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Life with a factory stereo

How to upgrade your vehicle's stock system

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.

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 sound processors for this type of installation. Many models can tap into virtually any factory system, which will give you extensive equalization capabilities and allow 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. 

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.

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.

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® forced this issue, and most carmakers now equip 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?

Take your tunes on the road

Fortunately, a healthy little industry has developed whose sole object is to help you connect your smartphone or music player 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 listen via 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.

Keep your phone at hand and secure

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 a phone mount. They install easily — just remove a section of your dash, screw the mount in place, and replace the dash. Many just attach to the dash via an adhesive pad. You've created a permanent home in your car for an iPod or smartphone 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. How do you stay in touch and drive safely?

Bluetooth® wireless calling

You can take advantage of your phone's hands-free Bluetooth calling and install a hands-free kit. They plug into the factory stereo in many vehicles with the help of a handy vehicle-specific wiring harness.

This combo wirelessly connects your smartphone to 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 for improved sound.

  • Ed from Sugar Land

    Posted on 7/16/2022

    I gave a lot of cds, but can't play them on my 2020 Ford F-150 lariat. Are there any portable players that can connect to system for my enjoyment?

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 7/18/2022

    Howdy Ed - thanks for reading. There are a fair number of portable CD players out there that should work with your Ford (assuming its stereo has an auxiliary input), but unfortunately we don't carry that line of products anymore due to low demand. A quick web search should locate some sources, and you'll want to determine the best way to power it -- you can try to find a 12-volt adapter that'll work directly with your truck's 12-volt port and the player's power input, or you can find a player that uses a USB power source and plug that into a factory or add-on USB port on your truck. Good luck!
  • Patrick

    Posted on 5/6/2022

    I have a 2020 GM infotainment system (not premium). I have 6 speakers: 4 door speakers, and 2 "tweeters". All this is factory installed. I am relatively happy with this system as it is a technological upgrade from my previous vehicle's sound system. I have an android phone...and I have on purpose chosen to NOT connect my phone to the infotainment system (personal reasons). As I am done with commercial radio, I have a premium (no ads) Spotify account with downloaded content to listen in my car. Very happy so far with Spotify. I use a standard AUX cord to connect my phone to the infotainment system. I do this "old school" because the sound quality is superior to Bluetooth connection. To improve the sound quality of this situation, I use the in phone equalizer and customize how I prefer the settings. There are 8 different band widths in the custom equalizer (I was impressed that it had that many). Also, I use the infotainment equalizer. There are 3 band widths (I was unpleasantly surprised there were only 3). That said, between the 2 equalizers I can regulate the sound pretty good FOR ME. A true sound aficionado would probably laugh hysterically at my set up...oh well. Great info in this article. Thank you!

  • Craig from Blanchard

    Posted on 5/1/2022

    Crutchfield is my go-to site for upgrading my sound systems due to the great products and great service. Now, I have a challenge. I've recently purchased a 2022 Mazda CX-5 without the Bose system due to the chip shortage. The stereo is pretty bleh. It at least needs a subwoofer. There is no way to replace the stereo in this car as there aren't any available that fit. I'm not real sure about tapping into existing wiring because of the lack of high volts. Is there a sure fire way to get a good sounding sub? Or an Amp for future speaker upgrades?

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 5/2/2022

    Hi Craig - thanks for your business and your question. The issue you're asking about can probably be resolved with a conversation with a real live human, so one of our Advisors will be getting in touch shortly via email to help you find the right solution. If you're in a hurry, you can always call or chat one of our Advisors online.
  • D. from Vernon CT

    Posted on 4/3/2022

    What if you're buying a vehicle which doesn't come with a CD player and much of your music collection is on CD's. If you can not replace the factory unit with one that has a CD player, is there a CD Player that can be plugged in that would work? Or does one have to have a CD player installed by a Car Stereo Shop?

    Commenter image

    Dominic DeVito from Crutchfield

    on 4/4/2022

    Hi D. - It's an unfortunate reality that fewer new cars are going to be CD-friendly: they won't come with a CD player, and the factory system will not accommodate a change to the stereo. Crutchfield carries a couple of car DVD players that can be mounted either in a standard 2" tall dash opening OR in a glove box or other out-of-the-way location in your vehicle. Alternately, you can buy a portable CD player (like the old-school Discman) and use your radio's auxiliary input (if it has one) to enjoy your discs. If you're looking for more ideas, check with your local car audio specialty shop or give one of our Advisors a call or chat online. They'll be happy to help!
  • David C from Clermont

    Posted on 3/25/2022

    How about option for a Freightliner Cascadia 2020? it's a tractor, I want more bass!

  • Ron Burgess from San Diego

    Posted on 2/27/2022

    My stock radio in my 2018 Ram Big Horn 1500 is driving me nuts, it blinks, beeps switches stations asks me to set clock, on and on and can't turn it off. Don't care about having radio but back up camera is essential and all the controls are run through radio. Told replacing radio would be well over $1,000.

    Commenter image

    Ken Nail from Crutchfield

    on 2/28/2022

    Ron, you may have some less expensive options for changing the stereo and keeping your camera. You can use our vehicle selector to confirm which stereos fit your Ram and get some info on what else is needed for the installation.
  • Connor Crist from Lakeside

    Posted on 2/25/2022

    Hi I have a 2012 Honda Accord EXL and have a 1500 watt max amp matched with a 1200 watt dual sub system. I have a stock stereo and have a kicker line output converter. I noticed that at somewhat high volumes there is a popping sound that seems like distortion. I use a multimeter to see how hard I'm pushing the system and I'm only pushing about half of what the sub and amp can take at their rating. I went to an audio shop and they said it's a power issue. The lights dim when there is popping in the sub. They said I need a new stereo, alternator, and battery. Is this true? I know something has to be done, but do I need to do all 3? I was wondering if the factory radio and line output converter has limits. My basic question is what is the main cause and what course of action should I take. Can I get a second battery and just that ? Any advice would help.

    Commenter image

    Ken Nail from Crutchfield

    on 2/28/2022

    Great question Connor! I've passed this info along to our advisors. One of them will get in touch to go over the options we may be able to offer with your system.
  • Orlando W. from Fairfield

    Posted on 9/24/2021

    I've Veen using Crutchfield for 27 years. Never had an issue. I will continue to use them whenever I need a stereo.

    Commenter image

    Ken Nail from Crutchfield

    on 9/27/2021

    Thanks, Orlando - always great to hear from a long-term customer!
  • Phillip Brodie from Aurora

    Posted on 9/15/2021

    I purchase a 2013 Hyundai Elantra with a broken factory stereo, and am finally having it replaced with a JVC KWR940BTS. I've been told that the USB and AUX port by automatic shift will go dead and that they can't use the factory microphone. I hope that I will still be able to use my auxiliary power outlet. I did purchase a steering wheel kit. But will I loose other functions like the seat heaters?

    Commenter image

    Ken Nail from Crutchfield

    on 9/16/2021

    Phillip, if you purchased your gear from us we should be able to help. Give our tech support people a call and they'll explain what options you have, given the adapters you have and the exact model of your car. If you purchased your gear from someone else, you can use our vehicle selector to gather more info on what else is needed for the installation and what capabilities you can keep.
  • Lionel Holmes from Chester Va

    Posted on 7/31/2021

    I have a 11 sonata without the navigation and I would like to add 4 door speakers with a amp any suggestions thanks Lionel

    Commenter image

    Ken Nail from Crutchfield

    on 8/2/2021

    Lionel, your best first step is seeing what speakers will fit your Sonata. You can use our vehicle selector to narrow that down and get some info on what else is needed for the installation. For the next step, I'd get up to speed on amplifiers. This article should be a big help. Good luck with your project!

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