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.
Below you’ll find some of the most affordable budget amps along with specs, short reviews, and more. In my amplifier buyer’s guide I’ll also help you understand amp facts and details to know before shopping.
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.
Amplifier high or low-pass crossovers in amps work the same as those using larger components on speakers, called “passive” crossovers. The difference is that tiny, low-power circuits are used in amps for the same results.
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
Class D mono car amplifiers use new fast-switching technology to deliver a lot more power with less space AND using less battery current. They work by chopping up the musical signal into square waves which switch transistors on and off rapidly, saving energy use. Finally the output is created by restoring the musical signal, filtering it, and driving speakers
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 $150, $100, and $50 ★
Since different people have different needs, here’s a variety of both multi-channel and single-channel (mono subwoofer) amps.
1. Alpine MRV-F300 – Great 4 channel power and sound quality for under $150. An excellent choice!
I’ve been enjoying Alpine’s great engineering & sound quality for years. To this day they’re still one of the best brands when it comes to mobile audio.
The compact and great-sounding MRV-F300 is a fantastic example of a car amp done right.
One of the smallest 4 channel amplifiers in its power class today, the MRV-F300 puts cheaper amps to shame. You’ll get a sharp-looking dark brushed metallic finish that’s more expensive looking that it really is.
A great blue power-on backlight indicator provides a cool looking contrast to the amp when switched on.
You’ll get a better-looking installation, too. For more custom installation possibilities, the included end caps can be used to hide wiring connections.
Personally, I think it’s a great touch and works well for flush-mounted amp installs or even just a basic carpeted amp rack.
For under $150 you’ll get some great features:
- 50W RMS x 4 @ 4 ohms power
- 75W RMS x 4 @ 2 ohms
- 150W RMS x 2 @ 2 ohms bridged
Speaker-level inputs are provided and connect neatly using the included wiring harness. Adjustable high or low-pass crossovers provide great system control for excellent sound system capability. A bass EQ feature provides an added bass boost for channels 3/4.
At only 7 7/8″ W x 6.5″ D x 2 3/16″ H (200 x 165 x 55 mm) in size it can fit into spaces traditional amps can’t!
Alpine has designed the amp using class D technology that provides super-efficient power that’s not just really compact but that runs cool even at full power!
Overall in my opinion the crossover options are good. Features include:
- 50-400Hz high/low pass adjustable cutoff frequency
- 12dB/octave multi-stage crossover design
- Front and rear crossovers are independent
- Bass EQ boost feature for Ch. 3/4.
In my testing I’m happy to say the sound quality is excellent with crisp highs and solid bass and midrange. Noise levels are very low and the sound is surprisingly good!
In my experience it’s a well-rounded, affordable, and quality amp that won’t disappoint.
Don’t miss this one! Head over to see current low price and great reviews at Amazon.
2. Rockville DB12 – A budget beast! Fantastic CERTIFIED power and features for under $100.
Ready for some surprising budget power? The Rockville DB12 is one of the best hidden budget steals you’ll find today.
For starters, unlike most of the other budget mono amps out there, Rockville provides industry-standard CEA-2006 power specs with proven numbers! It’s also lab-tested to actually slightly exceed its rated power.
Power ratings are:
- 350W RMS @ 4 ohms
- 550W RMS @ 2 ohms
That’s some serious power for an amp that you can find for under $100 if you shop carefully (see my link below). Not only that, but it’s well-made and the features are surprisingly good, too.
(CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE)
Unheard of in budget amps, the DB12 includes a certificate of verified power. You won’t find that elsewhere, and it’s a fantastic thing in my opinion. CEA RMS rated power means you’re guaranteed to get an amp that delivers as promised.
The DB12 has PLENTY of features despite its low price and amazing power output. The wiring terminals are far better than other amps in its price range and offer tight high amp contacts for larger wire. You’ll also get a bass EQ feature, 0/180 degree phase control, and adjustable low pass filter. There’s also a bass remote port and RCA pass-through jacks. Wow!
What really surprised me about the Rockville DB12 isn’t the amount of power you get for the price, even though that’s pretty fantastic. It’s the features that really put it head and shoulders above the rest.
You’ll get all of this, too:
- Includes bass remote and cable
- High-current wiring terminals
- Certification sheet with tested power and serial number
- RCA line out jacks for expansion
- 0/180° sub phase control switch
- Subsonic filter
- Bass EQ feature
- 0-250Hz adjustable low pass filter
- Soft on & mute start up circuits
- Overheating and short-circuit protection
- LED illuminated logo
- Bass remote features a power LED
You’re simply not going to top this list of features an anything else I’ve seen in price range. Without a doubt it’s one of the rare few to offer true CEA-2006 power ratings.
Included with the DB12 is everything you’ll need to get started aside from the wiring kit and a signal source: Allen wrenches for the speaker terminals, mounting screws for both the amp and remote, an owner’s manual, and the remote + easy-connect cable.
Is it perfect? Certainly not. I do have a few complaints.
Mainly, it can’t handle 1 ohm speakers so you can’t drive some subwoofer setups like other amps. Additionally, if connecting to a factory system you’ll need an RCA speaker level converter as speaker level inputs aren’t provided.
The Rockville DB12 is an amp I thought I’d never be awarding my Editor’s Choice best value award to. However, I can’t argue with the facts: it’s an excellent budget bass powerhouse that’s affordable and ticks all the right boxes!
Get one before they’re gone! Head over and check out the latest sale price and get free shipping at Amazon.
3. 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.
- 50W RMS x 4 @ 4 ohms
- 75W RMS x 4 @ 2 ohms
- 200W 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.
4. Best cheap mono subwoofer amp under $50: R1100M – A great starter bass amp!
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:
- Lab-tested power ratings for the R1100M are:
- 129W RMS x 1 @ 4 ohms
- 212W 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.
A hidden value worth checking out
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.
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.