Life with a factory stereo

How to upgrade your vehicle's stock system


Charlie Pastorfield

Charlie Pastorfield writes about car audio for Crutchfield. Raised in Connecticut and the U.S. Virgin Islands, he graduated from the University of Virginia, but was having way too much fun to leave Charlottesville. After a long, beautiful career touring the East Coast from Boston to Atlanta as a professional guitarist (Skip Castro Band, The Believers), he married Emilie, had two daughters (Morgan and Emma), and got his first full-time job at Crutchfield. Still an extremely active musician, he's now a member of The Gladstones, a 4-piece group that plays just about anything, and Alligator, an 8-piece band that plays late 60's Grateful Dead.

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You buy a car, you drive it for a couple of months, and you decide that the sound system just isn't cutting it. In the old days, you'd buy a new stereo and some speakers and life would be good. But it's not that simple anymore. Many car makers use unusual dash configurations, and others use "premium" systems that use amps and speakers with unusual impedance ratings and proprietary connections.

Car stereo and speakers

Many new vehicles won't accept this traditional car stereo and speakers combo.

The biggest dealbreaker? Instead of the old in-dash CD player/radio combo, many new vehicles feature all-in-one consoles that incorporate climate controls, OnStar®, GPS, vehicle warning systems, and other unique features, housed right along with your sound system. Replace your stereo and you lose many, if not all, of these important factory functions.

Options for the 21st century

What are your choices if you've purchased a vehicle like this? Are you stuck with the limitations of the factory sound system? Is the local dealership your only option for adding to your system? Will you have to suffer with second-rate sound quality and limited entertainment choices for the next 100,000 miles? Cheer up. There's more and more good news headed your way.

Car stereo manufacturers have begun to adjust, moving away from the traditional stereo and speaker offerings toward developing products that enhance factory systems. Solutions range from adding a simple powered subwoofer, to using a sophisticated sound processor to expand your system, and from adapters that connect your iPhone® or iPod® to your factory stereo, to kits that integrate your smartphone into your factory system. Let's talk about some of your options.

Dysfunctional dashboards and other problems

Lots of cars — the 2006-up Honda Civic or 2003-up Mazda 6, for example — include heating and air conditioning controls in the console along with the factory radio, making it difficult to install a new receiver. Owners of these cars can rejoice, because dash adapters are available that allow you to install an aftermarket stereo while retaining your heating and cooling controls.

Toyota Avalon dashboard The climate controls in this Toyota Avalon are joined to the factory radio, making it a little more complicated to install a new stereo.

Many other vehicles (General Motors SUVs in particular) incorporate audible safety warnings, door chimes, OnStar voice prompts, and other features into the factory radio. Replace the factory radio and you lose major functions. But you can now find a variety of adapters that allow you to install a new stereo and still maintain these factory systems.

Getting the Sound Right

Most complaints about factory sound systems cite poor sound quality, and even expensive "premium systems" can suffer from muddy bass and poor imaging caused by inexpensive drivers and too little power. To compound the problem, most factory stereos don't offer the equalization controls you need to get the sound right. Here are a few easy fixes that can improve your daily commute.

Upgrade packages

Some manufacturers have designed innovative packages that use signal processing, added power, and a sub to improve the sound of your vehicle's factory system. Kicker's SoundGate Powerstage systems, for example, use a 4-channel amp and a powered sub to make your system rock. Even cooler, Kicker designed a sophisticated EQ curve for every system that maximizes the impact and clarity of the stock speakers, allowing them to handle 50 watts without flinching. The powered sub enclosure, also custom made for each vehicle, fits exactly in the intended location.

We've heard systems from Kicker, Helix, and JL Audio demonstrated with an on/off switch, and the difference in sound quality is astounding. Factory system upgrade packages are available for a wide variety of vehicles, and they're a great option if you don't want to go through the hassle of replacing the factory radio.

Adding amps and subs to your factory system

If you're keeping the factory radio but installing new amps, speakers, and subs, Crutchfield offers a wide variety of processors for this type of installation. For instance, Alpine's PXA-H800 processor can tap into virtually any factory system giving you extensive equalization capabilities and allowing you to add amplifiers and subwoofers. In addition, many factory systems use a preset EQ curve that makes the factory speakers sound good, but creates a horrible sonic mess when you try to add an amplifier and/or new speakers. The PXA-H800 flattens out this factory curve, so you can install an amplified system and enjoy superb sound quality. Many other processors are available as well.

Alpine PXA-H800 amplifier

Products like the Alpine PXA-H800 and others allow you to build and tune a sophisticated audio system around your factory stereo.

Bass, where art thou?

The Achilles heel of many factory systems is bass. A powered subwoofer can improve the sound in your car dramatically, even if your vehicle has a "premium" system. Why? When you turn up the bass on your car stereo, you lower the effective power of its amplifier because it takes more juice to produce bass. With a powered sub, you can leave the bass set to "0" on your factory stereo, and let the sub bear the brunt of producing the low-frequency response you want to hear. You'll get a much cleaner overall sound.

Bazooka powered subwoofer

This powered subwoofer houses a speaker and amplifier in a remarkably small enclosure.

Any powered sub worth its salt will offer "speaker-level" inputs, so you can connect to the factory system by tapping into the speaker wires. Powered subs range in size from small enclosures designed to fit under a seat, to larger units that install in your trunk or rear cargo area. For many vehicles, you can use a "custom-fit" sub, a molded plastic enclosure complete with speaker, that installs in the rear side panel or under a seat. Powered versions include an amplifier for an all-in-one bass package that doesn't take up any space.

Improving clarity with tweeters

Check out the way you've set the tone controls on your factory stereo. If you see that the treble control is all the way up, consider buying a set of tweeters, small high-frequency speakers that you can install in your doors or dash. You can wire them together with your door or dash speakers, and you'll be amazed at how they'll bring your system to life. Even if you already have factory tweeters, installing a set of high-quality tweeters in their place can improve the clarity of your system dramatically.

Born for bad sound

Some cars are doomed to poor sound by virtue of their design. The Jeep Wrangler, for example, can ford mighty rivers and climb tall mountains, but its combination of small speakers and a noisy environment makes for a less than ideal listening experience. Now, you can buy heavy-duty plastic speaker pods that install in various spots in the Wrangler interior, housing a set of your favorite speakers or a small sub.

663QUADPOD These Quad-Pod enclosures allow you to mount two 8" subs and two 6-1/2" speakers in a Jeep Wrangler.

Sub-compact vehicles or small sports cars are also notorious for bad stereo setups, with tiny speakers stuck in the doors or dash as an afterthought. Replacing your stereo only goes so far when the music's broadcast through a set of 4" speakers. The solution? A compact powered sub, like the Sound Ordnance™ B-8PTD can fit in your trunk or under a seat without too much trouble, adding serious impact and punch to your system.

More entertainment options for your factory radio

In the past, car manufacturers have avoided giving you any way to plug an auxiliary device into the factory stereo, figuring correctly that they'd make more money by selling you the factory option at the dealership. But the overwhelming popularity of the iPod® has forced this issue, and most carmakers are equipping their new vehicles with USB ports. But what are your options if you're not one of the lucky ones with a car like this?

iPod interface

This iPod interface lets you listen to, control, and charge your iPod with a Honda factory radio.

Take your tunes on the road

Fortunately, a healthy little industry has developed whose sole object is to get you connected to your factory stereo. Want to hook up your iPod? You'll find iPod adapters that'll connect you to factory radios from nearly every major car manufacturer. These adapters allow you to:

  • play your iPod through your factory sound system;
  • choose between using your factory radio's controls or the iPod's controls to run your iPod;
  • access all your iPod playlists;
  • charge your iPod's battery while you drive.

If you own a non-Apple music player or smartphone, you can find an auxiliary input adapter for most factory stereos. Pull your factory stereo out of the dash, plug one of these adapters into its rear CD changer plug, reinstall the stereo, and you're done. You can plug in and listen to your portable music player — or any other outboard audio source — through your factory stereo. Sweet.

But what happens when you plug in your music player and start driving? You can't just hide it away, because you might want to get to the controls. So where do you put the thing? Solution: get an iPod grip and attach it to the vehicle-specific mount designed for your car. These mounts install easily — just remove a section of your dash, screw the mount in place, and replace the dash. You've created a permanent home in your car for an iPod or MP3 portable without any cutting or modification.

Cell phone safety

With each passing day, more and more locales are outlawing cell phone use on the road, trying to eliminate the hazard caused by distracted drivers holding a cell phone in one hand and driving with the other. But cell phones have become an integral part of modern life, particularly in the world of business. How do you stay in touch and drive safely?

Parrot kit

This Parrot kit works with a plug-in adapter so you can make and receive hands-free cell phone calls through your factory radio.

If you own a Bluetooth® enabled cell phone, you can install a hands-free cell phone kit that plugs into the factory stereo in many vehicles with the help of a handy vehicle-specific wiring harness. This combo ties your cell phone into your factory stereo, muting the stereo when you receive a phone call. You hear the conversation over your car speakers, and your side of the conversation is picked up by a small microphone that's included with the cell phone kit. Once you get in your car, the phone and kit sync up automatically, ready to accept or send calls. Your phone stays in your purse or coat pocket, and your eyes stay on the road.

More options on the way

In short, life with a factory radio can be good. As car audio manufacturers continue to adjust to the changing market, you'll find more and more products available that'll add functionality and performance to your factory system. Stuck with a factory stereo and haven't found what you want in this article? We have two words for you — contact us. We'll help you find your options.

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