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If you’re wondering how and when to upgrade a car stereo, then reading about the best stereo system is needed to guide you to make that decision. Most cars have a built-in unit that is basic when compared to other, separate products on the market. Anyone can install a new system into their vehicle! Models like JVC KW-M740BT Receiver, found on Amazon, have an easy installation process that is doable for even the inexperienced tech novice.
Your new stereo system should be about more than just sound quality. The display, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, GPS, and more, can be featured in your new device. We have included an all-encompassing buying guide in this article to help you be better informed about the different specs and upgrades you can be receiving when purchasing one of the best car stereo systems.
Easy to use
Great sound quality
Built-in apps could be better
The Pioneer AVH-4200NEX features a 7-inch screen and an astounding level of compatibility with music files and smartphones. It can play FLAC, MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV audio files, as well as MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, AVI, DivX, and WMV video files. For smartphones, it works with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. When it comes to music services, the AVH-4200NEX is compatible with Spotify, Pandora, and SiriusXM, and you can use its Bluetooth connectivity for both music and calling.
“This speaker system sounds as good or better than the original car radio,” reported one of our testers. Customers especially love the interactivity between the receiver and iOS and Android phones, as well as the customization. In terms of downsides, one of our testers noted that the system crashed a few times during the testing period but said the issue was resolved by restarting the unit.
Good sound quality
Android Auto is glitchy
Boost the sound of your stock speakers and connect to all your Apple and Android devices with this sharp, minimalist car stereo from JVC. The touch interface is intuitive, with a smart design that allows you to transition from navigation to music to your phone. A double DIN receiver lets you set and store a wide range of acoustic preferences, including subwoofer and EQW.
Customers rave about the sound quality: With high-resolution playback up to 192/kHz for 24bit audio, playback quality is 6.5-times that of a CD. The stereo possesses K2 Enhanced Digital Sound Quality and Bass Boost 3way crossover which, together, ensure high-frequency reproductions of original recordings. Access your tunes with ease using dual USB ports, Bluetooth connection, Android Auto, or Apple CarPlay. Some reviewers warn Android compatibility leaves something to be desired, however, particularly when trying to access apps like Google Maps.
Bluetooth works well
Good features for the price
If you can skip some of the bells and whistles, the Pioneer DEH-X6900BT in-dash car stereo system is a fantastic choice for budget-conscious buyers. Whether it’s already enabled in your vehicle or not, the Pioneer adds Bluetooth connectivity, so you can wirelessly stream music and answer (and end) phone calls hands-free through the car’s speaker system. There’s also a front-panel USB and AUX input for hooking up various gadgets, including an iPhone or handheld music players.
Featuring an onboard EQ five-band equalizer, this device offers powerful, high-quality audio for the price, according to reviewers. Customers particularly like the dual-zone color customization of the display and buttons, but many note that even on its brightest setting, the LED screen is too dim to see—particularly in harsh sunlight.
Great sound customization
Lots of features
Dash cam compatible
Kenwood software is glitchy
The Kenwood Excelon DMX905S connects to both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay through USB connections, with some options for wireless Android Auto connection (only works with certain phones and operating system versions, though, so check before you purchase). Beyond its Android compatibility, it's an excellent double DIN digital media receiver (it doesn’t play CDs or DVDs). It sports a 6.95-inch LCD touchscreen and Bluetooth pairing, and you can connect and switch between five audio sources and two phones for hands-free calling.
You’ll get great sound quality as well, thanks to its amp with 22-watt RMS (50-watt peak) power across four channels and a 13-band graphic equalizer to optimize audio based on your vehicle and your preferences. Customers highly praise this device for its relatively low price and sound quality, but they say the Kenwood software isn't all that functional.
Awkward design makes installation tricky
Sony's 6.4-inch Bluetooth-integrated stereo unit aims to make using your Android smartphone on the road as simple—and safe—as possible, and the brand's well-earned reputation doesn't disappoint. The in-dash receiver sports a clear touchscreen with an ergonomic rotary dial that is easy to operate. It responds to voice commands and features integrated buttons that launch sound control, offering multiple options for navigating your Android apps and music.
The stereo's sound is exceptional thanks to intricate sound controls that can be adjusted via the Dynamic Stage Organizer on your dashboard. The powerful built-in 4 x 55W power amp gives you all the volume you can handle and offers EXTRABASS to support music that plays at a lower frequency. Bluetooth and rear-view camera compatibility make this speaker an all-around great choice. While most reviewers loved this unit, a few noted that its size and wiring placement can be a little awkward when installing.
Android Auto functions well
Impressive list of features
Additional cables required for certain phones/features
With a whopping 7-inch display, the Pioneer AVH4200NEX in-dash receiver is an outstanding option for car owners who want a gorgeous display that’s full of functionality. With built-in DVD compatibility, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto, there’s no shortage of device support. The Pioneer extends its support for Apple with Siri compatibility, as well as built-in iPod, iPhone, and iPad control through an optional adapter that allows for the viewing of video content. Plus, built-in Bluetooth supports two devices at one time.
There's also extra support for SiriusXM, so you can access music, traffic, weather, and sports. Connecting any compatible iPhone or Android smartphone via Pioneer's AppRadio Mode adds on-screen access to your contacts, calendar, maps, and more. Additionally, AppRadioLive adds all the news and media info you’d want into a single interface designed for quick and easy discovery.
Great sound controls
No physical volume button
Apple Carplay and Android Auto aren't wireless
There are ways to get a larger touchscreen stereo system on cars that can only fit a 2-inch-tall single DIN head unit, but the Alpine Halo9 iLX-F309 goes all-out, rocking a massive 9-inch screen that “floats” in front of the dash. The anti-glare touchscreen is adjustable, with an attractive and easy-to-navigate interface. The included feature set is wide, with everything from custom shortcuts to Bluetooth to wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
The built-in amplifier offers 4 x 18 watts RMS (50 watts peak) power and excellent audio quality. You can customize your sound with a nine-band equalizer or use the broad selection of included presets. The system supports playback from AM, FM, HD radio, SiriusXM satellite radio (with subscription), FLAC and other digital music files, and AVI and MPEG4 video via USB. There are inputs for HDMI and a rear camera as well.
Tons of sound settings
Bluetooth can be glitchy
The Alpine Single DIN Bluetooth Car Stereo comes with high-quality HD radio signals for clean and clear reception. Its peak power gives it an output of 50 watts through four channels, while its RMS power offers 18 watts with four channels. It has preamp RCA outputs for front, rear, and subwoofer. The device comes with a nine-band built-in equalizer with LCD text display with four selectable colors and includes a 105 dB with an AM/FM tuner and CD signal-to-noise.
It’s compatible with your iPhone and Android smartphones, too. You can stream Pandora Internet Radio from your phone and capture Sirius XM satellite radio signals. Some customers noted that the system has a tendency to glitch with Pandora if using a Samsung S3, and others mentioned occasional freezing when using Bluetooth. However, for the most part, online reviewers said the sound quality and set of features can't be beaten for the price.
Why should I replace my car stereo?
Most cars and trucks are built with very basic sound systems, but there are several ways to upgrade the sound quality and functionality of your current stereo. Whether you have an older car and simply want the ability to play music from your phone, you want features like media playback, or you’re looking for really powerful bass, there are several ways to take your car stereo to the next level. The three main components of your car’s sound system are the stereo receiver or head unit (which most people refer to as simply the radio or stereo), the speakers, and the amplifier. Replacing the stereo or head unit is often the best place to start.
What’s the difference between single DIN and double DIN car stereos?
Single DIN is a standard that refers to a specific height and width (not length) for car head units. Car and stereo manufacturers worldwide use this standard of measurement, so most single DIN head units are interchangeable in terms of dimensions. Head units that are twice as tall as single DIN units are referred to as double DIN. In general, if the radio is about 2 inches tall, it's probably single DIN, and if it's about 4 inches tall, then it's double DIN. There are some rare cases of 1.5 DIN, but most will either be single or double.
Can I install a new car stereo myself?
Technically, anyone can install a new car stereo or head unit. However, the difficulty of the task is going to depend on a variety of factors, including your trim and dash components, fit and mounting of the new device, and the wiring. You can check out our installation guide for specific DIY instructions, but for most people—who aren’t super savvy at this type of thing—we recommend factoring professional installation into the overall cost of your new system.
Getting an audio system in your home is relatively easy to do thanks to the multitude of speakers and speaker systems on the market. When it comes to finding a great audio system for your car, however, things are a little different—and it can be tough to make sure you’re getting the right system for your specific needs and car.
Thankfully, there are hundreds of options on the market when it comes to car audio systems, meaning there’s almost certainly something out there that works for you. So while buying a car audio system can be daunting, we’ve put together this guide to help you find the products that are perfect for your needs.
When buying a car stereo system, there are a number of things to consider. First, you’ll need to think about the different components of the audio system and whether you need them all. There are three main components to keep in mind: the car stereo receiver, an amplifier, and the speakers, which may or may not include a subwoofer.
Once you’ve decided which components you’ll need, it’s time to start looking at the different features and considerations for each. For example, a car stereo receiver might have particular software that you prefer, or you might want to get a speaker with a wide frequency range to ensure that you get the best audio quality possible.
There’s also budget and price, and it’s worth keeping in mind that you’re probably going to spend more than you think. Apart from the components themselves, you’ll most likely need to hire a professional to install the system—especially if you're new to car stereos—and the professional installation can run into the thousands of dollars for a full audio system.
No matter what your budget, and what you’re looking for from your car stereo system, there should be something for you. Here’s everything to keep in mind when upgrading your car’s audio system.
First up is the stereo receiver, which is basically the control hub of your car’s audio system. The stereo receiver, or head unit, is what you’ll use to play different music, control volume, and so on. You’ll also be able to do things like display maps, depending on the stereo you get.
It's safe to say, every car audio system needs a stereo receiver. The one that comes pre-installed in your car might be good enough right away, depending on the model, but you'll need to upgrade to something more high tech if you really want to improve the audio quality.
A car stereo’s preamp is basically where all the adjustments related to sound are made. For example, from the display, you might be able to tweak settings like equalization and overall volume, which affects how the audio sounds through the preamp. With preamp outputs, you can also connect a stereo amplifier, and while you might not necessarily need one, it certainly can help for those who want a loud, clear sound from their car’s speaker system. Often, car stereos have amplifiers built into them, but they might not offer the same sound quality that you could get from a dedicated amplifier.
Car stereos might have a different number of preamp outputs, too. Some car stereos only offer one set of preamp outputs—basically limiting you to a stereo system with no subwoofer. Some step things up to two sets of outputs, which helps you connect to a four-channel amplifier or use two amplifiers. Last but not least, if a car stereo has three sets of preamp outputs (six jacks in total), it supports a subwoofer, too.
Preamp output voltage is also worth considering. The higher the output voltage, the cleaner the sound that’s produced and the higher the output from your amplifier. Basic car stereos often offer around 2V from their preamp outputs, while some range up to 4V or more.
Most car stereo receivers have a display of some kind, but the quality and purpose of the display vary widely. Some, for example, really only show information like the song title and the time. Others, might show information like maps and even play videos—and as such, they need a much more robust display.
In general, the display of a stereo receiver is perfectly capable of doing whatever it needs to do. In other words, if a receiver is capable of showing maps, then it’ll have a display to accommodate that—meaning that your focus should probably be more on other features like mapping and software than the actual display. Still, if you want a receiver with mapping features, you might find some variation of display size within the receivers that are compatible with your car. The variation may only be an inch or so, but even that can make a difference when the display is only 6 or 7 inches in the first place.
Recently, the likes of Apple and Google have been exploring ways to bring their apps and services into the car, and that has given rise to Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. These systems are really just ways to show information from your phone on your car stereo, meaning someone else can use your CarPlay or Android Auto-enabled head unit and have access to their preferences and content.
Common apps that you’ll be able to access through these systems include mapping apps, music, podcasts, and more. The apps are normally designed for car use, so there should be minimal distractions and an emphasis on voice controls.
If you’re really plugged into the Google or Apple ecosystems, we recommend getting a receiver that’s CarPlay- and Android Auto-enabled. Most aftermarket devices that have one have both. It’s also worth looking out for wireless Android Auto and CarPlay so you won’t need to physically connect your phone to your receiver through a cable each time you get in the car.
In the absence of Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, Bluetooth is still a great way to play music and control calls from your smartphone. Generally, Bluetooth-enabled receivers work just like any other Bluetooth device. After connecting your phone to it the first time, it should connect automatically whenever you get in your car. Then, you can stream music straight from your phone, and calls will automatically be routed to the receiver so that you don’t have to fumble around for your phone, which is particularly dangerous while driving.
Most aftermarket car stereo receivers should have Bluetooth support, so you shouldn’t have to look hard to find one. In fact, we would argue that if you see one without Bluetooth, steer clear—it’s probably dated, and might skimp on other features, too.
If you’re using your phone to navigate from location to location, then GPS support may not be a big deal to you on your car’s stereo receiver. If, however, you want to buy a unit that has mapping features built into it, then it’s worth considering.
In fact, even units that use Apple CarPlay and Android Auto can benefit from a unit with GPS support. Sometimes, CarPlay and Android Auto can use receivers’ built-in GPS to get slightly better positioning, which should make for more accurate mapping. In general, you may not notice much of a difference. So if you’re looking for a unit with CarPlay or Android Auto, it’s not necessarily imperative that you find a unit with a built-in GPS. If, however, you’ll be using your receiver’s built-in mapping, you will need to ensure that it has its own GPS sensors.
Beyond Bluetooth and CarPlay/Android Auto, there are a few other ways to get music from your phone or other listening devices into your car’s stereo. For example, you might want to find a receiver that has an aux port, with which you can simply plug the headphone jack from your phone into the unit. You might also find receivers with a USB port, which allows you to play content directly from a USB drive.
Another source, the AM/FM radio, is pretty much a given for a car stereo receiver—so while fewer and fewer people are listening to the radio, your new receiver should still feature it. Beyond terrestrial radio, however, many car stereo receivers these days feature support for satellite radio, too. Generally, you’ll need to purchase a subscription to access satellite radio, and in the United States, the most common satellite radio subscription service is SiriusXM.
Last but not least is the humble CD. While many might not need or want a CD player built into their car stereo receiver, others still swear by it and may prefer to buy a receiver that supports it. Because of the fact that the CD is a dying medium, you’ll need to double-check that your device has a CD player if you want one.
Beyond buying a car stereo receiver, you might want to buy an amplifier, too. Most won’t need to bother with an amplifier—they’re really only helpful for those with a tuned ear that want the highest-quality audio you can possibly get.
Car audio amplifiers are available in a range of configurations, with some offering more channels than others. Generally speaking, you’ll need one channel on your amplifier for each speaker that you have or want in your sound system—including for a subwoofer if you’re adding one to your system. Of course, there’s no harm in buying an amplifier that offers more channels than you’ll need, but buying one that doesn’t have enough channels would limit your system.
Units generally start at two channels and range up to eight channels or more. Commonly used is a five-channel amp, which allows for four speakers and one subwoofer. You can also buy an amplifier with only one channel, which is usually used to power a subwoofer only and is coupled with the built-in amplifier on a receiver, which powers the other speakers in a system.
We recommend getting at least four channels. You can use a four-channel amp to power a pair of speakers and a sub if you need, plus if you want to expand later on to two sets of speakers, a four-channel amp allows you to do so. As mentioned, however, more channels can’t hurt.
One of the most important things to consider when buying a car stereo amplifier is the amplifier’s power. Generally speaking, the more power that an amplifier can deliver, the better the system is going to sound. Not only will the system get louder, but it delivers a clearer sound thanks to the fact that the speakers won’t distort until much higher volumes.
The first step in finding out how much power you need is figuring out how much your speakers can handle. This number is usually measured in RMS, or root mean square. It’s a little technical to explain, but generally, it’s a good idea to find an amplifier that can match the RMS of your speakers, or even go slightly lower, per channel. So, if your speakers have an RMS rating of 10 watts, it’s worth finding an amplifier that delivers 10 watts or a little less per channel.
Power can be a concern especially when it comes to buying a subwoofer. Subwoofers often require more power to run properly, and so you may find yourself in a situation where you need to bridge two channels to properly power your sub or buy a second mono amplifier built for subs.
We previously mentioned that some stereo receivers have preamp outputs, and that’s a feature that might be important depending on the type of amplifier you want to buy. Not all receivers have preamp outputs, though, and if you were thinking of keeping your stock receiver, then you may need to tailor your amplifier purchase to the outputs you do have at your disposal.
If you’re buying an amplifier and don’t have preamp outputs, then you’ll need to make sure that the amplifier you buy has speaker-level inputs. This likely will result in a better sound quality than you would otherwise have, but if you do want the best sound quality possible, then it’s worth getting a receiver with preamp outputs and an amplifier with line-level inputs.
Confused? If you have a receiver with preamp outputs, buy an amplifier with line-level inputs. If you don’t have preamp outputs on your receiver, go for an amplifier with speaker-level inputs.
Most likely, you’re going to want to hire a professional to install your amplifier, but where you place it might vary from vehicle to vehicle. Why? Well, when cars roll off the production line they don’t have amplifiers built into them, so you can’t simply take out the old amplifier and replace it with a new one.
That said, there are some common places to install an amplifier in a car that are out of the way. For example, some choose to install the amplifier under one of the front seats, which ensures it remains largely unseen. Others prefer to have it installed in the trunk. It’s not a one-size-fits-all issue, but something to keep in mind.
Whether you decide to buy a new stereo receiver or a new amplifier (or both or neither), replacing the speakers can seriously improve the overall audio performance in your car. Of course, there are a number of things to keep in mind when buying speakers.
The sensitivity of speakers essentially dictates how loud the speakers can go with the power that they’re given. In other words, if you have a receiver or amplifier that delivers a low amount of power—around 15 watts RMS per channel or less—then it’s a good idea to buy speakers that have a high sensitivity. A high sensitivity could be described as being 85 dB or higher.
On the other side of that argument is the fact that if you have an amplifier or receiver that delivers a lot of power, you don’t necessarily need to buy speakers with a high sensitivity rating. That, however, doesn’t mean you need to avoid them—it just means you might have a really loud system.
While sensitivity alone won’t necessarily dictate whether you need to avoid speaker/amplifier combinations, power handling will. Power handling basically refers to the amount of power that a speaker can handle, and any more than that might do damage to the speaker. As mentioned, if you have an amplifier that delivers a lot of power, you can buy speakers that require a lot of power.
The way to determine how much power a speaker can handle is through the maximum RMS rating. If your amplifier delivers 100-watts RMS per channel, then you’ll want to make sure that you buy a speaker that can handle at least 100-watts RMS or even a little more than that.
Car speakers can basically be divided into two categories: full-range speakers and component speakers.
Full-range speakers are built to reproduce the entire frequency range. That’s to say, they often have a woofer for the low frequencies and a tweeter for the higher frequencies—though sometimes they split things up a little further. The advantage to these is that you don’t have to worry about buying different speakers for different parts of the frequency spectrum and it’s a little easier to install full-range speakers. The disadvantage is you won’t get the same audio quality that you get with component speakers.
Component speakers are basically built to handle specific parts of the frequency spectrum. You’ll have some speakers built for ultra-high frequencies, some for the midrange, and some for the low frequencies. When working together, these speakers will deliver a powerful and detailed sound. The problem with this is that you have to be careful when installing a component system. That’s because of the fact that some frequencies are better at traveling than others. So, while you could put a woofer under the seat and still get plenty of low end, if you did that with high frequencies you’d get a muffled sound.
If you decide on getting component speakers, you may also need to invest in a crossover, which is basically a device that divides a signal into different frequencies, ensuring that ultra-low frequencies aren’t being sent to tweeters and ultra-high ones aren’t being sent to woofers. The crossover is placed between the receiver and the amplifier, ensuring that each channel of the amplifier can focus on only amplifying the frequencies it needs to.
A subwoofer is basically a speaker that’s dedicated to playing ultra-low frequencies, ensuring that the overall sound is nice and powerful. There are a number of things to keep in mind when buying a subwoofer for your system.
For starters, subwoofers come in a few different form factors. A component subwoofer is basically the speaker alone. When you buy a component subwoofer, you’ll need to figure out a way to mount the speaker, most commonly through a subwoofer box. Component subwoofers range from around 8-inches up to 15-inches. Then there’s the enclosed sub, which is a subwoofer pre-mounted into a box built for that sub. The advantage of this is that it’s less work to figure out installation and mounting, but you’re also a little more limited in the type of subwoofer you can get. Last but not least, is the powered sub, which has an amplifier built into it and generally is a little more compact than other types. Powered subs are a great idea for those who like the idea of giving their music some extra oomph but don’t want to buy a dedicated amplifier separately.
Like other types of speakers, you’ll want to ensure the subwoofer is getting the right amount of power to deliver a powerful sound without doing damage to the speaker. You’ll also want to consider the sensitivity of the sub (discussed above).
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when buying a subwoofer is how big the woofer actually is. Technically speaking, larger woofers can produce lower sounds, but there are other variables that contribute to that, too. If you ultimately want the loudest setup possible and don’t mind taking a lot of space, then find the biggest sub you can. Otherwise, figure out how much space you’re willing to set aside and find the best one that fits in that space.
As you might assume, there are dozens of brands that sell audio equipment for cars, as well as different brands for each of the different components.
Still, there are some companies known for building audio equipment across the board. Some of those companies include the likes of JVC, Kenwood, Sony, Pioneer, and Alpine. If you find equipment from any of these companies, whether they be receivers, amplifiers, or speakers, it will generally be high-quality in build and sound.
That’s not to say you should ignore other brands. Some, for example, focus more on the speaker and amplifier side of things than the receiver side. A few companies known for their great speakers include the likes of Rockford Fosgate, JBL, and Kicker.
Putting together a car audio system can be a complicated and long process, and as you can see, not only do you need to consider which components to buy, but it’s also worth keeping in mind the different features of those different components.
Then there’s the financial side of things. It would be very easy to spend thousands of dollars on decking out your car with new audio equipment, and if you have the thousands of dollars to spend on components and professional installation, then we recommend going all out, talking to a professional, and buying a receiver, amplifier, speakers, subwoofers, and so on.
Most, however, will want to be a little more careful with their spending, and for those people, we have a few recommendations. For starters, if all you want is a more advanced mapping and connection setup, then you really only need to buy a stereo receiver. Alternatively, if you simply want to give the sound quality a little extra something, then buying a powered sub might be the way to go.
If you’re looking to seriously improve your car’s audio quality, then step things up a little. Perhaps the easiest way to get a better sound quality is to simply replace your car’s speakers. Beyond that, if you have the funds and it’s compatible with your system, consider buying an amplifier. If you can go even further, buy a new receiver, too.
There are a few things that are super important to stress. The first is that you might be surprised how much money the installation step will cost. We recommend contacting a professional and working with them on the cost of parts and the installation and we recommend making sure that the quoted cost will be the final cost. The second is that you don’t necessarily need to spend thousands in order to get a great sound—especially if you’re not an audiophile in the first place.