Adding a head unit to your boat is a great way to have an even better time out on the lake. However, finding and purchasing a marine head unit can be a much more complicated task than buying a stereo for your car. Marine stereos have to withstand incredible amounts of abuse compared to the stereo you put in your car simply because of where they are located. Marine head units have to be able to withstand the elements, from the beating rays of the sun to water and salt that can all cause extreme damage to your boat’s electronic devices. If you buy a head unit that isn’t up to par it won’t last the season, let alone the long winter in storage.
What to Look For
A marine head unit takes the same features of the head unit in your car and moves it to your boat. You’ll be able to add anything from AM/FM radio and CD player (although CDs will often times have skipping problems in rough water) to an MP3/USB digital media player with satellite radio.
Most marine head units come in single DIN designs, however there are receivers that are custom DIN designs. Custom DIN head units come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many newer boats will come with stock stereos which makes upgrading to an aftermarket receiver a simple task. However, if you want to add a head unit to an older boat that doesn’t have any sound system in it, you are probably going to need to cut open some paneling and run wiring for the components. There isn’t really one perfect spot to install a head unit in your boat because of the different boat designs and sizes, but as a general rule try to keep your head unit in an out of the way location where it will get some protection from sunlight and water.
There are many features and specifications you will want to look for when purchasing a head unit for your boat, but there are 3 that you really need to pay attention to: water resistance, UV resistance and anti-corrosion protection.
Marine grade audio equipment should absolutely be designed to withstand water. When you see a product labeled as ‘Water Resistant’, it will stand up to splashes and light rain, but won’t be able to survive submersion. A ‘Water Proof’ product is built to survive complete submersion. Even if you plan on installing your marine head unit in an area of your boat unlikely to ever see water a water proof designed unit will last longer. No matter where you install your unit the dampness of any marine environment will take its toll. When looking for water resistance ratings be sure to look for IPX ratings. IPX ratings range from IPX-0, which offers no protection whatsoever against water, to IPX-7, which provides protection from complete submersion up to 1 meter for at least 30 minutes. An IPX-8 rating also exists which provides protection from complete submersion better than IPX-7 in any way the manufacturer states.
Chances are your head unit is going to be installed in an area where it will be exposed to UV rays from the sun. This can be potentially problematic because extended exposure to the sun can lead to bleached out, cracked or overheated equipment. High quality marine audio equipment is designed to withstand damaging UV. However, there is no such thing as ‘UV-Proof’, so try and install your head unit in an area where it won’t see much direct sun light.
The third primary enemy which faces marine audio equipment is corrosion. Marine environments are not friendly places for electronics. Rust and corrosion are common in marine environments, especially if your boat is out on the ocean. Marine grade gear is designed to resist rust and corrosion with conformal coated circuit boards, plated connections and rust resistant chassis components. However, as with harmful UV rays, your head unit should be placed in an area with as little exposure as possible.
Bluetooth enabled head units are compatible with most Bluetooth devices and allow for wireless streaming and hands free talk. Most Bluetooth units include either an external wired or built-in microphone for distortion free phone calls. In many states it is illegal to talk on your phone without a Bluetooth device. They also come with a text to speech feature so that you can receive and respond to your texts without pulling over.
Marine receivers also come with integrated USB ports. These can be used for iPod integration and playing music from other audio sources such as thumb drives, MP3 players and other smartphones. Select marine head units open up to accept and store your MP3 player or smartphone. These receivers are best because they protect your device from the harmful marine elements. This also eliminates the need for having any type of input jack on the outside of the receiver which can be susceptible to rust and corrosion. Receivers with Pandora compatibility are able to stream music from your Pandora account.
Other receivers have integrated supertuners for boosted AM/FM reception. Supertuners combine the best of digital and analog tuner technology to greatly reduce distortion and improve stereo separation and sensitivity. Supertuners are ideal for low reception areas and also improve reception in downtown areas where tall buildings can add interference.
Select in-dash receivers come HD and Satellite radio-ready or with the HD/Satellite radio tuner built-in. Satellite radio receivers require a Sirius/XM subscription (and it will work up to 200 miles off shore depending on your location). Some of the advantages of HD and satellite radio are dramatically improved signal quality and that they each come with stations that aren’t found on AM/FM radio. HD radio provides a CD level sound quality to FM stations and makes AM stations FM quality.
Graphic and parametric Equalizer bands, or EQ bands, allow you to tweak your music settings. The more EQ bands your receiver has, the more you’ll be able to fine-tune the sound. Graphic EQ bands are the simplest type and consist of multiple sliders or controls for adjusting bands or sound frequencies. Parametric equalizers offer a greater degree of control over your sound. Parametric EQ can control three aspects of each frequency: the level, the center frequency and the range of each frequency.
To further clean up sound, head units can come with Digital Time Alignment, or DTA. This synchronizes the timing of sounds coming from each of your speakers to optimize the sound stage and provide the ultimate listening experience.
Higher end head units come with built-in sound processors to provide even better sound quality. Sound processors better filter audio signals to your speakers for the cleanest sound possible. The top of the line head units will come with Digital 5.1 Surround Sound capabilities to transform your boat into a truly immersive sound stage.
Preamp RCA Outputs
These outputs are necessary to connect external amplifiers for your speakers and subwoofers to your marine receiver. A receiver typically comes with one, two or three sets of RCA outputs. One pair of outputs will generally provide a full range signal which can be used with most subwoofers and amplifiers. Two RCA outputs can be configured for connecting a 2-channel amp or one pair of stereo speakers. Three sets of RCA outputs are typically used for two sets ofstereo speakers and a subwoofer amp.
It is important to know what the preamp voltage of your head unit is. Higher voltages result in stronger signals which clean up distortion and unwanted sound.
For boats with steering wheel mounted controls there are receivers with steering wheel integration to give you total control of your stereo without ever having to take your hands off the wheel. Most receivers do not come with steering wheel integration built-in and require an additional adapter.