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Let’s face it: Listening to your favorite music while out for a bit of wind therapy is fantastic. Whether you want to upgrade an existing motorcycle audio system or have a new one designed and installed from scratch, you must do your homework. The team here at BestCarAudio.com magazine wants to help you pick the best audio system components possible, so your motorcycle stereo will sound tremendous and function reliably. We’ve got dozens of articles that explain how speakers, amplifiers and subwoofers work, how to pick an easy-to-use source unit and what to look for from an installation perspective. So without further delay, let’s start talking about motorcycle audio upgrades.
Motorcycle Radios and Audio Sources
You can’t have an audio system without something to play music or pick up a radio station. There are two common options for source units on a motorcycle: a dedicated radio or a Bluetooth audio receiver. Several companies manufacture radios specifically designed for motorcycle applications. These solutions are typically designed to work with Harley-Davidson touring bikes, as those are the most commonly upgraded. Your first step is to ensure that the radio has all the audio source options you want, like an AM/FM tuner, Sirius XM satellite radio, Bluetooth audio streaming and support for digital audio file playback from a USB memory stick.
Next, you should check to see whether the radio design can handle the environmental challenges presented by being mounted in a motorcycle’s fairing. The radio should be water-resistant (https://www.bestcaraudio.com/what-exactly-does-marine-grade-audio-mean/) and constructed using materials that can withstand prolonged exposure to UV rays from the sun. The circuit boards and components in the radio should be designed and mounted to prevent them from being damaged by vibrations.
Finally, the radio should be easy to use. The display should be clear and easy to read, especially on a bright sunny day. The controls should be easy to use while wearing gloves. If your motorcycle has handlebar audio controls, there should be a way to integrate those with the new radio.
If you have a motorcycle without a fairing, finding a mounting location for a radio will take a lot of work. As such, you might be better off choosing a Bluetooth receiver that can accept audio from your smartphone. These receivers are available as hide-away solutions or with volume and track selection controls. You can listen to music stored on your smartphone or stream audio from Pandora, iHeart, Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music or the website of your favorite radio station. Most Bluetooth receivers will need an external amplifier to power your speakers.
Motorcycle Speaker Upgrades
You could choose the best motorcycle radio on the planet, but without great speakers, it won’t sound good. Motorcycle audio speakers are the most critical component of any audio system. They convert the electrical audio signals into sound. Your music will sound clear, detailed and natural when they do a good job. An audio system can’t sound good with poorly designed speakers. Choosing speakers for your motorcycle is similar to choosing a radio. You should make sure the solutions you pick are weather-resistant and won’t fade, crack or chalk from prolonged UV exposure.
Listening to music on the freeway or interstate will require speakers that can handle a lot of power. However, you should never choose speakers based on their power ratings. Those numbers, if measured properly, typically describe a maximum thermal limit rather than a specific level of distortion. Your best bet is always to audition the speakers you have in mind before purchasing them. Attempting to pick speakers based on simple specifications published on a website typically leads to disappointment.
On motorcycles, speakers are available as direct-fit replacements for the front fairing or lower enclosures beside the radiator or for the saddlebags on the back of your touring bike. In addition, some companies make compact speaker pods that install on the handlebars for applications without speaker locations. Working with a shop with extensive experience upgrading the sound systems on motorcycles will help ensure that you get solutions that fit perfectly.
Speakers for motorcycles come in two standard designs: component and coaxial solutions. It’s crucial to remember that a well-engineered speaker is the most important consideration when choosing your upgrade options, and this is more important than the style of speaker you choose. Many motorcycle audio upgrades use high-efficiency P.A.-style speakers. While these designs increase the system’s efficiency, you sacrifice midbass output. Finally, a well-engineered speaker that’s installed properly will sound great with all genres of music.
We’ve had the opportunity to take a close look at several high-performance speakers that are designed specifically for motorcycle applications. Check out our Product Spotlights on the ARC Audio CX6 and CX69 speakers. We’ve also looked at the Rockford Fosgate Stage 3 audio system upgrade for 2014 and newer Harley-Davidson Road Glide and 2015 and newer Street Glide motorcycles.
Motorcycle Speaker Spotlights and Test Drive Reviews
Another upgrade that is becoming increasingly popular is enhancing the bike’s sound system with a subwoofer. Many shops can convert a set of saddlebags or a trunk into an enclosure for a subwoofer. The most important consideration here is the size of the enclosure and how that will affect the low-frequency performance of the subwoofer. Just because the subwoofer fits doesn’t mean it will sound good. The shop can reduce the resonance of a subwoofer in a small enclosure by adding polyfill or a similar stuffing, but that will only work if you don’t want to carry cargo in the same space.
You aren’t going to experience the same bass response from a subwoofer on a motorcycle as you’d find in a car, truck or SUV. Pressuring the air in a vehicle’s confined space differs significantly from an open-air environment. With that said, there are still huge benefits to adding a subwoofer to a motorcycle. First, it alleviates the need for the fairing and other speakers to try to reproduce any bass frequencies. This means those speakers can focus on midrange information that requires less excursion and power. This reduction in the “work” that the small speakers must perform dramatically improves their performance and clarity.
Rockford Fosgate has created a dedicated subwoofer system for the Harley-Davidson Road Glide, Street Glide and Electra Glide bikes called the HD14-SBSUB. It’s a drop-in option to add great bass to your motorcycle.
Motorcycle Subwoofer Product Spotlights and Test Drive Reviews
Motorcycle Amplifier Upgrades
If you want to turn up the volume on your motorcycle’s sound system without it distorting, you will need a high-quality, high-power amplifier. Just as with speakers, attempting to quantify the quality of an amplifier based on power ratings will lead you astray every time. The amount of power an amplifier produces has nothing to do with how clear it sounds. In fact, on a motorcycle, the most critical consideration, aside from the amplifier’s sound quality, is its efficiency. Given a motorcycle’s limited charging system and battery size, the last thing you want is a power-hungry amplifier. The shop you’re working with can help you choose a motorcycle audio amplifier that delivers clean power that’s suitable to power all the speakers on your bike and operates efficiently.
We’ve looked at several amplifiers designed to handle the challenges of motorcycle installation. The Rockford Fosgate M5 series amplifiers are high-performance Element-Ready solutions. We checked out their M5-1000X5 five-channel and the 1,000-watt M5-1000X1. The ARC Audio MOTO720 is a very popular motorcycle amplifier because of its sound quality and excellent efficiency.
Motorcycle DSP Upgrades
Another audio upgrade that’s been growing in popularity is to add a digital signal processor (DSP) to improve the performance of a motorcycle’s audio system. These compact signal processing devices are a necessity for 2014 and newer Harley-Davidson touring bikes with the Boom! Box radio. These radios include significant equalization that, without adjustment, can make high-quality upgrade speakers sound terrible. The processed audio signal can also overload an amplifier and add distortion to the system.
When you’re looking at the specifications, a DSP might seem like a daunting piece of gear, but they are quite simple. First, they include electronic crossovers to route or limit what frequencies go to the different speakers on the motorcycle. They have signal delay adjustments that allow your installer to ensure that the sound from the speakers in a fairing, lower, saddlebag or Tour-Pak location all arrive at the listening position simultaneously. Most importantly, a DSP has several equalizers that can ensure that each speaker’s output on the bike sounds the same and that the overall tonal balance is realistic.
You’d think that adding a DSP to your motorcycle is only needed on a high-end system. The reality is, any mobile audio system can benefit from the features found in a high-quality DSP.
Just as with the radio, speakers and amplifier on your motorcycle, extracting the best performance from a motorcycle DSP requires that an expert configure and calibrate it. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to find an expert, so it might take some research, and you may have to travel a bit. While DSP calibration isn’t hard, it’s a process that requires extensive training and investment in the proper hardware to make accurate acoustic measurements. For example, your installer will need a calibrated real-time audio analyzer to measure each speaker’s output and make equalization corrections. A DSP isn’t a band-aid for low-quality equipment, though. A talented technician can make mediocre speakers sound acceptable, but they can’t tune out distortion or eliminate unwanted resonances from a poorly designed speaker.
We recently took a close look at the Rockford Fosgate DSR1 eight-channel digital signal processor. This unit is a perfect solution for motorcycles as it’s compact and has all the features your installer needs to make your system sound amazing.
Motorcycle DSP Spotlights and Test Drive Reviews
Motorcycle Audio System Installation
As with any aftermarket audio components, choosing the right shop and technician to integrate the upgrades into your motorcycle is as important as selecting high-quality products. Unfortunately, we see far too many examples of poor-quality installations. Components aren’t mounted properly; wiring isn’t routed, connected and secured correctly; and in many cases, the systems aren’t designed to deliver the performance the client wants.
At the most basic level, BestCarAudio.com exists to educate consumers about the mobile enhancement products and services available from expert brick-and-mortar retailers worldwide. Yes, many people might want to attempt to upgrade their motorcycle’s stereo at home. We know some of these upgrades have been completed successfully. However, fully understanding the physics of audio system design, choosing high-quality audio products, disassembling and reassembling the bike, and integrating and configuring everything is a tall order. If you want to put effort into learning these skills, the results can be great. With that said, there are no shortcuts. The last thing you want is for the paint of brightwork on your bike to be damaged. Some bike owners don’t understand the value of expert installation.
In some cases, these people have had an unpleasant experience with a shop that doesn’t employ experts. We know the good guys are often challenging to find. We strongly suggest taking your time to ensure that whomever you choose fully understands your goals and will take the time to do the job properly.
Motorcycle Audio Buying Guide
The editorial team at BestCarAudio.com has put together a buying guide for consumers interested in upgrades to their motorcycle audio system. It provides even more detail on each category of upgrade so you can make a more informed purchase decision.
Upgrade Your Motorcycle’s Sound System Today!
If your motorcycle doesn’t have a stereo system, or you want one that sounds better and plays louder, drop by a local specialty mobile enhancement retailer and talk with them about your expectations for the sound system. They can help you choose the right products to fit your budget while offering the sound you want. Finally, they will use their expertise to integrate and configure those products, making the stereo reliable and easy to use.