When it's time to upgrade a boat's stereo, there's a model out there for every budget and taste.
Almost nothing improves the ambiance and fun factor on a boat more than a killer stereo system. Boating and music go so well together because they stimulate the part of our brain that provides pleasure. Doing both at the same time takes on-water relaxation to a higher level and gives the human brain a super vacation, recharging one’s batteries more completely and making the pain of going to work Monday more bearable.
People on boats tend to move around more, so they need more extensive audio coverage, which means choosing the right equipment is critical. Boat stereos have a more difficult task than car stereos or home stereos, because they operate in an open environment and are often battling ambient noise from the wind or loud engines. Fortunately, advances in modern stereo technology make it possible for everyone to enjoy quality sound.
Basic to Ballistic
A basic boat stereo consists of a head unit and either two or four speakers. Most receivers have built-in amplifiers, so putting together a sound system like this entails finding a mounting location for the amp and adding power to it, and then finding a location for the speakers and wiring them to the amp. Even budget boats usually have some sort of stereo, so owners often simply need to upgrade components or add another pair of speakers. Some of these basic systems can sound really good, but without a subwoofer they typically lack depth.
The ultimate setup for boats almost always includes a separate amp; if the system has tower speakers and a subwoofer, it needs at least two amps. Better head units have volume controls for different zones, to keep everyone on the boat happy. Any system needs enough speakers to provide coverage for every area on the boat, and a mix of tower speakers, subwoofers and coaxial speakers will get the job done.
Obviously, speakers are a critical component, but too often the most basic aspect is overlooked: placement. I see a lot of boats — especially pontoons — whose speakers point straight out at ankle level, which is great … for people lying on the deck. Almost every marine speaker is a coaxial 2- or 3-way model that has a built-in tweeter and a midrange cone, and they are largely unidirectional. So if it isn’t pointed at the listener’s ear, she’s not getting the best sound. Higher frequencies, such as on tweeters, are the most directional. Subwoofers, due to their low frequencies, are more omnidirectional, so their placement is more forgiving.
Many head units are all-in-one units that feature a radio, Bluetooth compatibility for wirelessly docking with a smartphone, and an amplifier. No slot for CDs, which have gone the way of the buggy whip. Smaller boats can usually get by with modest power, but when it comes to comparing units, look for their RMS wattage, which is what the amp is capable of producing for a sustained period of time. Peak power is always the higher number and refers to an amp’s ability to reach such a level for brief periods of time. When it comes to power, the more the merrier, as it will typically provide the cleanest sound, even at high volume.
An amp’s RMS power should exceed the speakers’ wattage capability by at least 25 percent. Any less and it’s liable to have to work too hard, which can cause distortion and is harder on the speaker. If an amp is a lot larger than the system’s speakers are rated for, that’s not a problem, but the amp should have a limiter so it doesn’t accidentally fry the speakers.
Few environments are crueler to electronic components than on the water. Being on the ocean is the worst, because a boat pounding through salt water creates a fine mist that can invade any cranny, not to mention nooks. Marine stereo equipment’s water-worthiness is classed by an IPX rating. Most marine stereo equipment ranges between IPX-4, which means it can withstand a splash of water for five minutes, to IPX-7, which means it can be submerged up to a meter for 30 minutes. Even though a component, such as an amplifier, rates high, most people place them where they aren’t exposed to water, to further their longevity. Having marine speakers is critical, because they will definitely get rained on or sprayed by a hose, and because they are often exposed to the sun, UV protection for the frame and cone is really important.
A relative newcomer to the boating stereo industry, New Zealand-based Fusion is rapidly gaining traction due, in part, to the fact it only makes stereos for marine use and they are designed from the get-go for the harshest duty.
This year Fusion, in a first during my 22 years in the industry, invited the marine press for a multiday event to unveil its new Apollo stereo systems. And after listening to several systems on different boats, I understood why. The wow factor with these new stereo units is they are the first to be able to receive a Wi-Fi signal, which has a faster data transfer rate than industry-standard Bluetooth. In addition to streaming from a Wi-Fi source, it can link multiple amps without wires via Wi-Fi on larger boats or trailerable ones with elaborate setups.
Fusion introduced two Apollo head units, the RA770 and SRX400, which are top-of-the-line units but surprisingly affordable. The RA770 ($649) has the ability to power up to four zones and has a 3.4-inch touchscreen display, so it’s geared more for yachts. The SRX400 ($349) is ideal for smaller boats. Both receivers use Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to create better instrument separation. At the press event, we mostly listened to ultimate setups with huge amounts of power, but perhaps the most impressive setup was on a Sea Ray 210 with a single SRX400 and a single pair of 6.5-inch Signature Series speakers (also available in 7.7-inch and 8.8-inch models that all have large-diameter voice coils and start at $350 a pair). The sound quality in all frequencies was startlingly good.
Also new this year is Fusion Link. It’s an app users download that allows them to take total control of the stereo with a smartphone or an MFD — and not just volume or play selection but also more intricate tasks such as setting separate EQ levels for each zone.
Growing up, most audiophiles fantasized about owning a high-end home stereo from exotic Scandinavian company Klipsch. (Actually, it’s an American company based in Indianapolis, but why ruin the fantasy?) This year, Klipsch branched out in the marine stereo market and is providing stereo systems for MasterCraft Boats and Yellowfin. Recognizing the difficulties in making a boat stereo sound good at rest and underway, Klipsch partnered with Bongiovi Acoustics to integrate the latter’s Digital Power Station technology (DPS) with Klipsch’s quality components. Doing so created a tunable system that allows drivers to choose a mode — Drive, Tow and Chill — so they get the best sound at all times.
Last year I tested a MasterCraft XT23 with a maxed-out Klipsch system. It included the Advanced Audio System, a $10,460 bundle with twin helm screens, a GoPro camera setup, an eight-channel amp, four 8.5-inch coaxial speakers, two 7-inch speakers, two 10-inch subs and a pair of unique twin-speaker tower coffee cans. This system had it all: clarity, depth and thump.
Many of the highest-end stereos I saw this year featured Wet Sounds components. The manufacturer has some really extreme gear, including the legendary REV 10 series tower speakers ($1,560 a pair). For the ultimate boat subwoofer, Wet Sounds unveiled a 15-inch REVO 15 XXX V4-B. It lists for $900 and is rated for a mind-blowing 2,000 watts RMS.
Of course, not everyone has the budget or space for such high-end items. Earlier this year, I tested a boat with a Wet Sounds Stealth 6 Ultra Sound Bar ($590), which is a really compact all-in-one stereo unit that mounts on a T-top. Don’t have a T-top? No worries, because Wet Sounds just came out with the Stealth SHIVR55 High Output Audio Cooler Speaker System ($800). This high-end cooler can keep drinks cold for days and deliver incredible sound from the built-in 200-watt Bluetooth stereo.
This year, Kicker introduced four new KM series amps that provide lots of power without busting the budget. To kick the bass into the next county, check out the 600.1 amp, which can deliver 600 watts to the subwoofer, for $300. Pair it with a KMA300.4 amp ($250), which can deliver 75 watts of power to four channels and has a KickerEQ Variable 12dB bass boost, for some extra low-end thump. Thanks to a 12dB crossover, users can tune their system to dial in big sound for any boat.
Kicker also unveiled new 6.5- and 8.8-inch LED-lighted KM Series speakers, which start at $200 a pair and are built to take abuse. A UV-treated polypropylene woofer is suspended with Santoprene, which has the properties of rubber but is far more durable. They meet or exceed rigorous ASTM standards for UV and salt/fog abuse.
My neighbor’s stereo upgrade project (page 22) featured some new gear from Clarion, including the CM1624TS 6.5-inch tower speakers ($449 for the pair). We installed four of them and really loved the full, rich sound. Usually tower speakers are fixed but these swivel 360 degrees and can be aimed so all guests get the best sound possible. Like the tower speakers, the CM1623RL 6.5-inch speakers ($200 a pair) we installed in the cabin and cockpit feature lighting, as does the 10-inch CM23013WL subwoofer ($300).
The receiver we installed was Clarion’s top-of-the-line model that costs $500 and features a 3.5-inch color TFT screen. It has four zones and a high- and low-pass filter to help tune the sounds to each boat’s specific environment. Clarion also features a less expensive CMS20 receiver ($300) that has a black box and a Commander controller with a dot matrix LED screen. It comes with the ability to control the sound on six channels and is rated IPX6 for excellent resistance against the elements.