When designing your car audio system, there is one piece of equipment that a lot of people forget, or just do not even think about adding. That piece of equipment is called a digital signal processor, or DSP for short. A DSP, to the true audiophile, seems to be a vital part of system design, so why don’t more people use them? Maybe it’s the cost, or maybe it’s the fact that many every day car audio listeners may not even know what a DSP is or what it can do for their overall listening experience.
In this post, I will discuss what a digital signal processor is and what it can do for your overall listening experience within your vehicle. If you enjoy your music and how your car audio system sounds, read on to learn how you can make your system sound even better.
DSP: What Is It?
A digital signal processor, or DSP, is what the name implies. It is a processing unit that allows for an extraordinary amount of control over your car audio system and its output and leading to higher levels of sound quality. A DSP provides all the hardware needed to tune a car audio system to allow it to perform at its peak and sound great while doing it.
Do You Need A DSP In Your Car?
Using a DSP in your car audio system is a great way to get the most out of all that expensive equipment you’ve purchased to make your music sound good. That said, not every car audio system will require using a DSP. If you just replaced the factory speakers, a DSP is not for you. Whether you need a DSP or not is subjective, but here are some quick things to think about to help you determine whether a DSP will be a good addition to your car audio system.
- The complexity of your car audio setup.
- Your overall car audio budget.
- How do you intend to use your car’s audio system?
- How much control do you want to have over your car audio system?
- How much effort do you want to put into learning how to tune your system via the DSP?
Another thing to think of is your head unit. Does it have the features that allow you to adjust, or tune your system, such as an EQ or adjustable crossovers? Does it have more advanced features like time alignment? If you said no to these questions, a DSP is needed to make these adjustments and dial in the sound of your system.
What is time alignment, you ask? Time alignment is a feature used to combat the sound reaching your ears at different times because of the distance of the speakers to your listening position. Time alignment allows you to delay the sound from the speakers closer to you so that their sound reaches your ear at the same time as the sound from the speakers further from you. Time alignment is one of the key features for installing and DSP.
If you have a good-sounding car audio system but want to really optimize its sound capabilities, then a DSP is a good addition, if budget permits of course.
When Is A DSP Not Needed?
A DSP is definitely not the route you want to take if you are the type of person who has no patience for learning how to use a DSP and how to tune your system with it. You will find that it can be more frustrating to optimize all of the tuning parameters of your system.
If you are looking for a basic system that is clear and gets loud, you probably won’t need a DSP either. A good quality equalizer (EQ) is all you will need to dial in the sound you are seeking.
Is A DSP Worth It?
When planning out your perfect car audio system, it is always important to ask yourself: “What do I want to get out of my system?” This will help you in your research of car audio equipment rather than just buying the most expensive components blindly.
A DSP does not compensate for low-quality car audio equipment and will never make a low-quality system sound better. But, on the other hand, if you have built up your system to achieve some high level of sound quality, then a DSP can be a perfect addition to help you fine-tune that sound and make the sound more precise.
DSPs And Factory Systems
Most modern cars today have their radios integrated into other vehicle systems such as climate controls navigation making these radios even harder to replace than those just five years ago. In most cases, the whole vehicle’s system interface needs to be modified in order for the radio to be replaced. Not only can this be overly complicated, but it can also be an expensive proposition as well. This is why many individuals choose to keep the factory radio and expand their car audio system from there.
The good news? Many newer factory radios will accept aftermarket DSP upgrades. The DSP can be integrated into the system without having to rely on the other computer-controlled functions of the system. Installing a DSP is a great way to fine-tune the signal from your factory radio before it reaches your speakers.
Tuning With A DSP
Tuning a DSP is not for the everyday car audio enthusiast and can be a very complicated process. There are several methods that can be utilized when adjusting a DSP for the best sound possible.
The most important factor for tuning the DSP is the way it makes your music sound. Even though the tuning process can be confusing and daunting, if the audio sounds good to you, then you have achieved your ultimate goal.
There is no exact formula for setting up your DSP. Each person will use different ways to get the same result, so don’t worry if you are not tuning the same way as someone else. Without getting too complex, here are some of the basic steps to tuning a DSP.
- Set the crossovers: The main goal here is to aim for the flattest response possible. This allows the system to sound as natural as possible.
- Set the time alignment: Setting the time alignment will adjust the sound from each speaker according to the listener’s position within the vehicle. In most cases, this is the driver’s seat. Personally, I tend to set this for the position between the two front seats. I find that this allows for the best possible sound for the driver and the front-seat passenger.
- Fine-tune with the EQ: Adjusting the EQ is best done while using pink noise. Pink noise plays every frequency at the same time allowing you to adjust the EQ to cut undesirable frequencies from each speaker within your car audio system. As you go through each setting, check your system for any peaking or clipping within the frequency ranges. Once the front and rear stages are fine-tuned with the EQ, you can now integrate the subwoofer into the system. Use the EQ to tune the subwoofer to the frequencies you actually want to hear and not just balance it with the rest of the speakers within the system. Once the EQ has been adjusted using pink noise, play your favorite musical track, then make final adjustments if necessary.
Stand-Alone DSP Or Built-In DSP?
As DSPs become more popular for car audio lovers, so do the options. Today, there are stand-alone DSPs, DSPs built into amplifiers, and DSPs inside aftermarket head units. The choices are literally endless. However, just because your head unit or amplifier has a built-in DPS, does not necessarily mean it is the best option for your overall system.
For this reason, again, you have to ask yourself, “What do I want my system to do?” If having a DSP is truly important to you, buy a stand-alone unit that gives you ultimate control of your tuning. If it’s not that important, but you want a little bit of control, get yourself an amplifier or head unit with a DSP built-in. There is no right or wrong choice here, it is all about personal preference and your overall goals for the system.
If you opt for a stand-alone DSP unit, make sure it is compatible with all of the other components, such as the amplifiers, in your car audio system. My recommendation would be to choose a DSP that meets your needs, then build the remainder of your car audio set up around it. This way you can research your other components and make sure they will all play nice with each other.
The Best DSP For The Money?
In all honesty, this can be a tricky question to answer. There are brands out there, like AudioControl and Audio Dynamics, that are proven performers in the DSP market, but what about the others? Do your research is my best recommendation. Make sure the DSP you are looking at for your system meets all of the requirements you set forth. Analyze the features versus the cost between the different manufacturers to see if they align with your opinion of value for the cost.
Digital signal processors are an excellent addition to a car audio system. They add extra tuning functionality to allow for the best possible control and sound quality from your system. I hope this post has given you more information in regard to DSPs and if they would be a good fit for your system. I highly recommend looking into a DSP for your car audio system if you are a true car audio addict.