A DIY Guide to Installing a New Head Unit

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Installing a Car Stereo

installing a car radio
Installing your own head unit isn't that hard if you take it one step at a time. Brad Goodell / Stockbyte / Getty

Popping in a new head unit is one of the easiest upgrades you can do to your car, so it's a terrific place for an inexperienced do-it-yourselfer to start. A new stereo will give you access to all the HD radio channels in your area, but you can also upgrade to a satellite receiver, DVD player or a number of other fun options. If you're just replacing an old unit with a new one, it's usually a pretty straightforward job.

Tools of the Trade

Before you get started, you might want to gather a few basic tools. You'll typically need both flat blade and Phillips head screwdrivers to replace a radio. Some radios are held in by bolts, Torx head screws and other types of fasteners, so you might also need some specialty tools.


You'll also need some way to wire in the new unit. If you don't have an adapter harness all ready to go, then some crimp connectors or a soldering iron will do nicely.

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Every Vehicle is Different

kia rio dash
Check the dash for any elements that you'll have to remove. Jeremy Laukkonen
Assess the situation.

In most cases, you'll need to remove some type of trim piece to access the stereo. These trim pieces sometimes pop right out, but many of them have hidden screws behind the ash tray, switches or plugs. After you have removed all of the screws, you can insert a flat blade screwdriver and attempt to pop the trim piece off.

Never force a trim piece, face plate or other plastic dash component. If it feels like the component is bound on something, it probably is. Carefully examine the area where it is bound, and you will probably find a screw, bolt or other fastener.

Some radios are held in with other methods. OEM Ford head units are sometimes held in by internal clasps that can only be released by a special tool.

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Don't Rush It

Kio Rio dash trim.
Trim pieces can be brittle, so treat them gently. Jeremy Laukkonen
Pull the Trim Back Carefully.

The trim piece will be loose after you undo all the catches, but it may still be connected to components under the dash. You might have to disconnect various switches, and it's vital not to yank out the wires. Some vehicles also have climate controls that are connected to rods, vacuum lines and other components.

After you have unplugged all the switches, you can pull the trim piece free.

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It's Like Pulling a Tooth

Kia Rio radio mounting screws
Some stereos are held in by bolts or Torx screws, but this one is a little simpler. Jeremy laukkonen
Unbolt the Stereo

Some OEM head units are held in with screws, but others use Torx bolts or a proprietary fastening method. In this case, the stereo is held in by four screws. You will need to remove the fasteners, place them in a safe location, and then carefully pull the head unit free of the dash.

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The Dos and Don'ts of Double DIN

Kia Rio radio bracket
Since we're installing another single DIN head unit, we'll have to reuse this bracket. Jeremy Laukkonen

Remove any additional brackets.

This OEM stereo is installed in a bracket that can hold a much larger head unit. We're just installing another single DIN head unit here, so we'll be reusing the bracket. If your car has a bracket like this, you'll need to determine whether or not your new head unit needs it. You may be able to install a double DIN head unit, or you may find that you have one of the few vehicles designed for a 1.5 DIN head unit.

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Universal Mounting Collars

Kia Rio OEM bracket and aftermarket collar.
The universal collar won't fit into the OEM bracket, so we'll discard the collar. Jeremy Laukkonen

Determine whether you need the universal collar.

Most aftermarket stereos come with a universal collar that will work in a variety of applications. These collars can often be installed without additional mounting hardware, because they have metal tabs that can be bent out to grip the sides of the dash receptacle.

In this case, the single DIN collar is too small to fit directly into the dash, and it also doesn't fit inside the existing bracket. That means we won't be using it. Instead, we'll simply screw the new head unit into the existing bracket. Note that the existing screws may not be the right size, so you might have to make a trip to the hardware store.

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Wiring Options

Kia radio plug and new stereo
The old plug won't fit into the new head unit, so we'll need to do some wiring. Jeremy Laukkonen
Check the plugs.

The OEM plug and the aftermarket head unit do not match, but there are a few different ways to deal with that situation. The easiest way is to buy an adapter harness. If you find a harness that's designed specifically for your head unit and vehicle, you can just plug it in and go. You may also be able to find a harness that you can wire in to the pigtail that came with your new head unit.

The other option is to cut the OEM harness and wire the aftermarket pigtail directly into it. If you choose to go that route, you can use either crimp connectors or solder.

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Stitching Everything Together

kia radio wiring
You can wire in a new head unit pretty fast if you use crimp connectors. Jeremy Laukkonen
Wire in the new head unit.

The fastest way to connect an aftermarket pigtail to an OEM harness is with crimp connectors. You simply strip two wires, slide them into a connector and then crimp it. At this stage, it's vital to connect each wire properly. Some OEM head units have wiring diagrams printed on them, but you may need to look one up to be sure.

Every OEM has its own system for speaker wire colors. In some cases, each speaker will be represented by a single color, and one of the wires will have a black tracer. In other cases, each pair of wires will be different shades of the same color.

If you are unable to find a wiring diagram, a test light can be used to identify the ground and power wires. When you locate the power wires, make sure to note which one is always hot.

You can also determine the identity of each speaker wire with a 1.5v battery. You will need to touch the positive and negative battery terminals to different combinations of wires. When you hear a slight pop of static from one of the speakers, that means you have found both of the wires that connect to it.

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This Stereo Goes to Eleven

finished head unit installation
After you've finished wiring in the new head unit, put everything back the way you found it. Jeremy Laukkonen
Put it back the way you found it.

After you have wired in the new head unit, you can simply reverse the removal procedure. It should just be a matter of screwing the new head unit in place, popping the trim piece back on and cranking up your brand new stereo.

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