Having fun on the water doesn’t necessarily mean you need to spend a ton of money. Boat stereos are inexpensive ways to drown the doldrums and quiet on any boating adventure and make your outing both entertaining and one to remember. Audio systems for boats are comparably priced to those used in cars, but are built to a higher standard, and deliver amazing audio quality. And there are tons of options for boats of all sizes.
Like regular car stereos, you’ll need to match different components carefully to get the sound you want. This means a power source, a music source, and some decent speakers. The separate parts of a marine stereo system are connected with marine-grade cabling. These are the basics, but accessories like antennas and remotes will provide crisp and clear sound while you can enjoy the sun and waves in comfort.
Receivers and Amplifiers
Entry-level boat stereos centre around a marine AV receiver. This has a built-in AM/FM receiver for local radio stations, a DAB+ tuner to handle digital audio, and Bluetooth r WiFi connectivity for streaming online content beamed from your phone. There’s also the choice of connecting music players via a USB port (and the same can be used for charging USB-compatible devices). Receivers additionally amplify the signals from these music sources with integrated amplifiers able to run at least four speakers at a time.
Slightly more upscale receivers can power up to 8 speakers, and deliver a clear audio experience and good levels of volume. They may also have separate source lines, meaning if you still use CDs, you can hook up a dedicated CD player.
Receivers are the ideal audio choice for smaller boats, with all the goodies already packed in a more compact design. And they’re not short of extras. Most have remotes, digital equalizers, and crisp LCD displays. All components come in the standard sizes, and some have included brackets and covers, meaning they’ll fit just about anywhere in the cockpit or cabin.
For bigger vessels, you’ll be looking at a separate power source in the form of a marine amplifier. This can be used to increase the volume of the receiver, but it also has connections for separate components such as VHF radio, network players, and any source you want. The major difference though is the better separation of frequencies, so you can hear the finer details in the music. There are bucketloads of thumping bass, clear and defined mid-tones, and vocals that are handled with ease. Amplifiers can run up to 8 separate speakers, so you’ll hear music at the same volume and clarity no matter where you are on the boat.
Marine speakers are another essential marine stereo component. They come in varying designs and sizes and have different power outputs. All factors impact how loud the speakers get and the quality of the sound they produce. Shapes and build will also affect where they can be placed.
In terms of output, marine speakers start out at a decent rating of 50W of continuous or RMS power and a peak of 100W at the loudest volume. This is more than enough for smaller vessels. Speakers with a 200W RMS rating are what you’d want on bigger boats. And for more low-down bass, a separate woofer powered by a good amp. A good speaker setup that can easily get you moving to any kind of music consists of at least 4 separate speakers and a subwoofer.
Designs are crucial for clarity. Cheaper speakers are in the dual cone design, with a mid-range and treble cone in the same casing and fed power from a single wire. These are good for decent sound at lower volumes. You can go better with coaxial or two-way speakers powered by two separate wires from the receiver or amp for better separation or three-way or component speakers for the best possible sound.
Lastly, an important factor is the speaker shape and how they are installed. Circular, flush-mount speakers sit flush with the boat surfaces but do need careful placement to get deep bass. A bonus is that they use less available space and are somewhat protected from water and salt spray. Alternatively, you can get square-shaped box-mount speakers that are often installed higher up.
How the speakers are placed affects the soundstage or how the music is projected. All speakers, including the subwoofer, should be at equal distances to get a rich and full sound in all parts of the boat.
What to Look For
Build and Materials
To last in harsh, open-water environments all the components making up a boat stereo need to be tough. When buying, consider how parts are labelled. Water-resistant speakers, amps, and receivers can manage water and salt spray every now and then, and will still work perfectly fine. For rougher seas, look for parts that are waterproof, since these will play your favourite songs even when completely underwater. Of course, you pay for durability and peace of mind.
Chemical, heat, corrosion, and UV resistance are other things of note. The different stereo components are exposed to high UV radiation and heat from the sun, as well as engine oil and debris so are often made of a mix of reinforced plastic covers and seals and metal in all the right places. The flexible and shielded marine cable connecting the different parts is made of copper wire and tinned coatings and PVC insulation and will last in hot conditions and exposure to water and salt.
Accessories and Extras
Radios can be paired with VHF radio and satellite navigation. To get clear transmission and communications, you’ll be looking at a marine-grade antenna with a decent range and attached to the boat with a sturdy base. Lastly, to change songs, stations, or volume levels, get a good remote. These can be wired (in the same marine cable) or wireless if you want the freedom to move around.