Upgrading Your Boat's Stereo System

By Mark Corke

Sometimes all you need is the sound of the water under the bow. Other times, it pays to take along your own tunes. If you're thinking of upgrading your boat stereo, here's the lowdown.

Simrad SonicHub 2 Group

No matter what size of boat you have, chances are you'll want to install some sort of stereo system. Many but not all boats come from the dealer with a basic system already installed, and if you're buying used, there's a good chance that the previous owner fitted a stereo. Either way, if your boat is more than 10 years old, it may be time for an upgrade.

Marine Grade

Many of the so-called "marine" stereo systems are little more than car audios that have a different name on the front and won't stand up to the moist air found on the water. Spend a little more to make sure that the system you choose can stand up to the damp atmosphere.

A basic system normally consists of the receiver — what we old guys used to call the radio — to which is connected a pair of speakers. You'll need to plan out where to mount the receiver, a challenge on smaller boats because space is often at a premium.

Also, carefully consider your budget. A basic system consisting of the receiver and a pair of speakers can be had for as little as $100. But as systems get more complicated, costs rise in proportion. Generally speaking, the more expensive units produce better sound quality. Even the cheapest stereo systems are likely to have enough power output so you can hear your music easily. But if you want to add a couple of large, rear-facing can speakers onto a ski tower, you'll need something with a lot more oomph. In these situations, you may need to add in a power amplifier — a large "black box" that needs to be mounted in a dry spot aboard. Luckily, you don't have to touch these once installed, so they can often be tucked up into the back of the console or a mounted in a dry locker or cabin. These systems do tend to require more electrical service. So if your boat has only one battery, you may find that you need an extra battery so you won't be left high and dry should you use the stereo all day without running the motor.

Simrad SonicHub Stereo ReceiverSimrad launched its SonicHub in 2010, and it's become a firm favorite with boaters who like to have full control of their tunes from their multifunction display. With an optional Sirius XM subscription, it can also receive weather-map broadcasts. $299 | simrad.com

The options seem endless. Many boaters bring their music on flash drives, which can be inserted into USB ports on sound systems, or on MP3 and similar devices, which plug into the system. Standalone Bluetooth devices with speakers allow you to sync a cellphone to stream the music. The sound may not be as good, you must be in range of the tower, and they may not be marine grade, but for some boaters, they work just fine.

Installation Options

In many cases, installing a stereo system isn't too difficult and should be within the ability of a competent DIYer. If your boat came with a stereo system and you're just looking to upgrade, it might be simply a matter of removing the old unit and replacing it with a new one. You may be able to reuse the power, speaker, and antenna connections. Be sure the receiver is properly fused to protect the wiring. If you're making a major upgrade or installing a system for the first time, things will be a little more complicated and likely take considerably longer, so you may wish to engage the services of a pro installer.

Can You Hear Me Now?

On any boat where the speakers are exposed to the elements, use only waterproof speakers, which have cones made from plastic so they can survive getting regularly wet with no ill effects. Speakers meant for interior spaces have cones made from treated fiber, and although these are great indoors, they won't last long outside.

It's also essential to ensure that the speakers are suitable for any stereo system you have or will install. The output of speakers is measured in watts RMS, and this is marked on the back of the speaker magnet. The higher the number, the greater the load it can handle. Buy speakers that are too small and they'll produce poor sound quality and may actually split the cones if you crank the volume too much. More expensive speakers may be dual cone, which basically means that they're able to better handle sounds at all audible frequencies and offer superior results to single-cone types. Expect to pay more for these.

Integrated Systems

Many of the modern multifunction displays that connect into an NMEA 2000 network (a combined data and electrical network that enables communication between marine electronic equipment and GPS devices) have the option of adding an audio hub, essentially a self-contained audio player and router that can be controlled directly from the multifunction display. Although not cheap, this can be a great option, as it means that you don't have to cut another hole in the dash. These types of systems provide a seamless look, and you can even play videos on the screen when you're not using it for navigation. 

— Published: Fall 2016


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