How To: Get Better Car Audio On Any Budget (Part 1)

CarBuyer shows you how to improve your car’s audio and on-board entertainment. Bonus: The first step costs nothing at all!


A regular person’s impression of in-car entertainment (ICE) invariably conjures up images of an entire car turned into what is essentially a hot pink subwoofer on wheels. In reality, not everyone has the means – or will – to pull off that sort of madness of course.

Just like the non-automotive hi-fidelity audio scene, ICE is a spectrum you can dip your toes in or dive headfirst into, but the best thing is that the results are usually quite obvious and you don’t have to be an audiophile to appreciate the improvements.

We take you through an easy by-the-budget guide with the what, why, how, and how much to improving your car’s audio system

Adjusting your car stereo’s equaliser

Budget: Free

How do you improve the sound in your car without dishing out any dosh?

Well most cars have a head-unit/receiver that allows for the most basic of equalisation adjustments. Equalisation, via an equaliser or EQ, allows you to adjust the amplitude (loudness) of certain frequencies to tune the overall sound to your liking, to the genre, or to suit the car you’re in. In other words, EQ allows you to fine tune the highs and lows of the music to achieve a better result.

Equalisers can be parametric, where a knob controls a certain range of frequencies, or graphic, which allow for more precise control of individual frequencies spread over a curve. Parametric EQ is easier to use, while graphic EQ can be very complex and is for advanced users.

While EQ can be a matter of taste more than anything, most people will enjoy a balanced sound where you can hear all frequencies clearly with nothing overpowering. Here are some tips:

– More doesn’t equal more. Some people turn all frequencies full across the board in EQ settings, which doesn’t help, it simply makes everything louder and possibly more distorted.

– Keep genre in mind. If you listen to classical, for instance, you can afford to cut low frequencies, while the opposite might be true if you’re a hip-hop fan. Some receivers have presets for genre, use those as a starting point.

– Car size plays a part. In small cars, overly accentuated bass can easily become excessive, so don’t be afraid to cut a frequency and experiment.

Upgrade your speakers

Budget: $350 or less

Pioneer TS-A1600C
Cost: S$279 (without installation)

If you’re willing to shell out a small amount, speakers are the first thing to swap out for a big step-up in audio performance.

Unless your car already comes with a premium sound system, which usually isn’t the case if it’s a non-European, non-luxury model, then almost any sort of aftermarket speakers from a reputable brand will be a major improvement as OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) units are designed with cost as the foremost parameter.

You could spend almost any amount on speakers, though, so how you do decide what’s suitable for you?

Just like cars, there are different tiers of performance/price. Japanese car audio brand Pioneer’s speakers, for example, are graded from G R A D Z, from least to most expensive.

We’ve tested the Pioneer TS-A1600C speaker set from Pioneer’s A range, which is smack in the middle of the lineup and aimed at providing a good balance between price and performance.

Like most aftermarket speakers the TS-A1600C kit has been designed as a ‘drop-in’ replacement for OEM speakers, and is a set consisting of a pair of woofers, and a pair of tweeters.

Pioneer boasts quite a few improvements over regular speakers including a more powerful magnet, improved speaker cone construction – the cone is made of a plastic polymer reinforced with carbon and mica, for improved and more powerful response.

The better the materials, in other words, the better the sound. To use a visual metaphor, a 4K OLED television is able to outperform your old bulky CRT screen because of the way it’s built.

Installation at an official Pioneer dealer took a few hours, part of that job is made easier by the fact that the speaker set comes with mounting brackets for an easy fit to various makes of car.

There were no installation hiccups in our Volkswagen Golf test mule. The car, as a 2013 model with standard un-fancy sound system was a prime candidate for speaker upgrades. Since the stereo system is basic, and not particularly powerful or high performance, and the difference the new speakers made was immediately noticeable.

Audiophiles like to talk of the ‘sound stage’, which refers to the metaphor of being in front of a real band or orchestra and to hear details and certain instruments clearly. The sound stage provided by the TS A1600C was much wider than the OE speakers, because the sound was much more defined and clear, including the separation between each instrument or voice.

There’s also the idea that better speakers can replicate – or reproduce – the intricacies of the recorded material better, and that results in the listener being able to hear details and ‘new things in old songs’ for example, and that certainly was the case with our on-board CD collection.

The speakers are rated for 350W of maximum power, which is more than sufficient for normal listening levels, and can certainly deliver far more volume without losing clarity.

While we aren’t a fan of gigantic, distended bass in our listening, cranking up the low-end on the new speakers resulted in a far more controlled, pleasing bass sound, rather than the excessively boomy bass of the old speakers, not to mention that it also eliminates the bass distortion the old speakers would encounter at higher volumes. We won’t be playing hip-hop at max volume with the windows down any time soon, but we did appreciate the overall increase in clarity and power.

For the price the speakers provided an impressive amount of performance, especially in contrast to the OE ones, and are highly recommended as a first step on the road to better onboard audio.

Audio Glossary

Equaliser – Or EQ. A device that allows you to adjust the amplitude (loudness) of certain frequencies to tune the overall sound to your liking. Equalisers can be parametric, where a knob controls a certain range of frequencies, or graphic, which allow for more precise control of individual frequencies spread over a curve. Parametric EQ is easier to use, while graphic EQ can be very complex and is for advanced users.

Power – Like car engines, there’s a limit to the amount of power a sound system can muster. Generally, more power equates more volume, though this also depends of the efficiency of each component in the entire system.

Signal – A sound system’s actual sound begins as electrical output, or signal, from the head unit, which plays the media source. It’s then sent to an amplifier, which ‘enlarges’ the signal, and then onto the loudspeakers which take this amplified signal and turn it into sound.

Tweeter – Smaller speakers, usually less than four-inches in diameter, that handle higher frequencies. Chirping is a high frequency sound, hence the name. In cars, the tweeters are often mounted in the A-pillar so they are pointed towards the listeners.  

Woofer – This is the common idea of a speaker, a larger cone-shaped object, usually more than four-inches in diameter. Woofers handle middle and lower frequencies, which is why they’re typically sold in a set together with a pair of tweeters.

Subwoofer – This speaker handles frequencies of bass and sub-bass, which are even lower than the ones handled by the woofer, as a result subwoofers often have different construction and enclosed in a box to control the sound waves better.

about the author

Derryn Wong
CarBuyer's chief editor has a keen interest in all things mechanical, technological, animal and mineral. He's particularly fascinated by eco-cars and cars which make no logical sense. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he also enjoys cats.