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How to choose an equalizer for your car stereo system

EQ shopping tips and answers to common questions about using them

Equalizers (EQs) let you fine-tune and improve the sound quality of your music source and then send it on to your stereo system's amps and speakers.

Here, we'll try and answer some of the many questions we get about using an equalizer and help you choose the right EQ for the job.

An equalizer (or EQ) lets you tune the sound of your car's audio system by giving you a degree of tone adjustment not covered by standard treble and bass controls.

Equalizers divide the whole audible spectrum into multiple bands of frequencies with an adjustable volume control for each band. Your radio's bass and treble controls are a simplified 2-band equalizer.

Analog equalizers can often feature up to sixteen bands of tone control per channel. Digital systems often come set up with 31-band equalizers on every channel to really fine-tune the sound profile.

Most of the time, the processing is done by the hardware and tuning software inside your system's receiver and amplifier — so you don't really see equalization as the work of separate and distinct processor functions and circuits.

Let's start with the most common questions, then we'll offer some shopping tips to help you find the best EQ for your car audio system.

AudioControl DQDX

AudioControl DQDX 6-channel 7-band equalizer

Common questions about equalizers

AudioControl ACX-3.2

AudioControl's ACX-3.2 features 3-band graphic and parametric-style bass EQ.

Does a car equalizer make a difference for sound quality?

Absolutely. An equalizer helps your car stereo system by giving you ultra-precise tone control. A quality EQ, properly used, can fine-tune even a high-end system. It makes the difference by catering to your listening preferences and allowing you to restore great sound that gets disrupted by your noisiest, most hard-to-handle component — your car.

Your car stereo system's sound quality is affected by all of the following environmental factors: vehicle noise, road noise, size and shape of the interior, the reflectivity of glass, and the absorbent nature of seats. You can use an equalizer to remedy each one of these ills, boosting the frequencies you're missing and attenuating the ones your vehicle exaggerates.

When you make these adjustments, it's best to use a light touch on those knobs and slider switches. A boost of 10 dB works your amplifier ten times harder, and this can introduce distortion. Here's a pro tip: Try turning down certain frequencies first. For example, before you boost your bass, lower the midrange and high frequencies a little bit.

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What's the difference between a "graphic EQ" and a "parametric EQ"?

A graphic equalizer features a horizontally arranged row of controls, one for each frequency band, with indicator knobs or vertical sliders that tell you at a glance what level that band of frequencies will play. In other words, you can clearly see a graphic representation of the equalization – tone corrections – the device is making to your system's frequency response merely by looking at the positions of the controls.

A parametric equalizer is a completely different kind of tone controller. Each band of a parametric EQ features three controls to adjust – the three parameters of equalization:

  1. One lets you select the exact frequency you want to cut or boost.
  2. The second adjusts how wide you want the band of adjustable frequencies to be.
  3. And the third is the how much cut or boost – the level control for the selected band.

Parametrics are best used for fixing small tonal problems in a system's response, and usually feature only up to three or four bands of equalization per channel.

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Wavtech bassRESTOR

Wavtech's bassRESTOR processor features parametric EQ tone control and comes with a remote bass knob that you mount in your dash.

What's a "bass boost" and how should I set or adjust it?

An amplifier's or equalizer's bass boost is a tone control that increases the volume of the bass notes, usually around 42 Hz. That's a popular frequency for tuning a bass drum as well as the Low E note on a bass guitar and piano. To adjust a bass boost, slowly turn it up and listen to the bass beat. Applying just a little boost will bring up the kick a lot. Be careful with any boosting – this is where distortion is often introduced into a system. When you add bass to the signal, you'll need to then readjust the amp's gain downward to prevent distortion.

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Stinger HEIGH10 UN1810 EQ screen

The Stinger HEIGH10 UN1810 multimedia receiver's 15-band equalizer.

Where and how do I install an equalizer?

There are very few stand-alone, hardware-based equalizers available. Equalization is usually an included feature of the car stereo, a digital signal processor (DSP), or an amplifier with a built-in DSP. (See our Digital Signal Processor Buying Guide for more details about those.)

That said, there are analog graphic equalizers with manual tuning controls meant to be accessible at all times. This kind of line-level processor connects into your car audio system between the stereo head unit and the amplifier, and usually gets mounted under the dash or in a hatchback or trunk area where you can get to it. It'll need power and ground wiring as well as audio input/output connections.

Bass boosting and restoration devices will each feature a remote bass knob that you'll mount on, in, or under your vehicle's dash or center console for easy access while on the road. For more information see our Crossover/equalizer installation guide.

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How do I adjust my EQ for the best sound? How do I set my EQ using an RTA?

When you're adjusting an equalizer to make your system sound good, you need to use your ears or a calibrated measuring microphone connected to an RTA – a "real-time" signal analyzer that displays signal strength at all the different frequencies.

To set an EQ by ear, you start by playing a familiar song. Play it a little louder than usual so you can hear all the details clearly. The basic method of equalization is to run every control until it all sounds right, with not too much emphasis on the parts you like and not too much cutting-down on the parts you don't like.

The object of equalization is to make each song sound like a unified piece of well-balanced music and not a mashed-together collection of different-sounding instruments. (Although a lot of people love to boost the kickdrum bass and high-hat sizzle frequencies to extreme levels for their listening fun.)

JL Audio TwK 88

JL Audio's TwK 88 DSP software showing four 10-band graphic equalizers and the virtual RTA display of their output responses.

A real-time analyzer (RTA) helps you easily set a system's equalizer for the best sound in your vehicle by using a microphone set up for your listening position. The RTA listens to a test signal, "pink noise," you play through the system. Run every control until the waveform looks the way you want it to look — whether a flat, smooth, and even response from high to low, or a "smiley face" response curve with the low bass and high-frequency sounds boosted, or any other shape of response curve that sounds good to you in your vehcile.

For more details, check out How to adjust your car's equalizer settings.

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How do I choose the right EQ for my system?

This question leads us to the next part of the article. Read on for our tips for finding the right equalizer for your car audio system.

JL Audio TwK 88

JL Audio's TwK 88 8-channel processor includes 10-band EQ on each channel

What to look for in a car audio equalizer

Your choice for a new equalizer will depend on the components of your audio system and how you want to control and adjust the tone of the sound. The available options are:

  1. Analog multi-band EQ with accessable hands-on adjustability.
  2. Bass restoration and boosting.
  3. Stand-alone digital signal processors (DSP).
  4. Amplifiers with built-in digital signal processors.

1. For those who like to constantly tweak the sound, AudioControl offers a few outboard analog equalizers — those are EQs with a physical control knob for each frequency band.

2. If you're only looking to improve your system's bass impact, a bass restoration processor is a simple way to do the job. These devices not only boost the existing bass in your music, but they can sometimes generate new low-frequency content for your further rock 'n roll enjoyment. For example, check out the Rockford Fosgate RFPEQU Universal Punch EQ. It can boost the bass AND treble to add more impact to your music.

Rockford Fosgate RFPEQU

Rockford Fosgate's RFPEQU Punch EQ uses a dash-mounted remote control knob for making adjustments on the go.

3. For the most precision, a stand-alone digital signal processor includes equalization for every channel invloved with making sound. These line-level devices take raw, unprocessed signals from your receiver or other source and let you custom-tune all the sounds to the way you want to hear them. The tuning is usually done by connecting your laptop and running the manufacturer's sound tuning software.

See our Digital Signal Processor Buying Guide for more details. In this article, one of our tech support guys shares his experience with JL Audio's sound tuning software.

4. Amplifiers with digital signal processing give you all-in-one, high-quality sound solutions for most system configurations. You get ultimate tone control and boosted, clean power in one package. Options range from mono subwoofer amps with sound processors concentrating on bass frequencies only, to full-range multi-channel power amps with multi-band equalizers included as features on every channel.

Can an equalizer help?

The best way to find out what an equalizer can do for your system is to try one out for yourself. A little hands-on experience and some trial and error tweaking will help you learn more about shaping the sound in your car and really bring out the best from your system.

Contact our advisors for help. Whether it's an external equalizer or an amp with a built-in DSP, they'll help you find the best solution to improve your car stereo system.

Get everything you need

Don't forget the details. Make sure you have the extra things needed to install an equalizer in your system.

You'll need RCA patch cables to send the audio signal from your equalizer to your amplifier. If you have an aftermarket stereo, you'll need another set of RCA cables to get the signal from the stereo into the EQ.

This 12-volt power wiring kit makes easy to create a safe and secure power connection for your new EQ.

  • Wes Jeans from Trinity Texas

    Posted on 4/9/2022

    I've been out of the game for many years and I am working on putting together a system in my truck. From what I can tell the old style crossovers are a thing of the past. I'm guessing because most of the music these days are digital signals, hence the need for a dsp. So the question is, can I get the same results with just an equalizer or do I need to get a dsp? Thanks.

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    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 4/11/2022

    Wes, Crossovers are still necessary for dividing signal for high-, mid-, and low-frequency speakers - they're found as passive modules for component speaker sets and onboard circuitry in amplifiers and other signal processors. Music is analog, not digital. In many cars today, the radio controls are digital, which complicates many aftermarket amplifier installations. in most cases you'll need a vehicle-specific amp harness and integration module for your amplifier installation. Give us a call and talk to one of our Advisors. We can help you choose the right gear for your vehicle and give you the right advice on how to install it.
  • Rey

    Posted on 3/29/2020

    I have an aftermarket radio connect to T600.4 with some set of t1693 fosgate an t1500.1bdcp but my system doesnt sound as good what kind of eq can I use

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    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 3/30/2020

    Rey, Check out the AudioControl EQS 13-band EQ for your front, rear, and subwoofer channels.
  • Lanni Erwin from Worthington

    Posted on 2/20/2020

    Not sure how to connect my stereo,I have a Kenwood head unit,a soundstream 9 band graphic equalizer and a rf p4004 amplifier,can you tell me how many RCA's I'll need and what hooks up to what please

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    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 2/24/2020

    Lanni, Run four RCA cables from the receiver to the equalizer and four more from the EQ to the amp.
  • Daniel

    Posted on 10/30/2018

    Hi, I have a 5 Channel amp connected to my OEM head unit, I use a PAC device to change the from High to Low Outputs. If I want to add an EQ to improve sound quality should I hook it up to the PAC Low Outputs, and then the EQ Outputs to the Amp Inputs? Best Regards

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    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 10/31/2018

    Daniel, I can't tell for sure without knowing exactly what gear you have, but that hook-up plan sounds me.
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    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    Posted on 4/26/2018

    Brett, There'll be no benefit at all adding a processor to a receiver that already has digital signal processing onboard. In fact you'd penalize yourself if you did because then you'd have to add an amplifier, which your receiver also has built in.

  • Brett from Daphne

    Posted on 4/25/2018

    Many aftermarket head units now provide a wide variety of methods to tune the sound in your car. My Kenwood Excelon DDX594 includes HP/LP crossovers, slope, time alignment, 13-band equalizer and several other impressive features that many of these standalone processors provide. What additional benefits would a standalone processor (such as the AudioControl DM-810) provide that my head unit can't handle?

  • mario from sylmar

    Posted on 4/9/2018

    I have a 2016 genesis sedan I upgraded the factory speakers to infinity kappa 60csx components and for rear infinity kappa 60.11cs components. Amps alpine pdx f6 4 channel and pdx m12 for sub. I left the double din stock radio as there is no kit to replace this radio the issue is my speakers sound muffled almost as if someone is covering the singers mouth. Would an equalizer fix this issue and what would u suggest? I just want that fixed I sent want to play with settings all the time.

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    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    Posted on 1/12/2018

    Richard, You should never connect outputs of devices together, it could cause damage. Looking at that equalizer's connections and controls lead me to say that you'll probably get the best results using your receiver's front outputs connected to the equalizer's CD inputs. The equalizer then creates the front, rear, and subwoofer signals for your amplifiers to handle, and features front-to-rear fade control and subwoofer level. You set the input gains of the equalizer just like amp gain - turn it up until you hear distortion, then turn it down so it always sounds clean.

  • Richard Heinrich Ronildo from aruba

    Posted on 1/12/2018

    hi. mr BUck. i have a few questions. what pre amp outs to use from the HU to the eqaulizer.. front or rear...also can they be combined with a y splitter to the equalizer..and how do i set the gain on the cd in on the equalizer. i have a 7 band equalizer from super iascar

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    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/17/2017

    Ricky, If you're unsatisfied with your receiver's onboard EQ, maybe an AudioControl LCQ-1 with 11 bands of EQ per channel will work for you.

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