The "ideal" car audio system is not necessarily the loudest one, or the most expensive one. It's the one that best meets your needs. So, the first step is to figure out what your needs are. Start off by asking yourself: what is the one thing you want your new car stereo to do for you? If you don't come up with an answer right away, then start by taking a look at your current system.
How does the sound of your current system make you feel? Do you find yourself tapping your foot or drumming your fingers on the steering wheel? Does a funky rhythm section get you smiling? Does a blues guitar solo send shivers down your back?
No? Then is the sound flat, dull, tinny, or wimpy? You're probably listening to a car radio that's struggling to drive flimsy, old factory speakers. The good news is that you have a lot of options to choose from when replacing the various components in your audio system.
It's not always easy to diagnose what's causing problems in a vehicle's audio/video system. You know it sounds lousy, but you don't necessarily know why. You don't have to be a car audio expert to figure it out, though. Here are some simple steps you can take to narrow things down:
Twist all the knobs and push all the buttons. Do all the functions seem to work okay? Listen to each speaker individually by adjusting the balance and fader controls. Turn up the volume and the tone controls. Are all the speakers working, or do you hear a slight rattle or a buzz?
Next, drive around and listen carefully.
Hit the highway and turn your car stereo up loud enough to be heard above the road noise. What do you hear? How does it sound? What do you feel like you're missing?
But don't turn down the music just yet. Keeping the volume at "highway level" (but without the road noise to confuse your ear), do you hear a lot of distortion? Set the balance, fader, and tone controls right smack in the middle. How's the overall sound of the speakers? What's lacking? Bass? Treble? Clarity?
Make a list of the components in your system, and rate them on a scale of 1-10. You'll get the most bang for your buck by replacing the lowest-rated components first. If the car receiver ranked the lowest, the fix is relatively obvious. Installing a new receiver is frequently one of the first steps to achieving better sound, since the audio signal sent to the rest of your system is much cleaner and stronger when it comes from an aftermarket source.
What would you like your radio to do that it won't do now?
Make calls and stream music using a Bluetooth® connection?
Tune in to satellite or HD Radio™ broadcasts?
Control an iPod®, iPhone®, Android™, or other portable audio device?
Play CDs or MP3 files?
Play DVDs on a retractable or built-in display?
Play louder without distorting?
Knowing what you want your receiver to do makes it easier to choose the right one for you and your car. If you know the receiver isn't the problem, or you just don't want to part with your current receiver, you can focus on building up the other components in your car's system. If your speakers sound okay at moderate volume, but not at highway volume, you may want to start by adding more power. If the speakers sound bad all the time, you should probably replace them first.