LAST UPDATED: May 28, 2019
Best Car Audio Systems: Find the Right System to Bring Your Car’s Audio to Life
Check out our picks for the best car audio systems on the market
The Review Team
How We Decided
The Drive and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. Read more.
PUBLISHED ON May 28, 2019
If you drive on a regular basis, then you know just how important having a quality car stereo system is. Whether you’re sitting in traffic, on a road trip, or heading to work, listening to music or a podcast is a great way to pass the time. With that in mind, here are our picks for the best car audio system.
Why Trust Us
All of our reviews are based on market research, expert input, or practical experience with most products we include. This way, we offer genuine, accurate guides to help you find the best picks.
Benefits of Car Audio Systems
- Louder sounds. Factory audio systems are generally limited as far as power output is concerned, and less power means quieter sounds coming out of the speakers. This can make music harder to hear over other ambient noises, such as when driving down the highway or having the air conditioner on high.
- Better quality. The top-rated car audio systems out there come equipped with equalizers designed to produce the best audio quality possible. This will add a whole new dimension to your listening experience and an appreciation for some of the subtleties that are lost on lower-quality systems.
- More features. While newer audio systems that come from the factory have many more options and features than their predecessors, they are still lacking when compared to some of the best car sound systems out there. Some of these features include the ability to play different media formats, higher power output, and docking stations.
- Good investment. Putting a new audio system in your car is a great way to increase its value, which will come in handy when it’s time to sell. On the other hand, you might choose to take your audio system with you and improve the sound in your next car. Either way, a car audio system is a good investment.
Pioneer has been in the business of making receivers, speakers, and other audio components for both the home and vehicles since it was founded in Tokyo, Japan in 1938. It is one of the premier electronics companies in the world, with a huge selection of equipment offering some of the best-sound-quality car stereos such as the AVH-1300NEX Multimedia DVD Receiver.
Since 1948, this Los Angeles, Calif.-based company has been making speaker systems for both personal and professional use in a wide array of applications. It produces tweeters, mid-range, and subwoofers designed for either home or car use and is responsible for popular products like the Flip 4 Bluetooth Portable Stereo Speaker.
Alpine started off as a joint venture between Tokyo-based Alps Electric and U.S.-based Motorola in 1967, called Alps-Motorola, and later changed to Alpine Electronics in 1978. It produces car audio and navigation systems and produces a lion's share of the factory stereos found in BMW and Honda vehicles. The company is responsible for some of the best-looking car stereos like the CDE-HD149BT Car Stereo.
Car Audio Systems Pricing
- $50-$150: The number of stereo components you’re looking for will greatly influence how much you can expect to spend. That said, there are many bundle packages available with a receiver, speakers, and amplifier that are affordable. At this price range, you can expect receivers with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, 6x9-inch or 6.5-inch speakers with mica cones, and small external amplifiers.
- $150-$300: Mid-range equipment will have more features that will please car audio enthusiasts. Head units that read MP3 and FLAC files, subwoofers that pump out the heavy base, and 12-band equalizers are all common at this price point.
- $300 and up: As you go higher in price, you’ll find some of the best in-car entertainment systems in the industry. For a few hundred dollars, you can purchase aftermarket receivers that are customized to fit into your vehicle and professional-sounding speaker systems that are used in competitions.
Also called a head unit, this is the brains of an audio system that sits in the dash and has an interface that you can interact with. Newer receivers are referred to as infotainment systems because they provide useful information such as navigation details and vehicle status updates in addition to entertainment.
Car speakers are separated into categories based on the frequency of soundwaves that they produce. In order from highest to lowest frequency are tweeters, mid-range, and subwoofers. Tweeters are directional and usually placed in the dash, mid-range speakers are ambient and installed in the doors, and woofers produce deep bass and are placed behind the back seat in the trunk.
An equalizer is the most important piece of equipment in your audio system for optimizing sound quality. Depending on your setup, you can have either an external equalizer or one that is built into the receiver. It works by using different filters to accentuate or mask different tones as well as minimize distortion.
This component increases the amount of wattage that is sent to the speakers. This, in turn, increases the output of the speakers, which means louder music. The amount of amplification available is measured in gain, which is the ratio of output wattage to the input voltage.
- Single- or Double-DIN: Depending on the make, model, and year of your car, it will either have a single- or double-DIN receiver slot in the dash. Double-DIN receivers are twice the size of their single counterparts and are found in most newer vehicles. Single-DIN receivers can be placed in double-DIN slots using special mounting brackets.
- Smartphone Integration: Receiver manufacturers are increasingly offering products that come with full smartphone integration. This means you can make phone calls, play music, open apps, and scroll through your contacts list conveniently from the display on your receiver.
Best Car Audio System Reviews & Recommendations 2020
This bundle package comes with a KDC-BT33 single-DIN receiver, a pair of KFC-6965S 6X9-inch and KFC-1665S 6.5-inch speakers, and 50 feet of 16-gauge speaker wire. Together, this package deal is a great replacement for any factory system and provides deep, rich sounds throughout the cabin of your car.
There are many features that make this audio system our top pick overall. The receiver can play CDs or MP3s, has Bluetooth connectivity, and can connect to both iPhone and Android devices. Bluetooth allows you to make hands-free phone calls, use phone-based apps, and access other phone features like the contacts list. There are also USB and AUX inputs in the face of the receiver and a three-band equalizer to fine-tune your music.
The three-way, 6x9-inch speakers can handle a peak power load of 400 watts each and an RMS (Root-Mean-Square) power load of 45 watts each. The two-way 6.5-inch speakers can handle 300 watts of peak power each and 30 watts RMS. When connected to the receiver through the provided 16-gauge speaker wire, this car surround sound system has ample amounts of volume, crisp treble, and deep bass that will complement whatever music you have on.
On the negative side, the speakers aren’t always pushed hard enough by the internal amp to get the best sound. There are also some wiring issues that have been reported inside the receiver, causing certain features like the tuner to stop working. Finally, the clock disappears from the display when using Bluetooth.
This bundle includes the MVH-295BT single-DIN receiver with a built-in four-channel, 50-watt amplifier as well as twin sets of three-way 6x9-inch and three-way 6.5-inch speakers. The power supplied by the receiver adds a nice punch to the speakers which are designed to deliver clear, crisp treble, mid-range, and bass sounds inside your car.
The receiver comes with a detachable face for security and is capable of playing CD and MP3 formats. Bluetooth technology lets you sync up Apple and Android devices, giving you hands-free calling as well as access to your device’s apps. USB and AUX inputs let you charge your device or hook up another device for an additional source of music.
The speakers are part of Pioneer’s Alphasonik line and are designed to deliver stereo sound throughout the interior of your car. The 6x9-inch speakers have a maximum power handling capacity of 500 watts and an RMS threshold of 50 watts. The 6.5-inch speakers can handle as much as 350 watts and have an RMS rating of 35 watts.
As far as cons go, there are some known issues with parts of the receiver not working when installed, which can be attributed to factory defects. There have also been issues with the receiver needing a firmware update that is not easy to find through the manufacturer. Lastly, the display is dim in direct sunlight.
Earning a place as our honorable mention pick is this bundle, featuring the KD-R370 single-DIN receiver with an internal amplifier that can put out 50 watts of power per channel and two wireless, 6.5-inch, two-way speakers. This is one of the best music systems for cars without a lot of room to install aftermarket speakers.
The receiver comes with a detachable face that has a 13-digit LCD display along with red illuminated buttons. There is one preamp output for extra speakers and a three-band parametric equalizer to fine-tune sound quality. The wireless speakers can handle 300 watts of peak power each and 30 watts of RMS power.
On the negative side, the receiver tends to have some issues with AM/FM radio reception. Depending on the car, it can be difficult to find the right spot for the speakers to be most effective. Occasionally, quality defects from the manufacturer have also complicated quick and easy installation.
- If you are playing MP3, WMA, WAV, or other audio files and finding that your songs sound muffled or otherwise distorted, check the compression rate on the files. Higher compression rates strip away some of the low and high frequencies, which has an adverse effect on sound quality.
- Similar to the compression rate, make sure that your audio files are recorded at a high bit rate. Recording a file in a lower bit rate may make it smaller and take up less storage space, but you will also lose quality as well.
- An external amplifier is a great way to increase how loud your speakers sound, but make sure that the speakers can handle the extra power. Otherwise, you run the risk of blowing them out.
- If you are installing aftermarket speakers, make sure the dimensions of the space you’re putting them into is sufficient for their output. Too small/large of an area will impede their ability to perform at peak levels.
Q: Is a double-DIN receiver better than a single-DIN receiver?
A: It really isn’t a question of which one is better; it depends on which one is suited for your car. Most newer vehicles come with double-DIN slots, meaning that either version will work. Double-DIN receivers have touchscreen displays that their single-DIN siblings lack, but they are generally identical in terms of other features.
Q: Do I really need an external amplifier?
A: The short answer is “no,” but not having one could severely affect sound quality and volume. Most factory speakers will work fine with the internal amplifier that comes with a receiver, but if you buy aftermarket speakers that are designed to handle more power, then you will need something more powerful to take full advantage of them.
Q: How important is an equalizer?
A: It depends on what you are using your car stereo for. If you just want some background noise on your way to work or are strictly listening to podcasts, then you really don’t need one. However, if you’re looking for the best stereo experience possible, then you should use one. Luckily, many receivers come with an internal equalizer, so you won’t have to purchase one separately.
The Kenwood Receiver With Two 6x9-Inch Speakers, Two 6.5-Inch Speakers, and Speaker Wire kit is our top pick overall for its clear, crisp sound, powerful speakers, and added speaker wire.
The Pioneer Receiver With Two 6.5-Inch and Two 6x9-Inch Speakers kit is a great value with a powerful receiver and lots of features.