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Introduction to car stereo

Robert Ferency-Viars is the managing editor for the Crutchfield car A/V learning content, and has been with the company since 1999. A Virginia native from the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, he loves spending time with his wonderful wife and sons, listening to music, writing, and playing games with friends. Robert's love for car audio began at 16 when he installed his first car stereo.

More from Robert Ferency-Viars

A car stereo is the centerpiece of any car audio system. Also known as a radio, receiver, or head unit, today's car stereo performs a variety of complex functions so that we can better enjoy our drive time. To understand these functions, it's helpful to think of a car stereo as having three different sections:

Stereo in the dash

Modern stereos are full of useful features and look great in your dash

  1. Source — This is the part that let's us choose what we want to hear. Sources may include a standard AM/FM tuner, CD or DVD player, satellite radio, iPod® or smartphone, or a USB input.
  2. Preamp — This is where all sound adjustments are made. The preamp section includes controls ranging from simple volume, balance, fader, source selection, and tone adjustments to sophisticated crossovers, equalizers, and time correction.
  3. Amplifier — The amplifier section boosts the small (low-voltage) audio signal coming from the preamp section into a larger (high-voltage) audio signal that's sent out to the speakers.

Why would I want or need a new car stereo?

A new stereo will give you better sound and more playback options than the typical factory stereo.

Better sound quality — Superior built-in power and better circuit design mean that an aftermarket car stereo isn't just louder than the typical factory stereo, it also produces cleaner, richer, more detailed sound. Enhanced tone controls in the preamp section mean that you can do a better job fine-tuning the music.

New sources — One of most common reasons to get a new stereo is to expand your system's music playback and other capabilities. Aftermarket stereos offer advanced capabilities, such as:

  • MP3/WMA/AAC playback
  • iPod® and iPhone® support
  • Support for Android™ phones
  • Satellite radio
  • HD Radio™ reception
  • DVD playback
  • Bluetooth® connectivity
  • GPS navigation
  • Support for Pandora® Internet radio and other app-related sources

We're also seeing increased integration of smartphone apps with both iPhones® and Android smartphones.

Other popular reasons for purchasing a new car stereo include:

More features — Advanced features on new stereos include full-color animated displays, customizable color schemes, touchscreen monitors, and precision sound controls like digital time correction and parametric equalization.

Cool cosmetics — Aftermarket car stereos, with their high-tech displays and cutting-edge layouts, can enhance the appearance of your car's interior.

Expandability — Auxiliary inputs, USB connections, and audio/video outputs let you expand your system by connecting portable music players, rear seat video screens, external amplifiers, and powered subwoofers to your new stereo.

Security — Features like detachable face plates and security codes help protect your investment from theft.

What kind of car stereo is right for you?

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of models in our car stereo listing. How do you know which one is right for you? Our expert shopping guides can help. Click on the links to learn more.

  • Taryn Haynes from Mount Vernon, NY

    Posted on 5/29/2015 5:35:58 PM

    I'd like to be referred to a place that will install the Jensen VX3022 radio system into my 2013 Nissan Rogue in Westchester County in NY. Could you help me with this? I ordered the system with you guys. My order number is 41651956.

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/1/2015 11:13:53 AM

    Taryn, when it comes to professional installation, we recommend using InstallCard, which gives you access to a nationwide network of installers. In your case, an In-dash Video InstallCard will give you credit toward a certified installation in your area. If you have any questions, give us a call at 1.888.955.6000.

  • nate from Denver,colorado,usa

    Posted on 7/15/2015 10:27:29 PM

    touch screen, blue tooth,usb,aux. ports,Dvd,Cd,Have An IPhone, may switch to android soon,6 1/2"?,don't know what works with my 03 Silverado,4 speakers,no on-star

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/16/2015 9:58:17 AM

    Nate, most touchscreen receivers will be a trickier fit in your Silverado, but you do have options. Give us a call at 1.888.955.6000 your in-dash priorities with an advisor.

  • Matt

    Posted on 8/26/2015 7:07:54 PM

    What does RDS mean when referring to car stereo receivers?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/27/2015 8:24:56 AM

    Matt, RDS stands for Radio Data System. When radio stations broadcast RDS information, you can tune in stations by genre, read text information on the radio display, and receive traffic alerts and emergency broadcasts.

  • mark from edmonton

    Posted on 11/4/2015 2:23:26 PM

    when I run a custom vehicle search (2011 Silverado) and product is noted as "fits your vehicle" and then inquire for accessories , I only get the three year protection option. does this mean the GM plug in's are a match to the radio, with out any adapters. i'm just doing the head unit and there are no wheel controls or anything involved .... thanks

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/4/2015 3:56:44 PM

    Mark, you'll need additional gear to install a stereo in your Silverado. I've passed your information along to our sales team. An advisor will contact your shortly to help, or if you'd like to speak with someone right away, just give us a call at the number above.

  • Rick from Minneapolis

    Posted on 5/15/2016 10:28:11 PM

    I would like to replace the OEM speakers in my '02 Camaro with the Monsoon sound system and keep the OEM radio but it seems all of the aftermarket speakers are four ohm and my OEM speakers are two ohm. Can a resistor or coil (for impedance) be put in parallel with the speaker coil to lower the resistance that the amp sees to get the proper performance from the new speakers?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/16/2016 9:55:59 AM

    Rick, based on our research, the best solution is to install an aftermarket receiver and bypass the factory amp if you'd like to replace the speakers.

  • felipe from houston

    Posted on 7/9/2016 9:25:03 PM

    queston I got a 2007 lexus es350 with navication and I would like to get Pandora without pluging my phone and what do I need to do to get hd readio

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/11/2016 7:40:33 AM

    Felipe, to gain HD radio and Bluetooth compatibility, you'll need to add a new stereo to your Lexus. I've passed your question along to our sales team for the best answer. An advisor will contact you soon.

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