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Tuning your subs

How to make the bass in your car sound its best

In this article... I'll show you how to tune your amplifier to get your subwoofers to sound just the way you want them to. Just follow these simple steps for great bass:

One of the things I like most about subwoofers is that I can feel the musical emotion directly with my body. The low frequency beat often forces me to dance around, or, at the very least, nod my head along with the rhythm. That's why we all like music in the first place — it moves us.

It can take a little time and effort to get the exact bass sound you want from your subs, but the rewards of a well-tuned subwoofer system are overwhelmingly cool and physically satisfying.

Before we get started...

If you are looking for information about buying subwoofers, please read our Subwoofer Buying Guide and check out our selection of top-rated subwoofers, then come back here to learn more about setting them up to deliver great sound.

First, set your speaker level

Keep in mind, distortion is the enemy — it destroys speakers, subs, and eardrums. Distortion sounds like crackling, flapping, crunching, or hissing that interferes with the distinct sound of a musical instrument. If you power your full-range car speakers with an amplifier, it is crucial that the amp's gain is properly set to prevent distortion.

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amp

Step 1: Remove the distortion

With the amp gain set low, play some music and turn up your receiver's volume until you hear the music distorting; then back off the volume until the music sounds clean again. Note or mark where the receiver's volume is. This setting is the maximum volume your receiver can go to and still play cleanly.

Now, turn the amp's gain up until you hear distortion again; then back off the gain slightly until the distortion goes away. The amp gain is now set, so you can lower the receiver volume to a more comfortable level. Even if your speaker system does not have an amplifier, you still need to find that maximum volume point on your receiver by turning it up to just below distortion level.

Now you're ready for some bass

Step 2: Flatten the signal, open the low-pass filter

Turn your sub amp's gain to its lowest, most counter-clockwise position. Switch its low-pass filter on and set it as high, clockwise, as it will go. If it has a bass boost, turn it off. If it has a remote level control, set it to its middle position so, later, you have the choice of boosting or cutting the bass on an individual song.

Adjust your receiver's bass tone control to its middle, zero, or "flat" setting, whichever it's called on your stereo. If it has a subwoofer level control, set it, also, to its middle, or "no gain" setting. Sometimes receivers have a crossover, low-pass filter, or bass boost on their subwoofer output. Make sure those are all turned off, too.

First, turn the gain down

Start by turning the gain down, and turn off your filters and bass boost.

Note: Do not use the low-pass filters, crossovers, or bass boosts on the receiver and the amplifier at the same time. Use one or the other, but not both. The reason is that something called phase distortion generates around each filter or boost's crossover frequency, muddying up the sound.

Step 3: Adjust the subwoofer gain and low-pass filter

Play music through your receiver at about one-quarter volume. Turn up the gain of the subwoofer amp until the sound from your subwoofer completely overpowers the other speakers, without distorting.

Turn the gain up

Turn the gain up until it distorts, then back it off until the sound is clean again.

While listening to the music coming out of your sub, slowly adjust the sub amp's low-pass filter downward until all the high- and mid-frequency notes disappear.

The low-pass filter eliminates the notes you don't want your subwoofer to play. It also acts like a tone control to capture the "edges" of the kick drum's sound; the attack and release of its boom. Filter out the cymbals, strings, vocals, and guitars. Leave the bass and the low drums.

Step 4: Bass boost and subsonic filter

If you have a bass boost, try carefully turning it up to hear what the bass drum sounds like when you do. Applying just a little bass boost will bring up the kick a lot. Be careful with the bass boost, if you choose to use it — this is where distortion is often introduced into a system. If you hear distortion, lower the sub amp's gain until it goes away. Use the bass boost to feel the beat in the air your sub moves.

bass boost

Now play with the bass boost.

For ported subwoofers, use a subsonic filter on your amplifier to tame any overly loud low notes. This will help decrease the levels of the notes at which the enclosure resonates. Fine-tune all the filters some more to make the bass drum sound tight and dry or loose and reverberant, according to your personal taste. I like reggae and soul, so my bass is plenty loud, but it's a bit drier than most people might like.

The important thing is to keep adjusting your system until you hear something you like. When you're satisfied with the tone of your system's bass and kick, turn the subwoofer's volume down as far as you can, using the subwoofer level in the receiver's sound adjustment menu or the remote bass knob if you have one.

Blending all the frequencies

Now that each piece of the puzzle is set, it's time to bring all the music into focus.

Step 5: Matching the subwoofer level to the receiver volume

Turn up the receiver's volume to its maximum, distortion-free position. Then slowly turn up the subwoofer volume until the bass sounds balanced with the rest of the music. That should do it.

Match sub level

Run your remote bass boost or level control up and down a little to hear what it does. Because of the size of the acoustic space in a car, subwoofers sometimes don't combine their sound constructively with the rest of a system's sound waves. If your bass has plenty of volume but seems to lack punch, you can sometimes help it by reversing your sub's speaker leads. This reverses the subwoofer cone's forward and backward movements, which might put all the sound waves together better than the other way. Whichever way sounds best is the right way.

Troubleshooting any problems

If you hear distortion coming from your subs, turn down the sub amp's gain. If, at this point, you cannot get enough bass out of your subwoofer to keep up with the other speakers without distorting, then you will need to get a bigger subwoofer and amplifier combination, with higher power-handling abilities.

You shouldn't lower the gain of your full-range amplifier to try and match your lack of subwoofer volume. Doing so could allow the amp to send out distorted, clipped signals to your full-range speakers, defeating your goal for clean, full sound, which is why you put in a subwoofer to begin with. More power, especially in the bass, is always better than not having enough.

Now you should be able to enjoy the robust fullness and beat of your music with your sub tuned up to match your system's capabilities and your ear's preference. Just remember to be polite, and turn your boom volume down when it might bother other people.

Learn more about sound tuning

For more information on how to tune your car sound stystem, see Adding a 4-Channel Amp. To learn more about getting the best sound out of your amplifier, take a look at our Amplifiers FAQ and Glossary articles.

Last updated 2/8/2022
  • DD

    Posted on 1/14/2023

    The first few years I was using my $10,000 car audio system, I left all the amp settings at the car audio shop expert-tuned settings, and left it where it was dialed in with a spectrum analyzer and Audison bit tune microphone setup. Finally today I adjusted everything manually myself - increased the amp gains slightly, set most the EQ curves to flat, and adjusted the crossover settings in the audio processor. Night and day difference. My manual tuning sounds sooooo much better than the "scientific" tuning. I have an ear for this stuff, I used to be a musician. I think that in the end, you have to play with the settings and avoid settling for automatically determined adjustments.

  • George Worthington from Toms River

    Posted on 12/12/2022

    To gj, use public transportation and wear ear plugs. Why should everyone else cater to your likes and dislikes?

  • gj

    Posted on 12/6/2022

    I suffer from noise from BOOM CARS. I hope you post somethings that can help people who suffer from traffic noise. It is fun for drivers to boost the bass sound but for those with health issues it is a nightmare. I hope there are laws that ban boom cars or not using any systems that boost bass sound. Someone's entertainment is someone's nightmare.

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 12/7/2022

    GJ, It's a shame that there are so many rude, loud people in our society. Laws already exist in many places against playing music too loud in public, but they are difficult to enforce, especially for moving vehicles. Installing sound treatment in your car and wearing noise-reducing ear plugs will help a little, but annoying bass booming is almost impossible to defend against.
  • John Bolton from Chicago

    Posted on 11/9/2022

    I own the Rockford Fosgate P500-12P, I saw that you have it available on the site. Do you have any recommendations on how to tune this thing? I currently have it in a 2019 malibu with the stock radio. The way that its hooked up, I cannot turn the bass up on the head unit, because the person who set it up said it could end up blowing the subwoofer. When I turn the bass up it only goes to a certain point and then doesn't go any louder, that is not a big deal because I usually keep it pretty low anyway. It still sounds pretty distorted and i'm not really sure how to tune this thing. I would really love to be able to turn the bass up on my speakers as well. Will I need to get a line out converter in order to achieve this?

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 11/10/2022

    John, You should re-read this article or hire a professional installer, if you can't understand the directions.
  • Jared from Santa Barbara

    Posted on 10/28/2022

    Hi Buck, Thanks for the write up! Quick question; In your experience/opinion, are signal converters like a Epicenter or LC2i needed when using speaker level inputs? The reason I ask is the my stock radio signal suffers from bass roll off above mid volume and I am wondering if the JBL A600's pass filters will mitigate this effect. Thanks for your help!

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 10/29/2022

    Jared, That amplifier features a bass boost but otherwise won't compensate for a factory stereo's bass roll-off - so you will benefit from installing a line output converter device with bass restoration, like the ones you mention.
  • Kaeden from Belle Chasse

    Posted on 10/4/2022

    Hello. I have a general question...I want to set my LPF and HPF on my head unit instead of on the amp. Where should each filter frequency and filter switch be set at on the amp?

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 10/5/2022

    Kaeden, If you use the crossover filters in your receiver, you should turn the amplifier's filters off or set so they won't affect the signal at all - low-pass at its highest value, high-pass at its lowest.
  • Wayne from Wayne

    Posted on 7/21/2022

    LIFESAVER

  • LARRY FREEMAN from Sparks

    Posted on 7/6/2022

    What an excellent tutorial on setting gains and adjustments! I wish I had found this article sooner! Thank you!!

  • Pablo Montero from Miami

    Posted on 6/9/2022

    Remote bass control knobs basically act as the gain control when connected, the sub amp gain must be set with the remote know either disconnected or turned all the way up, otherwise you may end up turning the gain over the distortion point when actually listening to music. I also disagree with step 3. Setting the gain on the sub amp to right below distortion while the head output is not even close to the distortion point is not a good idea. You will end up with an overly sensitive sub amp that will allow the system to distort when turning the sub volume up in step 5. Ideally you should be able to turn the sub all the way up without distortion, even if that means the sub being to loud in relation to the rest of the speakers.

  • Jay from Bloomfield

    Posted on 4/25/2022

    I bought a JBL probassSL2 how would you tune the enclosure Sub has a Xrossover settings , level settings and a bass settings . My head unit has a sub out no fancy setting just simple all my adjustments will be straight from the sub enclosure

    Commenter image

    Buck Pomerantz from Crutchfield

    on 4/26/2022

    Jay, If re-reading this how-to article doesn't help, maybe you should hire a professional installer.

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