How to troubleshoot car audio problems

Written by david lipscomb Google
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How to troubleshoot car audio problems
Understanding Troubleshooting Procedures is as Important as Having the Right Tools (digital multimeter image by dinostock from

Undesirable noise, a lack of sound, and amplifiers stuck in protection mode are all things that hinder enjoyment of car audio systems. Although time consuming and sometimes frustrating, learning some basic troubleshooting techniques is a useful addition to the tool box, right next to the crimpers and t-taps. Plan on investing considerable time to not only discover the problem, but taking the time to ensure it doesn't happen again. Checking and securing all system connections will reveal noise sources, and ensure installation safety.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Screwdrivers (Allen, flat head, Philips, Torx)
  • Dremel with grinding/sanding bit
  • Socket wrench and inserts
  • Electrical tape
  • Radio keys (if needed)
  • Vehicle electrical schematic
  • Drill
  • Crimp tool
  • Wire cutters
  • 16 gauge wire
  • 16 gauge ring terminals
  • 16 gauge T-tap connectors

Show MoreHide


  1. 1

    Turn on vehicle's engine.

  2. 2

    Turn on CD as source from radio (head unit).

  3. 3

    After pausing CD, turn volume 3/4 full.

  4. 4

    Pressing accelerator lightly, listen for increases in whine and/or "ticking", etc.

  5. 5

    Access amplifier. Check gains. Ensure that they are set to minimum.

  6. 6

    Repeat Step 4, listening for noise.

  7. 7

    Heading back to amplifier, slowly increase gain in incremental steps, pausing to repeating Step 4 after each small change. Remember that gains set too high will amplify music and noise in equal measure.

  8. 8

    If resetting gain structure does not solve the problem, locate grounding point of system (amplifier). Ensure area is tightly secured and corrosion/rust free.

  9. 9

    If grounding location has contamination, tun off vehicle and access vehicle battery.

  10. 10

    Using socket set and appropriate insert, remove negative lead from vehicle's battery. Use electrical tape to secure this lead.

  11. 11

    Using appropriate tool, remove existing ground connection. Insulate this lead using electrical tape.

  12. 12

    Using Dremel tool (or other scraping device), remove any rust or corrosion present. Installers should only see shiny, bare metal.

  13. 13

    Using appropriate tool, resecure ground. This is a good time to ensure all system components are grounded to the same location. Failure to do this may result in a ground loop, causing noise.

  14. 14

    After grounding location is cleaned and all connections are secured, remove electrical tape from negative battery lead and, using socket wrench, reattach to battery. Turn vehicle engine back on.

  15. 15

    If noise is still present, access rear of head unit (radio) using appropriate radio keys/socket wrench/screwdrivers.

  16. 16

    Remove RCA signal leads from radio (head unit). Insulate ends using electrical tape. Repeat Step 4, listening for noise.

  17. 17

    If noise is still present, noise is generated from amplifier. Ensure all RCA/power ground leads are secure. If noise persists, consider removal of the unit for service.

  18. 18

    If noise disappears after disconnecting RCA leads from radio, head unit (radio) may be the cause. Proceed to Step 19.

  19. 19

    Locate small screw on radio's chassis. Remove using small screwdriver (probably Philips).

  20. 20

    Using crimp tool, attach 16 gauge ring terminal to radio's black ground wire.

  21. 21

    Using small screwdriver, attach this ground wire to the screw removed in Step 19. End result is radio's ground is secured to radio's chassis.

  22. 22

    If all steps are now complete and noise persists, issue may reside in radio (head unit). Consider removal for service.

  1. 1

    Access vehicle's battery. Using appropriate socket insert, remove negative battery lead. Insulate using electrical tape.

  2. 2

    Use appropriate radio keys/socket/screwdrivers to access rear of radio (head unit).

  3. 3

    Locate white cylindrical fuse holder for radio (head unit). Unscrew and check fuse. If metal piece in fuse is broken, remove and replace with same value. Keep radio out of dash for future steps.

  4. 4

    If sound hasn't returned, locate system fuse (should be located within 18" of vehicle's battery). Remove and check. If brown "smoky" material is visible, it is probably blown. Remove and replace.

  5. 5

    Using appropriate socket insert, reattach negative lead to vehicle's battery.

  6. 6

    With radio still removed from Step 3 (Section 2), locate blue remote turn-on wire. If external amplifier is present, this should be coming from head unit's harness.

  7. 7

    If radio turns on, but external amplifier (if present) does not, turn off radio.

  8. 8

    Using wire cutters, snip remote lead from head unit's remote turn-on lead.

  9. 9

    Using vehicle's electrical schematic, locate "ACC" wire. This is the wire that energises small electrical accessories when the vehicle is turned on.

  10. 10

    Using wire crimp tool, connect remote turn-on wire and "ACC" wire, located from Step 9 (Section 2) with 16 gauge plastic T-tap connector.

  11. 11

    Re-start vehicles engine and check for sound. Consider professional assistance if nothing is heard.

Tips and warnings

  • -Do not worry about keeping quality RCA leads and power/ground wires away from one another. The entire vehicle chassis will radiate noise as much as either wire. Separating them is useless and a time-waster.
  • -Make sure RCA connection shells are secure and unbroken. A broken positive tip on an RCA will make a scratching noise similar to a blown speaker.
  • -If fuses continually blow, do not replace with higher value. Fuses protect equipment and power leads. Check for cut/pinched/damaged power and ground leads first.
  • -Always disconnect negative battery lead prior to making any power/ground connections.

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