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How to Design and Install In-Car Entertainment Systems

How to Design and Install In-Car Entertainment Systems

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How to Design and Install In-Car Entertainment Systems

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Lançado em:
Jul 31, 2020


The photos in this edition are black and white.

Years ago, enthusiasts had limited in-car entertainment system options. One could install a high-performance head unit, amp, speakers, and upgrade a few other components, and that was about it. Today, in-car entertainment system options are virtually limitless, and they are one of the most popular automotive upgrades. In fact, upgrading or replacing a stock stereo system is just the tip of the in-car entertainment iceberg.

Enthusiasts can install a complete entertainment system, including audio and video, MP3 player (iPod), HD radio, satellite radio, and more. Video monitors for DVD and game systems can be incorporated in the dash, head rest, or anywhere else. When you consider GPS navigation and hands-free Bluetooth® cell phone systems, the options are only limited by a person's creativity and budget.

How to Design and Install In-Car Entertainment Systems presents the entire spectrum of audio/video, navigation, communication, and entertainment technology, and explains how you can create a complete custom system or an integrated stock/aftermarket system. It explains how to plan, select, integrate, and install popular systems under a specific budget for a certain level of performance. This includes design and installation considerations for amps, head units, GPS navigation, iPod integration with head units, satellite radio, digital audio broadcasting, and even computers (carputers). It features how-to installations, thorough explanations for building subwoofer boxes, fabricating kick panels, electrical upgrades such as charging systems, and a comprehensive resource guide.

Lançado em:
Jul 31, 2020

Sobre o autor

Jefferson Bryant laid his eyes on a 1978 Firebird at age six, and he knew he would be a car guy for life. He has authored several books, including LS Swaps: How to Swap GM LS Engines into Almost Anything. He has contributed scores of magazine articles to Car Craft, Rod and Custom, Dragzine, Super Chevy, and others. He recently launched Street Tech, his own automotive magazine.

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How to Design and Install In-Car Entertainment Systems - Jefferson Bryant



Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, in-car entertainment options were limited at best. While high-quality speakers, amps, and head units were in abundant supply, you were limited to AM/FM stereo, cassette, or 8-track. By the mid-1980s, CD decks were introduced to the market. Times have changed and the entertainment options seem almost endless. Of all the areas of consumer electronics, in-car entertainment or mobile electronics features the most innovation, growth, and far-ranging options.

Once upon a time, you had to leave much of the latest and greatest entertainment technology at home, but now you can take it with you. Front- and rear-seat video screens with DVD players, GPS navigation systems, iPod/MP3 player integration, multi-disc CD changers, high-tech head units, and high-powered amps are just some of the common components found in vehicles. In addition, video game systems, mobile satellite TV, satellite radio, and other new technologies are gaining wider acceptance, likely to become more commonplace in the future.

With all the available options and evolving technologies, the world of mobile electronics can seem overwhelming. That’s where this book comes in. How to Design and Install In-Car Entertainment Systems presents the entire spectrum of components in clear and concise terms, so you can select the ideal components and assemble a compatible system that best suits your needs and fits your budget. The information provided will allow you to make astute buying decisions and to help prevent you from making mistakes. While I cover the elements of sound and some technical aspects of acoustic theory, sound design, and electrical fundamentals, my goal is to discuss the information in an understandable language so that any enthusiast can use it.

In the past, other books have gotten bogged down in theory and neglected to show how to use this information in practical terms. Well, not this book. My intent is to define and explain relevant terms to give you enough supporting information and background for practical hands-on installation of the system. This book covers information you need to know to select amps, crossover networks, head units, speakers, video monitors, DVD systems, and personal media players, such as flash memory and a hard disk drive. In addition, many late-model vehicles have high-tech head units that cannot be removed or replaced, and this book explains how to select an auxiliary or complementary head unit to attain the level of audio performance you seek.

We will follow the signal path from creation to output as it travels through each component—starting with the head units, then equalization, crossovers, amplifiers, and speakers. I have devoted individual chapters to tweeters, mid-range speakers, and subwoofers, so you clearly understand the design, components, function, and operation. This will supply you with the information to select the best speaker array for your vehicle, audio goals, and budget.

After discussing how to select the products for your install, I take the time to show you how to design and install a custom system with enclosures for your particular vehicle, so you can go from design stage to finished install stage in a clear, organized, and methodical manner. I will examine the best computer design programs as well as free programs available to the public. Lastly, I provide essential mathematical formulas for figuring out the proper dimensions of subwoofer boxes and more.

This book also covers how to prepare your vehicle for optimal sound performance by installing sound-deadening material. In order to install your ideal system, you need to put together a detailed build-up plan from start to finish. This book will help you in that step-by-step process. I will define the different levels or grades of audio and video equipment so you know what performance to expect from each level of investment. You will learn how to lay out the system and how to tune the speakers for the particular cabin. This book shows how to actually fabricate subwoofer boxes, speaker door pods, and kickpanels, helping you create a high-performance audio system just like the professionals do.

Even if you choose not to install a complete system, you will find essential information to help coordinate any project with a professional shop, to obtain optimal results. Before attempting any installation on any vehicle, you need to perform the proper level of research on your car and this book gives you the inside line. You need to come up with wiring color codes, warnings about specific systems (such as airbags), computer control integration issues, and anything else that may affect or be affected by the installation of in-car entertainment gear. The research isn’t just necessary; it’s essential. You will learn how to protect your vehicle’s vital electronic components and you won’t compromise your personal safety.

Designing and building car audio and entertainment systems is not only fun and challenging, but may offer you a career path. Practically every car audio professional in the industry got their start as a hobbyist, working out of their garage or driveway, including me. In-car entertainment is an exciting and rewarding experience.

This book will be a good working guide for you. You will learn to perform basic and some advance install procedures; always remember to work within your level of ability and knowledge. If you’re unsure how to perform a specific procedure, don’t take a chance on it. Potential damage can run you thousands of dollars and the money you saved by doing it yourself is now lost. Remember, discretion should come before valor. Don’t try to be a hero and do it yourself when you don’t know what you’re doing.

This in-dash navigation screen and DVD player enhance the driving experience.



In order to properly design an in-car entertainment system, you must first be acquainted with the basics of acoustic theory and the components of sound quality. This does not mean that you need to have a degree in acoustical engineering, but some basic knowledge will help you get the most out of your system, whether it is a slightly modified stock system or a maxed-out competition system.

Five Components of Sound Quality

The five major components of sound quality are clarity, dynamic range, frequency response, tonal balance, and tonal accuracy.

A high-quality sound system features a blend of these components. The key is to understand the components and how they work together. Some of these components are factors of the products (speakers, amps, source) while other components are functions of the installation and environment.


The capacity of the car audio system to accurately transmit the source signal determines clarity. Ideally, the system should emulate or faithfully recreate an actual performance. If any of the system’s components produce distortion, clarity is degraded. In addition, clarity is also known as transparency, which is a function of hardware (amps, speakers, source unit), software (the music itself), properly balanced signal levels, and quality of the installation. If the component’s design limits are exceeded, or substandard audio components are used, clarity will be adversely affected and the system will never sound good.

Any sound or noise generates sound pressure levels or SPL. SPLs are measured in decibels (dB), and this is a list of common SPL levels. It will give you an idea of just how loud a 140-dB stereo system really is. Above 125, these levels cause pain.

The speakers, amps, and head or source unit must have a professional-quality installation. If the components are installed incorrectly, the results will be poor sound performance. This, along with other factors will cause clarity to suffer. It should be clear to you that you cannot cut corners, poorly install a system, purchase low-grade equipment, or play poor-quality media and expect to attain a high level of clarity. A number of music tracks provide a good test to an audio system. A vocal track with a wide dynamic range of several octaves from high to low is a good test. All of these aspects affect one another.

Dynamic Range

The dynamic range is the ratio of the loudest signal to the quietest signal in a unit or system. This ratio is expressed in decibels (dB). If a system can accurately reproduce the highest vocal note, a whisper, or the pounding of a bass drum, then the system demonstrates a wide dynamic range. The components of the system should recreate the entire texture of an audio performance so you can hear the nuances.

While the frequency of speech and music is always changing, this list identifies a few frequencies for specific sounds.

When it comes to volume, the human ear has a hearing range from 0 dB to a pain threshold of 135 dB. There is no limit to volume the human ear can receive, but above 150 dB, it is physically dangerous. With every increase of 10 dB, the human ear perceives a doubling of volume. The sound level in a typical library is in the 35 dB range, about 11.6 times louder than silence.

According to acoustical engineer Arthur C Ludwig, Sr., the human ear can actually sense molecules colliding. While the human ear is an amazing instrument, there is an incredible amount of extra noise in the mobile environment that affects sound quality. The base reading in any environment without any additional sound is called the noise floor. This is the quietest it will ever be. The library with a 35 dB noise floor can suddenly jump to 110 dB if someone yells, but then it falls back to the baseline 35 dB. A vehicle running down the road can range from a low of 40 to 50 dB up to 90 dB, depending on the vehicle. You are going to have trouble hearing a low 45 dB passage in a song if the car is screaming out 75 dB of noise. The engine and drivetrain, the road and tires, squeaks and rattles, wind, any number of these sources produce noise. To achieve the best dynamic range, you need to first control the noise and lower the noise floor as much as possible. The next step is to eliminate noise and distortion from the audio system.

Frequency Response

Frequency response is different than dynamic range. Dynamic range is expressed in terms of volume (measured in decibels); frequency response is expressed in terms of frequency (measured in hertz). The human ear has the ability to hear frequencies from 20 hz (low rumbling sounds) to 20 kilohertz (20,000 hz, such as a high-pitched dog whistle); this is often referred to as 20-20 kHz. Audio components do not have the ability to accurately reproduce the full range of human hearing.

Any speaker is capable of playing 20-20 kHz, but it will not produce the full range of frequencies well, so systems require subwoofers, mid-woofers, and tweeters—each producing a range of frequency.

•  Subwoofers play about 18 hz to 500 hz, depending on the manufacturer. That is not to say that a subwoofer cannot play to 500 hz; it will just sound muddy.

•  The mid-woofer should take over at the 80-hz mark. A typical mid-woofer has a range of 30 to 500 hz. A mid-woofer playing down to 30 hz will be distorted.

•  The tweeter plays from around 2,000 hz to around 20 to 22 kilohertz (kHz). Don’t even think about sending low frequency through a tweeter; it will just pop and you’ll need to replace it.

The capability of the system to reproduce the audible range of sound determines the level of frequency response. As such, a high-quality in-car audio system should be able to reproduce the full, perceptible audio range without distortion, and most enthusiasts seek this level of performance.

Tonal Balance

To achieve tonal balance, the system must accurately reproduce the entire range of audible frequencies from an original recording. While every manufacturer strives to achieve linear frequency response and a prefect tonal balance, the music is never perfectly recreated. You will have your own ideas of what sounds good, but good tonal balance is critical.

Tonal balance is the balance or neutrality of volume between tones. If one tone or frequency is louder, softer, or more apparent than another tone, then you do not have accurate tonal balance. A trained audio tuner or an experienced stereo enthusiast can often identify weak or overly strong areas of frequency response in the audio spectrum. The goal is to identify peaks and drops in frequency response, and an equalizer can be used to raise or lower these frequencies to create a linear frequency response for optimal tonal balance. A system with a subwoofer tuned to 42 hz (known as street bass) is going to have a lot of booming bass with most kinds of music. On the other hand, a bright, loud set of component speakers paired with a small, weak subwoofer system will lack bottom end. Both of these systems lack tonal balance. This is total system function; both hardware and installation can affect the tonal balance.

Tonal Accuracy

The system’s ability to reproduce sound accurately, with respect to timbre, is crucial for a premium-quality sound system. Timbre is the recognizable characteristic sound signature of a musical instrument, and this allows the listener to differentiate between an oboe and a flute, when both are playing the same note. In turn, a bass guitar needs to sound like a bass guitar, not a saxophone. The tonal accuracy is how the performance is presented to you.

Two Aspects of Installation

Regardless of the speakers, amps, and source of the audio, the installation is a large factor in sound quality. For the front stage of an audio system, there are two major aspects to proper installation: staging and imaging.


The system should replicate the stage on which the music was created. The front stage of the audio system requires the most design and setup work during an installation. The front stage consists of the mid-woofers and the tweeters mounted in front of the driver and passenger seats. A sound stage’s width, depth, and height in a vehicle are a function of speaker placement. In most vehicles, the factory locations for the front speakers are in the door or upper dash. Sometimes a mid is placed in the door and a tweeter on the dash or upper door panel. The staging for a factory stereo system can be excellent, but often the staging is very poor, especially for lower-line vehicles.

Auto manufacturers have long considered audio an afterthought to the overall design and layout of the interior. The majority of the sound can be pinpointed to a specific speaker, seriously hindering the staged effect. The sound should truly appear to be coming from beyond the dash. Most quality systems sound as if the audio is coming from the hood of the car, stretching beyond the confines of the interior of the vehicle and extending wider than the front fenders.


Imaging is the audio system’s ability to reproduce the directional cues that enable the listener to locate the instruments and vocalists as they were positioned during recording. Proper imaging creates a listening experience that seems natural and lifelike. The shorter wavelength of the higher frequencies (above 120 hz) in music allows the human ear to pinpoint where the sound is coming from. Low-frequency bass produces very large wavelengths, and the sound frequency is omnidirectional making it difficult to locate the source. Since directional cues in sound come mainly in the higher frequencies, the key to attaining the best possible imaging is to produce equal and unobstructed path lengths between the mid- and high-range speakers and the listener’s ears.

Staging is the process of replicating the sound stage on which the music was originally created. In a vehicle, staging is represented by the height and width of the music. If the music is confined to a small section of the vehicle, the stage is small. If the music seems to be coming from outside the car, then it’s a job well done.

Along with staging, imaging is a function of speaker placement in the vehicle. A well-imaged system playing a live recording tells you where the vocalist is in relation to the microphone and all the other instruments on the stage, setting the audio scene for you. If you have been to a car audio competition or a store where someone is demonstrating a system and someone closes their eyes, they are listening for the imaging and staging. A great place to get a good demo of proper image and stage is a home-audio store. Ask them to show you what a properly staged and imaged pair of speakers sounds like. You will be amazed.

Automotive Acoustic Physics

The acoustic physics in the automotive environment are similar to those of a home theater, but you are dealing with different materials and a much smaller space making it more difficult to find the ideal or optimal sound. There are also some unique factors to consider in car physics that really do not come into play in the home environment: transfer function, high noise floor, limited listening positions, and the sheer number of reflective surfaces.

Imaging is the detailed positioning of individual instruments and vocals on the stage. Correct imaging is necessary for optimal sound performance, and imaging is an integral part of staging. This is particularly crucial to get the most out of high-quality live recordings. On some tracks, even a single mic can locate individual instruments and replicate those locations on a high-performance audio system.

The mobile environment is not audio friendly. One major reason for this is reflective waves and cancellation. Wave cancellation occurs when two waves collide with one another. When they collide, often at 180 degrees from each other and one wave is in the peak phase while the other is in the trough phase. The peak and the trough literally cancel one another out and leave a dead space where there are no waves.

The interior of a vehicle is the most challenging environment to operate a sound system in because the system must compete with road and wind noise, as well as many reflective surfaces. Sound bounces around the car and the waves act and react with each other. (AudioControl)

There is a great test you can try at home to see the effects firsthand. Using a home speaker, play pink noise (a hissing sound, similar to what you hear between radio stations or a TV channel with no broadcast) through the sub and walk slowly around the room. You will likely find a spot where the sound is really loud, and conversely, there’s a spot that has no sound at all. Cancellation creates this dead spot. A focal point, where waves converge and combine to amplify the sound, is the loudest location in the cabin. If you change the position of the speaker, the dead spot in the cabin will shift.

In the home, you can minimize reflective surfaces by hanging drapes, placing rugs on hard floors, etc., to reduce this effect. In the mobile environment, it is much more difficult to modify the interior. There is not much you can do to reduce the reflectivity of glass. You can, however, soften door panels with upholstery and add sound deadener to doors, floors, and other surfaces. Speaker position is critical to minimizing focal points and dead spots.


Resonance in the mobile environment is another element that detracts from sound quality. Every object in the world has a resonant frequency at which it oscillates (vibrates) at maximum amplitude (highest ability). Even a small force, such as a tuning fork, can make an object ring loudly if it is at its resonant frequency. If you have ever been in a car with a subwoofer and heard a buzzing from a panel at a certain passage in a song, but not during other passages that are just as loud, you have experienced resonance.

Nothing ruins a nice system like a door panel or a dash that buzzes every time a 63-hz note is played. However, sound deadeners, such as Dynamat and Roadkill, can remedy these rattles and buzzes. However, these materials add weight, which changes (lowers) the resonant frequency of the object it is adhered to. In essence, the deadening material turns sound waves into thermal energy when absorbed. It also helps absorb sound waves, which in this case, is a good thing.


Phasing is determined by listening position and speaker position, and it refers to the relationship between the listener and the sound wave. This becomes a problem with phase shift, a phenomenon that can happen with passive (solid-state construction of filters, capacitors, and coils) crossovers used for component speakers. With a separately mounted tweeter and mid-driver, a crossover can induce phase shift, and the tweeter and woofer create either a dead spot or a peak in specific frequencies.

Subwoofer enclosures and how they are positioned in the trunk makes a difference to the output because of wave cancellation. Even though it may seem counterproductive, many systems actually sound best when the sub woofers face rearward and the subwoofer boxes are pushed against the rear-most portion of the trunk.

Using digital crossovers or changing the speaker positioning can eliminate the dead spot or peak. This typically happens at the crossover frequency and the rate of change depends on the slope of the crossover. The slope is the rate of reduction in output per octave. A 12-dB-per-octave crossover will play the sounds 12 dB lower per octave than the source signal. Two octaves below 100 hz (25 hz) on a 12-dB crossover would be 24 dB quieter than the source signal. The higher the slope, the deeper the reduction in dB.

The problem with passive crossovers is that any network that modifies the amplitude of a signal also affects the phase. This shift may start at 0 degrees and progress to well past 360 degrees. According to Richard Chinn’s Audio Control Technical Papers on crossovers (Number 102), the shift caused by the crossover affects the ability of the system to reproduce transient-type waveforms, the flatness of the combined acoustic output of the drivers, and the radiation angle of the speakers’ output. Different styles of passive crossover networks have different phase shift properties.

Transfer Function

Transfer function is probably one of the most interesting attributes in the mobile environment. Transfer function, also referred to as cabin gain, is the increase in speaker output in relation to the size of the room. Home theaters have such large spaces that transfer function is relatively small; but in the automotive environment, it is an important consideration. Since the space available inside a car is relatively small, the sound waves for sub-bass are larger than the car itself. For example, a 40-hz wave at sea level is 28.175 feet long. A typical two-door car is 10 feet long on the outside, and the interior is closer to 7 to 8 feet long. The bass sound wave won’t even fit in the car, so the wave builds upon itself, increasing the volume. This boost increases as the frequency rises. Once you add a subwoofer to a system, you will notice a mid-range boom, which is a result of transfer function.

AC vs. DC voltage. AC, alternating current, flows positive, and then reverses and flows negative, continually reversing at a rate of 60 cycles per second, or 60 hz in the USA (50 hz in the UK). DC voltage flows the same direction continuously but the voltage or current may increase or decrease. There are three kinds of DC: steady, smooth, and varying.

Understanding transfer function will help you predict the subwoofer SPL output of a vehicle. Each car is different, but there are some basic guidelines for transfer function. The typical car or truck has a transfer function of 12 dB, while hatchback cars get 16 dB. This is a direct increase in output from the same enclosure and subwoofer in a large, open room.

Electrical Theory

Acoustic theory and the physics of sound are only part of the game because you can’t reproduce music and audio in a car without electronics. Well you could, but where would the drums go? However, a little background in basic electrical theory is in order. For a comprehensive explanation of electrical theory and installation techniques, pick up a copy of Automotive Wiring and Electrical Systems by Tony Candela. Most in-car entertainment systems and components are 12-volt (12V) electronics. The DC battery in the car provides the power to all of the electronics in the car. While the actual measured output may be 13 to 14 volts when the car is running, the standing voltage is 13.2 volts, and that is the reference.

The automotive 12V system is comprised of a battery (DC or direct current) and an alternator (AC or alternating current), though some older vehicles use generators, which are similar. The engine drives the alternator, and inside the alternator a rotor spins next to wire windings wound around a laminated iron frame. Each individual winding is made up of seven coils, from several individual loops, connected in series; this is three-phase wiring. Each coil and each loop are connected to increase the total voltage output. The rotor is made from several magnets, called finger poles, positioned around an iron core wound with wire. As the rotor spins, this induces voltage into the stator. The magnetic field saturates the finger poles; one becomes a north pole and the next becomes a south pole and so on. The strength of the magnets and the speed of the rotor determine the voltage induced into the stator. That voltage is then sent to the rectifier bridge, which converts the AC voltage to DC.

This keeps the battery charged and the electricity flowing. It is a common misconception that electricity flows from positive to negative. This is incorrect. In fact, negative electrons are attracted to positive electrons, and thus negative flows to the positive side. This is why the ground circuit in electronics is so important, that is where it all begins.

Ohm’s Law

Ohm’s Law is the very foundation of all 12V electronics, and it applies to everything from wiring to speakers, sub woofers, and amplifiers. Therefore, you need to understand and use this basic electrical principle. Electrical loads and current draw is all based on this simple formula:

I = V/R

I represents the current in amps, V represents the potential difference in volts, and R is the resistance in ohms.

This formula is used to determine four parameters: Current (I), Voltage (V or E), Resistance (R), and Power (P). Power is derived from the equation

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