The 3 Best Car Stereo Systems of 2021

Pump up the jams in your car with these car stereos

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The Rundown
Loaded with powerhouse features yet easy to use.
Best Single-DIN:
Sony DSX-GS80 at Amazon
Easily among the most powerful single-DIN car stereo systems available in the market.
Best Big Screen:
Sony XAV-AX8000 at Amazon
The Sony XAV-AX8000 is fully compatible with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

There's no denying the fact that a great car stereo system is an absolute must-have for any journey, even more so for long road trips. Whether you love driving alone or with family/friends, having your favorite music along makes things even more enjoyable. Almost all cars these days come with factory-installed music systems, and while these work well, they are usually basic units that don't offer much in terms of features. If you want to upgrade your in-car infotainment experience, you can get one of the better aftermarket head units installed in your vehicle. These media receivers not only have advanced options such as Bluetooth and subwoofer connectivity, but also come with goodies like turn-by-turn navigation, satellite radio support, and more.

To make things easier for you, we've rounded up some of the best car stereo systems worth buying. These include single-DIN units like Sony DSX-GS80 (with functions such as customizable illumination), as well as double-DIN receivers such as Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX (having features like internet radio support). Read all about them, and take your pick!

Best Overall: Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX

Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX
What We Like
  • Lots of connectivity options included

  • Independent AV content support for rear passengers

What We Don't Like
  • Display isn't exactly the brightest

Loaded with powerhouse features yet easy to use, Pioneer's AVH-W4500NEX is certainly one of the best car stereo systems out there. Its 7-inch WVGA (800x480 pixels) touchscreen display uses clear resistive technology, and comes with an anti-glare coating that allows for improved visibility. The 2-DIN multimedia receiver supports a plethora of digital audio and video file formats (e.g. MP3, AAC, FLAC, AVI, and WMV), conveniently playable from sources such as USB flash drives, SD cards, and even CDs/DVDs.

You also get support for SiriusXM satellite radio (tuner to be purchased separately) and Pandora internet radio. Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX sports built-in Bluetooth for effortless audio streaming and hands-free calling, as well as full compatibility with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Thanks to the "Dual Zone Entertainment" feature, rear seat passenger(s) can enjoy audio/video content on separate monitors/earphones even if the driver and front passenger are listening to audio (from other sources) or using navigation functions.

“With features like multi-source playback, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, and internet/satellite radio support, Pioneer’s AVH-W4500NEX offers a lot of value for your money.” — Rajat Sharma, Product Tester

Best Single-DIN: Sony DSX-GS80

What We Like
  • High-power integrated amplifier

  • Dual smartphone connectivity

What We Don't Like
  • Some audio clipping issues

Easily among the most powerful single-DIN car stereo systems available in the market, Sony's DSX-GS80 belies its diminutive size. It features synchronized dual-zone key illumination that changes in accordance with the rhythm of the music being played, thus making for a unique audio-visual experience. The media receiver supports a wide range of digital audio file formats (e.g. MP3, WMA, AAC, WAV, and FLAC), playable from different sources like USB flash drives and portable media players.

Of course, you also get Bluetooth for easy audio streaming and hands-free calling, and the unit can be paired simultaneously with two smartphones. Sony DSX-GS80 is driven by a D-class amp (with a maximum power output of 4x100W), which alongside features such as "Digital Sound Enhancement Engine" (DSEE) and a 10-band graphic equalizer for a crisp sound output. Some other notable additions include a tuner with 18 FM/12 AM presets, front AUX port, and voice controls.

Best Big Screen: Sony XAV-AX8000

What We Like
  • Intuitive user interface

  • Customizable stereo positioning for better sound

What We Don't Like
  • Display resolution is a bit low

It's extremely important to keep your eyes on the road at all times when driving, and Sony's XAV-AX8000 allows you to do just that. This is primarily made possible by the car stereo system's massive 8.95-inch WVGA (800x480 pixels) touchscreen display, which makes all of the functions accessible at a mere glance. Furthermore, the panel's three-way adjustable mount makes it easy to be adjusted to your desired viewing angle. The top-of-the-line media receiver is capable of playing a multitude of digital audio and video file formats (e.g. MP3, AAC, FLAC, MP4, and MKV), and comes with a built-in tuner having features like 18 FM/12 AM presets, RDS, and best station memory.

For audio streaming and hands-free calling, there's Bluetooth included in the mix as well. The Sony XAV-AX8000 is fully compatible with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so you can just connect your iOS or Android smartphone and enjoy everything from real-time navigation to voice assistant interactions. Among other noteworthy features are SiriusXM satellite radio support (tuner to be purchased separately), and rear camera connectivity.

“Sporting a huge touch-enabled display, powerful audio enhancement functions and a lot more, Sony’s XAV-AX8000 sounds just as great as it looks.” — Rajat Sharma, Product Tester

Final Verdict

As feature-laden as all of the above-detailed car stereo systems are, our overall vote goes to Pioneer’s AVH-W4500NEX (view at EBay). The double-DIN receiver offers a well-rounded set of features like wireless connectivity, multi-source playback, and internet radio support, all at a reasonable price. If you’d rather have a single-DIN unit for your car, we suggest Sony’s DSX-GS80 (view at Amazon). Thanks to an integrated amp and functions like a 10-band graphic equalizer, it delivers a power-packed yet balanced audio output.

About Our Trusted Experts

A technology writer/editor with more than seven years (and counting) of experience in the field, Rajat Sharma has tested and reviewed numerous gadgets over the course of his career so far. Before joining Lifewire, he has worked as a senior technology journalist with The Times Group and Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited, two of India’s biggest media houses.

FAQs

Why should you replace your 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 you install a new car stereo yourself?
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.

What to Look For in a Car Stereo 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.

Stereo Receiver

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.

Preamp

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.

Display

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.

Apple CarPlay or Android Auto

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.

Bluetooth

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.

GPS

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.

Other Sources

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.

Amplifier Features and Considerations

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.

Channels

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.

Power

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.

Receiver Compatibility

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.

Installation

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.

Speaker Features and Considerations

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.

Speaker Sensitivity

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.

Power Handling

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.

Full-Range Speakers vs Component Speakers

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.

The Subwoofer

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.

Brands To Consider

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.

Conclusions

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.

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