Let me be completely honest upfront – if you’re on a budget and want to buy a car amp, you’re going to have to live with some compromises. Buying the best budget car amplifier isn’t always easy, but if you learn a bit beforehand you’ll be better prepared.
The great news is that although you might not get the same high-end features, specs, and more that only come with more expensive models, you can still get an amp that will do the job without breaking the bank.
Let’s focus on what you need most – buying the right kind of amp for your budget. Read on and in my amplifier buyer’s guide I’ll do my best to help you understand the basics of budget car amps.
What to know when shopping for car amps
For years some car amp manufacturers have sold their products with outrageously large power ratings on the box. Sometimes these have been simply unbelievable for a budget car amp. For example, hardly anyone would believe that an amp that measures about 12″ x 12″ in size could produce around 1000 watts of power, right?
But for the new buyer who isn’t aware of it, it’s a misleading and confusing thing to try to figure out. That’s what I’d like to help you with.
What do car amp power ratings mean?
Realistic power ratings use the “RMS” label, which is an electrical engineering term to represent “root mean square”, a mathematical way of expressing the actual, useable power that an amplifier can produce continuously. The confusion comes from amp manufacturers using the “peak” power rating, which is not at all representative of the actual amount of power an amp can drive your speakers with.
Think of it like the example of a modest-sized car with a speedometer that goes up to 200 MPH. Can most average cars really drive that fast? No way!
In the 2000s the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) developed a standard to help consumers with this. Audio amplifier manufacturers whose specs are listed as “CEA-2006 compliant” have power ratings and performance specs that are reliable.
This logo means that the company making an audio product has reliable performance & power specs. But it’s not a mandatory compliance feature – many companies still have specs on their products which you’ll have to simply hope are correct. Be aware that often you’ll find products that might not live up to advertised power ratings.
Not all companies provide this so it’s important that you’re careful when shopping.
If a manufacturer doesn’t list their specs with some type of standard like this or highly detailed information instead, you’ll basically just have to trust (or hope!) that the RMS power and other specifications are correct.
It’s important to understand this because budget amplifiers often are not CEA-2006 compliant and still, to this day, use the “peak” power ratings on their packaging and sales info. It’s a shame, as it’s very misleading.
Car amp features to look for
I recommend at least a power rating of 50W RMS into 4 ohms per channel for driving full range or component speakers and 150W into 4 ohms minimum for driving a subwoofer. This is generally enough power for the average person to listen to music with enough power for good volume, clear and non-distorted sound, and to be able to blast your favorite music.
Don’t buy an amp with close to 25W RMS or less unless you have a specific reason to do so. Car stereos, for example, have a typical power output of about 14W RMS per speaker channel.
That’s because they can’t produce higher levels of power as they’re limited to using the 12V supply in a vehicle unlike high-power amplifiers.
Mini amps like this one are advertised with power ratings like “200W” which is impossible for it to produce – you have to read the fine print for the RMS power ratings, and even then be cautious. I don’t recommend tiny amps like this except for the smallest basic installation, like for driving small speakers. They can’t produce good sound & power like “real” car amps. They typically lack the features like crossovers and bridging as well.
Higher power amplifiers use a special power supply to step up the car voltage and produce higher power output. The problem with small amps is that you will be mislead into thinking they can produce higher power than they can. In fact it’s impossible for such a small amp – you’re still limited to power levels around the same as a car stereo.
If you’re not wanting great sound and are simply trying to power some small 2-way (or similar) speakers, that’s ok. However, these tend to be tiny, low-quality amps I wouldn’t recommend. Also, most mini amps can’t be bridged.
Crossovers are great to have! Also, the great news is that they’re much more commonly found in car amps today than in decades past. They are more or less standard on most sold now.
High or low-pass crossovers work to block a range of sound you don’t want to send to speaker channel or channels. For example, you could use the high pass feature to block low-end bass that small speakers can’t handle well. That prevents distortion and sound “bottoming out” at higher power & listening levels.
A great example is setting the high-pass crossover switch on an amp to “HPF” and the control to about 60Hz. That way everything above 60 Hz (a low bass frequency) would be played but not below.
Crossovers and other related controls like those on this excellent Alpine MRV-F300 4 channel amp are extremely useful. They’re pretty much mandatory for getting lower-distortion, high-volume sound with great clarity. You simply turn the switch to LPF (low pass filter) or HPF (high pass filter) as needed and adjust the cutoff frequency by adjusting the dial.
The result when using a crossover for small speakers is more volume and clarity at higher power with less distortion. For subwoofers, a low-pass filter means pure bass without hearing the vocals and other parts of sound a subwoofer doesn’t do well, and will sound terrible when allowed to play.
Bridgeable amps are those that are designed to allow using 2 speakers channels together in a push-pull way to get substantially larger power out of the amplifier. There’s no magic behind it: it’s basically just using more amplifier output channels together in order to drive speakers with more power.
When a speaker is connected across 2 speaker channel outputs the amp can produce up to 4 times the power of a single channel! (This depends on the particular amplifier)
It’s a great way to have an amp that’s flexible for using with multiple speakers or to get more power to drive a subwoofer. I’ve covered this in more detail in my post about bridging amps here.
Class A/B vs class D amps
Amplifiers fall into “classes” (design categories) based on the type of technology they used to boost power and create an amplified audio signal to drive your speakers. Class D is the newest and most efficient technology while class A/B is one of the oldest.
A/B generally has been used in most budget amps (which is fine – it produces good sound quality, but uses more electrical power).
Be realistic about budget amps
When choosing a budget amp, consider all the things I wrote above as well as understanding that the least expensive amps are a compromise. Expect good quality and performance but not the same level as you get for more expensive models. They simply aren’t designed the same way as the big name brands which cost more.
It’s always important to keep things in perspective.
That doesn’t mean you should have much to worry about, but less expensive brands tend to have higher failure rates than more expensive brands. Bear this in mind when buying.
On the other hand, when you’ve got a budget, you’ve got a budget to keep! I’ve been there and know how it feels – and that’s totally ok.
★ The best budget car amplifiers under $100, $75, and $50 ★
Since different people have different kinds of systems they want to install, I’ll provide a few different types of amps that are great choices for you. For example:
- Multi-channel amps for 2 or 4-speaker systems (or a combination of speakers + subwoofers)
- Mono-block (single-channel bass amps) for powering subwoofers
Of those above, think about which ones will be most useful in the long run if you need to change things around later. Try to plan ahead. (Of course, you can always add another great budget amp later and expand your system for even more power!)
1. Best budget 4 channel amp under $100: Planet Audio AC1600.4
With 150W x 4 @ 4 ohms of power available you can bridge the AC1600.4 to an advertised 600W RMS x 2. This class A/B amp is a good sounding budget amp with enough power to run your favorite custom system. However, it’s also great for just supplementing a factory stereo too.
- 150W RMS x 4 @ 4 ohms
- 300W RMS x 4 @ 2 ohms
- 600W RMS x 2 @ 4 ohms bridged
It’s an inexpensive but nice amp and has some features that many of the higher-end competitors don’t have. A great example is the included bass remote control, which is a separate purchase on many more expensive models.
The AC1200.4 includes a really cool subwoofer level control which can be mounted on your dash. It’s easy to connect using the included cable with telephone style connectors. It makes it really easy to crank the bass when using subwoofers!
It’s a very popular amp and a best seller with mostly great reviews too. A few complaints here and there, but not very many.
There’s a long list of features that make for great system flexibility:
- 2 ohm stable
- High/low-pass crossovers (high pass: 50-500Hz adjustable, low pass: 45-90Hz)
- Adjustable bass boost of 0-+18dB boost
- Optional remote (included)
- Speaker-level inputs
- Thermal and short circuit protection
It’s a great looking amp! I especially really like the nice blue glow on the planet emblem and the backlight on the logo on the chassis.
It’s definitely one of the best buys out there. You’ll have to shop around to avoid paying too much, but when checking I found one the best prices (and free shipping!) at Amazon.
2. Best budget 4 channel amp under $75: Planet Audio AC1200.4
The AC1200.4 is nearly identical to its bigger brother the AC1600.4 except for size, power ratings, and cost. It’s a 113W RMS x 4 @ 4 ohm amp. It’s not very large at 10 x 11 x 2-5/16″ in size so it it’s a great choice for limited installation space.
- 113W RMS x 4 @ 4 ohms
- 225W RMS x 4 @ 2 ohms
- 450W RMS x 2 @ 4 ohms bridged
It has the same great looks and simple controls as the AC1600.4, but you give up a few things:
- No remote bass control ability
- Bass boost is only for channels 3/4 on this model
- High-pass crossover is fixed at 80Hz (low pass is adjustable for 80Hz and below)
Still, those are very minor issues compared to what you get for the money. And besides, it’s a great sound amp for what you pay and especially how you’ll be able to run a whole speaker system or speakers + subwoofer if you like!
The price is great but it seems to be overpriced at some sellers, so head over here for the current best price on the internet.
3. Best budget 4 channel amp under $70: Planet Audio AC800.4
The AC800.4 can power your system with up to 100W RMS x 4 into 4 ohm speakers and is basically identical to the AC1200.4. If you’re on a very tight budget it’s a good choice. It’s small also, at only 10.66 x 10 x 2.41″.
- 100W RMS x 4 @ 4 ohms
- 200W RMS x 4 @ 2 ohms
- 400W RMS x 2 @ 4 ohms bridged
Like the AC1200.4, it’s bridgeable, and is rated at 200W RMS per channel bridged to 2 channels @ 4 ohms.
Note that it doesn’t include a subwoofer bass remote knob as the more powerful models like it do. That’s one unfortunate drawback. However, for this price, it’s a compromise that’s not hard to live with.
For some reason it’s easily about $20 higher at some retailers online. Head over and check out the many happy reviews and the best price at Amazon.
4. Best budget subwoofer amp under $100: Boss Riot R3400D
The Boss Riot series R3400D is a true high-power budget class D single-channel amp that fits in places other amps can’t. It’s cheap enough for nearly everyone’s budget, but powerful enough to put down some serious bass.
It’s a great buy, but only if you shop smart – I’ve found it for below $100. It’s also stable to 1 ohm and is rated at 1050W RMS x 1 into 4 ohms.
- 1050W RMS x 1 @ 4 ohms
But don’t realistically expect 1700W – after all these aren’t CEA-2006 compliant amps. However you can expect great power up to the 638W RMS rating. It’s a great inexpensive amp for one or more subwoofers you want to drive hard without having to crank the gain all the way up.
It’s overall a well-built budget amp and has quite a few happy buyers as well. Don’t just take my word for it: check out the buyer reviews.
Thermal, overload, and speaker short protection is built-in to help protect it from permanent damage should things go wrong.
Not only is the watts/dollar ratio great, but it includes an external bass remote you can install at your dashboard to control the bass level while driving & enjoying your tunes. It also features a bass boost and low-pass crossover.
I was surprised that it also features a subsonic filter and 0/180 degree phase control, too. Not bad for the money!
You can even link together 2 amps using the DataLink feature for getting a ton of power out of both together! Very cool in my opinion. That’s a feature that a few high-end amps used to offer years ago but I don’t see very often.
It’s a great buy, and measuring a mere 13-1/2 x 10-7/16 x 2-1/4″ in size it’s so small it can fit under many car and truck seats.
You’ll be very hard pressed to get this much power, in such a small package, for so little money. Take my advice and head over to see the reviews many buyers have left and check how cheap it is at Amazon.
5. Best budget subwoofer amp under $85: Boss Riot R2400D
The R2400D is a smaller version of its bigger brother the R3400D. If you don’t need the same huge power of its bigger brother, the amp is rated at 650W RMS x 1 into 4 ohms and measures a smaller 11.5 x 10.4 x 2.25″ in size.
- 450 watts x 1 @ 4 ohms
- 900 watts x 1 @ 2 ohms
- 1800 watts x 1 @ 1 ohm
The R2400D may be one of the cheapest mono bass amps on the market, but it still features the convenient remote subwoofer level control, making it a bargain among its competitors. Included also are extra fuses and mounting screws to help make your installation go more smoothly.
It has the same great features as the more expensive R300D model including a bass remote.
Inexpensive? Yes. Low on power? NO! The R2400D gives you a great compromise between price and power. For the average person wanting to at some “bump”, you can’t go wrong. You not only have the bass remote option, but a subsonic filter for blocking power-sound ultra-low frequency sounds as well as full amp protection and an adjustable low-pass crossover.
All in all, in my opinion it’s a good middle between the cheapest bass amps out there and the next price bracket. Definitely worth checking out.
I’ve found it for close to $90 at many retailers online, but if you’re lucky you might find it for less at Amazon.
5. Best cheap subwoofer amp under $60: R1100M
The R1100M is in the Boss Riot monoblock amp family but is a class A/B amp and a reasonable entry-level model. For the money it’s pretty tough to beat the great power ratings:
- 413W RMS x 1 @ 4 ohms
- 825W RMS x 1 @ 2 ohms
If you’re tight on cash but need some serious power, give it a shot. An excellent option for driving a single subwoofer or pair of subwoofers down to 2 ohms.
Unlike the R3400D/R2400D, it also features speaker-level inputs and can work out of the box with factory systems!
The included bass remote is the same as the bigger models in the Riot series of amps. Included is a telephone style cable which makes installation of the remote a snap – both ends just snap right into place. It’s a super-convenient feature that makes enjoy your subs even better.
It’s a great value as it also features a bass boost switch, low OR full-range crossover control, and the optional subwoofer remote is included.
While not having the same power density, at 13 x 12.6 x 3.9 inches it comes close the same size as its bigger brothers the R3400D and R2400D. It’s a very popular seller and while not as powerful as the other models, it’s a good compromise between value, power, and cost.
Honorable mention – another great budget 4 channel amplifier
Shopping for a great but affordable 4 channel amp? I also recommend the Autotek TA1050.4 125W RMS x 4 amplifier.
It’s not a popular seller like the others, but it’s a good value and reliable, too. This is a well-designed amp and is a hidden gem as it unfortunately doesn’t get noticed like the others.
It has essentially the same features as the Planet Audio amps with the great Autotek reputation for quality. Head over here to find out more about this great-sounding bargain worth checking out.
Tips on buying the best budget amplifier for your vehicle
When shopping, remember to not get distracted by the “max” power ratings used to advertise car amplifiers and give the impression they can produce amazing amounts of power for a miniscule price – because they can’t.
You’re getting good performance and value, but as I mentioned earlier it’s important to be realistic in your expectations. You won’t get high-end performance for a low price, but you’ll get a good value.
Don’t forget to get an amp wiring kit! Before you waste hours searching, have a look at this one as it's a great value for the money.
Additionally, check out my great buyer’s guide about good amp wiring kits and 5 best buys.