What Is DSP In Car Audio? Is DSP Worth the Price?

DSP or Digital Signal Processor is the new technological advancement in the audio industry.

It’s been taking over everything starting from Apple AirPods Pro, to Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, to even the Amazon Echo Speakers. Although it’s been around for decades, it seems like audio gear manufacturers have only recently started to notice what an amazing thing it is.

As a result, these guys have started to incorporate it into their hardware.

Car audio systems are no exception. They’ve also started to catch up with this new technology, and from what it seems like, it’s here to stay. So, if you don’t already know what DSP is, what it does, or why you should install it in your car, keep reading to find the answers.

What Actually Is A DSP?

I’ve already told you that DSP stands for Digital Signal Processor. That’s pretty self-explanatory. But… what does it actually do? Well… for starters, it’s a technology that you’ll find inside the hardware of headphones, speakers, smartphones, and other “Audio” accessories.

It has a processor that’s designed to perform mathematical functions such as addition and subtraction. It does so at maximum speed while consuming minimal energy. This causes the speed of the execution of audio-related algorithms to increase, but with much less power consumption than a regular CPU.

The benefits, you ask? They turn your audio gear smarter and more responsive. For instance, the DSP inside your smartphone works to decode MP3 files, boost the bass, perform ANC (Active Noise Cancellation), and even recognize your voice when you say, “Okay, Google!”.

Almost every device that has a speaker contains some sort of a DSP chipset nowadays.

They come in a wide variety of sizes, price ranges, and of course, performance points. Starting from your tiny little wireless Bluetooth earbuds, to multi-channel processors in car stereos and huge studio units, DSPs are everywhere.

How It Affects Your Music Listening Experience?

In most devices, the performance points of the DSP are not mentioned individually. However, they are stacked up with other features such as the capabilities of the Bluetooth chip, and ADC, DAC, and speaker driving capabilities.

While all that is necessary and important enough to be mentioned, it’s also crucial that the capabilities of the DSP are mentioned as well.

DSPs are an essential part of modern audio equipment. A DSP with higher performance points will grant you the processing power for high-quality audio effects and functions.

For example… device EQs, voice recognition, ANC, and surround sound. The premium quality DSPs will require less power while giving you longer playtime.

The trick is, if you use a good quality DSP with an appropriate microphone… you can easily measure the output provided by your audio gear in any kind of environment. Then tweak it to sound just the way you want, without having to mess around with the EQ settings.

To put it into simpler words: If you combine the measurements from a real-time analyzer with the features of a processor, you can dramatically improve the tonal balance of your audio system.

You just need to have the basic know-how of equalization. That’s it. Your vocals and instruments will sound as if you’re in the middle of a live performance.

Expert technicians can even improve the staging and imaging characteristics of the sound system to make it sound more real. Simply by using stereo equalization with the help of a premium DSP.

Not only that, many of the DSPs currently available in the market come with the ability to save multiple system configurations. Meaning, you can set up different configurations for different moods and situations.

If you want a particular tune for a single-seat listening position and a different one for when you have people with you in the vehicle, you can create separate configurations for those.

DSP In Car Audio

Do I Actually Need A DSP?

This is truly a judgment call. But if you ask me, I’d say go for it. Having a DSP in your car’s audio system is a brilliant way to get the most out of the music you’re listening to.

Let me remind you again, it’s not a must-have. Your car’s stereo can do just fine without a DSP. But it’s more like a should-have if you’re an audiophile like me.

Many car sound systems sound good on their own. All thanks to the EQ in the head unit that’s used for tweaking audio. But if you do consider getting a DSP, you should check out these factors first:

  • How do you intend to use it?
  • The complexity of your car audio system
  • How much control you want or need over your system?
  • Your budget
  • How much time and effort you are willing to spend on researching, installing, and learning how to use a DSP.

In short, you’ll only need a DSP as a must-have if your car’s audio system itself does not have a proper time alignment.

What’s ‘time alignment’, you ask?

It’s an important aspect of your car’s audio system that indicates the accuracy of the audio signals sent from the car’s stereo system at the right time. Hence, it sounds just like how you want it to sound regardless of the car’s interior.

Nowadays almost every song is recorded in a stereo or surround sound format. But it gets lost in the sound system. This is due to the lack of proper time alignment. Getting a DSP in your car’s stereo system is the best way to keep the format the song was recorded in, intact.

Having said so, let me reassure you. Your system is capable of sounding great all by itself, and a DSP is only an auxiliary element to it. It won’t magically improve how your stereo sounds, but will only offer better control over the audio signals of your sound system.

When To Install A DSP In Your Car’s Stereo?

There are basically two situations when you should consider getting a DSP for your car.

One, if your sound system is already good and you want to optimize it to get the best performance out of it. Two, when (and if) you have enough budget and time to invest behind it. That is, to install it and learn how to work it. Otherwise, there’s no point in getting a DSP if you don’t have the time to teach yourself how to operate it.

When NOT To Get A DSP In Your Car?

Although the primary objective of this writeup is to inform you about the benefits of getting a DSP in your car, it’d be really unfair of me to just lure you into getting this without telling you all the ups and downs.

Let’s face it, getting a DSP is kind of expensive. You wouldn’t want to spend money for something that won’t ultimately serve the purpose you were looking to serve.

If you’re really not willing to invest enough time and effort behind optimizing all the parameters of your DSP or if you’re just going to install it and leave it, then a DSP is not for you, my friend. Because a DSP is a tool that is strictly designed for devoted audiophiles and enthusiasts.

So, before getting a DSP, ask yourself a few questions. Do you really want to tweak and optimize the audio output provided by your car’s stereo system? Or, is it only clear and loud audio you’re looking for? If you’re looking for just the latter, then a better option for you is a good EQ.

Is It Worth the Money You’re Paying?

Before you add any component to your car’s audio system, you need to consider what exactly do you want to get out of that system, or what benefits are you seeking from it.

There’s no point in spending a huge load of money and getting the most expensive equipment. Not if you find that it doesn’t provide the kind of sound you were expecting from it.

To be very frank, a DSP will never make your car’s sound system sound any better than it can achieve on its own. It will only allow you to fine-tune the output of a sound system.

If your system already produces the audio quality that you desire, then there’s no need for an additional DSP in it, since it won’t make much of a difference to the audio quality.

This device will allow you to control the audio output of your car’s stereo all the way down to the exact EQ frequency for each speaker.

This, in turn… allows you to compensate for the improper time alignment and the slight delay between the speakers. This draws the best audio quality out of your seemingly ordinary sound system.

This means you can’t just install a DSP in any audio system and run it properly. A DSP will not make a low-quality audio system sound good overnight, but it will make the components of your audio system provide the best quality audio output within its capability.

It really depends on you and your requirements whether the DSP you’re purchasing is a good investment. It’ll only be worth the money if your sound system already is a good-quality one and needs no further improvement. A DSP can only work as an additional enhancer, not a separate component that adds its own features and functionalities to the sound system.

Hold on! A DSP does more than just improve the sound quality of your car’s stereo when you’re listening to music. Cars are getting more involved in communication technology. Hence, more and more IT functions are added to them. Their previous functions are being automated.

Hence, DSPs are finding more things to do. These go beyond conventional audio engineering.

For example, cars have started to come with a microphone located right above the driver’s head. These are dedicated to phone calls. But if you add a DSP to it, it can even activate your voice assistant and voice recognition as well.

Pro tip: Add an array of small microphones instead of just one, and you’ll be able to beamform or steer the pickup pattern of the mics towards the speaker.

On one hand, it makes your car’s interior more voice-friendly, in the sense that it helps to reject or cancel out ambient noise and makes the voices sound clearer over the phone.

On the other hand, a DSP is capable of working alongside the car’s stereo to synthesize operating sounds, enabling any car to deliver the kind of premium audio output that you normally get in luxury sedans.

Are DSPs Expensive (How Much Should I Invest)?

The answer is both yes and no. Let me explain how.

A quality Digital Signal Processor will cost you around $400 plus the installation cost. On top of that, it’d require at least an hour or so to configure it, in the case of most vehicles.

If your sound system is a complex one with multiple channels, you may require a DSP with more input and output channels (meaning an expensive one), and naturally, more time to configure it.

If you ask me, I’d suggest investing $600 to $1,000 for a good DSP over investing a similar amount of money behind other equipment such as speakers, amps, or subwoofers.

The reason is simple. A good processor is capable of yielding a performance gain that far exceeds that of an array of expensive speakers and other audio gear put together.

If you already have a great audio system, then adding a DSP tuned by a professional will improve and enhance its performance in all possible aspects.

How Do I Tune A DSP For the Best Sound?

Let’s say, you have a DSP. The next and perhaps the most crucial thing that you need to give a lot of thought and effort behind is tuning it. For a complete beginner, it might seem like a complicated task. There are many ways of doing it and all of them are right. Confused? Let me break it down for you.

Tuning anything is a matter of preference and convenience. Be it an instrument or an audio gear.

It’s all about balancing all the different elements in the piece of music until it’s in just the right proportion for you. In the case of sound processors, guess what needs to be considered? Obviously… how it sounds.

There are a lot of variables that seem to be too complicated and technical. But don’t let all that confuse you. If you’re satisfied with the way your stereo system sounds, then that’s all that matters. There’s no absolute formula for setting up a system.

Again, it’s all a matter of preference and convenience. For starters, here is a basic beginners’ guide that should give you some idea:

  • Set up the crossovers. What you’re looking for here is a flat response from the crossovers. This’ll allow the sound of the system to be as close to reality as possible. Set the crossovers at the same frequency between tweeter and mid-range. Aim as close to 24dB as possible.
  • Set the time alignment for each speaker separately. Set the time alignment of the speakers according to the position of the ears when you’re sitting at the driver’s seat. This is not an easy task. Especially, for beginners. But thankfully, there are online speaker measurement calculators to the rescue. They’re simple and user-friendly, and accurate as well.
  •  Once you’ve measured the distance from the speakers to the ears, shift the central focus of the audio to your desired position (driver’s seat, seat on the side, backseat, anything you want).
  • For further adjustments, use your EQ. The best way of doing this is by using a pink-noise treatment method. Play a pink-noise track through each isolated speaker and see if there are any peaking or clipping frequencies. Keep cutting the undesirable frequencies as you go. Do this for all speakers, until all of them are completely noise-free.

Just like that, you have set yourself up your first DSP. Congratulations!

My Last Two Cents on the Topic

Getting a DSP is a good investment, but only if you plan to spend enough time and effort (and of course, money) behind it. Installing one on your own can be a bit tricky for the first time, but it’s a long learning process and you’ll keep getting better at it as you go.

I’d personally recommend setting up your DSP by yourself instead of getting someone else to do it for you because only you would know the kind of audio output you prefer.

That being said, it’s always a good idea to get help and suggestions from someone experienced. That’s why we’re here. If you want a hands-on experience, you could go into a workshop and watch how the maestros do it. As Michael Jackson said, the best way to learn something is by watching a master at work.

Hope this article helps you find the DSP of your desire.

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