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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.

  • 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.

  • 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!
  • Ken from Shelby Twp, Mi

    Posted on 7/29/2021

    I have a 2020 Ford Edge, I am happy with its sound system but they no longer have CD players. Is there an aftermarket CD player that can be used, possibly with Bluetooth? Thanks.

    Commenter image

    Ken Nail from Crutchfield

    on 7/30/2021

    Hi Ken. Depending upon the specific configuration of your Edge, we may have what you're looking for. Use our vehicle selector to see which stereos will work in your Edge and get info on what else is needed for the installation. Good luck with your installation!
  • Daniel Golden from Descanso, California

    Posted on 5/8/2021

    I have a 2021 Chevrolet Colorado crew cab. Ask typical with GM products these days came without CD player. With all options you discuss you still don't indicate an option for a CD player for my truck. You only talk about using my phone for other music options. I'm old school I still want to use my CDs. What I am currently using is an old Walkman style CD player plugged in through the headphone jack to the truck which is a band-aid approach.

    Commenter image

    Ken Nail from Crutchfield

    on 5/10/2021

    I understand your desire to play CDs Daniel - I like spinning a favorite disc myself on occasion! To add CD capabilities to your vehicle, you'd need to swap out the existing factory radio. Unfortunately, we don't recommend that with your vehicle. I'm afraid we don't have anything that can meet your specific needs.
  • Bagdaddy2003 from Culpeper

    Posted on 7/2/2019

    I have a Jeep Wrangler Sport Unlimited that is apparently limited by the lack of availability of any known non factory radio options. When are they gonna develop any and who is they??

  • Nicolas Lopez from Tucson

    Posted on 6/23/2019

    I own a 2016 Nissan Frontier SV truck. I want to move ahead and change out both front and rear door speakers, in the pursuit of improving sound. However, knowing that OEM speakers have a lower impedance (2 Ohm) and some of the options are to install 4 Ohm speakers, what would I be missing if I move in this direction?

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 6/24/2019

    Nicholas, all factory speakers aren't necessarily 2-ohm, but to help you find the right speakers for your truck, I've passed your question along to our Advisors for help. Someone will contact you soon to talk over the details of your vehicle and what seems like the best match for your needs. In the meantime, you can use our vehicle selector to confirm which gear is compatible with your vehicle.
  • Tony from Tallmadge, OH

    Posted on 3/23/2019

    Are you aware of any updates to the GM CUE in my 2014 Cadillac ATS? Cadillac initially marketed the system as upgradeable but the dealer has told me it would need to be completely replaced if I wanted any additional fuctionality.

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 3/26/2019

    Tony, your Cadillac dealer would know best re: the factory upgrade. Depending on what you'd like to do, you could give us a call for aftermarket options. But a quick look at that vehicle shows me options are limited -- we certainly don't recommend radio replacement in your case.
  • Glenn McKeon from Westerville

    Posted on 3/20/2019

    I have a 2019 Acura RDX with the "premium" Panasonic ELS 3D system. I want to upgrade the stock sub to a JLAudio with the appropriate monoblock amp to drive it and an Audiocontrol LC2i LOC. I would leave the rest of the system alone. How do I do this without causing the Automatic Noise Cancellation system to produce weird sounds? If I disconnect microphones in the cabin, will I lose the ability to use voice commands for my infotainment/navigation system? Can these ANC systems usually be turned off by accessing a diagnostic menu in the infotainment system? What's the best approach here?

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 3/20/2019

    Glenn, someone will reach out soon to help you with the gear you have in mind. I also passed your question along our Vehicle Integration pro and he informed me of the following: "Noise cancelation/ANC will likely be an issue when adding the new subwoofer. In some cases the microphone in the front serves dual purpose; it receives audio and feeds it to the BT module for phone calls, and also feeds signal to the factory amp for ANC. Generally though in a Honda/Acura there is a wire you can cut at the mic to still let it work for BT phone, but not send audio to the amp for ANC. Or you can simply find the ANC module itself, sometimes they are separate from the amp. In this case, the factory ANC module is on the driver's side of the center console and you can simply disconnect it to bypass the factory ANC. This data should be accurate as it was a 2019 RDX with the ELS audio system as well. You usually can turn off this feature in the head unit on Honda/Acura, however I have heard reports of it not retaining that setting and it resets and turns back on when you cycle the key. Be sure to tap into the factory subwoofer signal to feed the LC2i. LC2i will be a great choice as it will accept the high power output from the factory amp without any issues. The factory amp is located in the passenger side quarter panel under the factory subwoofer enclosure."
  • Razvan from Bucharest

    Posted on 11/18/2018

    I'm running a 2012 Ford Focus hatchback with 6 speakers (2comp+2tweeters and 2coax in the back) and also added a new active sw in the back. I want to change the factory speakers badly and was thinking about getting 2x vibe slick 6cv7 components with tweeters. They say they put out 90w rms. my factory HU sucks and speakers are 2x15w. Would adding a 4x60w 4ohm amp fix the deal? Would you advise against this setup. ? Amything else I should keep in mind? Thanks! Razvan

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 11/20/2018

    Razvan, an amp will give you a more satisfying sound for sure. We recommend giving your speakers 75% to 150% of the recommended RMS power rating.