How to get better sound without paying a penny

Three simple and free tweaks to maximise your existing car stereo’s true potential

What is good music? For many drivers, good music is what makes their commutes more enjoyable. These days, the audio system that comes with your car can vary quite significantly in terms of functionality and quality. It can range from a no-frills kit with just the bare essentials to something premium, boasting more speakers than you can count with your hand.

What’s more, one man’s meat can be another man’s poison. We each have our unique sound preferences, and personalisations to the car’s interior can also skew its acoustics. In addition, each car manufacturer has a different philosophy to sound calibration. These factors can lead to a noticeable gap between your expectations and what your factory-fitted audio system can deliver.

The good news is most modern CD and multimedia car receivers (head units) are customisable. With our tips below and a little patience, you can easily make the sound from your car’s audio system much closer to your liking without paying a penny.

Step 1: Getting the fundamentals right

Even the best car audio system can sound less than satisfactory if it is poorly configured. Start by experimenting with the standard settings, followed by the advanced controls once you have gained sufficient experience.

CategorySettingsFunctionGoal
Standard Balance Determines the loudness between the left and right speakersDial in the sound stage by ensuring the vocals are tightly in focus, and projected from the centre of the dashboard.
FadeSame effect as balance, except it affects the front and rear speakers
AdvancedTime alignment, delay or distanceSynchronises the sound from each speaker and subwoofer (sub) and where it converges in the carCalibrating all the speakers and subs to produce more cohesive and natural tunes
Level or gain controlMaintains equal loudness across all speakers and subs
Crossover or low- and high-pass filtersIntegrates different category of speakers. For example, tweeter and midrange driver

Pioneer ARC application for hassle-free car audio tuning via iOS or Android smartphone

The Pioneer AVH-Z5050BT Z-Series Multimedia Receiver supports adjustable cutoff frequency and slope to seamlessly integrate a subwoofer with the speakers

Pro tip

You can download free mobile apps like tone generator and real time analyser to further simplify the speaker calibration process. By connecting your smartphone’s headphone output to the head unit’s auxiliary input, you can analyse your car’s internal acoustics and compensate utilising the advanced settings.

Step 2: Personalising with tone controls

There is a high likelihood that your head unit has some form of tone control, which can help you customise the sound characteristics of your system. Examples of these controls include loudness, sound presets, bass and treble, and graphics or parametric equaliser.

Tone controlFunctionSimplicityLevel of customisation
LoudnessTypically used to produce more dynamic sound at lower volumeHighLow
Sound presets like Rock and PopOptimises the system based on different genres of musicHighAverage
Bass and treble adjustmentsUsers can independently control the low (bass) and high (treble) frequenciesAverageAverage
Graphics or parametric equaliserProvides the most granular control with up to 13 adjustable frequencies LowHigh

The new Pioneer DEH-S5050BT CD receiver features a 13-band equaliser

Pro tips

Make incremental adjustments instead of maxing out the setting to avoid distortion, and play your favourite soundtracks to compare the difference. Just remember that these tone controls can only take you so far, and cannot substitute an actual subwoofer to achieve deeper and stronger bass.

Step 3: Pick a higher-quality source

Quality matters, now more so than ever with newer technology and digital content. You may have an audiophile-grade system and still end up with forgettable sound due to lower-quality analogue sources like FM radio – unless you want to hear the source imperfections in greater detail. Eliminate the hiss and crackle completely by switching to digital media.

Digital mediaOverviewSound qualityAvailability
MP3MP3 files with higher bit rates or lower compression will provide better sound qualityAverage to highHigh
BluetoothBluetooth trades convenience for sound quality to wirelessly stream music from mobile devices to the head unitAverageAverage
Compact disc (CD)CDs are bulky and limited in storage capacity, making them less popular among car makers and consumers HighHigh
Online music streaming services like SpotifyDrivers can access millions of music titles at CD-quality sound, but availability is currently limited to selected ASEAN countries
(Is Spotify available in my country?)
HighAverage
Lossless audio like FLACUnlike MP3 which is a “lossy” format, FLAC and other lossless audio formats can preserve the original fidelity of a music recordingBestLow

Pro tips

You can convert CDs into MP3 files utilising freeware at a bitrate of 256kbps, which offers the best balance between sound quality and file size. Play Spotify at the highest quality by manually setting the streaming option, but be mindful of the higher amount of data that will be downloaded.

The next step

Following these 3 simple steps should provide a perceivable sound improvement to elevate your in-car entertainment experience. However, your mileage will vary, especially if you are tweaking a poorly designed car audio system.

 When you’re ready to take the next step up, explore aftermarket components such as the latest Pioneer receivers and speakers. Simply approach our authorised dealers – they are trained experts and offer only original Pioneer products with local warranty to give you complete peace of mind.

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