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Our review of Kicker's KEY180.4 amplifier with automatic sound tuning

We installed it in two very different car audio systems

The Kicker KEY180.4 compact amplifier is more than just a tiny 4-channel amp that will fit behind the glovebox. There are plenty of those out there. The KEY180.4 also has built-in sound tuning capabilities that will deliver the best-sounding music at – literally – the push of a button. 

Tuning a car stereo sound system

Tuning a car audio system involves equalizing the frequency response to sound smooth and time aligning the speaker outputs so the stereo field gets centered on the driver's listening position. This is usually done by playing pink noise and using a real-time analyzer to guide equalizer adjustments, and measuring the physical distance between each speaker and the listening position and then entering the numbers into a signal processor's software.

Kicker's KEY180.4 amplifier also uses pink noise, but it doesn't need to measure anything. Kicker says the amp makes its own adjustments and hears when the sound is tuned perfectly, automatically, and at the push of a button.

Amp in Krissy's car

We put it to the test, twice

Quinn, one of our newer Advisors, has an old ’94 Honda Civic. She and a few fellow advisors, including Cam, outfitted her car with an aftermarket stereo and speakers on their trainee "Install Day." As good as it sounded, she was excited about a further upgrade. The amp's about the size of my hand, so it made sense to install it under the front passenger seat to keep the wiring runs to the battery and stereo short.

Long-term Crutchfield employees Krissy, in Customer Support, and her husband Bryce, a Sales Advisor, have a spiffy 2014 Toyota Highlander with a factory radio. For their installation, we used the factory speaker wiring for the amp's inputs and set the amp to Auto Turn-on mode, so there was no need to run a separate turn-on wire to the receiver or fuse box. Each installation took about a half day, 4 to 6 hours, which is about normal for a small amp.

The Kicker KEY Auto Setup

Mic location

We installed the amp in Quinn's car first. When we finished, we then prepared for the setup process. We followed Kicker's instructions to the letter.

  1. We went to Kicker.com/test-tones and downloaded their pink noise test tone for the KEY amplifier, available as an MP3 or WAV file, to a thumb drive. We started playing the pink noise and raised the volume of the receiver to what the instructions call "slightly loud."

  2. The KEY180.4 comes with a calibration microphone and activation button. We plugged the mic cord into the amp and positioned the microphone face-up on top of the driver's headrest. A supplied rubber pad helped keep it in position.

  3. We pushed the button and the KEY setup started by beeping loudly, letting us know it was time to get out of the car and shut the door. Kicker warns that the beeps and noises the setup process makes can be dangerously loud.

  4. The KEY system played the pink noise, as well as some other tones and beeps, through each speaker individually, through pairs of speakers, and then through all of them together, presumably adjusting the tone and balance of the sound. The process took about 2 minutes.

Second time's the charm

The KEY Auto Setup process was supposed to end by playing a "happy" tune to indicate a successful setup. This was not the case with us at first. The sad song consisted of descending notes, indicating an unsuccessful setup. Then, it played a certain number of beeps representing the error code for the issue.

It seems we overlooked the fact that people in the next room were demoing home theater speakers rather loudly. The KEY180.4 heard it quite clearly, and refused to complete the automatic setup with all the noisy interference going on. So, we waited until the demo was over, redid the setup, and finally heard the KEY's little happy song of success.

We avoided this false start when we installed the amp in Krissy's vehicle, and got happy results on the first attempt.

It sounded good, amazingly good

After setup, the button that activated the KEY processing becomes an A/B selector, so you can switch between the processed and unprocessed sound for easy, instant comparison. Unprocessed music sounded like any amped-up car stereo — clean and plenty loud. After all, the little power pack/processor starts off by sending 45 watts RMS to each speaker — more than twice the power of a typical aftermarket receiver, and three or four times that of a factory radio.

Quinn and Cam in car

Cam and Quinn liked what they heard

Then, when we pushed the button to activate the sound processing, the stereo field centered to the driver's position, the high end became crisper and cleaner, and the bass improved a lot. Here's what Bryce had to say about the impact of the sound processor:

Krissy in car

Krissy liked it too

With ringing endorsements like these, it sounds like Kicker's come up with a hit product that everyone should consider putting in their cars. Give us a call and we'll hook you up with a Kicker KEY180.4 amplifier.

  • Obed Castillo from Pembroke Pines

    Posted on 11/14/2018

    Is it still possible to adjust treble or bass from the head unit after a KEY180.4 install ? Or are all audio tuning features eliminated in favor of auto tuning from this amp? I ask because I enjoy tuning music according to genre.

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield on 11/15/2018
    Obed, Yes, the tone controls on your receiver will still work after the amp install and calibration.
  • Everette from Mililani

    Posted on 9/28/2018

    After installing the Kicker Key amp in my 17 Tacoma DCSB Sport, it seems the low end bass that used to come out of the Kicker 6x9 in the doors before the amp was installed is gone. The bass is now more punchy and significantly less deep that before I had installed it. I've messed with the gains a little bit but no luck. I curious to even in install it just to hear the non-amp KickerCS series that I have. Do I need to mess with the hi end pass switches?

  • Ian from Edmonds

    Posted on 7/15/2018

    This thing is such a pain to tune. You have to have this thing in a COMPLETELY silent environment. Ive tried probably 25 seperate times to tune it and every time the ambient noise code plays.

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield on 7/16/2018
    Ian, Try running the set up with the receiver set to a higher volume, to better overcome background noise.
  • James Thomas from Miami

    Posted on 6/24/2018

    Please send me information on this new amplifier at JCT

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield on 6/25/2018
    James, The first and last sentences of the article contain links to the amp. Just click one, and read all about it.
  • Brendan Lotzer from Bloomington

    Posted on 6/23/2018

    Have a 2011 Audi A4 with Bang and Oluffsen system and really am not all that impressed by it. Will this help to upgrade the system?

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield on 6/25/2018
    Brendan, I don't think this amp will work to improve your factory system because it features a built-in subwoofer and center channel, which the Kicker KEY180.4 can't deal with.
  • Mike G from Port Charlotte

    Posted on 6/16/2018

    Hello Buck, I am looking at replacing the system in my 88 Toyota Pickup and was wondering if this amp would make much of a difference. There will be 5 1/4 or 6 1/2 in doors and 4" in lower dash plus a Kicker Hideaway begind the seat. Thanks!

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield on 6/18/2018
    Mike, I think this little amp would be a welcome addition to almost any factory or aftermarket stereo system.
  • JJ from Laurel

    Posted on 6/12/2018

    Do you need to connect this amp to a signal processor, if you want to keep all your factory stereo, bluetooth, navi, steering wheel functionality? Looking to upgrade factory stereo for my 2018 toyota avalon, and this might be a quick fix

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield on 6/13/2018
    JJ, I don't think this 4-channel amplifier and processor will work in your 9-speaker system. Kicker's automatic KEY set up procedure uses the sound coming from four sources, so it can time-align the sound to the driver's seat, and won't work with a center channel or with low frequency woofers, which your system apparently has. With your vehicle, it'd be best if you gave us a call and have an Advisor go through with you the upgrade options available. Crutchfield's vehicle database guide will present them with the information needed to get you upgraded.
  • Trenton

    Posted on 5/26/2018

    I upgraded my receiver to one with time alignment and it was a night and day difference. Time alignment is the best hint to happen to car audio.

  • Brian from New York

    Posted on 5/16/2018

    Thanks a lot Buck... totally understand that; I'm just wondering if the built-in DSP makes more of a difference than the extra power; enough to swap amps?

  • Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/16/2018

    Brian, Your Alpine amplifier is more powerful than this Kicker amp. However, the KEY180.4 amplifier features digital signal processing that equalizes the sound to match your vehicle's interior acoustic space, and time-aligns it to center the stereo soundstage on the listener's position. You'd need to purchase a separate digital sound processor to get those features using your existing amplifier.

  • Brian from New York

    Posted on 5/15/2018

    Hi Buck. I recently installed the (50 watt RMS x 4) Alpine MRV-F300 in my car (haven't set the gains yet) and am pleased with the way it sounds. I'm intrigued by the Kicker Key180.4's automatic tuning though... do you think it makes a big enough difference to warrant replacing the Alpine? Thanks for all the great articles!

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