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Car stereo buying guide

How to choose a car stereo that's right for you

The car stereo is the centerpiece of any car audio system. With so many to choose from, how do you pick the right one? This article will help you narrow down your choices to get the right stereo for you and your car or truck.

W

hy get a new car stereo? A new car stereo will give you better sound and more playback options than the typical factory stereo. We'll discuss these topics and more while asking a few basic questions about how you use your 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 mean that you can do a better job of fine-tuning the music.

Touchscreen

Touchscreens make it easy to control the stereo – and your phone

New sources for music and added functions

One of most common reasons to get a new stereo is to expand your listening options and other functionality, such as:

  • Digital media playback, including high-res music files
  • Android™ and iPhone® support, including Android Auto® and Apple CarPlay®
  • SiriusXM satellite radio
  • Bluetooth® connectivity
  • GPS navigation
  • Support for Pandora®, Spotify®, and other app-related sources
Robert in his car

A new stereo can spruce up an older vehicle.

Why do you want to replace your current stereo?

This is one of the first questions our advisors will ask when you call us. This question can help you focus on what exactly it is you're missing and what you want to gain with a new stereo.

What fits your car?

It's important to make sure you choose a new stereo that fits perfectly in your dash. That part's easy — use our vehicle selector tool. Enter your vehicle information, and we'll filter out the options that won't work in your vehicle. Plus, we'll let you know about the installation kits, special adapters, and instructions that you'll need — which we offer at a discount when you buy your new stereo from us.

Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX in Camaro

Add even more excitement to your hotrod like we did to this Camaro

How do you listen to your music?

Answering this question is the next step in selecting the right car receiver. Knowing which options are "must-haves" will help you narrow your search and focus on the features that are important to you, so that you can listen in your preferred ways:

  • Music from your phone: Look for a stereo that will control your phone or that has Bluetooth® streaming capability.
  • Thumb drives or music players: Most in-dash receivers feature USB inputs, so you can have a ready-to-go library of music in your car all of the time, loaded onto a thumb drive or other type of mass storage device. An auxiliary input lets you connect non-USB devices. Some receivers feature SD™ card slots, too.
  • CDs: If you still listen to discs, make sure your new stereo can play them. A CD or DVD receiver is what you need. If you don't need disc playback, then a digital media or multimedia receiver might be best for you. Read our digital media receiver buying guide for more info.
  • Pandora or Spotify: Many receivers let you control Pandora or Spotify when connected to your phone.
  • SiriusXM: If you want to add satellite radio to your new car stereo, make sure the stereo you choose is "satellite radio-ready." That means it can control an optional hideaway satellite radio tuner. If you already listen via the phone app or have a portable satellite radio, then your new stereo just needs an auxiliary input or Bluetooth.
  • FM radio: Radios with a low FM sensitivity do a better job of pulling in radio signals. An FM sensitivity of 8 to 12 dBf is considered very good. Be sure to look for this detail in the stereo's description if a better-than-most AM/FM radio is high on your list.
  • HD Radio™ broadcasts: Radio stations broadcasting digital signals are becoming more and more prevalent. To gain the benefits of static-free reception and better sound quality, your stereo must have an HD Radio tuner.
Kenwood KDC-BT378U CD Receiver

What are the non-music functions that you want?

Today's car stereos can do much more than just play music. Consider other options like these.

  • CarPlay and Android Auto: Touchscreen stereos do the best job of bringing your smartphone into the car. The CarPlay and Android Auto apps pull in your favorite car-centric phone services (navigation, calling, and music listening). Check out our guides to car stereos with Apple CarPlay and car stereos with Android Auto for more details.
  • Bluetooth: Bluetooth connectivity gives you the freedom of hands-free calling and audio streaming when used with a compatible phone. Frankly, even if you think you don't need this, you should probably make sure you new stereo has it.
  • GPS Navigation: Stereos with built-in navigation help prevent you from getting lost (or help you find your way if you do). The navigation screen is much larger than your phone and most portable navigators. And you get the added luxury of touchscreen controls for your stereo.
  • Speaking of touchscreen controls: Large screens, loads of built-in features, and easy viewability are just some of the advantages to building your audio system around a large-screen receiver. Read our article about the advantages of a touchscreen receiver to learn more.
Alpine Halo9 ILX-F309

The Alpine Halo series of stereos feature large screens that "float" in front of your dash

What other things should you consider in a car stereo?

Better sound controls

Precision sound controls like digital time correction and parametric equalization are available on higher-end receivers for those of you who really want to tweak the sound. But even lower-priced aftermarket stereos will offer more audio control than the typical factory radio.

Cool cosmetics

Aftermarket car stereos, with their high-tech displays and cutting-edge layouts, can enhance the appearance of your car's interior. Consider a multi-line display so that you can see song, album, and artist information without a lot of scrolling. They also make it easier to control and adjust the stereo.

Your options include full-color animated displays and customizable color schemes for a better match to your dash lighting. If you want to heighten the listening experience, look for a stereo with lighting that flashes to the beat!

The hot trend in car stereos today is a floating screen – a screen that doesn't fit in the dash, but "floats" in front of it, typically measuring 9 or 10 inches. These stereos bring even better "ease of use" functionality and definitely step up the stereo's "wow factor."

Alpine CDE-172BT CD Receiver

Alpine's no-frills display on the CDE-172BT

Kenwood Excelon DPX794BH CD Receiver

The Kenwood Excelon DPX794BH double-sized receiver has three lines of text

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.

In particular, preamp outputs let you connect external amplifiers to power your speakers or a subwoofer. The number of outputs can vary, but you should have at least one set. Output volatage typically ranges from 2 to 5 volts. The higher that voltage rating, the cleaner the signal sent to your amp. If you know you will be adding a subwoofer, look for a model with a dedicated subwoofer output — this will allow you to adjust the subwoofer volume independently, rather than using the bass control.

DIY Installation Help

We have the installation parts, accessories, and tools needed to install a new stereo.
  • We include step-by-step instructions specific to your car, if available, for free. For most vehicles, we also carry the installation parts and accessories you'll need and you'll get them at a deep discount when you buy any receiver from us.
  • A panel removal tool will make the installation easier in most cars and help prevent scratching your dash.
  • The Posi-Products Car Stereo Connector Kit makes it easy to connect your car's wiring harness to your new car stereo.
  • Want to continue using your steering wheel audio controls with the new stereo? You'll need a special adapter. Once you tell us about your vehicle and choose a stereo, we'll tell you which adapter will work for you.

Ivy in her car

What's the next step?

Write down a list of the features you most want. Then, use our vehicle selector to create a list of stereos that fit your car. Narrow down the list by using the filters on our site to highlight the your favorite features. Or worry about that later and jump right into the in-dash receivers!

If you want to learn more before you start shopping, our expert guides can help:

And don't hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. Before you know it, our expert advisors (like Ivy, pictured above) will have you riding around with your perfect in-dash stereo.

Last updated 2/15/2021
  • Michael D cadogan from Barbados WI

    Posted on 2/24/2021

    You did not say anything about DVD receivers with surround sound(Dolby Digital)

    Commenter image

    Robert Ferency-Viars from Crutchfield

    on 2/25/2021

    Some DVD receivers do have sound settings meant to enhance the sound of movies in your car, but you won't find full Dolby "home theater style" surround sound. Back when mobile theater was a thing (several decades ago), it was achieved with an outboard processor. I doubt if any of those, or the compatible stereos, are still around these days.
  • Nick Dennis from San Bernardino

    Posted on 9/22/2020

    Can i hook a system up without changing my stock stereo deck and integration in the steering wheel and everything okay that's the question

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    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 9/30/2020

    Nick, a line output converter will allow you to keep your factory stereo and add an aftermarket amp, speakers, and sub, if that's your question.
  • Terry from Fountain, CO from Fountain

    Posted on 9/21/2020

    I miss the old days...the '80s baby. Jensen had *just* hit the market and introduced a triaxle 6x9 speaker. While Jensen would give in before too long to the mass market, that first set...phenomenal. And ~$78 for the pair. At 16 y.o. in '80, I spent hours crafting what would still stand today as one of my best (i.e., worthy of mention) woodwork projects. Airtight boxes for those 6x9s. Result: Excellence. Kenwood made killer stuff back in the '70s-'80s. My brother had a Kenwood home receiver beast bought new in '76. Probably the best sounding system I've ever heard. Car receivers had a radio tuner and cassette deck. No 21 different music formats and apps marketing emphasis. No clue now what the Kenwood model was, but after ~2 hrs in the audio sound room, I walked out smirkin', knowing the Jensens were realized. Think I paid $165 for it +$120 amp & the Jensens totaled $365. Bottom line: That analog system probably sounded better than 95% of systems now in cars. Now have a Pioneer DEH-80PRS, Focal AP 4340 amp, JL Audio 10" sub (& amp for sub), Focal 690AC 6x9s & ISU 130 5.25"speaks. The DEH-80PRS was Crutchfield rep advice from concern of receivers being mediocre quality. Lots of detailed verbiage on "audiophile grade components". Sound? Flash drive: Respectable, sterile digital music. Bluetooth: A notch below flash. FM tuner: Plain lousy (not an HD tuner). And I probably paid well over $2K all told. Reluctant to upgrade the system on my new C6

  • Gilberto Bracetty from Youngstown

    Posted on 6/23/2020

    I need a touchscreen radio for a 2012 Suzuki Kizashi it has Rockford Fosgate System what radio can I use..

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 6/24/2020

    Gilberto, you can use our vehicle selector to confirm which stereos fit your car and get some info on what else is needed for the installation.
  • Michaela Hemsley

    Posted on 5/6/2020

    Great article!

  • Doug Feibel from Natchitoches

    Posted on 10/27/2019

    I wouldn't recommend buying anything from Cutchfield unless you just want to listen to a radio. As I just found out with my 2010 Corolla and the Pioneer AVH-501EX. Nothing but the radio works without a parking brake wire being connected and I mean nothing. No Bluetooth, no dvd, no apps even connected USB. Nothing. To connect to said wire, I would have to risk breaking another wire, to remove the connector. In Crutchfield's defense, their tech told me where the wire is and wished me luck but after removing the necessary panels, i erred on the side of discretion and reinstalled the panels. Yes, you can buy a bypass or install a relay to get around said elephant in the room but you'd be better off buying from a local installer and letting them take the risk. I definitely wouldn't recommend anything from Pioneer. The manual they send is absolute garbage. Outside of finding some of the inputs on your unit, you won't find any other information regarding the unit you purchase. I'm highly disappointed. Sure I'll get the work around or take it to a local shop but I shouldn't have to do that for some idiotic interlock. Don't care about the DVD's but I should be able to connect a phone and I can't do that.

    Commenter image

    Robert Ferency-Viars from Crutchfield

    on 10/28/2019

    Doug, I understand your frustration and reluctance. We all have our limits and comfort levels when it comes to DIY projects, and we often don't know where those limits are until we run into them. While I have installed many a car stereo and even built my own deck in the back yard, my plumber is very grateful for my reluctance to turn a pipe wrench. Installing a new car stereo definitely requires connecting a lot of wires, most of which involves wiring between the stereo and installation adapter (we created our ReadyHarness service to remove as much of that work and worry as we can and simplify installation as much as possible). But some connections have to be hard-wired to the car, especially if the new stereo has a video screen. Most of the time, the wire splicing can be done safely and securely by using a common wire tap or Posi-Tap connecter with no cutting needed. But if you're not comfortable doing it, then yes, turn to a professional installer for help.
  • john smith from alaska

    Posted on 9/19/2017

    All most people seem to want from a car stereo is volume and bass. Far too many systems in cars are about quantity, not quality, although as 405line has said, going for high quality is rather pointless in a car anyway. I imagine the Mark Levinson systems in a Lexus LS is about as good as it gets, but haven't tried one.

  • Josh from Woodstock N.B

    Posted on 1/8/2017

    I have 2 15" MTX Thunder6000 and a 1000 watt Sony Xplod 2/1 channel amp will that be enough power for both subs?

  • Ron from Studio City

    Posted on 12/5/2016

    I have a Pioneer HU which has 5-6 volts on all the rca amp pre's and was wondering do I need to make sure on amps if they can accept that high of volts off the rca plugs for the amps?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/11/2016

    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.

  • felipe from houston

    Posted on 7/9/2016

    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

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/16/2016

    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.

  • Rick from Minneapolis

    Posted on 5/15/2016

    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?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/4/2015

    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.

  • mark from edmonton

    Posted on 11/4/2015

    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

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/27/2015

    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.

  • Matt

    Posted on 8/26/2015

    What does RDS mean when referring to car stereo receivers?

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/16/2015

    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.

  • nate from Denver,colorado,usa

    Posted on 7/15/2015

    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

  • Commenter image

    Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/1/2015

    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.

  • Taryn Haynes from Mount Vernon, NY

    Posted on 5/29/2015

    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.