People unfamiliar with the ins and outs of car audio will ask “Do I need an amplifier in my car?” With any question like this, deciding between ‘want’ and ‘need’ is a fine line. If you want to maximize clarity, dynamics and create concert-realistic volume levels in your vehicle, then the answer is a resounding yes.
There are a few items to consider when purchasing an amplifier for your vehicle – your budget, what you want the amplifier to do, and how much room you have.
Similar to wheels, tires, paint and body kits – you get what you pay for when it comes to amplifiers. Car audio amplifiers start around $100 and commonly reach prices around $2,000 for high-end models. As you spend more money, these amplifiers typically become more powerful and include more features. More importantly, the sound quality improves, they have greater control to reproduce the impact and dynamics of your music, and they become more transparent – meaning less of an added sonic signature. They also include more adjustability – often with band-pass crossovers, subsonic filters, remote level controls and so on.
If this is your first amplifier purchase, we suggest investing in a good quality, multi-channel amp to start off. Four-channel amps are typically the best place to start, because it can almost always remain part of your system as you build it. It can run four speakers, two in front and two in the rear. It can run those four speakers and a subwoofer. It can run two subwoofers. Should you decide to buy a dedicated subwoofer amp, it can go back to running your four speakers, but only for midbass and higher frequencies. A sign of a good system design is one that grows with the customer as his or her needs change.
You might simply want to add more bass to your system; this is a very common starting point for many systems. Good-quality, low frequency performance can bring your system to life. When it comes to subwoofer amplifiers, most of the ones these days are Class D. Without going over anyone’s head, Class D amps are a great solution for subwoofers because they can provide large amounts of power efficiently, especially good with the limited electrical power found in most vehicles. The key to maximum subwoofer amplifier performance is matching it to your subwoofer(s). If you have a pair of 4-ohms subwoofers, you want to wire them in parallel to produce a 2-ohms load. Therefore, look for a subwoofer amp capable of making its maximum rated continuous power into a 2-ohms load.
In spite of what you see SPL enthusiasts doing, you are better off designing your subwoofer system for as high a load as possible – let’s say 4 ohms – and finding an amplifier that can produce maximum power into that load. Why? Because it sounds better and is more efficient. The large, varying current flows required for a low-impedance (1 and 2 ohms) subwoofer system is harder to manage compared to high-impedance systems. The best bass response I have heard in cars (my own included), was a nice, fast sub running at 4 ohms into a huge amplifier. No worries if you’re lost, that’s why there are experienced salespeople, installers, and people like us to help!
On the flip side, if all you want is volume and dynamics, then by all means, add some power cells to your vehicle, upgrade the electrical system and have at it! Just make sure your subwoofers can handle the abuse modern amps can dish out.
Over the past few years, amplifiers have gotten smaller and smaller. This only makes sense; it is increasingly hard to install big amplifiers in smaller cars. However, small size can come at a cost. Compare a 300 HP turbocharged 1.6L Honda motor to a big V8 that makes the same power. What’s the difference? Torque. Sure, once you get the Honda moving, they are plenty fast, but slam the gas pedal to the floor from idle and the burly V8 will own that little fella. Amplifiers are the same. The best sounding ones are bigger, sometimes massive. They have huge power supplies, large amounts of stored energy, plenty of switching devices and room for a lot of adjustments.
Your final takeaway should be straight forward. Consider your options carefully and chose what fits your specific needs and desires. Do not rely on specs alone, since your ears are the ultimate judge. Listen to your friends’ vehicles, go to your local retailer and listen to their displays and demo vehicles. Hit up a local car show and ask to listen to the demo cars on display. Keep an open mind and reflect on the information you gather. Set a budget, cherry-pick the amplifier design you are looking for, and ensure the amplifier(s) you choose will get you to your ultimate goal. Once your mind is made up, it’s off to the installation bay to hear your music like you never have before.