stereo equipment you have in your vehicle can lead to some of it being revoked by a certain criminal element. Thank goodness for aftermarket equipment that can be installed in factory locations remaining hidden from prying eyes yet improve sound quality by leaps and bounds. Factory car stereo systems have become quite sophisticated these days to include surround sound digital signal processing designed to recreate the environment where the recording was made, be it studio, club or concert hall.


For simple upgrades to your car audio system, think speakers. This is a relatively quick and easy improvement that will greatly impact your listening experience. Upgrading full range door speakers to those with separate midrange and tweeters is a great start. After that I would recommend adding a quality woofer (and woofer enclosure) along with a separate amplifier to power it. Many amplifiers have the necessary electronic crossover built into them saving on additional equipment costs, and many units allow you to simply piggyback the stereo signal off your rear speakers so additional runs of wiring (and disassembly of your car) may not be necessary.

One of the greatest resources when upgrading car audio equipment has been Crutchfield.com. What began as a printed installation guide/catalog has become a valuable online resource for car audio. Not only can you find a host of car stereo equipment but you can also enter the parameters for your vehicle and find what will fit perfectly back into those factory locations and what equipment or accessories you will need. Every installer I knew “back in the day” had the latest copy of the Crutchfield guide in the top of their toolboxes. These days I am sure they have a direct link to the site on their home screens.

Whether you decide to do it yourself or pay someone else to install car audio equipment in your vehicle for you, there are many options for upgrades, some of which are vehicle dependent and some depend on your personal taste, style and budget.

Next Time: We review some aftermarket car audio speakers

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About the Author

David Goodspeed
David was editor of AutoworldToday at Today Newspapers in the Dallas suburbs until its closing in 2009. He was also webmaster and photographer/videographer. He got started doing photography for the newspaper while working as a firefighter/paramedic in one of his towns, and began working for the newspaper group full-time in 1992. David entered automotive journalism in 1998 and became AutoworldToday editor in 2002. On the average, he drives some 100 new vehicles each year. He enjoys the great outdoors and as an avid fly fisherman, as is his spouse Tish. He especially enjoys nature photography and is inspired by the works of Ansel Adams.