a yellow school bus

Image credit: MSDN.

Mobile Audio in your Car

In considering the plethora of options available for one’s automobile, navigation, Bluetooth wireless capacity, video display, satellite music and news feeds, we will attempt to focus on sound systems. The fundamentals of a mobile audio system would include: Bluetooth-ready receiver, full-range speakers, powered subwoofer, plug and play satellite radio, CD and MP3 player, digital signal processor, equalizer, and a link for iproducts. Outboard amplifiers and CD transports have increased in popularity in the last two decades. Interestingly marketing strategies surrounding mobile audio gear tend to articulate the quality of the driving (or sitting in traffic) experience. Lets delineate essential and peripheral equipment tailored to meet your audio needs.

One look at the listening experience is the situation of the solitary driver, not an entirely different set of circumstances from a listening room. Maintaining a true balance between different speakers and sound sources is an issue of paramount importance for this application, where the soccer mom driving a van full of aspiring athletes might dictate two different zones of sound, one for the chauffer and one for the driven (and in all likelihood, a video display). Determining a set of priorities for your specific situation is the first step to assembling a system to meet your needs, followed by maximizing flexibility around these parameters. There some vagaries that can be found in determining the compatibility of sound systems and vehicles. Classic cars, for instance, often require some modifications to accept modern equipment. Cars that are convertibles, particularly those that open all the way to the window sill line, dictate different speaker locations, and sometimes specifications for optimum performance.


Not all factory audio systems are created equal, and of course not all are bad. However the following is based on the assumption that one is replacing a factory system with a custom one. It should be noted that most vendors of mobile audio systems have created interfaces for determining the capacity and compatibility of a vehicle to accommodate a specific system. Many also provide installation services.

We will begin with a simple approach, selecting a CD player/receiver. Dual, Alpine, Blaupunkt, JVC, Pioneer and Sony all offer in-dash receivers under $100. Kenwood offers the KDC 248U, which provides for CD, MP3, WMA files playback, features auxiliary and USB inputs, and doubles as an ipod dock, all for about $80. The Pioneer DEH 2500UI and JVC KD-R540 both feature graphic equalizers and the option to receive internet radio stations from an iphone, for a similar value.

Many of these inexpensive receivers contain digital audio processors and digital to analog converters in addition to equalization to provide for individually contouring the sound to one’s preferences. Security options abound, from detachable face-plates to discourage theft, to receivers that contain alarm controllers. For around $150, Sony, Pioneer and JVC provide systems with High-Definition capacity in addition to satellite radio and Bluetooth wireless options.


As Polk Audio and Infinity are among the preferred speakers of this reviewer, we will examine the Polk db 571, a two-way speaker for around $100 per pair, providing for up to 60 watts rms power. The infinity Reference X-REF 8602 cfx, available for $130 per pair provide a similar sonic range with a slightly larger tweeter.


There is an unfortunate trend in mobile sound which is the mobile sound assault vehicle. As this doesn’t dovetail with the value systems of most audiophiles, we will not explore outboard 500-watt amps and subwoofers designed to shake vehicles and buildings.

Skipping the Rockford-Fosgate, often applied to the aforementioned, Polk Audio makes the MM 540, a ten-inch subwoofer with 100-350 watts rms power-handling capability. At $90, it is also rated for marine applications. JL Audio makes the 12WV3v3-2, for around $280, which provides 100-500 watts rms handling capacity in a 12 inch speaker.

Kicker, Rockford-Fosgate, Alpine, MTX and JBL all provide impressive subwoofers between these price points, in single speakers.