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Rolling Thunder: Best Buys in Car Amplifiers, Speakers & Subwoofers That’ll Move You

Small amplifiers are more powerful and more versatile than ever before, and now they have Bluetooth-streaming capability. Meanwhile, plug-and-play speakers take a lot of the labor out of installation.

Jaguar/Pioneer

When it came to adding an amplifier to produce wheel-shaking sound in your car-audio system, it used to be that you either had to go big or go home.

Not anymore.

Today, more manufacturers of specialty car-audio equipment make class-D, or small, amplifiers than ever before. What’s best of all, prices have come down for these fit-anywhere amplifiers to the point where they fit almost any budget.

Meanwhile, you also will find car speakers that take a lot of the guesswork—and time—out of installation. Unfortunately, they won’t keep more money in your wallet necessarily.

AMPED UP. Class-AB, or traditional, amplifiers typically weigh about 18 pounds and generate too much heat to be installed anywhere but in the trunk of a vehicle. Class-D amplifiers weigh up to 9 pounds, generate two-and-a-half times less heat than class-AB amplifiers do and can be installed anywhere in your vehicle.

Four years ago, 14 companies made class-D amplifiers, and they cost at least $300. Today, 22 manufacturers make class-D amplifiers, and they now are available for as little as $115.

Jason Kemmerer, who helped to develop Alpine’s first class-D amplifier 10 years ago and now works for product-development company Kemmtek, tells us that the latest class-D amps are less expensive than ever before because of the wider availability of electronic circuit boards that control how those models amplify audio signals.

The latest class-D amps also are more powerful than ever before. Previously, a class-D amplifier generated, at most, 600 watts of continuous root-mean-square (RMS) power, which measures how much power that an amplifier can produce under normal conditions. Today, three models produce as much as 1,000 watts of RMS power. More wattage from your amplifier means that you can install higher performance speakers in your vehicle for better sound quality and road-rumbling volume.

In fact, experts tell us that technology has matured to where most class-D amplifiers even exceed the sound quality of their big brothers. Three years ago, class-D amplifiers produced high-frequency distortion, which relegated them to handling only low-frequency demands, such as powering a subwoofer. Today, that distortion no longer is an issue.

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A few manufacturers also are bringing their amplifiers into the wireless world. In 2015, Infinity, JBL, Kenwood, Kicker and Zapco introduced the first lines of amplifiers that connect with any Bluetooth-enabled portable media player, smartphone or tablet computer. As a result, you can stream audio directly through a free mobile application on your Bluetooth device to your amplifier, which amplifies your audio and sends it through a wired connection to your vehicle’s sound system while bypassing your factory entertainment system. This is a useful feature if your entertainment system isn’t Bluetooth-compatible. Prices for such amplifiers start at $250.

Further, Infinity’s Kappa and JBL’s GTR amplifier lines allow for a four-way party mode, so up to four devices can be synced with the same amplifier. This allows you and other passengers to share audio over the same system. Experts tell us that Bluetooth-streaming amplifiers and four-way party modes will become common in all price ranges in the next 2 years.

Beyond Bluetooth streaming, Infinity’s Kappa line and JBL’s GTR line also include processing software that improves the quality of your audio. Low-quality MP3 files, which make up the bulk of digitally stored and streamed audio, generally sound muffled and tinny, because they’re compressed digital files. GTR and Kappa amplifiers automatically adjust the digital file to deliver better clarity and more realistic sound. We found that we easily could hear details that typically are lost, such as individual instruments playing, and we believe that the average consumer will be able to hear the difference, too.