How to adjust your car's equalizer settings
The benefits of properly setting your EQ
The secret to great sound is in the fine tuning. In this article, we'll explain what an equalizer does and how to use it to dial in the sound of your car audio system.
qualizers are hardly a new thing in car audio. But whether you’re a dedicated tweaker or a set-and-forgetter, adjusting the settings on an equalizer (EQ) can make your music sound even better.
An equalizer can help anybody’s music
Regardless of your experience level, my first recommendation is to have some fun setting up your EQ. This doesn’t have to be a chore. Equalizers let you raise (boost) or lower (cut) the emphasis on certain frequencies (known as “bands”) in your music. They’re a great way to add some personalized touches to your system. Think of yourself as a music engineer, setting up your music for an audience of one (you!).
So, what is an EQ?
An equalizer provides several adjustable frequency bands, which are the numbers you see that fall within 20 to 20,000 Hz (the range of perfect human hearing). Equalizers go far beyond simple bass and treble knobs, which are essentially a two-band EQ, so it’s a good idea to begin with all other audio settings – like treble, bass, loudness, and bass boost – set to a “flat” or “off” position. You might find that you don’t even need to use them after setting up your equalizer.
If you’re using multiple components that include an equalizer, such as a new car stereo and an outboard digital signal processor for example, you’ll want to use the equalizer in only one of them. We’ll talk more about that below.
If you want to add an equalizer to your system, check out our full selection of outboard equalizers. You can also find EQs built into most aftermarket stereos and multi-channel amplifiers.
Basic guidelines to the best equalizer settings
Let’s start talking about using an EQ for great sound. My first piece of advice is to have your vehicle in "park" and the parking brake on. These settings should not be made while you're driving. Safety first, readers. Finding the best equalizer settings can take a little time, tweaking, and listening. Or if you’d rather not take a deep dive, you can always simply click an EQ preset and see how you like it.
Crossovers make sure that the right frequencies get to the speakers that are designed to handle them.
Set your crossovers first
If you’re also using crossovers in your system, you’ll want to set them first. While they’re extremely handy in getting your sound just right, crossovers are not equalizers. An equalizer lets you raise or lower the level (and impact) of a specific frequency.
A crossover directs ranges of frequencies to the speakers that are designed to handle them. Think of them as someone directing traffic, sending frequencies down the right roads. For instance, you can use a crossover to direct lower bass frequencies, such as all frequencies below 100Hz, to a subwoofer that’s made to handle them. That means higher frequencies that the sub can’t play will be cut out. For more information on crossovers, check out our How to Choose a Crossover article.
A CD-quality or high-res song selection is a great choice for setting your EQ. TIDAL is a popular choice for streaming high-res music.
Pick a good source
Set yourself up for success. You’ll want to have some music ready that’s been recorded well, using some recordings (or even test tones) that are highly regarded for testing and a song with which you’re familiar.
Do NOT use the AM/FM radio or music streaming over Bluetooth for setting up your equalizer. Over-the-air radio doesn’t operate on the full frequency response of 20-20kHz, and Bluetooth compresses audio, so they’re not ideal.
Instead, you’ll want to use a well-recorded CD or a USB drive loaded with a variety of CD-quality or high-res music. If you haven't dabbled in high-res music yet, the HDTracks site offers a free sampler with high-res music you can load on a USB drive and certainly use as a great source for setting your equalizer.
If you have Android Auto™ (AA) or Apple CarPlay® (AC), you can stream some high-res music from a service like TIDAL, Qobuz, or Amazon Music HD. Just keep in mind that when you're setting the equalizer in your car stereo, you'll have to hop out of the AA or AC interface to get to the stereo's EQ.
Tips for choosing good songs
As to the songs, choose them with the following in mind:
- Use a song with strong vocals and instrumentation, but not overly synthesized. Our longtime Tech Support Advisor, Joe, suggests something like Johnny Cash’s Hurt. For me, I like using a strong female vocal, like Melody Gardot’s Amalia.
- A song that covers a wide frequency range that contains high-pitched tones and deep bass. Joe says AWOLNATION’s Sail is a solid choice for this.
- A song with distinct stereo separation and movement, like Pink Floyd’s Money or The Cars’ Moving In Stereo.
- Pick your favorite song(s), since you probably know them well. That way, you’ll know exactly what effect the EQ is having on them.
If you prefer using test tones, one of our great vendors, MTX, offers some test tones you can download or use directly from their site.
Bring a friend. It's never a bad idea for a second opinion on equalizer settings.
Time to start tweaking the sound
With your music assembled and ready, let's head out to the car.
Try the EQ presets on your car stereo
Every car audio manufacturer has their own EQ layout, usually including some EQ presets for different styles of music (rock, hip hop, jazz, etc.). Beginners, those are a great way to start. When you select a preset EQ, you’ll see the frequency levels change and learn where the emphasis is. More importantly, you’ll hear the music change.
Tip: if your EQ section is grayed out and not selectable, it's probably because there's no music playing. This happened to me during my research for this article. So, get the tunes going.
AudioControl's DM Smart DSP app provides control over every EQ aspect of their DM810 digital signal processor.
“If I have more than one equalizer, which one do I choose?”
Earlier, I talked about using the equalizer in only one component, even if you have multiple components that offer an EQ. Once you choose which EQ you want to use, the other components should remain at a “flat” setting.
That's because equalizing an equalized signal is not a good thing for your sound, or potentially, your gear. You can inadvertently miss out on some frequencies you wanted and overdrive the signal, causing distortion and potentially damaging stress to your audio gear.
Use the component’s equalizer that works best for you.
Let’s say you have a new head unit and an amplifier or digital signal processor with a built-in equalizer. If you’re someone who likes to tweak your settings often, you may find the convenience of using the EQ in the head unit to be super handy, especially if it has a touchscreen display.
This Stinger stereo does a great job of showing which bands cover the bass, mids, and highs in your music.
However, some outboard amps and processors offer more robust adjustability than the head unit, such as more equalizer bands to select. And many manufacturers have made it a little easier to adjust them by using compatible apps for your smartphone or tablet – much simpler than climbing into the trunk or getting under a seat to make adjustments on small dials. So, it’s all in how you’re going to use it.
Boosting the levels
Adjusting the frequency levels on an equalizer is done by simply sliding levels up and down, and you’ll instantly hear the results. The lower frequency numbers represent the bass, the ones in the middle represent mid-range (go figure!), and the highest frequencies are the ones for treble.
If you’ve seen the movie Risky Business, you may remember the part where Tom Cruise’s character cranks all the levels on his Dad’s home equalizer to totally jam out to some Bob Seger. You can certainly try that, although you may or may not like the results.
And unlike the movie, you'll probably want to start with small boosts or cuts to see how it affects your music, instead of going all the way up or down. These sliders let you reduce frequencies that may be overpowering, or increase those that aren't getting it done. And don't panic, most equalizers are easy to reset in case you want to start from scratch. You can also save settings you really like.
Tony, one of our Advisors and a sound mixing engineer, mentioned he was hearing a little distortion on the higher frequencies as he set up his system. He stated, “I made a very slight, precise cut at 10,000 Hz on my Kenwood receiver’s equalizer, which eliminated the distortion on the high end at high volume levels, without compromising the brightness of the music I wanted.”
It doesn't get much more robust than JL Audio's TUN app, which lets you control, save, and monitor every detail of your sound.
What's a parametric equalizer?
You may have heard the term “parametric” EQ, which is generally known as a step-up feature in car audio gear. This type of equalizer still has the sliders for boosting or cutting a given frequency. But with a parametric EQ, you can also slide the band sideways to select the center point of each frequency band and then adjust how wide or narrow each band is. This "Q Factor" filter bandwidth adjustment adds a new degree of tweaking and will help you get just the sound you're looking for.
Sony XAV-9500ES Mobile ES Series digital multimedia receiver with graphic EQ screen
The same Sony stereo's parametric EQ lets you customize the sound in even finer detail.
What’s this time alignment thing?
More modern audio gear often includes digital time alignment, or DTA, which isn’t directly related to equalizers. Digital time alignment compensates for poor, off-axis seating positions in a vehicle by introducing a small delay in specific speakers. If you think of a home audio system, there’s always a “sweet spot.” Not so much with vehicles, due to the way the seats are arranged. So, a DTA function makes up for this by using a delay on the speakers that are closest to you. The theory is that the sound from all speakers then arrives at your ears at the same time – essentially letting you create your own sweet spot in your ride. Like an EQ, you can often tweak it to your preference.
We're here to help
Whether it’s a simple equalizer built into a new car stereo or a complex EQ network in a digital signal processor, equalizing your sound can help you get more out of your music. And it doesn’t have to take much time to set one up. If you have questions on which setup is best for you, you can contact our Advisors.