How and When to Upgrade a Car Stereo

You can upgrade your car stereo, but should you?

Some vehicles pose more of a problem than others, but upgrading your car stereo—at least to some degree—is almost always possible. Although this might involve replacing just about every component right down to the wires, you can do a lot of it with relatively little technical expertise.

Every Car Stereo Starts With the Head Unit

The single most important component in any car stereo system is the head unit, which is a technical term for the component most people know as the car radio, stereo, tuner, receiver, or deck. It's the box in the dash that you use to switch radio stations, change inputs, adjust the volume, and everything else.

Modern models typically include auxiliary inputs and Bluetooth connectivity, for example. Some still accommodate older types of media such as CDs, DVDs, MP3s, and Blu-ray discs.

A car stereo is a valuable commodity to a thief.

Andresael / CC BY-ND 2.0 /Flickr

The head unit is usually the place to begin your upgrade. Each component in a car stereo system is somewhat dependent on the others, but the head unit is where it all comes together.

Given that most factory-installed head units are light on features, plugging in an aftermarket unit can improve your listening experience. A lot of great car stereos are available, and many are quite affordable.

Choosing a Head Unit

Look for a head unit with all the features you want now or expect to want within the next few years. For example, if you make a lot of calls in your car, choose a head unit with Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calling.

Sony's GS series MEXGS810BH brings HD Radio, SiriusXM, Bluetooth, and other features to the table.


In the same vein, consider installing a head unit that's a little more powerful than you actually need. That way, you'll be able to upgrade your stereo system in the future without the added expense of buying another head unit.

Upgrading Speakers and Amps

The other main components of a car stereo system are the speakers. Although not all factory sound systems ship with separate amps, they do all come with at least four speakers.

You certainly can upgrade speakers without installing a new head unit, but you'll probably be disappointed with the sound quality. Unless it's a premium head unit, it probably can't make the most of upgraded speakers with the latest technology. Plus, you might need an amp (or an upgrade to a factory-installed one) to fully power them for the best sound.

On the other hand, installing better speakers can give you more room to upgrade other components in the future. Even if your current head unit can't take full advantage of the new speakers' capabilities, you'll have the option to install a better head unit or an amplifier in the future.

The Highs and Lows of Upgrades

To squeeze the most out of a factory head unit, focus on the high and low ends of the audio spectrum—the tweeters and subwoofers, respectively.


Many vehicles ship with separate tweeters, which typically sit in the front doors along with the mid-range speakers. They're often low-grade, so one of the most cost-effective upgrades is replacing factory tweeters.

Polk Audio DB651 6.5"/6.75" 2-Way Marine Certified db Series Car Speakers with Liquid Cooled Silk Tweeters



On the other end of the audio spectrum, you can get a lot of mileage out of upgrading or installing a subwoofer. Factory subwoofers (which are rather uncommon) are usually anemic. If your vehicle didn't come with one, shop for a subwoofer that includes a built-in amp.

Given infinite money, and an infinite desire for bass in your car, you might well end up with something like this. When working with more modest means, there are other options.

Maica / E+ / Getty Images

Although you can install a subwoofer without upgrading the car stereo, you'll get better results if you do both at the same time.

Other Car Stereo Upgrade Options

Some vehicles have premium sound options, in which case you might be able to plug in a new factory deck that matches the look and function of your dashboard. In that case, your car or truck might already have all of the necessary connections.

If your vehicle came from the factory with an advanced infotainment system that includes capabilities such as navigation, your choices are pricier and more limited. Replacing infotainment head units without losing other features, such as steering wheel audio controls, can be complicated. Follow the instructions to the letter, or think about having it professionally installed.

Back of car stereo with wires being connected to car

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Some factory radios have strange shapes that cause fit issues. Mounting brackets and kits can help.

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