Having excellent quality audio in your car does not just come down to having expensive equipment. Sure, that helps, but if not set up correctly with a good soundstage (stereo image), no matter what audio equipment you have, you will always feel like the sound is just not right, and it won’t be. Let’s see how you can fix this.
In general, to create the best soundstage in your car, use component speakers and mount the tweeters according to distance from your ears. Also, a great solution is adding to the system sound processor for a time correction. Lastly, adjust rear speakers with a crossover and drive lower frequencies towards the back of the car.
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The below article will detail what soundstage is and give you a clear understanding of what it should be like.
I will also provide you with the best tricks to help you achieve this concept with your car audio system, depending on the cabin size and how they affect audio.
As a bonus, you will find out if you should swap speakers from a large car to a small vehicle and vice versa.
How to Create the Best Sound Stage in a Car?
To achieve the best results in your vehicle when it comes to sound and acquiring excellent stereo imaging (soundstage) in a car, lets first discuss what you need to understand in order to be able to tell if your cars sound is any good and what you have to do to achieve better overall stereo imaging.
What Is Stereo Imaging (Soundstage)?
To give you a detailed and concise answer, stereo imaging creates a sense of special awareness when listening to music. The audio signal will come from the left and right speakers, creating a phantom center and spreading the audio out within a 180-degree field.
Imagine if you were at a concert standing in the middle of the arena and sat just behind the sound engineer. In front of you would be the stage, and then you would have a wall of speakers to the left and right sides of the stage.
You would clearly be able to tell from that position that the sound you hear is coming from the left, right, and center (phantom center) of the stage.
Depending on where the musicians are placed on the stage, you would have their instruments panned and placed at various points in the stereo field.
For example, perhaps the guitars would be coming from the left and keyboards coming from the right. It all depends on what type of sound and effect the engineer would like to create.
However, the one thing to note is that it is the industry standard to mix specific instruments to the center of the stereo field to give depth and cohesion to the music. This applies to the bass, the snare drum, kick drum, and vocals for the most part.
You might have instances where vocals are panned for effect, and perhaps the snare is slightly off-center to mimic a real-life kit, but these instruments will typically always be panned to the center to “glue” the music together.
What Happens With Lousy Stereo Imaging in Car?
Well, think about standing to one side of the stage in our concert scenario.
You won’t be able to hear specific instruments clearly, with some overpowering the others and some being way too soft, and you can easily relate this scenario to the car.
You will sit on either the right or left side in a car no matter what, so this is not optimal for stereo imaging, especially if you want to be listening to the music as if you were standing in the center of a concert being able to hear everything clearly.
How to Improve Soundstage (Stereo Imaging) In a Car?
Correcting the Path Lengths of the Sound
To get perfect stereo imaging, the distance from both the left and right speakers should be an equal distance to your ears.
As you can imagine depending on which side of the vehicle you are sitting, one speaker will be closer than the other. So what can you do to change this?
Component vs. Coaxial Speakers for Better Stereo Imaging
If you are serious about your car sound, then you need to consider the speakers you have in your vehicle.
As you already know, for the best effect, speakers should be an equal distance away from your ears.
Component speakers offer you the option of installing the tweeters on your dash, allowing you to angle them in the direction of your choosing.
This means that some people will angle the furthest tweeter towards them and then the closest tweeter relatively straight towards them. These minor adjustments are not complicated, and if done correctly, they will significantly improve stereo imaging in your car.
However, you have to keep in mind that because you have separated the drivers of your speakers, there are now an additional two drivers (your tweeters) with different distances to your ears. This means you have four speakers situated at various locations, with the audio reaching your ears at slightly different times.
Your best bet if you do intend to use component speakers is to place them if you can, according to distance from your ears. For example, you can set the closest tweeter further away, close to the windscreen, to compensate for the distance of the other tweeter.
When looking at the coaxial speakers, you may think that they would be better in terms of distance from your ears because there are only two speakers to be aligned instead of four.
Unfortunately, for stereo imaging, the most critical parts are tweeters located in the right places. As you know, in the coaxial speakers, tweeters have not much room for any adjustments except for limited angle adjustments in high-class coaxial speakers.
For example, you can slightly adjust tweeters in JBL GTO Stadium speakers.
Install Custom Kick Panels in Your Vehicle for Better Stereo Imaging.
When you have limited locations for car speakers or need to install more than standard one pair, you can install additional speakers in the special enclosures.
Companys such as Q-Logic manufacture custom-built enclosures to house your speakers. These are designed explicitly with stereo imaging in mind providing you with the best possible placement your speakers could have in your car.
Enclosures from Q-Logic can be mounted in any place in the car and give you a listening advantage compared to the serial speakers’ locations in the door or dash.
When speakers are installed in the doors or dashboard of your car, you are listening to an off-axis sound that causes ear fatigue due to hearing that audio’s indirect radiation.
Q-logic offers panels for coaxial and component speakers for over 125 various vehicle specifications. You can check out their application guide to see if this might be an option you would like to consider for your car.
Panels from Q-logic are also available on Amazon. Under this link, you can find the most current prices.
Using Time Correction From Your Stereo
One great thing is that because we live in a digital world, some manufacturers have addressed stereo imaging in the car stereo itself.
If you are fortunate enough to have a stereo Alpine iLX-W650 or similar with built-in time correction, this will help your stereo imaging the most.
Time correction is usually located in your stereo settings, typically alongside the equalizer. What this feature does is that you can adjust the time delay from speaker to speaker. For example, you could set your right front speaker to have no delay while the front left speaker had a delay of 3.4 milliseconds.
This barely noticeable delay would negate the fact that you are sitting on the left side of the car. In some instances, the feature even allows you to change the rear car speakers.
Some manufacturers even provide a smartphone app for you to make more of a fine-tuning to your sound.
Adjust Your Rear Speakers
If you have rear speakers, you should adjust them accordingly to not overpower the front ones because the stage-defining audio should be coming from the front.
The rear speakers should slightly add depth and fullness to the sound, but you should not notice any audio coming from the rear.
Using coaxial speakers for the rear is perfectly fine to achieve good stereo imagining in this case. You just have to make sure to cut high frequencies to a degree because those are the frequencies that pull the stereo imaging to the vehicle’s rear.
Adjust Your Subwoofer
The same principle that applies to your rear speakers also applies to the subwoofer.
You do not only want bass coming from the rear of your vehicle. This is not quality stereo imaging. What you actually need to do, is use the subwoofer crossover correctly.
That means you have to set the crossover so that your woofers take and can handle as much of a low frequency as they can, sending only the very low frequencies to the subwoofer.
A common mistake is that an individual will set the crossover to the maximum value on a subwoofer, trying to get all the bass coming from it.
For the best effect, you should have some mid-bass coming from the woofers in the front of your car, so your ears will perceive the bass correctly. To achieve that, you will have to modify door panels because even the smallest 6.5″ woofers may have too large magnets to fit in most standard door locations.
Get Matching Speaker Sets
The last thing I will cover is matching speakers from manufacturers.
If you have purchased component speakers for the front of your car and you are serious about your car audio, then make it a point to buy the matching speakers for the rear and subwoofer.
Many manufacturers make speakers that work well together in sets and complement each other in looks and performance.
The manufacturer will typically make these sets of speakers complement each other in frequency ranges and design them specifically to sound clarity and quality audio dispersion.
You can, for example, use in front 6.5″ system JBL Stadium GTO600C and in the back, coaxial JBL Stadium GTO620 with adjustable tweeters.
How Size and Car Cabin Design Affect Acoustics?
The acoustics of a room (in our case, a car) play an integral part in terms of how sound reverberates.
The closer the structures are that sound can bounce off, the quicker we hear its reflections. This is why you get concert halls and auditoriums that are wide and open with many sound diffusers.
We cannot do much about this in terms of a car because you can’t go putting sound diffusers all along the roof of your vehicle or find cars large enough that the reverberations and echoes won’t influence the sound.
As you can see in this study done regarding Interior Acoustic simulation for In-Car Audio design, the sound will be close enough and be impactful enough that you will always hear the audio from your speakers first.
The sound deteriorates as it moves back inside the car and reflects off everything causing unequal frequency patterns.
Does Music in a Bigger Car Sound Better?
Music in a bigger car may give your ears the perception that the music has more space to breathe (the stereo imaging will be more expansive).
However, for the most part, unless you have a convertible or car the size of a bus, the refections will play a role in the audio. If the stereo imaging is not set correctly, then no matter the size of the car, the difference will be minimal.
Can I Use the Same Car Speakers in a Small Roadster and a Large SUV?
That of course, depends on the size of the speakers, if the roadster or SUV can fit them and what sound quality you are looking to achieve.
The fact that you do not need large speakers to get excellent quality negates the fact that the size of the car will play a role in the sound quality, so the situation will determine if you can use speakers interchangeably.
Again, most cars, even an SUV, will be small enough that having larger speakers won’t significantly influence that audio to a vehicle with a smaller interior.
Logic would dictate that a roadster and SUV may even have the same speaker size (6X9’s) or any such equivalents. These speaker sizes are standard in the industry, and there are many standards regarding speaker sizes.
Note that some roadsters may have smaller speakers and so may SUVs because, as I mentioned before, there are different standard speaker sizes from 3.5 inches up to 8 inches.
Hence you may be able to utilize the speakers from a roadster in an SUV and vice versa depending on what they are and what you will use them for in terms of frequency range and overall sound influence.
How Many Speakers Does the Average Car Have?
As a general rule, for smaller vehicles such as a coupe, you will only require two speakers, and in almost all cases, those cars will come fitted with two.
In some instances, you may have woofers fitted on the rear mounting board, but that would depend on the make and model of your coupe.
Most modern sedans and hatchbacks with four doors will have four speakers depending on the model and how much money you are willing to spend. This is because an upgraded stereo system for the car will typically be an optional extra.
Additionally, for some vehicles, the upgraded stereo system may include a subwoofer as well. For the most part, your car will only need two speakers unless you plan to drive from the back seat or are in the business of taxying people from place to place.
You can achieve excellent stereo imaging with only two speakers, no matter the car size. Rear speakers are typically only there for ambiance and rear passengers.
Take note that if your car does not have rear speakers, you can always take it to a professional dealership to have them installed with mounting brackets. An excellent place for this is Crutchfield who are renowned for their car audio services.
Now you know that soundstage (stereo imaging) in your car is quite a delicate concept to understand and to obtain.
You want to listen to music with the perception that you can hear the audio from the center of a 180-degree stereo field.
This isn’t easy because, in a car, you are not seated in the middle but rather on the left or right side, giving you a listening bias. Your ears should be the same distance away from the left and right speakers that is also not possible in a vehicle to achieve a great soundstage.
However, there are ways to combat this, and we discovered that you could get panels specifically designed to house your speakers, giving them an on-axis sound. We also found out that some car stereo systems come with a built-in time correction feature that would be one of the best ways to achieve an excellent stereo image.
Other good ideas are to use coaxial speakers and redirect tweeter direction and placement. Additionally, you should also adjust your rear speakers not to push high frequencies too much because that draws the audio to the vehicle’s back.
How to get the best stereo imaging & soundstage
What are component car speakers?
How to Obtain a Good Stereo Sound Stage in Cars
What is Stereo Imaging, and How is it Achieved in a Vehicle?
Explanation of Car Speaker Sizes: Which Speaker Size Should I Go for?