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How to tune up your car audio system

Expert tips to make your music sound better

Whether you're a car audio newcomer or a seasoned competitor, there's nothing quite like adding new audio equipment to your vehicle. However, it can be disappointing when your carefully designed system doesn't sound the way you expected it to. But don't lose your cool — spend some time tuning your system before you go back to the drawing board. Here are a few suggestions for maximizing your system's potential.

installing a car speaker

If your stereo sounds a bit off, check your speakers first.

Check speaker phase

The speakers in your system should all be firing in phase — simply put, all the cones should be moving out and in at the same time. If they're not, you lose bass response, which makes your system sound anemic and unfocused. It's important to check all your speakers, even if your system was professionally installed.

To determine if a pair of speakers in your vehicle are in phase, listen to some bass-heavy music with your stereo's balance control all the way to one side. Now return the balance control to the center — you should hear significantly more bass. If you don't, your speakers are out of phase. Switch the positive and negative leads on a single speaker, and try again. If you hear more bass, leave it! Use this method to check the front and rear speakers independently.

Turn on your subwoofer system. Reverse the speaker wires going to your sub and listen for a change in bass response. Again, if it gets louder, leave it alone. Another tip — always make sure that multiple subs are wired in phase with each other.

Setting your equalizer and adjusting your subwoofer

It may be tempting to crank up the bass on your receiver, especially if you've just installed a sub. But you really need to tune your system first. When you do get around to playing with the EQ, remember to make small adjustments where you need them most. 

Start with the stereo's equalizer set flat — all tone controls at "0" and no EQ curve engaged. With the subwoofer off, turn some familiar music up to a moderate listening level, then slowly increase the subwoofer output until you hit the "sweet spot" — the place where the bass really kicks in without overwhelming the rest of the music.

If the bass sounds like it's coming from behind you, lower the sub amp's crossover point to "de-localize" the bass. If your amp has a non-adjustable crossover, try moving the subwoofer. For example, if the subwoofer is firing toward the rear, turn it around so it fires forward or sideways. Remember to check your phase again when the sub is in its final position.

Creating a soundstage across your dash

Your system should create a "soundstage." What that means is that when you close your eyes, you should hear the instruments as though they're directly in front of you, arranged from far right to far left, with (if you're listening to a little rock'n'roll) the kick drum, bass guitar, and lead vocal right dead center. When your soundstage is set up correctly, it's like the band is playing a set on your dashboard.

bass blockers

Bass Blockers remove low frequencies, which helps front speakers perform better

Some vehicles make it tough to establish a strong front soundstage, but there are several workarounds that can help you get the sound you want:

  • If your car has small front speakers, install some Bass Blockers. They'll filter out the low frequencies so your speakers will play louder and clearer, bringing the soundstage back in front of you. If your receiver has built-in crossover capability, use its high-pass filter to remove low bass from smaller speakers for improved performance.
  • If you have a subwoofer (or larger speakers in the back), use your receiver's fader to move the music forward and then turn up the overall level to bring the bass back into play.
  • If your front speakers are mounted low in the doors, that can have a negative impact on soundstaging. Some receivers feature independent front/rear tone controls or signal processing that raises the front image, so make those adjustments if you can. Or, if possible, install a set of tweeters up front.

The right amount of bass in your music

Great bass isn't just for rap, heavy metal, or reggae fanatics — if you're a fan of classical music or jazz, you might be surprised at the quiet authority a subwoofer brings to your music. Even at low listening levels, a sub can produce richness and impact you wouldn't otherwise hear.

Play some music that features active, powerful bass parts — all the bass notes should punch out at an even volume level. If you hear bass notes dropping out or booming, check your phase and experiment with different crossover points until it's smoothed out. Once your sub is tuned properly, you can use your receiver's equalization controls to make minor adjustments.

Instead of cranking the bass way up to increase your system's impact, raise the bass a little bit and lower the highs and mids. It's smart to keep equalization to a minimum — pumping up the bass control just robs your system of its effective power.

Anything missing?

After a few hours of listening, you'll be able to notice any weaknesses in your system.

  • System sound dull? Put a set of tweeters up front to strengthen your front image and add liveliness to your sound. Many receivers feature signal processing to enrich the sound, or extensive equalization which can do a lot to improve a dull-sounding system.
  • Vocals and instruments sound buried? If your receiver has a midrange control, boost it up a little bit; if it includes a parametric equalizer, try adding a little bump in the 400-1000 Hz range. Replace your rear full-range speakers with high-quality midrange speakers to bring out warmth and detail without adding more sizzle. Installing Dynamat in your vehicle will reduce road noise, which masks crucial midrange details.
  • System too bright? If your front speakers have swiveling tweeters, aim them away from you. If you have installed component tweeters, check the crossovers for output level switching — a drop of 3 dB can make a huge difference in the way your tweeters match up to the rest of the system. Experiment with your receiver's EQ. If that doesn't nail it, consider a receiver with more equalization control or (for an amplified system) an outboard equalizer.
    equalizer screen

    A built-in equalizer is a big help in tuning your system

Think ahead

Once you've taken the time to adjust the system, you'll know whether or not you've made smart purchases. Always buy with an eye to the future — you might be saving 40 bucks on your receiver now, but what's the point if it's missing some crucial features you'll need when you expand your system?

If you plan on adding a sub to your system later, spend a little more now and get a multi-channel amp (instead of a 2-channel) so you can power your front speakers and subs with one amp. Oh, and don't install 10-gauge power wire if your ultimate goal is a throbbin' multi-amp system. If you're thinking big, thinking ahead can save you a lot of time and money when you're building the car stereo system of your dreams.

For tips on how to build a great car stereo system in stages, check out this article about our Budget-Friendly Car Audio Buildup. If you need any recommendations, give us a call and one of our advisors will be happy to help you find the right gear for your vehicle, or check out our Outfit My Car tool.

For more information on improving the performance of your Crutchfield audio gear, check out these articles on tuning speakers, car stereos, subs, and amps or give our Tech Support team a call.

  • Recharged95 from Dc

    Posted on 9/17/2020

    Intrigued. I've used my fader to bring my components forward for decent front stage, but I noticed when I raise the subwoofer crossover point from 80 to 120hz the bass feels like it moves forward too, opposite of what is said. 80hz definitely sounds like rear bias, but if I throw the bass under 60hz is becomes more muted, but deeper which makes sense. Yes I have 5x7 woofers aka mids in the front doors.

  • Eliezer Serrano from Cape Coral

    Posted on 9/14/2020

    Im using an external 7 band equalizer to separate my subwoofer amp, my front amp, and rear amp. Should I leave the radio eq flat and only work with the external eq settings? Im using 4 polk audio 6x9s that I bought from you. Two are my front and the other two are my rear. Then one 12 inch sub in a ported box. I ended up using the HP filter on both amps front and rear because it was getting too much bass. Any tips?

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    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 9/16/2020

    Eliezer, good instinct! Leave the radio EQ flat as you adjust your external settings for best results. Enjoy that system!
  • Vincent from Irvine

    Posted on 7/26/2020

    Is it recommended to adjust EQ settings in the car stereo or music app? Should one be flat and one adjusted to my liking? Or both adjusted?

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    Dave Delamere from Crutchfield

    on 7/28/2020

    Vincent, great question! For several reasons, I'd almost always default to the car stereo's EQ and have the app's EQ flat (or disengaged): 1.I never recommend separate EQs going at the same time. It's a good way to accidentally miss out on several frequencies a customer might want. There's also a potential to overdrive the signal, which could sound very bad. 2. We generally don't know how the app's smartphone is connected (wired or wireless) to the receiver. It may bypass the app's EQ, and we wouldn't know it. The only true way to keep that app EQ engaged is by using an aux input. 3. A car stereo's EQ could work for several sources, not just the smartphone. 4. If the car stereo has a crossover network, the EQ can be set in conjunction with it for the best results. Great with amplifiers in the system, too.
  • Raul Salinas from dallas

    Posted on 7/2/2020

    After reading your article How to tune up..., decided it was time to reach out for an expert's advice. I replaced my factory stereo with a Kenwood DDX6906s and also upgraded my factory speakers with Kenwood KFC-1696PS in both front & rear with baffles, have no sub nor amp installed. When I raise volume and get past half way sound starts to get distorted, where should I start troubleshooting? I have double checked all wiring, I did not see any issue there as well your items mentioned in this article. Does it mean I have to add an amp to resolve? Please seeking your professional advise and direction in getting my system up & performing where it should be!

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    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 7/7/2020

    Raul, for the best guidance, give our Tech Support team a call. They'll be able to walk you through the troubleshooting process.
  • Sal from San Diego

    Posted on 5/11/2020

    How come the left side of my car has more powerful sound because it's a big difference, the low side I hear no bass, appreciate some help please

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    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 5/12/2020

    Sal, assuming that you're sitting in the passenger seat when you're experiencing this sound difference and it's not a time alignment issue, you may have a damaged woofer. If you have a component system and you don't hear any sound coming from the passenger-side lower speaker, you'll need to replace that speaker. Give us a call and we can help you with an upgrade.
  • Gene from Bloomingtion, IN

    Posted on 11/27/2019

    Since the front door speakers are facing each other, wouldn't it logically make sense to purposefully wire them out of phase with each other?

  • Jeff Davis from Seal Beach

    Posted on 6/20/2019

    I have a 2005 Mini Cooper with a stock Harmon-Karden system. Can I use anything in this article to my benefit or am I just stuck with what I've got. It sounds good to me but I am always looking for better,especially if it's just my ignorance cause the short fall.

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    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 6/24/2019

    Jeff, I've passed your question along to our Advisors to help. It's worth talking through your options to see if there's anything you can do to step up that factory sound.
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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/15/2017

    Mike, depending on how long this system has been installed, you may want to give it a couple weeks to break it in. I've passed along your question to an Advisor. Someone will contact you soon to help. Depending on what you're interested in, a sound processor may help you gain that "warmer" sound.

  • Mike from Greenlawn

    Posted on 12/14/2017

    I purchased a new Jeep Renegade and I had a sealed sub box with two 10" Kicker L7 subs, a 1,500W Alpine amplifier for the subs, a 500W Alpine amp for the front-end, and JL Audio C5 components for the front and co-axials for the back seats. My question is what I can do to make the sound "warmer"? The soundstage is magnificent as is the clarity, but I'd love for it to be a bit warmer (not so harsh)

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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/14/2017

    Connor, if your installer didn't take into consideration where you've set your low-pass filter, it may be that your speakers are doing some of the work that your bass should be doing. Check out this article and double-check the settings in your new receiver and amp for any contradictions. Also, if you bought your gear from Crutchfield, you can call Tech Support for free help troubleshooting your system. 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.

  • Connor McGowan from Fulton, Missouri

    Posted on 6/12/2017

    Hey, I've recently had a new pioneer Bluetooth radio installed in my car with new speakers to accompany it. What's strange is that I would play a song prior to the install and it had powerful bass, however, after the install I played the exact same song and it lacks bass. It's still has bass but it is very weak. I know my subwoofers have not gotten weaker because other songs play the same. Any thoughts on how to fix it? Appreciate it.

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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 9/28/2016

    William, we don't have any set "numbers" in the way you're asking. Tuning will depend on your vehicle and personal taste. You may find recommendations from owners of your vehicle on online forums. Also, keep in mind that if you bought your gear from Crutchfield, you can call Tech Support for free help troubleshooting your system. 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.

  • William

    Posted on 9/26/2016

    I'm having some trouble getting the tuning down just right...I've got two p3d4-12's being fed by a rf-1200d at 1 ohm. And then some 5.25 kicker ks components up front with infinity reference 5.25's in the lift gate of my jeep. This speakers are being powered by a Hertz hcp4 that puts out ~65w per channel. I've got a jvc kd-ahd75bt as my head unit, which I think has pretty decent control of eq, but I messed with the settings after installing the infinity's and now I can't get it to sound right. Its either too boomy, too shrill with the tweets, or completely lacking in the midbass. Anyways, my question is: is there a "go to" group of numbers that I can use in pro eq to get my soundstage and quality back?!

  • Craig from Mendon, MO

    Posted on 7/19/2016

    I have 2 Petras prowler 12" svc subs they are from the mid 90s i have looked and looked and can't find any specs

  • Chris from US

    Posted on 1/15/2016

    Totally cringing at that first picture! That person isn't touching any of my equipment!

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    Robert Ferency-Viars from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/20/2015

    Roberto, that stinks! The KDC-X799 is a great stereo and you certainly need to know how to adjust that EQ. If you bought if from Crutchfield, just give us a call and our Tech Support crew will help you figure it out. Otherwise, you can find the owner's manual on our site. First, go the the KDC-X799's web page, then click on the "Details" tab. At the very top of that tab, you'll see a link that says, "Download owner's manual". Grab that and it'll tell you how to play with those EQ settings.

  • Roberto

    Posted on 11/17/2015

    Hey guys!! So I have a kenwood excelon kdcx799 I've haven't been able to tune the recivers audio to my liking since this model comes with 5 "bands" and I can't find any info as to how to set the bands :(

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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/31/2015

    Rennie, if you're talking about the factory radio, then it sounds like either your FM antenna or the electronic antenna booster is shot. If you recently installed a new stereo, then you might have forgotten to connect the antenna power wire from the radio to the antenna adapter. Either way, give us a call and our advisors can help figure out what you need.

  • Rennie Gittens from Miami

    Posted on 8/29/2015

    Hi I'm Rennie from Miami I have a 2003 Chevy trailblazer and the issue I'm having is that the cd radio only works clear and loud in AM channels but when I switch over to FM band u barely hear anything the the volume is turned up and the music is very low I don't know what to do next. Thank you.

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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/27/2015

    Sherlock, if you're looking for photos of vintage gear, check out our vintage tumblr site. If you're looking for a current 12" Rockford Fosgate Punch subwoofer, you'll find it here.

  • Sherlock from Nauru

    Posted on 8/27/2015

    Hey guys, do you still have the original 12inch punch. Show me photos if possible. Thanks.

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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/22/2015

    Nafees, you may find this article on tuning your car radio, this article on tuning your subs, and this article on tuning a 4-channel amp helpful.

  • dr nafees dar from india

    Posted on 7/22/2015

    Hello sir...i am having a poineer 8690bt,soundline pro 6.5 compo, 6.5 co axial rainbow, sundown d 12 sub, rainbow 4 channel amp and mono kappa series amp....I AM NOT HAPPY WITH THE SOUND EFFECTS....PLZZ HELP ME TO SET MY SYSTEM FREQUENCIES...HOW SHOULD I SET ALL THE SETTINGS....THANX ALOT

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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/2/2015

    Junior, we can certainly help you with upgrading your system. I've passed your information along to a Crutchfield advisor, who will be contacting you soon.

  • junior from montreal

    Posted on 7/1/2015

    Hi, i have a Honda accord 2003 v6, i would like to change the radio for a 2X Din pioneer AVH 200 bt, put some new tweeters, front speaker, back speaker, ampil and sub. I want to put a 2x10inch sub. My questions is: what should be the watts of the tweeter, speaker, sub and ampli ? I have a 600$ budget and i want a good sound, loud sound. I don't understand how to level the soun could you explain and give me tips and good brands, thanks.

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    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 4/28/2015

    Damo, Personal preference and the landscape of your car are important factors when tuning audio. Representatives from Focal recently visited our headquarters and pointed out that the human ear is the best instrument for tuning audio in your vehicle. That said, given the description of your system, you are correct in using the high-pass filter. Depending on your preference, you may want to start it at around 100Hz to filter out the lowest frequencies and then tweak it to your liking. Since it sounds like you have no sub, you also may want to try out the All Pass setting to hear how your speakers perform handling all frequencies. If you have any other questions, you may find some helpful answers in our Crossovers FAQ. Regarding your question about the Alpine stereo, by switching "Defeat" on, you will reset the unit to its factory default bass and treble settings.

  • Damo from sydney

    Posted on 4/27/2015

    G'day mate, I have some Focal KR 6.5's and R690c running of an rockford fosgate T600-4 and wondering what to set the variable crossover and understanding the crossover switch i have it set at HP? Also i head unit is an alpine CDE-153EBT and i tuning it is hard when i first installed it thinkk the DEFEAT setting was on and it sounded great what dose this setting do?