Audio Systems for Motorcycles and Powersports

Considerations for choosing the right sound.

We’ve all grown accustomed to listening to music or some form of audio while we’re behind the wheel. So, it stands to reason that many riders may want to find a way to listen to music while they’re riding their motorcycle or powersports machine. This applies to nearly all forms of powersports: personal watercraft, ATVs, side-by-sides and motorcycles. All of these machines can potentially have some form of audio system installed from the factory or customized in the aftermarket.

Modern motorcycles and powersports offer more connectivity than ever before. Brand new vehicles house built-in multimedia displays, multiple speakers, phone connectivity, turn-by-turn navigation and more. But it’s an art to be able to hide the speakers seamlessly into the vehicle while also producing enough sound to hear over the wind. Sometimes, that calls for an aftermarket setup.

The market is rich with options ranging from stock to mild to downright wild. If you look hard enough, there’s something out there for every type of rider. But who are these riders? What are they looking for? And more importantly, what do you need to know in order to earn their business and, hopefully, their friends’ business as well?

Hostile Work Environment

No matter what type of machine these systems are installed onto, they’re faced with some rather harsh conditions. Exactly how robust do audio components need to be? According to Joe Gross, sales and product line director at KICKER, they need to be able to handle extreme hot and cold temperatures, sunlight exposure, rain, snow as well as the everyday bumps, shocks and vibrations that are typically seen on a motorcycle or powersports machine.

“Our design intent for our parts is IP66 or IP67 or both,” Gross notes, referring to their water protection level. “They must not only withstand the outdoors, but they need to perform to very high standards in order to meet customer expectations. We do extensive testing on amps and speakers to make sure they are ready for the harsh environments that they are put into and last for years of enjoyment. Customer experience is critical and is our number one when it comes to design criteria.”

It’s safe to say that these audio components are going to live a harder life than the speakers inside your car or truck. Constant exposure to the elements can take its toll on the speakers, amplifiers and other system components. However, they must also withstand more jostling than your average car audio system, especially since many of these vehicles are designed for off-road use.

speaker, amp, audio system
Powersports audio parts, such as speakers (left) and amps (right) need heavy-duty protection housing to make them durable for all kinds of weather and off-road use.
Photo courtesy of ASA Electronics

Lynn Ford, marketing coordinator at ASA Electronics, explains, “Durability is critical with any powersport vehicle. Quality products should undergo UV, vibration, G-force and electrical testing. Electrical testing is to prepare the product in case of a vehicle electrical shortage. G-force testing is essential on vehicles which may see high forces during a ride, such as hitting bumps or landing hard after a long airborne jump. All of these resistant qualities are critical to a powersport sound system, in addition to water and temperature resistance.”

If you’re asking, “Which system is right for my customer?”, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. When trying to quote the cost of a system to a customer, you’ll need to find a balance between two key factors: their cost versus their durability.

Profiling the Audio System Customer

This begs the question: What do we know about customers who are interested in adding aftermarket audio systems to their machines?

“Customers usually fall into one of two groups,” Ford explains. “One group wants a basic system that will hold up to some abuse, while still being cost-efficient. They value product integrity and basic essentials while getting the best price or, even better, a deal. The other group is looking to outdo their neighbor. They want the latest and the greatest. They will be looking for a system where everything is integrated into the machine, with the cost being a lower priority.”

Gross adds that it also depends a lot on what type of machine the rider owns and the lifestyle that person lives.

“On two wheels, having a system that sounds clear while riding without distorting is most important to most,” he says. “This presents some unique design challenges. We know that the charging system and the size of the battery are limited, so in our kits we design the amp to be very efficient and pair it with high-sensitivity speakers which are designed to handle their environment. Simple rule of thumb: 3 decibel increase in volume takes twice the power. Twice the power increases current draw. So, if the speaker is 3 decibels more efficient, it makes more sound without taxing the charging system.

audio system, motorcycle
It’s paramount to have a system that sounds clear while riding without distorting the sound.
Photo courtesy of KICKER

“On a side-by-side, a lot will depend on how it is used (sport, work, farm, etc.). While the same rules apply for current draw, a simple system for music is easier simply because there is more space to install it. For some, simply having a way to stream their music is enough. Others want something over the top with lots of speakers and subwoofers to rock the campsite. Adding additional batteries is less difficult on a side-by-side, and we have seen some very impressive builds from the sand dunes to the bayou. For custom installs we have dozens of products for all types of machines (two, three and four wheels) which allow customers and dealers to design a system specifically to their individual needs. And as we know that ranges from mild to wild!”

This got me thinking about how many two-, three- and four-wheel machines there are in our industry and how many of them could benefit from an upgraded audio system. The Polaris Slingshot is a prime candidate, thanks in part to its spacious cabin and chassis as well as its automotive powertrain. The charging system on a Slingshot is much more capable of handling the increased power draw from added amplifiers when compared to a charging system on a motorcycle.

Of course, every vehicle has different abilities and needs, so each case will require a tailored approach.

One Final Piece of Advice

In the end, both of the experts I spoke with agreed that thorough research is paramount when looking to build a sound system. For dealers, it’s just as important that they know the differences between the audio components that they have to offer. That way, they can better help their customers to figure out which one best fits their needs, wants, and/or vision.

When helping a customer build a system, Gross advises that you determine the customer’s goals from the start and plan the entire build without cutting corners on wiring or battery needs.

“The final product will be compromised by not getting what they want the first time and could lead to an unsatisfactory customer experience,” he says. “Do your research. If a product seems ‘too good to be true,’ it probably is. An example of this would be an unusually large wattage rating in a tiny package from a company you’ve never heard of. The quality of the wiring, brackets and hardware should not be overlooked. Rust sucks! If you stick with brands that you know, love and trust, most likely you won’t be disappointed.”

audio system, motorcycle

Ford also notes that finding and using quality products is key.

“For anyone looking for an audio system, the most important thing is to be confident in the durability record of the product,” she states. “Only purchase something if you’re sure of how robust it will be. There’s a lot of junk and good stuff out there too, so do your research. But know that there are a number of cost-effective solutions out there that can also do the job quite well. Don’t simply gravitate toward products just because of their high price tag. They might be just as happy with a more cost-effective sound system which meets their needs while still being durable enough to withstand their riding adventures. A customer could end up looking at a $12,000 to $15,000 product, but they could be just as happy with a $400 to $500 product if they do their research right.”

In the end, it’s all about balance. As dealers, it’s more important that you learn how to find the right combination of components for your customers. This means that you need to fully understand what they have in mind, what their priorities are and how much they see themselves spending. Armed with this information, you can work to strike a balance between the overall cost of the system and its capability.

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