Installing a stereo system on a pontoon boat
A party barge gets a needed audio upgrade
As lakeside living and recreation become increasingly popular, pontoon boats have become more and more common. They’re great party barges, built to carry lots of passengers comfortably for a day of fun on the water.
When Mark, one of our veteran advisors, let us know that his brother David was looking for an upgrade for his pontoon on Virginia's lovely Lake of the Woods, we jumped at the opportunity.
David’s problems were simple: his current stereo didn’t provide much power or sound very good, and wouldn’t allow him to play all the sources he wanted, especially apps from his smartphone.
To remedy this situation, we decided that we’d upgrade the stereo and speakers, and add a subwoofer.
Assessing the problem areas and upgrade possibilities
Peter, our marine merchandiser here at Crutchfield, and I scouted the boat a few days before our installation, and performed the most important tasks in any marine project:
- assessing what was already in there,
- measuring dash and speaker locations to see which products would fit, and
- determining if we could use any of the existing speaker wiring.
Good planning is essential to any installation. We thoroughly measured existing equipment and available space days before we started the project.
We also did a quick listening test beforehand to understand what made David so dissatisfied. And it certainly didn’t take long to hear the problems. The sound was thin and tinny, and too weak to hear over much of the noise of the lake. The bass was lacking, so the music had little impact.
David’s party barge was decidedly an un-party-like setting. We knew exactly what we had to do.
The sleek Fusion MS-RA70 digital media receiver was a great choice for David's pontoon.
Installing a new control center
For the new stereo, we chose a Fusion MS-RA70i digital media receiver. It offered two main advantages for David:
- The front-panel USB port and built-in Bluetooth® connectivity that would allow David to play anything he wanted from his phone.
- Extra power and excellent sound controls that would allow David do dial things in just the way he likes them.
David had been using a hideaway digital media receiver, with a wired controller mounted on the dash. Thanks to the measuring we did in advance, we knew that the stereo would fit easily in the space where the controller was mounted (the stereo’s faceplate is actually a bit smaller than the old controller).
The controller was secured with four screws at the corners, with only a small hole in the console to allow the control cable to pass through into the cubby on the other side of the console, where the stereo’s black box "brain" was mounted. To install the new stereo, which has a standard receiver chassis, I needed to make the console opening larger.
Removing the controller showed us exactly how much space we had to work with.
The first thing I did was to remove the controller, then take the paper template that came with the stereo and place it on the spot where the new stereo would go. With a small punch, I marked two new screw holes (we decided to use two of the existing holes), then with a box cutter, carefully scored the panel to mark the size of the new opening.
Next, it was time for the cutting. Our cordless drill made quick work of each of the new screw holes. I then grabbed our rotary tool and easily, but very slowly and carefully, followed the scoring to create the new opening.
When the opening was prepared, I slid the receiver in, and tightened each of the four screws. David was very happy with the way it looked.
For power and ground, we simply connected the new stereo’s wires to the power distribution block that was already in the boat, and which had powered David’s previous stereo. We connected the stereo’s speaker leads to the existing speaker wire, which made life much easier.
Adding a USB input
We also mounted a Fusion USB input on the console using a pressure-fit connector. Luckily for us, the console already featured a similar auxiliary input (otherwise, we’d have had to drill our own hole in the console for it).
We uscrewed the auxiliary input's washer, removed the housing, then screwed the USB input in its place. The USB cable plugged securely into the back of the stereo. An included cap keeps moisture away when the input isn't in use.
Same locations, new speakers
David’s pontoon featured four speakers mounted neatly in recesses in the front and rear seats. We saw no reason to change the speaker locations. which allowed us to use the speaker wire that was already running through the boat. That's something we’d recommend to anyone performing this kind of upgrade.
For David's boat, we chose two pairs of Polk Audio DB+ 5-14" 2-ways. They fit the space perfectly, and are built to handle whatever the marine environment will throw at them.
Speaker replacement was definitely the easiest part of the installation. It was a matter of removing four screws from each speaker, pulling out the old speakers, splicing the new speaker wire to the exposed ends of the existing speaker wires, and mounting the new speakers. The screw holes even lined up perfectly, meaning we didn’t have to drill anything new. Chalk up another advantage to planning in advance and using what the boat was giving us.
Bringing the bass
The most vital upgrade, adding a Memphis Audio 10" powered subwoofer for the depth and impact David was looking for, was also the most involved. We had to do three things: find a suitable spot to mount the sub, connect it to the receiver for signal, and connect it to the boat’s accessory battery for power and ground.
Mounting the new subwoofer
Putting the powered sub in the cubby behind the control console made the most sense. It provided plenty of room, easy access to the back of the stereo, and, luckily, a convenient way to run the power and ground wires from the accessory battery in its aft compartment to the center of the boat.
We tucked the powered sub away in the main cubby behind the console. It's the perfect home for this surprisingly powerful driver.
Wiring for power and ground
Wiring the sub for power and ground was made a little easier by the presence of a couple of boots through which many of the boat’s wires were already running. One was in the aft compartment next to the battery, the other was in the cubby behind the console. The wires run between the two locations underneath the hull, and above the starboard pontoon, where they’re mostly protected from the elements.
Step 1. I started at the battery location. With the help of fishing tape, I threaded the power and ground wires through the boot, under the boat, and out of a small gap between the pontoon and the boat’s hull.
Step 2. Now I had to run the wires along the pontoon to the rear of the boat. The gap provided just enough space for me to get my hand in and thread the wires underneath each of the supports that connect the pontoon to the hull. It took some time, but it wasn’t necessarily challenging.
Step 3. When I finally got the wires to the console location, I again threaded the fishing tape through the boot in the cubby, and out through the gap between hull and pontoon. I then taped the wires to the fishing tape, and pulled them up into the cubby.
From there, it was easy work to connect those power and ground wires to the powered sub. Next I plugged in the remote start wire and RCA audio cables from the back of the stereo. We reconnected the battery, set the gain on the powered sub, then mounted the sub to the cubby wall with four screws.
The new sound system: a night-and-day difference
When we finally had everything connected, David paired his phone to the new stereo via Bluetooth, fired up his Spotify account, and took the system for a spin.
The sound difference blew him away.
Finally, he had the volume, depth, and impact he’d been missing. The detail was sharp, the bass was deep and satisfying, and he could really hear it all. All with just a few new – and better – components.
David is now the happy owner of a great-sounding party barge.
How does your boat sound?
If you’re ready to get your party barge up to snuff, we invite you to give one of our advisors a call at 1-888-955-6000. They’ll help you find the gear that gives you what you need, and fits your boat perfectly.