How Difficult Is It to Replace a Car Stereo?

car stereo install
Brad Goodell / Stockbyte / Getty

There’s nothing inherently difficult about putting a new head unit your own car or truck, but the question of exactly how hard it is depends on a whole bunch of different factors. Some cars are just easier to work on than others, and the relative difficulty level will also depend on things like your own personal experience and how easily you pick up new things. The bottom line is that while anyone can install their own head unit, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should install their own head unit.

The Biggest Pitfalls of DIY Head Unit Installation

There are three main issues that you can run afoul of while replacing your own head unit:

  • Difficult trim and dash components
  • Fit and mounting issues with the new head unit
  • Wiring confusion

Dealing with Trim and Dash Components

First off, let’s take a look at the problems you can run into with trim and dash components. This is the very first stumbling block that you’re likely to hit, although it is more of an issue in some cars than others. If you’re lucky enough to own a car where very few trim, center console, or dash components interfere with removing the head unit, then you can breathe easy. If you aren’t that lucky, then this is something you’ll want to take a good, hard look at before you commit to replacing your head unit.

Other than just looking at your dash, you can get an idea of what you’re up against by searching the Internet for an “exploded” diagram of your dash or center console. These diagrams can seem confusing if you’re not used to reading them, but if you can find one that matches the make, model and year of your car, you’ll be able to see exactly which trim pieces have to be removed to gain access to the head unit.

If you choose to proceed, it’s important to remember to work slowly and methodically and to never force anything. Some trim pieces and dash elements are bolted in place, while others simply snap in, so if something doesn’t pop out easily, make sure you’ve checked thoroughly for screws and bolts before you break something.

Fixing Fit and Mounting Issues

Before you buy a new head unit, and especially before you try to install it, it’s important to make sure that the new head unit will fit. The easiest way to deal with this is to replace your OEM head unit with an aftermarket unit that conforms to the same size specification. For instance, if your OEM head unit is double DIN, you can simply replace it with an aftermarket double DIN head unit. If you want to replace a double DIN head unit with a single DIN aftermarket unit, you’ll have to obtain an appropriate car stereo mounting kit.

Of course, nothing is ever quite that simple. If your car has a nonconforming head unit, then you’ll have to find a dash kit that’s specifically designed for your vehicle. This makes the job a little more complicated, but it’s essentially still just a matter of removing the old head unit, installing the dash kit and then installing the new head unit into the kit.

Wiring a New Head Unit

Wiring in a new head unit is often the most daunting part of the process, which is especially true if you have no prior experience with electronics or wiring. If that’s the case, then you’ll find the job much easier if you use a wiring harness that’s designed specifically for your vehicle and head unit. These wiring harness adapters make the installation process plug and play in that you simply plug one end into your factory harness, plug the other end into your new head unit, and you’re good to go.

If a wiring harness adapter isn’t available, or you’re fairly comfortable with wiring, then connecting your own wires is actually pretty easy. You will want to start by looking for a wiring diagram for your vehicle that shows what each wire is for. If that isn’t available, then you can determine what your OEM car stereo wires are for with a few basic tools. Your new head unit should come with a wiring diagram, or even have a legend printed on it, but if it doesn’t, most aftermarket head units use a single wire color scheme.

Tools for Installing a New Head Unit

Installing a head unit requires a few basic tools, like:

  • Screwdrivers
  • Wrenches or sockets
  • Pry tool

If you’re going to do your own wiring, including self-identification of the OEM wires, instead of using a harness, you’ll also need:

  • Multimeter
  • 1.5V battery

and

  • Soldering supplies
    • Soldering iron
    • Solder
    • Heat shrink

or

  • Wire crimping supplies​
    • Butt connectors
    • Wire crimper

Although there’s no easy replacement for experience, you may also want to check out a basic stereo install tutorial before you get started. Or if you can find a walkthrough video that shows how your exact vehicle comes apart and goes back together, then all the better.