Can I improve my car audio system on the cheap?
March 13, 2017 7:28 AM   Subscribe

I'm wondering if there's some cheap solution for Bluetooth speakers I can set up in the car that will give me nice crisp sound even at higher volumes. I wouldn't like to spend more than a few hundred, and my understanding is built-in systems of any decency are above 1K.

I am sick of the distortion I get when I turn up the volume in my car audio system. The CD drive doesn't work any more, so all I have now is a USB port and the radio. Which would be fine if it weren't for the distortion. What are my alternatives? Note that the car is old and not worth probably more than 3-5K so it wouldn't make sense to invest in a built-in solution.
posted by Dragonness to Technology (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd check with your local car speaker joint and ask that they take a look - it could be as simple as replacing a speaker (without changing the built in system) or changing out the amp.

If you don't want to sink anymore money into the car itself then it sounds like you want really nice portable speakers that can be turned up loud without any distortion. A good friend of mine solved his similar situation (open top willys jeeps with no stereo system) by buying a beautiful Bang & Olufsen Beolit that was clear and crisp without distortion even at really high levels, in open air new york traffic. It's pricey, but they also have smaller versions that might be worth a listen in store as well. You just want to make sure you grab it everytime you leave the car.
posted by Karaage at 7:43 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Believe it or not, upgrading the head of a stereo system fixes a lot of issues found in cheaper vehicles. The new head has a better amplifier and is better able to drive the built in speakers.

You can do this yourself, on the cheap, by using a site like Crutchfield. Crutchfield will supply instructions and wiring harness for your car's make and model, and whatever head you choose to buy.

A good CD car stereo can be found for less than $100. The wiring harness will not run you very much. You might have to do some soldering.

Take a look, I think you'd be surprised how cheap this upgrade can be with some minimal work: Crutchfield CD Stereos
posted by teabag at 7:45 AM on March 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Another vote for checking the speakers - I had an older car where the cheapass cardboardy speaker cones had basically disintegrated over the years; replacing them was comparatively cheap and easy and made the car's inbuilt system sound not-terrible again.
posted by terretu at 7:47 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Upgrading speakers can make a huge difference. Doing so, though, can be expensive, depending on the car. There can be a fair amount of dismantling to be done, depending on the model. With any luck, your car will be the standard "speakers in the door panel and hanging off the rear deck" type.

The DIY/Crutchfield head unit replacement approach that teabag suggests is also a good one, so long as the head unit of your car stereo is directly accessible (i.e. can be pulled straight out of the dash. A lot of car makers, though, have custom layouts incorporated into the dash/console that makes the Crutchfield solution moot.

It might help to know what model of car we're talking about.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:53 AM on March 13, 2017

Seconding Crutchfield's DIY instructions. Depending on your make or model, this could be really easy or really annoying work.

Is the distortion uniform from all the speakers? If so, it's probably the head unit and swapping it out will solve the problem. If it varies from speaker to speaker, you might have something like the damage terretu described.

You can certainly sling a Bluetooth speaker in the back seat as a really cheap swap, but it's not going to solve your CD problem and most don't have radios. I suspect you'll find the lack of an easy to grab nob to adjust the volume annoying and many may not have the power to compete with road/engine noise at hard speed. And if you're in an area that gets hot in the summer, the heat will kill the battery pretty quickly so you'll need something that will run off of a car charger. It's also going to be an easy target for thieves unless you hide it every time you stop.
posted by Candleman at 7:59 AM on March 13, 2017

The car is a Jeep Liberty from 2006 and already has an after-market head unit by Jensen (not sure if the speakers are original) that was put in when I got the car in 2009. I remember it cost about $900 with installation.
posted by Dragonness at 8:24 AM on March 13, 2017

I remember it cost about $900 with installation.

Crutchfield has a slew of options under $100 plus ~$40 if you need the wiring harness.
posted by Candleman at 10:49 AM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Is it a big unit with a screen and a navigation system? When the head unit was replaced, did you also purchase anything else, like replacement speakers or an additional amplifier? $900 with installation is a LOT of money to simply install a replacement head unit, unless the head unit also has in-dash navigation. I just searched on Crutchfield's site and the most expensive Jensen they have for your vehicle is $400 to purchase (without installation).

What kind of distortion are you hearing, bass notes or high notes? If you had another amplifier installed, the gain on the amplifier may be set too high. You might be overpowering the speakers. If the head unit has a gain setting, you could be experiencing the same problem by setting the gain too high. Or, the head unit might be sending the speakers a dirty signal, it might not be able to supply enough power to the speakers.

It's hard to tell what's going on without knowing more information.
posted by hootenatty at 2:14 PM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Okay, I found the details. This is the unit. It has a backup camera, which, I am now remembering, was the main motivation for the replacement of the original head unit. There is also a steering-wheel control interface that was installed, plus a Bluetooth phone integration for hands-free calling.

As for the distortion, it occurs with bass notes, not high notes. For that reason I keep my bass as low as possible, which is no fun, of course.

I hope this is enough to go on?
posted by Dragonness at 7:16 PM on March 13, 2017

Thanks for the additional info. It sounds like you had the head unit upgraded to the Jensen you linked, as well as some additional peripherals like the camera, steering-wheel control and bluetooth phone installed, but didn't touch the speakers or add anything else like an amplifier?

It's not clear if your Liberty originally came with the standard stereo system or the premium Infinity system.

If your Liberty came with the standard stereo system, then the 4-channel head unit was delivering 66W total or 66W / 4 = 16.5W RMS to each speaker. The Jensen head unit you have has a fairly low power output, 13 watts RMS, so you could be getting distortion by underpowering the speakers. In this scenario, you may want to add an amplifier for your speakers - and if you're doing that, you might look into replacing the speakers as well.

If your Liberty came with the higher-trim Infinity stereo system, then the 6-channel head unit was delivering 72W total or 72W / 6 = 12W RMS; however, this factory system also includes an additional amp built into each of the two crossovers. If this is the factory system in your Liberty, then you may need to adjust the gain on the amplifiers to better match your head unit's output. You could do this yourself if you're comfortable getting to the amps, which would likely mean taking off some interior trim and replacing it, or you could pay a car audio place to do it for you.

In addition to the above, if your stereo has been doing this for a while, you could have damaged the speakers by stressing them in this configuration.

More detailed info about your stock stereo is here (wikibooks).
posted by hootenatty at 10:56 AM on March 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

That was super helpful feedback, I really appreciate it. I had the Infinity 6-CD changer. Now I know what's likely going on I'll be able to speak to an audio place with some knowledge. Thanks again!
posted by Dragonness at 11:01 PM on March 14, 2017

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