Digital media receivers buying guide
How to choose the digital media receiver that's right for you
I've written about car audio for Crutchfield since 2003, after four years as Crutchfield Sales Advisor, and 10 years as a music teacher. I'm an avid music listener, with a real love of classical and film music. I love having a great system in my car, and I'll still match the system in my 98 Ford Ranger (may it rest in piece) up against anything else I've heard for great SQ. I attended West Virginia University, where I received a Master's Degree in Music Performance and a Bachelor's Degree in History. Let's Go Mountaineers!
More from Ken Nail
Buying a new in-dash receiver for your car used to revolve around a two basic choices: CD or cassette. But cassettes are a faded memory, and in today's age of downloaded music, you might not even own CDs anymore. This fundamental change in how we listen to music has spawned a new category of in-dash player — the digital media receiver.
What's a digital media receiver?
Simply put, a digital media receiver (sometimes referred to as a "mechless" receiver) is a car stereo without a built-in CD player. Today's receivers are loaded with options like USB ports, SD card slots, auxiliary inputs, or dedicated iPod® connections. Most models support manufacturer-specific connections for other peripherals, like satellite radio tuners, as well. With all those source options to choose from, bringing a CD to the car is unnecessary.
Picking a digital media receiver that suits your style
Start with the obvious — pick a model that fits in your car. Enter your vehicle information in our vehicle selector tool. This will filter out the options that don't fit in your car. Plus, we'll let you know about any necessary installation kits and special adapters you may need — which we offer at a discount when you buy a receiver from us.
Before you buy a receiver, figure out the features you absolutely have to have
What type of inputs do you need?
Answering this question is the next step in selecting the right digital media receiver. Here's a quick rundown of what to look for.
- iPod® and iPhone® controls: Digital media receivers are ideal for iPod and iPhone users. They're usually designed to make it easy to navigate your device's files, whether by hand or by Siri Hands-Free voice commands. Some models display album art as well as song titles and folder names.
- USB inputs: USB thumb drives are a great way to store lots of music. Note where the USB input(s) are — front-panel or on a rear cable — so they'll match up to how you want to configure your system. Some models allow Android™ control through the USB input — be sure to check "Details" when you explore receivers on our website.
- SD card slots: Some digital media receivers come with an SD card slot. If you dig the small size and portability of SD cards, consider looking for this feature.
- Auxiliary inputs: A standard minijack auxiliary input is simple to use and nearly universal. They're great for plug-and-play satellite radios, or as an extra input for another player. Be sure to check location — if you want the most convenience, go for a front-panel input. For a cleaner look, choose one that connects to the rear of the receiver.
- Bluetooth® connectivity: When we think of Bluetooth, we usually think of hands-free calling with mobile phones. But most phones, and some media players, can stream stereo music wirelessly to receivers with Bluetooth capabilities. You'll find Bluetooth built in to some receivers, and as an add-on option with others.
Are you a "set it and forget it" listener or are you a "tweaker"?
Listening options are just one of the things you need to consider when shopping for a car stereo. The other pieces of the stereo are the internal power and preamp sound processing.
- Sound controls: Controls beyond basic bass and treble adjustments let you tailor the music to your car's acoustics. Even if you are the "set it and forget it" type, look for a stereo with treble, bass, and midrange controls — the ability to adjust the midrange will improve the sound of your music. On the other hand, if you're a "tweaker" who likes to experiment with the sound adjustments, look for a model with a more sophisticated equalizer (such as a parametric EQ), with digital signal processing (DSP), or with digital time correction — these types of sound controls give you total control over the effect of the acoustics in your vehicle.
Consider both your current and potential future needs when you're choosing your digital media receiver
What else should you consider in a digital media receiver?
In addition to the types of inputs and connections listed above, consider these features and factors when making your choice.
- HD Radio™ reception: 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 built in.
- App mode: Some receivers can control apps, like Pandora® Internet radio, when connected to a smartphone via the USB or Bluetooth streaming. Your phone needs to have the apps installed.
- Android™ support: We're seeing more receivers capable of accessing music and apps on Android phones.
- Satellite radio: If you want to add satellite radio to your new car stereo, make sure the stereo you choose is "SiriusXM-ready." That means it can control an optional hideaway satellite radio tuner.
- Power: Are you keeping your factory speakers? If so, you don't need to worry about a brand name stereo's power rating — it'll drive your factory speakers just fine. If you intend to replace your factory speakers, however, look for one of the higher-powered models. (Remember, CEA-2006 compliant models will have lower RMS power ratings than non-CEA models.)
- Preamp outputs: Preamp outputs let you connect external amplifiers to power your speakers or a subwoofer. The number or outputs can vary, but you should have at least one set — the higher the output voltage rating, the cleaner the signal. 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.
- Display: For ease of use, you'll want a display that shows the song, album, and artist information without a lot of scrolling. Enhanced graphics make it easier to see the display at a glance and provide you with more information. They also make it easier to control and adjust the stereo. And some displays let you select their color, for a better match to your dash lighting.
Alpine designed their iLX-107 to work specifically with Apple CarPlay
Why would I buy a higher-priced model?
For many people, a lower-priced stereo will do everything they need. So why should you spend more? Well, because you get more! Higher-end digital media receivers offer cutting-edge technology and improved performance.
- Better sound: Higher-priced stereos often feature improved processors and more flexible fine tuning. That means better sounding music for you, especially if you're upgrading the rest of your vehicle's audio system.
- Easier to use: Advanced controls make it easier to operate the stereo. Touchscreen controls are among the most intuitive to use and give your stereo a futuristic feel.
- Video display: Speaking of touchscreens, they also give you the ability to play videos or maybe display the screen from your smartphone, which is especially handy when you're running a GPS app on your phone!
- "Wow" factor: Top-end stereos offer a more striking visual appearance — multicolor fluorescent displays, customizable graphics, and motorized faceplates, for example.
DIY Installation Help
You can get the installation parts, accessories, and tools you need at a deep discount when you buy any receiver from us.
- We include step-by-step instructions specific to your car, available for most vehicles, for free; for most vehicles, we also have the installation parts and accessories you'll need.
- 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.
What's the next step?
Write down a list of the features you most want, then look over the selection of stereos that fit your car. Or just start browsing our digital media receivers to see the styles and options that are available.
And don't hesitate to give us a call if you have any questions (1-888-955-6000). Before you know it, you'll be riding around enjoying your music library on the perfect digital media receiver.