Having worked with sound for years, I can say for sure that cars are, one of the best places to listen to music. Thanks to the shape and design, you’d need half the effort of a standard room to make things sound good in there.
Things get significantly worse when it comes to imaging and soundstage. The beautiful illusion of live music that a quality sound system can create is tougher to find in cars.
Nevertheless, cars are unavoidable, and so is music. How do you create a flawless soundstage effect in a car in that case?
Fortunately, there are ways to make that soundstage feel like you’re listening to one uniform, three-dimensional source. While they aren’t as straightforward as putting the speakers wherever you want, the end result is undoubtedly worthwhile.
I’ll discuss the aspects before and after getting the sound system, in case you’re getting aftermarket replacements.
Understanding Sound Stage in a Car’s Context
In short, the soundstage is the illusion of depth and dimensionality created by the sound system artificially (the left, right, and center don’t really exist here, do they?
Let’s imagine an orchestra playing in a large concert hall. You’ll find the violins in one portion, the trumpets in another, the percussion in another — you get the idea. Thanks to our ears’ capability of judging the source of a soundwave, one could easily say where each instrument is.
Not only that, it’s even possible to figure out the depth of the instruments, which makes the whole experience exponentially better. A sound system, however, doesn’t have the luxury of space like a real orchestra does.
The system needs to be capable of reproducing the mix well, and the user needs to position it in the right position. But everything regarding the position and size is said with the assumption that you can do it whenever you want.
The sound would sound less like a whole arena and more like hard-panned audio tracks in a sub-par system. You’d have a hard time figuring out what’s where, and the experience would be essentially a mess.
What Makes Cars’ Sound Staging Worse?
You may be wondering why I’m blabbering on about the technicalities so much.
First off, having these notions is highly crucial if you’re to figure out what your sound system needs. Every car and every system has its own characteristics, and it’s paramount that you have a clear idea of your system.
So, why are cars tougher to work with? First off, you aren’t dealing with a typical rectangular room here. The surfaces are not uniform, meaning you’ll get reflections and reverberation that knows no bound.
These elements are especially challenging, as they bounce off the surfaces and affect the sound quality.
Secondly, the tweeters or woofers aren’t at the same distance from your ear. We set up the system in what’s called an equilateral triangle in a standard room, where the distance between the speakers and you are all the same. They should also be close to your ears’ level for optimal reproduction.
In a car, the speakers (especially the tweeters, and the mid-range speakers, if any) cannot maintain that. As a result, you receive sounds from the speakers at different times, breaking the illusion of a quality sound stage.
Moreover, the reflections are just as out of sync, making things even worse.
The third biggest issue is that if you position the speakers according to the driver’s position, the rest of the seats won’t receive the optimal sound. This gets worse because of the sound waves reaching you from different speakers at different times.
You probably now see why the situation is the way it is and which problems you need to address when improving the sound stage. That being said, let’s get into the solutions.
How to Create Soundstage Effects in a Car
Now we’re getting into the improvement process. Let’s first assume that you’re trying to improve the soundstage of your existing sound stage, as that’s the case for most people. We’ll then move on to buying aftermarket systems or components.
Time alignment is one of the most beneficial processes you could use to enhance the soundstage. As mentioned, soundwaves from different speakers reach your ears at different times. And this is entirely unavoidable inside a car, as you can’t place everything within the same distance.
What do we do, then? Repositioning the speakers is only going to get you so far. And you’d have to make modifications to the car before you can do that.
That’s where time alignment comes in. You essentially have to measure the distance between each speaker and the listener and slightly offset them. By doing so, you can have sound waves from each speaker reach you simultaneously. That, in turn, helps create a surprisingly better soundstage.
Many sound systems have this feature built-in, while many don’t. That’s why you’d have to find that option by yourself. I’ll be talking about how it works.
While it’s possible to measure how and when sound arrives at a point, you probably don’t have the necessary gear for that. Instead, what we’ll do is measure the distance between you and each speaker and jot them down.
Then, you’d have to calculate the extra time (the maths aren’t too complicated) the farthest speakers take and delay the close ones by that much.
These delays aren’t very drastic, though, and that’s for a reason. Sound travels very fast in a small space. The differences in the timing we’re talking about are in milliseconds for that reason.
So, if the farthest speaker’s sound takes three milliseconds to reach you, you’d delay the one close to you to match that timing. This minor difference is enough to tell our brains that there’s something off, so don’t look down on the small number.
Many users create multiple presets based on which seat the listener will be in. You could do that too, as the other users wouldn’t get the same quality if the system is only modified for the driver’s seat.
Remember to keep your rear speakers turned off during this process, as that can affect the time balancing process. Another crucial aspect to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t blindly follow every process or measurement that you find elsewhere. Every car is different, every speaker is different, and you need to account for that.
The only way to do that is to keep an open mind and react to the needs of your particular system.
Balancing the Sound and Equalizing
As I said, achieving a certain uniformity is one of the best ways to achieve a quality soundstage. I also mentioned that people typically set their speakers up in an equilateral triangle to maintain uniformity in terms of distance as well.
Since we cannot do that in cars, the sound balance goes whack. For instance, you hear some frequencies more when you’re in close proximity. Furthermore, you won’t get the same loudness from two speakers which are at two different distances from you.
We need to improve the balance between the speakers to alleviate this issue. For example, you may need to lower the speaker’s overall sound that’s sitting right beside your ear and vice versa.
Equalizing may also be necessary, as the distance means they won’t be uniform in all frequencies either. This is even more necessary if you have speakers of different models and brands (I wouldn’t recommend it; more on that later), as they don’t reproduce sound in the same way.
This isn’t an arduous process by any means; you merely need to keep your ears open and tune things accordingly. Play two speakers at first, balance them, add another one — you get the idea.
Rear speakers also play a significant role in making that soundstage worth believing, but avoid going overboard. Think of it this way — these speakers are there to make the front and side speakers more believable, not to steal the show.
Set these speakers in a way that you’re not constantly being reminded that they’re behind you. Too much of this can break that illusion into pieces.
Choosing the Speakers
This section is going to assume that you haven’t bought your speakers yet or are looking to upgrade. If you’ve looked into speakers before, you’ll find two ways to set your sound system up — combined or separate options.
The textbook terms for these are coaxial and component speakers, respectively. Coaxial speakers have the tweeter and subwoofer in the same enclosure, which is probably what most users are used to seeing.
Spoiler alert before we move on — component speakers would generally be the better option for you. Let’s figure out why.
Component speakers essentially separate the two (or three, in some cases) parts — the rest of the mechanism remains the same. But since they’re not in the same enclosure, how do they determine which driver should play which frequency?
That’s where a crossover comes in. This little tool does the work for the drivers and tells them which should play what. Even better, you can determine what that frequency is. As you can imagine, this allows for even better control and minimizes interference.
Not only that, having the components separated almost always ensures better tonality and clarity (given that we’re talking about speakers of the same category).
The imaging and soundstage both receive a significant boost as well. Your music starts coming to life with better stereo and frequency separation and creates a distinct juxtaposition between different instruments.
That’s why I’d recommend investing in separate drivers for superior soundstage. Another bit to remember is that the speakers should be of the same make and model if you want uniformity in the timber and reproduction.
Of course, getting rear speakers can help you with the soundstage as well. These aren’t a prominent part of the system, but they can play a significant role in making things more realistic.
Set Up and Positioning
Be it the tweeters, mid-range speakers, or woofers — the placement matters. Of course, you’re more limited when it comes to positioning if you’ve got coaxial speakers. Even then, experimenting with their positioning and direction can result in a huge difference.
Instead of relying on the typically angled tweeters in your coaxial or full-range speakers, positioning different drivers in different areas is beneficial. For example, you could get the woofer in a lower position with the tweeters higher above.
This creates an excellent separation, prevents the possibility of any issues with crossover, and provides a much cleaner tone. That being said, don’t ignore the placement of subwoofers just because bass doesn’t seem to be as directional as other frequencies.
It needs to be coherent with the rest of the components, and just having some low-end come out of your car’s trunk isn’t what we want. Many of the tweeters allow you to adjust their angle — a helpful feature to improve the imaging and soundstage.
It’s also possible to buy custom-made frames for your speakers to allow you to change the positioning effortlessly. As you can imagine, it’d be tough to move your speakers around wherever you want. These can be rather beneficial to provide you with more options than just that pesky door.
Power and Amplification
If your speakers aren’t getting as much power as they need, the soundstage may not be up to par. Even quality speakers will fail to perform as intended if they don’t receive proper amplification.
Sure, your default ones should be able to do a good enough job, but that may not be enough for power-hungry speakers. That’s why investing in an external power amplifier may help. And not only the soundstage, but this also helps improve the detail and clarity of the components. The imaging receives a noticeable boost as well.
A quality soundstage can make or break the experience for any seasoned listener. And if it’s in a car, you don’t even need to be experienced with sound to realize that something is off. Knowing how to create a flawless soundstage in a car can make that sub-par experience an enjoyable one.
Sure, you could always spend more and improve the soundstage (it’s even necessary in some cases), but there are other options as well. I’ve made sure to discuss both so that you can choose whichever seems ideal. Enjoy.