Setting Up Your Car Stereo

Last week we talked about the importance of having a good sound system in your car.  I promised you that this week we would talk about how to set your car HiFi so it gave you the best listening experience for the space.

Basic car sound systems generally consist of four speakers and an in-dash receiver. These have simple bass and treble adjustments along with volume, fade and balance.  The better car systems have an additional tone control for mid-range and this makes a big difference to the quality of sound you can screw out of these basic OEM systems.  The most extreme system I had was by Clarion and it had three band parametric EQ with sweepable mids and, quite frankly needed a professional studio engineer with a perverse love of computers to actually get a good sound out of it.  If you consider that different songs and different genres might need a different tone setting, and that the inside of a car is a terrible listening environment and it is beyond me why anyone would want one of these.

Stock systems don’t include top of the line components, they’re mainly there as a holdover until you upgrade. While they don’t offer the best sound quality, if tuned correctly, you’ll be pretty surprised and impressed with the clarity, and overall crispness of sound. 

So, let’s get down to it...

Start off by switching on your stereo. (Obvious, I know...) Make sure that the fade, balance, tone controls, and EQ have all been set to flat or the middle position. 

Begin playing music. It should be a song you’re really familiar with, one that you’ve heard dozens of times. This way, you’ll know what the song is supposed to sound like. The song you choose should offer plenty of sonic variety. This means lots of high notes like cymbals, brass, flutes, plenty of mid-range sounds such as guitar and piano, and vocals, and a lot of low notes like drums and bass. You’ll be listening to this song over and over to check for any adjustments you need to make. 

The receiver’s fade control should be tuned until the music is only coming out of the front speakers. Next, adjust the right to left balance until you’re satisfied with the results. As the driver you might want to favour the right so you’re sitting more in the sweet spot but this is possibly more finicky than youreally need to be.

Remember where that setting is.

Next, you’ll focus on the fade control until the music is only coming from the rear speakers. Some models of receivers will allow users to control the different tones between the rear and front speakers. If you tune the rear speakers ensuring there’s a little less treble than the front ones, the music will sound like it’s coming from the front, even when cranked up. 

Tonal qualities will also need to be considered. Are the low, mid-range, and high notes all there? Are these sounds balanced? Before you try to adjust it, determine if anything is wrong with the tonal quality. 

If the receiver has EQ presets, make sure you try each one to determine if they have a positive impact on sound quality and clarity. You can fine-tune the mid-range controls, treble, and bass using the EQ controls, easily, but it will take some time and patience.

During this time you might also want to listen to different genres of music in order to achieve a setting that will work well for all your musical tastes. For this part, you should be prepared to spend around twenty or thirty minutes changing up the settings to get the perfect sound. 

You can go through the EQ settings using different combinations of treble, presets, and bass boosts, until your music sounds just right. The bass shouldn’t sound boomy, it should sound full, without causing distortion. The highs shouldn’t sound shrill, they should sound crisp.

The mid-range should be clear and smooth. IT is actually the mid-range that adds depth to the music and hits you in the chest.  Remember, this time you spend adjusting and listening closely to the audio quality will be well worth it later. 

Don’t worry if your tone settings look a little extreme. Just trust your ears. The only right way to do it is based on whether or not the music sounds good to you. 

Almost any pro sound engineer will tell you the first thing you want to try with EQ, or setting the tone, is to decrease the level of a frequency rather than increase others around it. Expanding too many frequencies can make the music sound muddled, and with a little shift here and there, you can subtract a bit of the irksome sound and get closer to what you’re looking for. That’s not to say an increase in a frequency range isn’t necessary at times, but you should always start with subtraction. Remember, too, that any change in EQ will not only affect the frequency range you’ve chosen, but also how the rest of the frequencies interact with each other.

You may notice that it takes a moment after making an adjustment to hear the result. This is normal. It’s also normal that you may have to boost the overall volume after reducing any frequencies. For instance, if you want more bass and treble in general, you can pull down some of the midrange sliders, then boost the volume a bit and see what you think of the result.

Considering the amount of time we spend in our cars it is important to make the experience as pleasant as possible.  A poorly adjusted sound system will cause listener fatigue and can make you irritable on the road or make you prematurely tired.  A well set system can keep you feeling fresh and awake which makes your journey safer as well as more pleasant.

The last thing to remember is that as you drive your ears will adjust to the sound level (volume) and the temptation is to turn the system up higher to get an extra hit of dopamine. Just remember when you switch the car off to turn the volume down on your HiFi so you don’t get a blast in the morning that makes your ears bleed.