There’s a strange car audio myth that claims you can’t mix different brands of source units, speakers, amplifiers, subwoofers and signal processors in the same audio system. While it might be fun for a distributor, sales representative or employee at a car audio retailer to do a one-brand build, chances are you’ll want to pick and choose from the different brands at the store you are dealing with to get the most bang for your buck.
Whether you choose Sony, Kenwood, Pioneer or Alpine for your source doesn’t matter in passing audio to a digital signal processor or an amplifier. Almost all source units provide a low-voltage audio output called a pre-amp signal. Some models have pre-amp outputs rated for 1.8 to 2.0 volts, while others have high-voltage outputs capable of 5 volts. The different voltage does affect how loudly your system can play but may reduce background noise in the system by allowing your installer to turn down the sensitivity control on your amplifier.
When shopping for a source unit for your car audio system, you will want to balance features and specifications with an easy-to-use interface. If you can’t walk up to a radio on display at the local car stereo shop and figure out how to use it, the interface is likely either too complex or not thought out well enough. Trying a radio and connecting it to your smartphone is a crucial part of the purchase process.
Digital Signal Processor
If you plan to have a DSP in your car, something that’s crucial to recreating an authentic listening experience, there are three options for feeding a signal into the processor. All processors will accept analog pre-amp signals from any source unit on the market. Some processors include digital audio inputs that use a TOSLINK fiber-optic connector or an RCA jack. If the factory radio in your car or truck can’t be upgraded easily, several interfaces are available that provide analog and digital outputs. Some processors have Bluetooth audio receivers built in or available as an option. You can stream music from your smartphone directly to the DSP and bypass a source unit altogether.
The type of processor you choose is tied directly to the design of your car’s audio system. If you are running a set of components and a subwoofer, then six channels are more than enough. If you want to upgrade an elaborate factory-installed audio system that includes an upmixer, then you might need as many as 18 or 20 channels of processing.
Car Audio Amplifiers
Just as with processors, almost every amplifier is designed with analog audio inputs that work with the pre-amp signal from a source unit or processor. Some amplifiers include additional components or circuitry that allows them to be used with the speaker outputs of a factory-installed audio system.
Amplifiers increase the voltage of the signal coming from the source unit, and the relatively low impedance of the speakers in your car or truck results in reasonable amounts of power being produced.
Speakers and Subwoofers Take Some Attention
Where source units, processors and amplifiers don’t care what feeds them, the speakers you choose need to be of the correct impedance for the amplifier you are using. Most car audio speakers have a nominally 4-ohm design, but some subwoofers offer impedances as low as 1 ohm. Mixing and matching brands doesn’t matter, but choosing the proper impedance does. The product specialist you are working with can help ensure that you get the right combination.
Expert Technicians Make It All Work
No matter what brands you choose, you’ll need someone who can integrate everything into your vehicle so that it will function properly and reliably. Unlike home audio systems, it’s not just a matter of plugging everything in. The colors of factory wiring need to be matched to the connections on a new radio or speaker. Likewise, the products you’ve chosen need to be mounted securely, and the cables that run between components need to be routed safely. Selecting a professional installer is often more difficult than choosing the audio components for your system. With that said, it’s worth researching to find the best company to upgrade the audio system in your vehicle.
Too Long; Didn’t Read
The bottom line is that few companies excel in all areas of car audio components. Some offer excellent amplifiers and signal processors, some make great source units, and others have amazing speakers. Mixing the best products across several brands can result in an audio system that sounds amazing and offers the features you want. Start your shopping at the specialty mobile enhancement retailers near you to find out what options are available to upgrade the stereo in your car or truck today!