Yeah, I know we’re an aftermarket performance oriented magazine, and almost every article has something to do with making a tuner car faster, louder and generally more fun. But, as much as I love high performance cars, I realized another type of performance vehicle is also very popular with readers and we’re known to think outside the sport compact box on occasion.
At one time or another, most of us who tinker with cars either tow our toys or haul some parts. And in this part of the world, that job falls almost exclusively to pickup trucks. After recently witnessing a Hemi-powered Dodge Ram doing a very impressive parking lot burnout, this reminded me that for some enthusiasts, their trusty trucks also double as their performance machines. But we seldom see articles about such utilitarian vehicles in a magazine dedicated to aftermarket performance and audio like PAS, so I thought it was time to give truck owners some respect and research a few audio system upgrades.
A quick internet search confirms that the faithful Ford F-150 is the most popular selling pickup in North America, and several surveys actually put it at the best selling vehicle period for the last 25 years. In continuous production since 1948, and now in its 12th generation, it’s estimated there are over 25 million F-150 trucks registered in North America. With numbers like that, I thought the 2008 F-150 Supercab would be a great foundation for a budget build. Keep in mind even if you’re a Chevy, Dodge, Nissan, or Toyota fan, these same basic premises apply
to upgrading those systems too.
Speakers Options: Bang for your buck
When upgrading the factory sound system, the first place to start is with the speakers. Replacing the generally dreadful OEM speakers will always net you the biggest improvement per dollar spent. The Ford F-150 uses very popular 5x7 / 6x8 size in both the front and rear doors, and has for over 10 years. I suggest using the same make and model replacement speakers in both locations, to maximize sound quality and minimize unwanted “coloring”. Depending on the thickness of your bankroll, you literally have dozens of great choices available for the Ford. If you are on a limited budget and want to get the most improvement for as few dollars as possible, you have several good options.
For around $60 bucks (USD) a pair, you can pick up the Pioneer TS-G6842R 6x8’s, featuring an injection-molded polypropylene composite woofer cone with cloth surround and a 1-3/16-inch polyetherimide film dome tweeter. With a wide frequency response and a power handling of 30 watts continuous and 180 watts peak, these would be a great upgrade if you intend to keep the rest of the system in fairly stock form. The Pioneer TS-G6842R speakers will easily handle the OEM amplifiers output and sound a lot better! Do both front and rears, and you’ll soon find this is probably the best $120 bucks you’ve spent since the last ‘night out with the boys.’
Boston Acoustics S85
If your budget allows a bit more leeway, and especially if you’re going to add some power along the way, another great upgrade would be the excellent Boston Acoustics S85’s. The S85 6x8-inch speakers feature a sturdy copolymer woofer cone and a durable butyl rubber surround to deliver tight, clean bass with minimal distortion. And thanks to the built-in crossover network, the all important transition from woofer to tweeter is blended smoothly. A ¾-inch tweeter with a built-in Ferrofluid cooling provides long term reliability and excellent power handling. A contoured tweeter plane guides high-frequency output to create a larger listening “sweet spot,” while Boston’s Amplitude Modification Device (AMD) reduces harshness in the upper mids for clear, detailed sound.
JL Audio Evolution C5
Of course the sky’s the limit when it comes to component loudspeaker systems, and if you have the budget for a truly high-end system, I can vouch for the very good JL Audio C5-570’s. At about $500 per pair, these are not cheap speakers, but oh, they do sound great! With impressive fidelity and power handling, the JL Audio Evolution C5’s are smooth and balanced, and sound equally great with any type of music. JL Audio built the 5x7-inch woofers with extended cone travel using the same patented cooling technology developed for the ZR Series speakers, allowing the C5 speakers to play with a wide dynamic range at all volumes. The C5-570 5x7-inch component system features a pair of silk dome tweeters, and the crossovers feature 4-position tweeter and 3-position midrange levels that give you 12 possible adjustment combinations for exceptional control over the final sound. Sure, a couple of pairs will set you back a cool grand, but if you’re a real music lover, you’ll understand why they were worth it every time you go for a drive.
After the doors have been upgraded to the level you chose, probably the next most popular upgrade is to add some bass. Even the high end component speakers won’t substitute for a real subwoofer. With a bunch of room available in the extended cab, you could go the old school route and build or buy a large enclosure with as many woofers as you can fit or afford, but that means you have to give up the use of all that space. I prefer one of the other more ergonomically adept solutions, which allows you to still use that space for cargo or passengers. Again, your choices are dependent on what you are looking for. If you want a ground pounder and don’t care about losing the space, you’ll find dozens of companies who will be happy to sell you a pre-built, professionally designed subwoofer enclosure, complete with terrific subwoofers. Or maybe you have a favorite brand of woofer, and want to build your own unique custom enclosure, and that’s cool too.
But if you are like most of us, and occasionally need to carry a couple of people and their associated stuff, you may think a heavy duty woofer system isn’t in the cards. But thanks to companies like JL Audio and MTX, who realize many folks need the space and the bass, there are custom designed vehicle specific enclosures that retain 95% of the original functionality, and still provide solid, serious bottom end for your tunes. For the F-150, I like the MTX Thunderforms (powered versions around $550 USD) or the JL Audio Stealthboxes, (around $750 USD) depending on your budget and your level of desired performance.
For the majority of folks on a budget, the self powered MTX design is easy to install and a variety of inputs allow easy integration into your vehicle’s sound system. The package even includes a 20’ power harness for the built in 200 watt Class D amplifier. Another nice feature on the amplified MTX enclosure is their remote mounted Electronic Bass Control (EBC) which lets you adjust the bass level from the driver’s seat. The MTX enclosure uses high-density polyethylene resin as the structural material, this special resin has high mass and provides a strong, low resonance sealed enclosure. Pumping out the bass is handled by a Thunder 4500 series 12-inch woofer. Already have a bass amp? The MTX design can be purchased with or without the built in amplifier.
JL Audio Stealthbox
Alternatively, if you have the budget, the JL Audio solution is
a bit more sophisticated and smaller, but it doesn’t give up anything in terms of performance and output. Constructed one at a time by hand, the JL Stealthbox’s fiberglass enclosure incorporates a more efficient ported design, and uses a high performance JL Audio 10W3 series 10-inch woofer. The more compact JL system is more money, and is not available in a self powered version, but the output is excellent in both volume and sound quality. In fact neither of these designs compromise in performance, they both deliver strong low bass that’s tight, and hard-hitting.
When it comes to power, there are all sorts of crazy numbers out there, so I like to recommend an amplifier brand that uses the CEA-2006 standard to rate their products output power. This way you know you can make real comparisons between the various choices. Buy an amp that roughly matches the upper power handling range of your speakers, and don’t be concerned if it even exceeds it by a bit. Remember, how much power the amp puts out is controlled by you, and the volume knob! Another thing to be aware of is how the amp performs from a thermal perspective, because many truck amps are destined for small spaces under a seat or crammed in a tight spot where airflow isn’t optimal. This bit of info is best gleaned from a knowledgeable dealer, or checking out online or magazine reviews of an amp to see if it has frequent thermal complaints. There are literally dozens of great amplifiers out there, so I’m sure you won’t have any problems finding a brand that best suits you and your budget. When choosing an amplifier, look for good power, good signal to noise ratio, features like crossovers and EQ, and of course a good warranty never hurts.
Replacing the factory head unit is probably the last step in building your system, unless you need additional features like MP3 playback, iPod connectivity, GPS navigation, Bluetooth, HD Radio, iTunes tagging, or all of the above! Regardless of the features you want, look for a head unit that is easy to use, and doesn’t require a lot of attention during driving. You should be able to turn the volume up and down, and change tracks or stations without ever looking at it. When you do look at it, make sure the display is clear and doesn’t wash out in bright sunlight. Another thing, all iPod interfaces are not created equal, so make sure you get a real demo of how that works before you buy. And regardless of what the salesperson says, there are no 200 Watt head units. Again, look for brands that use the CEA-2006 standard, for honest power numbers if you plan to use the built-in amp.
As you can see, there are definite reasons to change out the factory head unit. But keep in mind that from a purely sonic perspective, the amount of difference upgrading the head unit will make is the smallest difference per dollar spent, so that’s why I generally leave it alone until the more important items have been upgraded first. The F-150 will accept single or 2DIN chassis sizes, so again you have copious amounts of choices, and the cost can range from around $200 bucks to over $2,000… Isn’t it nice to have choices?
As always, make sure your new equipment is connected and protected with high quality cables, fuses, and distribution blocks. I have had good success with the Stinger and Scosche cable kits and adapters, and they both make kits in various quality levels and for specific application requirements. So there you have it, the logical steps to putting some bumpin’ tunes in your pickup truck on a budget. And if I see you doing a burnout with it, make sure you have the tunes cranked up too!