So, you’re playing The Weeknd in the car, and he does not seem to be hitting the right notes. For a four-time Grammy winner, that’s highly improbable. It is more likely that you aren’t hearing it because you have a basic sound system incapable of handling the complete audio spectrum.

It seems your vehicle is in dire need of an audio upgrade. Do not fret if you have no idea where to start; we are not all blessed with the ears of an orchestra conductor.

We will operate on a choose-your-own-adventure format (80s kids will understand) to accommodate your budget and preference. Replace or buy only what you want/need. Not everyone will want to swap everything out for new equipment because that will be pricey. Just make sure to mix and match based on the specs, so you hear nothing but sweet, sweet music.

To get your baseline, ask yourself this question, what do you want out of your vehicle’s audio system? Once this is determined, we can move forward incrementally until your audio demands are satisfied.

Terminology

Before we start, here are a few terms you need to familiarize yourself with:

-Head unit is the interface between the user and the audio system. It can be a simple 2-din device or a large touchscreen display with controls for the volume and media type, among many others.

-An amp or amplifier boosts the audio signal from the head unit, so the speakers get more power, increased volume, and better clarity.

-Tweeters are a type of specialized speaker that only handle high-frequency sounds from 2,000 to 20,000 Hz.

-Mids, as the name implies, take care of the middle range frequencies.

-Woofers are speaker components that reproduce low range frequencies

-A subwoofer is also a focused speaker dedicated to reproducing low-frequency bass sounds.

-Watts is the rate of energy transfer. For speakers, it is the maximum amount of power it can handle. For amplifiers, it is the maximum amount of power it can put out.

-RMS or root mean square is how much continuous and consistent wattage a speaker can handle or an amplifier can deliver.

-Peak power (also known as peak watts) refers to the maximum power level your speaker can handle or your amplifier can put out in short spurts without distortion or destruction.

-Sensitivity rating refers to the speaker’s power requirement for optimum sound delivery.

-Digital signal processor (DSP), in simple terms, is a device that improves tonal balance, signal timing, and accuracy, so it feels like the song is playing in front of you rather than from a CD or Spotify.

All of these may be a lot to remember in one go but try because it will definitely make you sound like you know what you’re talking about when you go to Banawe, or your favorite auto accessories shop, to buy the things you need.

Sound design: Set up your car like a studio image

Speaker power versus cabin size

Do not get fooled by high wattage numbers on the front side of speaker boxes. Some say stuff like 50 watts or even higher. Check to make sure it refers to RMS and not peak power. That information may be in the fine print, so bring your glasses.

Fifty watts of peak power does not mean much because that power is only available in short spurts; any longer and your speaker is in danger of blowing up. Fifty watts RMS is better because it means your ears get full power continuously and consistently.

Fifty watts RMS should sound good in an average compact sedan like the Vios or Altis. But for larger vehicles, 77 watts RMS will be better.

If you want the audio to really pop, there’s no law against going for 100 or even 2,000+ watts RMS.

Sound design: Set up your car like a studio image

Head unit

It would be best to upgrade to a new head unit if you’re still using a two-din or a non-touchscreen system. If you have the latter and it comes with Bluetooth, keep that and splurge on better speakers.

New OEM head units typically have 10 watts RMS (sends 10 watts to each speaker). That is considered a low-power system. If you are willing to change it, get a speaker with a high sensitivity rating (anything over 93 dB should be ok). Find SPL (sound pressure level) in the specs.

If you prefer to get a fancier head unit, pick one with at least 16 watts RMS. But remember, the higher the head unit output, the lower the speaker sensitivity. Hence, pair it with speakers rated at around 88-93 dB.

Disobey this simple pairing rule at your own risk. If the head unit and speakers are mismatched, it can destroy one (or the other) or produce low-quality sound.

Also, try and get the head unit that delivers the advertised wattage (in RMS) per channel. That ensures balanced audio power delivery no matter the number of channels each of your speakers have.

Sound design: Set up your car like a studio image

Types of speakers

Today, speakers are plug-and-play devices. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they can even match the factory mounts of your OEM speakers. Just remember to match the speakers’ capacity to the output of the head unit (or amplifier), which means that if it’s delivering 50 watts RMS, each of your speakers should be rated as such.

Note that there are two types of speakers, component and coaxial.

A coaxial speaker has everything built into it, from the tweeter to the woofer. There are several types (two-way, three-way, and four-way), and the more complicated it is, the better the sound. But, since all its parts are in a single assembly, its audio quality is still limited compared to components speakers.

Component speakers have a better design because the tweeters are housed separately from the woofers and mids. It will require individual drivers powered by a separate amplifier. This type of speaker reproduces much higher audio quality and detailed sound than coaxial, but it is also more expensive and requires more cabin space for installation.

Always invest in great front speakers because that is what you will be listening to most of the time as the driver. When you buy four speakers, try to get both pairs (front and rear) from the same maker and get the same model; this prevents differences in tones between the pairs of speakers.

Install a subwoofer, so your speakers won’t strain at high volume. Plus, it makes the overall sound much more robust. Choose an enclosed sub so you don’t have to manufacture a box for it. The ideal placement is in front but if you drive a modern vehicle, then the trunk is your next best option. Underseat subwoofers are an option. They’re cheaper, take up less space, but are less customizable and don’t sound as good.

Sound design: Set up your car like a studio image

Amplifiers

If all you want is to jam to ‘Blinding lights’ while driving down EDSA, then the built-in amps of the head unit should be fine. But if your ears yearn to hear how The Weeknd’s voice scales between F3 to C5, then you’ll need to install amplifiers. As to the number of amps, it depends on the specs and speakers you have.

Best to pair each speaker to one channel. You can start from a low 2- to a high 8-channel amp. As for power, anything from 20 to 2,000+ watts RMS or higher, depending on the cabin size and your preference.

Are you installing a subwoofer? Use mono or single-channel amps designed especially for subwoofers. Some of these amps even have audio tools to enhance bass sounds. This setup is preferred because subwoofers have a wide range of impedances that can literally fry 2- and 4-channels amps.

DSP

After all the upgrades, and you’re still not satisfied with just hearing all the notes and nuances, and you prefer it sounds like you’re actually in the studio while The Weeknd is recording the song, you will need a DSP.

Remember to have it installed by a professional. New vehicles have complicated wiring for all their equipment. If you DIY this and accidentally cut or bypass a fuse or lamp, you might end up with the light switch on the volume knob.

Unless you read the manual and understood it like a children’s book, you would be better off hiring a sound engineer to set it up for its many modulations. You can have presets tuned for a driver listening position, for the front passenger, when the cabin is loaded, and even when the top is down. There are settings for coupes, sedans, SUVs, and other vehicle types. At its core, this is what a DSP does. It nullifies the differences in the reflections and resonances of various cabin shapes and sizes to heighten the realism of your audio experience.

If you have an advanced head unit with a crossover, time alignment, and equalizer, set it to zero or flat. This way, all the fine adjustments will be made by the DSP.

The latest models even come with multiple inputs, including wireless connections like Bluetooth. Make sure to factor this in during installation and setup to make your streamed audio sound crystal clear.

Soundcheck

Do not expect your new infotainment system to sound awesome right from the box. In the beginning, these parts are stiff but will loosen up and become more dynamic through frequent use.

To ensure it flexes through all the frequencies, initially play music with a wide dynamic range. Turn it up, but not at a glass-shattering level just yet. Play songs you are familiar with so you can tell if the speakers are getting better as it gets more flexible over time.

After the break-in, you have our permission to play it loud and play it proud! You can even tailor a driving playlist based on these parameters. Just don't break any ordinances while you're at it.