The Best Car Amplifier: Buyers Guide And 5 Great Picks

Building a great sounding car audio system is fun and very rewarding. I absolutely love driving good quality speakers with a great amplifier for powerful and amazingly clear sound.

I’m sure you will, too! Finding the best car amplifier can be a very time-consuming task – there are so many choices out there.

In order to help you, I’ve put together a list of 5 of the best car amplifiers worth your money. You’ll also find some helpful buying info and car amp facts below too.

Car amplifier basics

Image showing man thinking about car amp basics

Audio amplifier technology has moved forward over the last decade and the average buyer is a winner because of it. No longer will you have to choose between the same of average types, but fortunately a newer design type has made getting far more for your money in a smaller package possible.

Class A and class AB amplifiers

Car amplifiers, just like home stereo amplifiers, are all designed with a similar fundamental “class” which just means how they fundamentally operate to generate boosted audio signals that drive speakers.

All powerful amps have to take the 12V supply in a vehicle and step it up to higher voltages in order to deliver more power with greater clarity than a standard car stereo can (as those are limited to around 14W per channel).

Class A amplifiers are rarer and are considered “audiophile” amps as they have extremely low distortion and a lot more effort (and expense) is put into the design to get the best sound possible. However, they’re not as common because they’re very inefficient (somewhere around 20%!) and waste a huge amount of energy.

They also don’t deliver as much power for the money as other types. Those are a few reasons they’re not used very often and aren’t very popular.

Class A/B

Internal image of a 4 ch. ampClass A/B amplifiers like this one were, until relatively recently, the only way to get big power with great sound quality in your vehicle with a good Watts per dollar ratio. Class D amplifiers are now eclipsing them in value and power per size.

Class A/B amplifiers are a compromise between class B amplifiers (in which the transistors that drive the output signal) aren’t switched on quite as long as in class A amps. However, to retain good sound quality they work in some similar ways as class A – just without wasting quite as much technology.

They’re close to about 50-65% efficient and do generate some heat even while doing nothing.

For decades they’ve been the most popular type of car audio amplifier in use. This basic design is used in the most low-cost amplifiers and even very high-end car amps. However, the better brands have much better design components and circuitry to keeps the sound quality very high and noise and distortion very low.

A/B amps come in a variety of low to high-power options and are often bridgeable to deliver more power.

Class D amps

Pioneer GM-D9605 internal components and circuit board images

Internal view of a Pioneer class D 5 channel car amplifier. Even though it might look the same as a class A/B amp at first glance, there are some notable differences. Class D amplifiers use different technology to deliver amazing power while greatly reducing power waste which is lost as heat.

Class D amplifiers are the newest technology and offer a new approach to audio amplification, with very high efficiency and fantastic new installation options.

As they’re around somewhere around 85% efficient they produce an extremely small amount of heat and the size of even a very high power amp can be 1/2 to 2/3 that of a conventional class A/B amp!

These amps work by switching power transistors in the circuitry on and off incredibly fast rather than them remaining on long like older technologies.  The end result is electrical current flows and power use is reduced.

Class D amps convert the input signal into a squarewave which drives the power electronics. Once this signal is amplified, it is then smoothed and filtered, converting it back to a boosted version of the input signal. The output then drives your speakers at the speaker terminals.

They make installations easier!

Many powerful class D amps can fit under seats, in storage containers, and in other vehicle interior locations that were impossible for other amps in the past.

If you’re wanting the best bang for your buck, you’re hard-pressed to beat them! However, it’s critical to shop for the best quality as lesser brands often have poor noise levels and mediocre sound quality.

Alpine MRV-F300 installed under seat

Class D amplifiers are the newest and most efficient car amp technology today. A great sounding and powerful amplifier that can drive a whole car audio system is small enough to fit inconvenient places like under your car seat. Very cool!

Although they’re very small and highly efficient, the main drawback is that they have a higher noise floor (lower signal-to-noise ratio) than A/B amplifiers.

The technology has been refined more and more until today and is now capable of producing excellent sound with very low distortion.

However, I’d advise staying away from lower-end brands because they’re still noisier and the sound quality isn’t up to par with well-engineered products by bigger brand names. Of course, it depends on your sound needs and what you’re willing to pay.

The good news is that D class amps are also a great value these days and are very affordable.

Car amplifier quality factors

The best car amplifier for you will have well-designed quality and great engineering. I bring this up because although you can get an excellent amplifier for your money (see below) some brands aren’t original designs, and they simply rebadge – that is, slightly change and rename – the same amplifier internal board and parts.

You’ll end up getting an “ok” amp in most cases but definitely not the best.

To avoid getting a lesser amp for your money, stick to midrange or higher-end brands like Alpine, Pioneer, MTX, Rockford Fosgate, and a few other major players in the market. Definitely see my recommendations here today as I’ll ensure you get a great one.

You don’t need to go broke when shopping but it definitely pays to choose carefully.

Understanding power ratings

Car amplifier power output formulas image

You’ll see some amplifiers – in some cases even very cheap ones – sold with claims like “1200 Watts power.” This is completely misleading and is not what an amp in a small size is physically capable of producing.

Unfortunately, it’s one of the ways people new to car audio get ripped off and greatly disappointed. I always hate seeing that happen.

Don’t get mislead when shopping! Some cheaper brands use misleading numbers that are IMPOSSIBLE for them to deliver. Always check the “root-mean-square “(RMS) or “continuous” ratings. Those are an electrical engineering term to describe the actual useable power being delivered.

The best brands are “CEA-2006 compliant” which means the specs listed are proven and you can be sure they’re reliable and realistic.

CEA logo

When shopping for an amplifier, rely on the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) power standard ratings to know you’re getting accurate specs and not being lied to.  Reputable manufacturers list their specs using this ratings standard created in recent years because of the ongoing issue with exaggerated amplifier power numbers.

Realistic expectations and power you need

Car amp power ratings examples confused man

For a good quality amp that the average person can afford you can expect power ratings like 50W, 75W, or 100W RMS per channel into 4 ohms, for example.

The best car amplifier for most people will cost about a little under $200 for average power ratings or closer to $300 if you wanted a more powerful (like 100W/channel). Expect to spend more for even higher sound quality and extra features.

For most people wanting to upgrade a factory system or drive new speakers, at least 50W RMS per channel is good and can provide great volume, low distortion, and enjoyable sound.

This includes being able to drive your speakers with good bass, although you’ll probably want to block distortion-causing low-end bass by using a built-in high pass crossover option.  With that, you can get more volume with less distortion – and more enjoyment!

Image of MTX subwoofers in an enclosure

For larger cone size subwoofers, plan to have at least 150W or so as a good rule of thumb for enough power to drive them well. Subwoofers are power-hungry so for good bass sound you need to plan ahead – don’t try to use a weak amp for heavy bass. If you want bass volume that vibrates your neighbor’s windows and rattles your car, get an amp 2 x to 3 x as much power (250W-500W).

If you plan on using subwoofers, expect to have about 150W minimum available, either from a single channel or from a pair of channels bridged together. For larger subwoofers like 10″ and 12″ which can really thump, I’d recommend 300W as a good rule of thumb.

You may be surprised how great and loud a well-tuned system with a 50W per channel amplifier can sound! I personally prefer 75W/channel or higher 4 or 5 amps as they’re flexible and have extra power on tap.

2 channel vs 4 channel amplifiers

2 channel vs 4 channel amplifier image

If you only need 2 channels of power you’ll find plenty to choose from. However, try to think about future expansion!

Try to plan ahead just in case you want to expand or upgrade your sound system later. A 4 channel amplifier may be a better choice as it can always be used as a 2-channel amp but the reverse is not true.

The most common car amplifier installations

The majority of people who buy a car amplifier have one of a common number of needs in mind:

  • Connecting to a factory or aftermarket stereo to upgrade a system with front and rear speakers
  • Connecting to a factory or aftermarket stereo in order to add a subwoofer
  • Powering both front speakers AND a subwoofer for a complete sound system upgrade

Here’s a diagram showing these basic and popular systems.

(Click to enlarge image)

Illustration showing the best car amplifier typical uses

I personally prefer 4 channel amplifiers unless I need higher power for a 2-channel speaker setup, or for customers who don’t need rear speakers or the extra system flexibility. 2 channel amplifiers do tend to have higher power rating options available, but that’s not always the case.

Additionally, since most 4 channel amps sold today can be bridged for more power it’s usually not hard to find 4 channel or 5 channel amps with the power you need vs using a 2 channel model.

Factory system integration

If you’re using a factory stereo you can still get great sound but you’ll want to look for an amplifier with speaker-level inputs.

You can tap off of existing speakers in the trunk or from the rear of the stereo as needed to get a signal source. Small gauge speaker wire works fine for this. You’ll save the cost of a line level converter when installing an amp with speaker-level inputs.

In fact, some models now have an auto-on feature that senses when the speaker inputs have a signal and turns the amp on automatically. This avoids having to connect a remote-on wire to the amp.

More difficult systems like factory premium (factory amplified) systems often require more labor and hunting down additional wiring info. Generally speaking, however, it still can be done as long as you’re able to find a pair of full range speakers or speaker wiring you can tap off of to run to the amplifier’s inputs.

Choosing the best car amplifier

In my professional opinion the best car amplifier should be a good compromise of the following:

  • Cost
  • Power
  • Sound quality/specifications
  • Installation ease (based on your needs)
  • Features
  • Quality and the level of engineering design
  • Reliability
  • Proven buyer satisfaction

★ 5 of the best car amplifiers for your money ★

ImageProductDetails
sample-table__image★ Best value! ★Alpine MRV-F300
  • Great sound for less money! An excellent value
  • 50W x 4, 75W x 4, 150W x 2 RMS
  • Evolution to class D design
Check on Amazon
sample-table__imageJL Audio XD400/4v2
  • High-end sound and performance in a small package. Fantastic!
  • 75W x 4, 100W x 4, 200W x 2 RMS Low-noise, crystal-clear sound quality
  • NexD high-fidelity class D design. Only 8-9/16 x 2-1/16 x 7-1/8" In size!
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sample-table__imageRockford Prime R1200-1D Mono
  • Up to an amazing 1200W RMS of slammin' bass power!
  • Smart protection circuitry, Punch bass EQ, subsonic filter, and RCA outs
  • Includes Punch bass remote
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sample-table__imageRockford Fosgate P400X4
  • Class A/B sound quality that's affordable + modern compact design
  • Built-in amp setup gain features. Thermal heat management system
  • Bass EQ feature, remote bass option, compact size
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sample-table__imageAffordablePlanet Audio AC1200.4
  • Great budget 4 ch amp under $100
  • 113W x 4, 225W x 2 RMS
  • High level inputs, illuminated logo. Includes bass remote
Check on Amazon

1. Alpine MRV-F300 – Affordable, great sound, wonderful quality, and ease of installation in a compact size.

Alpine MRV-F300 amplifier Editor's Choice image

The MRV-F300 is Alpine’s most recent take on a class D amp that has been welcomed to rave reviews and it a fantastic way to drive your whole system from an amp small enough to fit below a seat! Unlike competitors, the company takes additional steps to reduce noise inherent in class D designs and provides 50W x 4 into 4 ohms and bridgeable power of 150W x 2 into 4 ohms.

Of course, it has crossovers (adjustable) for both subwoofer or full-range speaker use as well as a nice bass boost on channels 3/4.

Alpine MRV-F300 4 channel amp end view

The whole amp measures only  7 7/8″ W x 6.5″ D x 2 3/16″ H (200 x 165 x 55 mm) and provides speaker-level inputs for working with factory systems. I’ve also provided a full review here.

It features the usual over-temp and short-circuit protection Alpine has always provided and is an excellent buy at under $175. It’s also a great sounding little amp.

You can head over to Amazon to see the many great reviews and why so many owners love it.

2. JL Audio RB XD400/4 – 75W x 4 underrated power channels of some of the best audio you can buy…and it fits under a seat!

RB-XD400/4 amp side view

Still an industry leader, JL Audio has approached compact audio amplifier design by improving class D technology. They’ve introduced NexD circuitry which uses a much faster switching speed than the lesser competition to improve power delivery as well as noise levels.

The amp is rated at – and will actually outperform – the listed specs of 75W x 4 into 4 ohms.

RB-XD400/4 amp top view

It’s a fantastic and vibrant sounding amplifier that’s still very small at only  8.52 in. x 7.09 in. x 2.05 in. (217 mm x 180 mm x 52 mm) but can accept 4 gauge wire. Low and high pass crossovers are adjustable to 500hz for additional sound system control and a 2/4 channel input switch can use a 2-channel signal to run all 4.

An additional feature is a pair of RCA outputs with selectable output signal (mono summed or stereo) so you can daisy-chain more amps if you like easily. Wire terminals are very high quality (audiophile grade) and it’s one of the best rated amplifiers among buyers, too!

Another cool feature is the ability to plug in a remote bass knob (sold separately) to control the bass while drive when using subwoofers.

If you’re looking for one of the best amplifiers available today, this is it. It’s available at major online retailers but I've seen it for much less over at Amazon.

3. Rockford Fosgate Punch R1200-1D – A small subwoofer amp an AMAZING power output of up to 1200W!

Product image of Rockford Fosgate Prime R1200-1D mono bass car amplifier

The Punch R1200-1D is a beast in a tiny package. Measuring only 11-1/8″W x 2″H x 7-3/8″D, this little powerhouse can provide the following incredible power ratings: (CEA-2006 compliant power ratings)

  • 400W RMS x 1 @ 4 ohms
  • 800W RMS x 1 @ 2 ohms
  • 1,200W RMS x 1 @ 1 ohm

It even includes a remote bass control in the package to allow you to adjust the bass level while cruising down the road.

As Rockford Fosgate is one of the best amp companies designing products in America today, it also includes a unique verification sheet with each and every amp that leaves the factory. This shows it meets rated specs and you know you’re getting what you paid for.

Top view of Rockford Fosgate Prime R1200-1D mono bass car amplifier

It’s a mono (subwoofer) amplifier so for subwoofer-only system expansion it’s a fantastic choice if you want real power that SLAMS, high SPL music, and the ability to safely run multiple subwoofers without overheating and shutdown.

A built-in low-pass crossover is adjustable from 50-250hz and a Punch EQ bass boost is another feature to help with getting the best sound from your system.

The amp can’t support speaker-level inputs but does feature RCA pass-through jacks for connecting additional amplifiers.

Image of Rockford Fosgate Punch level control (gen. 2) with cableThe Punch R1200-1D includes an awesome bass remote with connection cable that’s really to install. I really like and I’m sure you will, too! It makes cranking the bass up very convenient when driving.

This little amp is an amazing amount of clean, reliable sound in a compact package and normally sells below $300. Reviews are excellent and it’s a great choice if you want high-end power you can afford!

Definitely head over to Amazon to check out the current price.

4. Rockford Fosgate Punch P600X4 (and P400X4) – low-noise class AB sound quality, great power, and set up features no one else offers.

Punch P600X4 amp angle view

If your budget allows you to spend a little under $300 or so (based on the best price I’ve found when comparing), the P600X4 is one of the best on the market today. Rockford Fosgate has once again designed another fantastic sound-quality oriented class A/B design featuring their patented Trans-ANA circuitry to deliver lower noise and some of the best sound quality available in this price range.

They’ve used surface mount technology (SMT) to make the amplifier as compact as possible, measuring only 13-3/8″W x 2-7/16″H x 8-13/16″D in size.

The amp is CEA-2006 compliant and is underrated, delivering some excellent power:

  • 75W x 4 into 4 ohms
  • 150W x 4 into 2 ohms
  • 300W x 2 bridged, 4 ohm stable

Plenty enough to power a fantastic sounding, high-volume system for nearly everyone!

Punch P600X4 amp top view no cover

The high and low pass crossovers are adjustable to 250Hz, while the Punch EQ2 is unique from other brands in that it’s adjustable for both bass and treble with 0-18 dB level possible at 45Hz and 12.5KHz. You can also add a Punch EQ remote control knob (sold separately) to adjust the sound while driving.

It doesn’t support speaker level inputs, but a 2/4 way input switch is provided for the RCA inputs.

One of the most unique features is the installation help provided by the instructions and the built-in C.L.E.A.N. gain setup system feature. When used with the included test tone CD, actually allows the amp to show the correct signal levels when setting the gain!

This will allow you to get the lowest noise and optimize for your amp for the best performance. You can also download test MP3 files as well to help you set it up.

Its sibling the P400X4 has the same features with 50W x 4 power and is less expensive.

It’s an awesome amp and definitely I recommend it to anyone who can afford it. It’s worth your time to head over and read more - the reviews are great!

5. Planet Audio Anarchy AC1200.4 – 4 channels of good sounding budget power

PLanet Audio AC1200.4 amp top

Let’s face it, some of us simply don’t have a lot of money to spend on a car amp. That’s ok – it’s understandable. Believe me, I’ve been there too!

If you still want good sound with adequate power and a way to get started with an entry-level system, the AC1200.4 is a great choice. For around $100 (or less) you can get an amp a good track record of happy buyers, built-in crossovers, and enough power to run your system and enjoy music on the cheap!

It can also connect to factory speaker-level wiring.

lanet Audio AC1600.4 amp end viewThe Planet Audio is also sold as Boss and other brands with minor cosmetic differences, and overall all versions of it have pretty good reviews as well.

It’s not CEA-2006 compliant, so the power ratings haven’t been verified like more expensive brands:

  • 4 ohms: 113 watts x 4 chan
  • 2 ohms: 225 watts x 4 chan
  • Bridged, 4 ohms: 450 watts x 2 channels

I definitely recommend you step up to the Alpine MRV-F300 but if you can’t afford to do so, it’s a good way to get started enjoying great music.

Check out the great buyer reviews and current low price over here now.

Summary

Following my guide, try to buy the best amplifier you can according to the level of power you need and based on your goal: maximum sound quality, loud bass, or just an affordable but great sounding system.

To summarize, I recommend:

  • Buy an amp with 50W or more per channel; for a higher-end system I recommend 75W+ per channel.
  • Consider getting a 4 channel amplifier because of the additional flexibility they offer.
  • A mono or bridgeable amp can drive a subwoofer. Choose a minimum of 150W. If you’re heavy/loud bass fan look into 300W-500W RMS or more.
  • Brand name class D amps have the best sound quality while still fitting into small installation spaces.
  • Class D amps are now very good in terms of sound quality. However, if your goal is the lowest noise level possible you should still consider an A/B amp if the size isn’t an issue.

Don’t forget the wire! Check out this great amp wiring kit buyer’s guide with some fantastic choices you can afford.

Be sure to let me know in the comments below or via my contact page if I can help.

Your comments are welcome!

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