How to install a car stereo
Remove your factory stereo and install a new one
I've been with Crutchfield since 1999, where I began as one our advisors, helping our customers choose new gear. After a couple of years, I moved to the writing team where I spent a decade researching new products and getting hands on with car stereos, amplifiers, speakers, and subs. Yeah, I've been doing this for a while.
For the past few years, I've been the managing editor of Crutchfield's Car A/V web article content. I couldn't ask for a better job — we get to play with car audio gear every day! I'm a Virginia native from the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Outside of work, I love listening to music, playing board games, and installing new audio systems for my friends.
More from Robert Ferency-Viars
In a Nutshell
Car stereo installation basics — In this article, we'll walk you through the process of installing a new car stereo. We'll cover:
- How to remove the factory stereo
- How to wire the new receiver — what you need to know to connect it right
- How to install the new car stereo
Please read over these guidelines before beginning the installation so you'll know what to expect.
Get your toolbox
You'll need a few tools to get the job done, but nothing serious. A couple of screwdrivers and a wrench or socket set for the battery cable are most common. You’ll also need some wire strippers, electrical tape, and a way to make wiring connections – which we’ll cover later. One of the more important tools you'll need is a panel removal tool to help you safely remove the dash panels without scratching the surfaces or breaking anything.
Protect your trim panels by using the right tool for the job.
Watch this video for a step-by-step overview of a basic car stereo installation
If you’re looking for a more visual take, check out this video of one of our senior advisors installing a stereo. He walks you through the process from start to finish and shares a few expert tips along the way.
Removing the factory stereo
When installing a new stereo in your car, your first step will be to remove the old stereo. It would be easy to breeze through the removal steps and forget them. But don’t rush! You’ll want to make sure you remember the sequence of these steps, since you’ll be reversing this process to install a new stereo.
For detailed information on how to remove the factory stereo that's specific to your vehicle, refer to your Crutchfield MasterSheet™ instructions, which walk you through the process step-by-step. Otherwise, you may use the general guidelines below. These instructions are free with a car stereo purchase, or you can purchase them separately for $9.99. Using MasterSheet instructions with the general guidelines below will prove to be a winning combo.
Before you begin, start by setting the parking brake and removing the negative cable from the car battery to prevent accidentally short circuiting something.
Your factory stereo will most often be mounted in one of the following ways:
- secured in a metal mounting sleeve by spring clips
- bolted to the dash with brackets
- mounted to a rail system inside the dash
Removing a spring-clip mounted radio
If the stereo is held in by spring clips, you'll need a pair of DIN tools. Insert the DIN tools into the holes on either side of the unit until you hear a click. The tools serve to release the spring clips and also hook onto the sides of the stereo so that you can pull it out easily. Spread the tools apart slightly then pull the stereo out of the dash.
Removing a stereo that's bolted in place
Sometimes, accessing the stereo requires the removal of one or more trim panels from the dash. You may have to (carefully) pry the plastic trim away from the dash (which is often secured by hidden pressure clips), or locate and remove bolts to disassemble other pieces of panel. Once you have gained access to the factory stereo, you should be able to see screws that secure the radio to the dash. Remove the screws and pull the stereo from the dash.
Removing a stereo attached to a rail system
Some vehicle manufacturers mount the factory radio to a guide rail inside the dash. Once the spring clips or bolts are removed, you can slide the radio off of the rail. Because this rail can sometimes interfere with the chassis of a new radio, it may have to be removed too. Something to keep in mind: once this is done, you often cannot reinstall the factory radio.
Stereos for older cars
American cars built before the early 1980s often came with a "shaft-style" stereo, which secured to the dash via nuts and washers to the right and left knobs. A shaft-style stereo must be installed from behind the dash. Getting it into position is the tricky part, since your vehicle's wiring, heater controls, and ductwork may be in the way. One of our vendors, RetroSound, offers several vintage shaft-style radios with modern features on board and a versatile mounting system.
Unplugging the factory stereo
If your vehicle has (or once had) a factory stereo, or if it was pre-wired with a "stereo prep" package, there should be at least one plastic wiring harness behind the stereo opening. This plug connects the stereo to your vehicle's electrical system and the speakers. You will need to unplug the factory stereo from the wiring harnesses, and unplug the antenna to complete the removal process.
With the old radio out of the way, it's time to focus on the new one. That involves connecting all the wires and then installing the stereo in the dash.
How to wire a car stereo
If Crutchfield carries a vehicle-specific wiring harness for your vehicle, you can use it to connect your new stereo to your vehicle's factory wiring harnesses. This will ensure that everything works seamlessly, just like the factory stereo did.
These harnesses usually include a color-coded wiring diagram for connecting the harness to your new stereo. Your new stereo will also include a radio wiring diagram in the owner's manual. Refer to the two diagrams to confirm the car stereo wire colors that need to be connected to the adapter harness. The nice thing is that you can make these connections on a workbench, desk, or kitchen table without having to be inside the vehicle.
If a harness is not available for your vehicle or if the factory stereo plug was cut off, you'll need to identify each of the car's stereo wires and connect them to the corresponding wires of your new stereo. If you purchased your new stereo from Crutchfield, our Tech Support team may be able to tell you the colors and functions of your car's wiring.
Options for connecting the wires
You’ll need to fasten bare wires together, and there are few ways to do it:
- Soldering creates a permanent, professional connection that ensures maximum current transfer. We strongly recommend that you use heat-shrink tubing and a heat gun to insulate the soldered connection. Most purists prefer this method, because it’s the most secure and conductive connection for the wiring.
- Posi-Product™ connectors offer a quick and secure twist-on connection for wires, and they can be re-used. It never hurts to have a couple of Posi-Tap connectors on hand for various jobs, too. This is our favorite way to get strong connections fast.
- Crimping is fast and fairly simple. If you crimp the wires together, be sure to use the correct size crimp connector — typical in-dash stereo wires are 18-gauge, but a few use heavier gauge power and ground wires. There are several types of crimp connectors, including bullet connectors, butt connectors, or crimp caps.
NOTE: Avoid only taping the wires together — eventually the tape will dry out and fall off, exposing the wires and making it only a matter of time before something shorts out.
Check out our wire connecting videos to see these three methods in action.
Usually, it is best to make all of the new stereo's wiring connections via the wiring harness, but if you have to make a direct power connection, you'll need to know the difference between "switched" and "constant" power:
- A switched power source is only on when the ignition is keyed. Connect your new stereo's main (switched) power lead – usually a red wire – to a switched power source, so that the stereo will turn off when you turn off the car, and not drain your vehicle's battery.
- A constant power source is always on. Connect your new stereo's memory lead – usually a yellow wire – to a constant power source, so that you don't lose your radio station presets, tone control presets, and clock settings every time you turn off the vehicle.
Although rare, a few high-powered stereos require you to make a direct constant power connection at the positive terminal of your vehicle's battery. This requires a heavier gauge power wire, an in-line fuse (usually included), and a ring terminal to connect the power wire to the battery clamp. You will have to route the power wire to the battery location, which is often through the vehicle firewall and into the engine compartment in order to make the connection at the battery.
Car stereos have eight wires for the traditional 4-speaker system – a positive wire and a negative wire for the front left, front right, rear left, and rear right speakers. Depending on the wiring configuration in your vehicle and the wiring harness adapter we offer, some of these may not be used.
A good ground connection is vital for proper stereo performance and to eliminate unwanted noise. If you are not using a custom wiring harness, look for a bare, unpainted bolt or screw that contacts the bare metal of your vehicle's chassis. Loosen the bolt, slip the ground wire underneath (this is almost always a black wire), then tighten the bolt. If your ground wire doesn't contact bare metal, your stereo won't operate. A loose or weak ground connection can result in signal noise interfering with your music.
In-dash video — tapping into the parking brake wire
If your new stereo has a video monitor built in, you will also need to connect a wire to your emergency/parking brake wire. This wire acts as a switch to turn on the video monitor when the parking brake is engaged.
This wire can be in different locations in different vehicles, depending on the brake configuration. Often, it's found at the base of the parking brake handle in many cars. You’ll usually have to remove the center console to get to it. That’s not too hard, just take your time. And once again, Crutchfield's award-winning tech support team can be a big help in locating it.
Mounting the stereo in the dash
If the original stereo was bolted into the dash, you might need to remove the mounting brackets from the sides of it and attach them to the sides of your new stereo. More likely, you will need a mounting kit to install the stereo.
If a mounting kit is required, follow the instructions included with the kit. Sometimes you install the kit in the dash, then slide the new stereo's metal mounting sleeve (if included) into the kit. Secure the metal sleeve by using a screwdriver to bend the sleeve's metal tabs into place. In other cases, you attach the mounting kit to the new stereo first, then secure both in the dash with screws.
If your vehicle has an upgraded version of the factory sound system (such as a Bose or Harman Kardon upgrade, for example) or an integrated stereo/climate control panel, you will probably need a special factory system wiring adapter in order to install a new stereo. An adapter allows you to use a new stereo with your existing speaker system. And you'll get it at a deep discount when you buy your new stereo from us.
This integration package lets you keep the factory LCD screen and touchscreen climate controls in select 2010 and up Ford Mustangs.
Once the dash opening is ready for the new stereo, hold the stereo near the opening. Connect the stereo wiring adapter to the vehicle's wiring harness and plug in the antenna cable. Depending on the stereo you choose, you’ll also need to connect various things to the rear of the stereo, such as the Bluetooth® microphone wire, a USB cable, steering wheel control interface, or an auxiliary input cable.
Check your work
Slide the stereo into the dash opening, but don't fasten it down just yet. First, test the stereo to make sure everything is working properly. It's easier to fix a problem while everything is still exposed.
Note: You'll have to reattach the battery cable in order to test the stereo, so if you disconnected any airbag warning plugs, be sure to reattach those before reconnecting the battery.
Turn on the power and try each source (AM, FM, CD, USB, etc.). Then adjust the balance and fader settings to check that each speaker is working. Once you're sure the stereo is wired and working properly, finish securing it in the dash and reinstall any pieces of dash trim panel that you removed.
What about modifications?
In some vehicles, you might have to make modifications to the dash opening or the area inside (what we refer to as the “dash substructure”) in order to install a new stereo. If this is the case for your vehicle, we’ll warn you about it when you’re shopping on our site, and also in your Crutchfield MasterSheet. And once again, don’t hesitate to call our tech support crew if you need any guidance.
Ready to try it yourself?
By now you should have some idea of what is involved in replacing your factory stereo with a new, better, aftermarket stereo. So, it’s time to check out our Crutchfield Outfit My Car tool, where you can tell us what kind of vehicle you have. From there, you'll be able to see the details about which stereos, speakers, and other gear will work with your vehicle and also see the installation gear you'll need to do the job right.
And if you have questions, we’re ready for you. You can contact our Advisors via chat, email, or phone.