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How to get the best stereo imaging & soundstage

Your car can be a great place to enjoy music

Properly tweaked, your car or truck can be a fantastic place to listen to music. But in order to achieve that level of enjoyment, you need to compensate for some of the vehicle's natural limitations. Achieving great imaging is a matter of understanding your components, and how they interact with your vehicle and the people sitting in it.

imaging is essential to great car audio

With the right gear, you can achieve great stereo imaging in any car, giving your music lifelike dimension across your dash.


Imaging describes the extent to which a stereo system reproduces the timbre and location of the individual instruments accurately and realistically. In a system with superior imaging, you should be able to close your eyes and envision where the instruments were positioned on stage, from right to left. Everyone who really appreciates music in an automotive environment cares about stereo imaging — from the casual enthusiast to the serious competitor.

The speakers themselves should seem to disappear, replaced instead by a spatial arrangement of music sources, or soundstage. Although the front and rear speakers create the soundstage, it should seem to come from in front of you, filling the space from left to center to right.

"Side-biased" listening

When you listen to tunes at home, you probably don't make a habit of planting yourself smack dab in front of your left speaker. If you did, you'd be missing out on the detail the right driver has to offer, as well as the spaciousness of a complete stereo image. Yet when you listen to music in the driver's seat of your car, and you have conventional speakers in your doors or dash, you probably get the same type of imbalanced listening experience.

"Side-biased" listening has its disadvantages. The music on your left reaches you before the music on your right. Within certain bandwidths, this imbalance may seem to alter your system's response, emphasizing some frequencies over others. The sounds on your left may also seem louder, distorting the soundstage.

Equalizing path lengths

To get proper imaging, the path lengths between your speakers and your ears need to be as close to equal as possible. These paths should be unobstructed as well. If your left door speaker lies about 2-1/2" feet from your left ear and your right door speaker about five feet from your right ear, you won't hear balanced sound. Playing with the receiver's balance control can help the driver's listening experience, but it throws the image out of whack for the person in the passenger seat.

You can overcome this problem by installing component speakers mounted in a set of custom kick panels in your car. While this option used to cost a bundle, products like Q-Forms from Q-Logic have made the process easier and more affordable, because they come ready-made for a wide variety of cars and trucks on the road today. With the separates installed in the pods by your feet, you're ensured the equal path lengths vital to good imaging, restoring your music's detail, dynamic balance, and natural soundstage.

You can also overcome unequal path lengths by purchasing an in-dash stereo with digital time correction. Time correction allows you to compensate for speaker placement by adjusting the speed at which the audio signal reaches individual speakers. Using the speaker furthest from your ears as a reference point, you calculate the amount of time that speakers closer to you need to be delayed so that all sounds arrive at your ears at the same time.

Speaker imaging

Certain brands like Alpine design their car receivers to work with smartphone apps that allow more precise EQ settings.

Other mounting options

Despite the growing popularity of products like Q-Forms and angled tweeters in full-range speakers, many of us still choose to improve our imaging with matched components or by mounting the mid-woofers in factory locations and tweeters up high on the dash or door. You should keep the mid-woofer and tweeter as close together as possible so that the two drivers act together as a single point-source.

While a conventional component speaker set-up does leave path lengths unequal, usually the tweeters have a direct line to your ears, and this lack of obstruction improves the level of detail and the quality of your stereo image. Many matched component sets also let you adjust the firing angle of the tweeters to further optimize imaging. (Keep this feature in mind when shopping for add-on tweeters.)

Adjusting for rear fill

Once you have your front speakers installed to your liking, you'll want to make sure that your rear speakers are doing their part to create an ideal soundstage. While personal taste plays a role here, most experts agree that you should adjust the volume level for rear speakers so that you're barely conscious of their presence.

While your front speakers should give you the best midrange and high frequencies possible, your rear speakers can be conventional coaxials or low frequency drivers. Their purpose is to add ambiance and depth to your forward soundstage. If they reveal too much high frequency information, they'll "pull" the stereo image to the rear of your vehicle, away from where you want it.

Setting your subwoofer

If you're running a subwoofer in your trunk, you want to avoid the sensation that all the bass is coming from the rear of the car, or that the bass player is dancing her way from your trunk to your front kick panels as she plays higher up the neck. If your amp or in-dash stereo includes a built-in crossover, set the high-pass filters to feed your front speakers the lowest frequencies they can safely handle. Start with your low-pass filter set as low as possible, then raise the crossover point until you hear the "sweet spot", the point at which the bass notes sound clearly defined, punchy, and in front of you. This setup allows some bass to filter from your front speakers and restricts your sub to low bass that is very difficult to localize.

Testing your system

When you have all your components in place, test your system to see that it's imaging properly. As you tweak your system to perfection, spend some time listening to other people's set-ups, informally or at sound-off competitions. Rather than attempting to precisely duplicate the systems you like, try to pick up general concepts and techniques, keeping in mind that every vehicle differs acoustically. What sounds great in a trophy-winning Camaro may muddy up the sound of your BMW. Besides, some of us like very precise imaging, while others among us prefer sound that is a little more spacious and open.

In the final analysis, the stereo image that suits your tastes is the one that's right for you. So, trust your ears.

  • Dav Cee from San Francisco

    Posted on 4/20/2021

    I drive a van with no seats in back and I love the concert hall effect I get from fading the sound rearwards a little. It goes against convention, but maybe because it's a different space it works for me. Also, having the sound coming from farther away seems to be less wearing, and easier to conversate over, but maybe turning it down more would do the same? Just throwing another opinion into the discussion!

  • David Gonzalez from TAYLOR

    Posted on 10/20/2020

    I have a 2016 Mazda3 sedan. I'm using an Audison bit ONE HD. I'm happy with the stage height and the center point but lacking in the expansion. It feels like the band is only using 50% of the stages length

  • Shane Fine from Pittsburgh

    Posted on 1/4/2019

    i just recently installed kicker KS 6.5" in my front doors with the tweeters in the a pillars. I also installed KS's in the rear doors but i mounted the tweeters on the woofers as coaxials. They are being everything is tuned 100% as far as gains, crossover, and power from the amp. Unfortunately i did not know too much about sound staging before installing these speakers and was wondering if i screwed up by mounting the tweeters as coaxials in the back. I can definitely tell the staging is off from the front tweeters and will be trying the time alignment setting in my headunit but im not to sure on what to do for the rear tweeters. I also have two kicker 12's in the trunk providing more then enough bass so that part is covered.

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 1/7/2019

    Shane, give our Tech Support a call for free help troubleshooting your system if you bought your gear from us. If you purchased your equipment elsewhere, you can still get expert Crutchfield Tech Support - 90 days-worth for only $30. Check out our tech support page for details.
  • Hendri Kleyn from CapeTown,SouthAfrica

    Posted on 6/5/2018

    Hi to Crutchfield team. I am a regular reader on your site in spite of me being located in South Africa. As i recently ''upgraded'' my in-car sound i found many common issues discussed on this forum. Car = 2017 Ford Focus Ecoboost sedan(R/H drive). I also experienced louder sound from left(passenger) speaker than the one close to me in the door sill.I had the 4 doors done with DrArtex Gold which made a huge improvement to the mid-bass front sound quality. The OEM's were retained but the low volume split tweeters were upgraded to RockFord Fosgate units. The sound stage is now at ear level. The rear OEM door-mounts are hardly audible as the rear output volume seems to be lower from the HU than the front splits. Initially a Kicker Hideaway was mounted in trunk but a severe time delay caused(forced) me to relocate them to driver under-seat position and this made a huge difference. Still an audible time-delay to the golden-ear listener(me..!) but it proved that different locations creates meaningful change but not so easy as a HomeTheater setup would call for. I am trying to improve the rear levels by adding two small ''low power'' tweeters flat up against the door trim on the horizontal plane but this is in close proximity to my ears and might change the sound stage to shift with unknown results. First prize is the EQ / time-aligned HU but this model does not have this luxury. The above is merely to underline what has been said already.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/3/2018

    HG, that'll likely come down to taste and possibly the layout of your vehicle. If you can, try out as many listening scenarios as you can. That'll help you determine what suits you best.

  • Scott Saunders from Morgan , (Utah)

    Posted on 4/27/2018

    Great article here, on the importance of installing rear fill speakers, but the article suggest coaxials are OK for rears. In my experience, treble behind you smears soundstaging by localization. In home theater tweeters in the rear are fine.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 1/31/2018

    Tyler, not sure that angled brackets would help, and I'm assuming balance adjustment hasn't fixed the problem either. If there's a chance that your driver side speaker is damaged/blown, you could give us a call for options on a fresh start.

  • Tyler Painter from Rimersburg

    Posted on 1/29/2018

    My front passenger side speaker is louder when sitting in drivers seat. My leg blocks the speakers pathway. Is there anything I can do to help this issue? Would buying angled speaker brackets help? The best I've done is subtract DB from the front right, using my speaker level, on my HU

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/30/2017

    Rickey, you're certainly right — your engine is a big noise source and finding ways to suppress that sound will help. Check out this video about Dynamat. We installed Dynamat in a Ford F-150 and noticed a major difference. Perhaps it will inspire some ideas for you.

  • Rickey from Seabrook

    Posted on 10/26/2017

    Hey guys I have my doors dynamatted really well and my rear deck on both sides. Working on trunk lid at the moment. Where does the most road noise make its way into the cabin? I'm adding even more dynamat and got to order sum! It seems to me when I really listen and think about it that most of the road noise makes its way into the cabin where my feet are by my break and gas pedals or that's where I catch most of the noise because I'm closer to it, my front stage is where it's all happening and that's so close to my front door speakers.. but that dang vibrating floor lol I hear it and I'm picky.. Where should I put more dynamat? I'm looking for that secret location to hear a noticeable difference in SQ when heading down those striped highways at 75. Thanks! You guys have been around for awhile it's great to see everyone is still eating and enjoying listening to the universal language, MUSIC :)

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/16/2017

    Kevin, hmm, this one's a puzzler. It could be related to the signal sensing on your amp, given your description of what happens when you turn up the volume. A good first step would be to check all your connections, and if you bought your gear from Crutchfield, you can call Tech Support for free help troubleshooting your system. Give us a call.

  • Kevin

    Posted on 8/14/2017

    Hi Alexander, I have identical compo sets front and rear in my 2014 VW Golf and an amp with integrated dsp, and was wondering if one should also time align the speakers in the rear. I also have a bit of a strange thing going on at low volume (like when you want to talk to a passenger): the sound drifts to the right of the car, and when turning it up a bit, the sound is centered. What could be causing this?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/14/2016

    Brad, this sounds like a good start. After your settings overhaul, if you're dissatisfied with the sound, you can get expert Crutchfield Tech Support - 90 days-worth for only $30. Check out our tech support page for details.

  • Brad

    Posted on 12/13/2016

    Hi, I have recently bought a stereo system for my car, HU is Kenwood KDC-BT600U, Amp is Focal FD4.350, Front speakers are Focal PS165FX components, Rear speakers are Focal PC165 and Sub is Focal SUBP30DB and had the shop where I bought it from install and tune it, twice, because I didn't like the way it sounded. I still didn't like the way it sounded after the 2nd time so I tried playing with the settings on the head unit first and now all of a sudden my bass is really "boomy" and has no punch to it. I'm worried I have done something wrong and I'm going to damage speakers and/or sub.. I'm wondering can I press the factory reset button on the head unit then follow this guide and the sub tuning guide will I get good results or is there something in the actual installation I should look at first?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/2/2016

    Lucas, since there is no tweeter attenuation option on those speakers, your best bet might be to angle the tweeters down or straight-on to help deflect those high frequencies. Just be sure you're happy with the sound before you re-install your door panels.

  • Lucas from Mobile, AL

    Posted on 10/27/2016

    I have a 1999 Saturn SL with a pair of Focal Performance 165AC coaxials mounted in the front doors. I currently have the tweeters aimed up and toward the front occupants (e.g. left speaker tweeter is aimed up and left, right speaker tweeter is aimed up and right). But to me, the highs seem to be overpowering, and no matter how I set the higher frequencies on my equalizer, the highs always sound shrill. Would there be any benefit in adjusting the direction of the tweeters? I've heard aiming them down to reflect off the floorboard sometimes works, or in-board to fill the sound stage, but I don't know if any of that advice is legit or not.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/26/2016

    Tyrell, you'll have to fabricate mounting gear for the tweeters. I've passed your question to our sales team for the best help. An advisor will contact you soon!

  • Tyrell from Austin

    Posted on 8/26/2016

    I have a 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage without Nav... I am interested in buying component speakers for the front but am afraid of the cost of installation due to not having a Q Logic enclosure made for my vehicle.... Any suggestions on components for my vehicle and a pair of coaxial in the rear to go with my two 12"s in a sealed enclosure in the hatchback?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/5/2016

    Mark, I've passed your question along to our sales team for the best answer. An advisor will contact you soon to help you find the right gear for your Tundra.

  • mark Kelly from Murfreesboro

    Posted on 7/1/2016

    Hi, I have a Toyota Tundra double cab. I have a JL Jx500/1d pushing one JL Audio CP108LG-W3v3, and a Clarion power pack pushing my factory speakers. I'm looking to upgrade my door speakers and possibly adding another JL sub. What are my best options for door speakers? My power pack only pushes 50rmsx4. Should I even replace the back speakers?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/9/2016

    Clairice, you'll undoubtedly benefit from upgrading your front speakers. You might want to base your decision to upgrade the rear speakers on who you think will enjoy them (in other words, who uses the back seat and how often?). In the meantime, fiddle with your stereo's fader to see if you can get those rear tweeters under control.

  • Clairice from Knightdale, NC

    Posted on 5/6/2016

    I have a question kind of in the ballpark of one of the previous questions in regards to rear fill. I have a Focus ST with 2 sets of components - 1 in the front and one in the rear. It dawned on me on my way to work today that the rear door tweeter is VERY close to my ear and is where I am getting most of my sound from. Does this change what the staging should be at all? I'm afraid that if I change the rears, they will be deafeningly loud so I am assuming my best bet is to upgrade the fronts and have the majority of my sound coming to the front, correct? Thanks!

  • David from Arlington, VA

    Posted on 1/28/2016

    If you're willing to experiment a bit, here is a simple trick which I used to use in my 95 Corolla (before I installed a time alignment processor), and am currently using in my GF's 96 Legacy. Both cars have the speakers mounted in the original factory door locations. If your primary concern is good stereo imaging in the driver's seat, try going against manufacturer recommendations, and wire the front left speaker backwards. This will greatly increase the time it takes for the sound from the left speaker (the one closest to you) to reach your left ear. While this solution is not nearly as flexible or accurate as using a time correction processor, and definitely not quite as effective as relocating the speakers altogether, it could be a cheap and easy way to improve the overall sound stage. One thing to note: depending on the acoustics in your vehicle, this may result in muddying up the lower frequencies or canceling them altogether, since the front left and right speakers are now out-of-phase with each other. However, that can be negated by carefully re-tuning the crossovers and subs. Your mileage WILL vary, so again, I only recommend this to people who are willing to experiment with things a little. That said, I have gotten very positive results using this method. Center vocals appear to get shifted from the floor and up to a point right in front of me, and the entire sound stage is completely opened up - almost as if I was sitting right in the middle!

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/14/2015

    Timur, rear fill is generally for the benefit of your backseat passengers. If you typically have a lot of passengers in the backseat, then Option 2 is your best bet. If you don't, you'd probably be okay with Option 4. Good luck!

  • Timur Sakaoglu from Istanbul

    Posted on 12/11/2015

    Dear Alexander, my question is fully based on rear fill, should a person seek to get rear fill speakers which of the below paths would you advise to go with: 1) to purchase the same brand,model component speakers of which are used also in the front to have identical sound tonality and simply only install the rears with the woofers of the component set and have them run filtered to a certain frequency lower than highs such as 3200hz and simply have the crossovers and tweeters kept as spares uninstalled. 2) to purchase coaxials and run them fullrange 3) to purchase coaxials and run them filtered to play below highs such as 3200hz (or any other frequency you advise) 4) to keep all the Money spent on rears in our pockets and invest in better fronts with that Money and simply use stock rears as rear fills. ıf so would you filter them? if filtered to which frequency on a 5.25 size?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/1/2015

    Mark, opinions may vary. If you're comparing a pair of 4" speakers with a pair of 6"x9" 3-way speakers, you'll notice a difference. Bigger woofers will give you better bass response because they're able to move more air. In your case, the sound difference between a pair of 5-1/4" speakers and 6-1/2" in the same series may be hard to nail down. Conventional wisdom would be if you can fit a bigger speaker in your factory location without much trouble, go for it! By simply replacing your old factory speakers with aftermarket speakers, you're going to seriously improve your sound.

  • Mark M from Rio Rancho

    Posted on 11/1/2015

    Does the size of the front speakers make a difference in sound quality? According to the fit guide, some 6 1/2 and 6 3/4 speakers show to fit my application but a better selection of 5 1/4 components come up as well. Of these sizes, is it better to go for the larger size to get better sound quality?

  • Marques from Hercules, CA

    Posted on 9/13/2015

    If imaging and sound quality are your priorities, invest as much as you can afford on your front stage speakers and a professional SQ install if possible. If you're a sub-o-holic, you will need to detox. Proper SQ imaging means your subwoofer decibels will be relative to your FRONT STAGE decibels, so pouring big bucks into a big sub and monster amp is overkill if your front stage lacks output. If you want more overall output, pray you can fit high output SQ 7 or 8 inch midwoofers in the doors or kick panels. If an upfront subwoofer is possible in your vehicle, do it. Some cars come factory equipped with under-dash subs. A SQ-class in-door/under dash 8" sub is a lot better for imaging than a big 12 in the back. Most importantly, save (or have) a lot of money.

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/25/2015

    Justin, we don't carry the Bit One, so it's not a product we can really vouch for one way or the other. In the end, personal preference counts for a lot. Follow your gut on what sounds the best. If you think you can achieve a cleaner sound playing with the amp and LC7i a little more, that seems like a good first step. You certainly already have an awesome system in place.

  • Justin Steed from Round rock

    Posted on 8/24/2015

    I have a 2012 Chrysler 300 with Focal KRx2 in the front and some Hertz Hi Energy 6x9s in my rear panel powered by a JL HD600/4. Should my rear speakers be playing lower frequencies? They are set to 250Hz and so are the Focals. And I feel like I'm not getting that nice clean sound just yet. So my audio shop I go to recommended putting in the Audison BitOne will that honestly do much? Or should I just play with the amp and LC7i a little more?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/2/2015

    Mike, stereo imaging across your dash could be improved by replacing your front 5x7's with component speakers, if it's an expense you're willing to take on. Mounting the tweeters in the components high on the door will raise and focus your soundstage. It's your front speakers that are carrying the burden of imaging for the front seats, so moving your rear speakers won't do much to improve the soundstage in front of you (if that's your intention). The rear speakers are for the benefit of your rear passengers. If the goal of moving the rear speakers is to improve the sound for your rear passengers, then give it a try!

  • Mike Syp from Chicago

    Posted on 7/1/2015

    I have a 2011 Ford conversion van high top. I upgraded sound system to 4 Alpine 5x7 type S speakers, 2 up front in doors, and 2 in rear doors. Kenwood 10 inch 300W subwoofer under rear couch, and Kenwood 5 ch amp 75x4 / 400x1. Sound is loud, and clear, but I'm not getting the imaging I'd like to have across the front? Also rear speakers seem to be blocked by couch, I'm considering pulling then out of rear doors, and putting in middle of van in wall drivers side, and door passenger side? leaving just the subwoofer in the rear? any thoughts? and or help please?