Car Stereo Buying Guide

Playlists, radio stations, podcasts, streaming audio, and connected services like messaging and phone calls go through the audio system on cars today. The car stereo acts as the hub of it all, powering your speakers and connecting to your sources of information and entertainment while you drive. If your head unit isn’t working any longer or you’re looking for an upgrade, there can be a lot of information to process.

This car stereo buying guide will help walk you through the key considerations, features you should look for, and tips for making a good selection.

Compatibility with Your Vehicle

Not all car stereos are compatible with all car models based on a couple of criteria. First, the size of the factory head unit needs to be considered. Your factory-installed unit might be a single-DIN – roughly two inches tall – or double-DIN, a DIN and a half, or potentially an even more unusual size. There are usually install kits that can fill the gap if you install a single-DIN unit in a larger space, but the opposite isn’t always true.

Secondly, the unit’s depth needs to factor in. Many vehicles today don’t have CD players, so the unit doesn’t need to be as deep into the dash. That limits the options that will fit into to factory location, obviously, since a deeper radio will jut out further from the dash console.

Also, it needs to be compatible with factory equipment. Some vehicles have external amplifiers that need a power source – often delivered through the head unit – in order to power the speakers.

Budget Considerations

There are massive differences from the economy radios to top-end infotainment head units in terms of features, appearance, screen size, and more. While a new head unit can cost as little as $50, it can also range to more than $400 – even more if you’re shopping for an OEM radio unit. 

Beyond the car stereo itself, consider whether you want to upgrade the speakers or install and amplifier and subwoofer. That can exponentially increase the costs you’re looking at.

Then, there are costs to keep in mind like the stereo mount and a direct-fit wiring harness that makes installation faster and easier. All in, you could be anywhere from $100 to more than $1,000, so you need to set a budget and stick to it.

Sound Quality

The head unit you choose doesn’t affect the sound your speakers are capable of producing, but it certainly can limit the potential or help them achieve it. A head unit is essentially sending digital messages to the speakers, so car stereos with better technology tend to get more crisp sounds, better adjustability for tone and balance, and they have extra channels to add speakers and amps to go even bigger.

Entry-level car stereos are more limited in their capability while mid-level and high-end units won’t compromise on sound quality.

Features to Look for in a Car Stereo

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What boxes should you tick when you’re shopping for a car stereo? Here are six things to consider:

  • AM/FM Radio. For listening to local radio stations and broadcasts, this feature is a must. Most modern stereo head units come with built-in FM/AM antennas, but connect your factory antenna for better reception.
  • CD Player. If you’re still rocking out to CDs, make sure you’re looking at units that are equipped with a CD slot. Choose one with a large display and touchscreen interface for easy selection of music files.
  • Bluetooth Connectivity. To stream music and make calls using your smartphone’s Bluetooth connection, this feature is essential in modern cars. Look for models with hands-free calling capabilities for added convenience, and external mics have better calling clarity.
  • Navigation. If you want navigation assistance while on the road, then this feature will come in handy. Many head units come with preloaded maps that can be updated regularly for more accurate directions.
  • Aux Inputs and Outputs. Auxiliary inputs and outputs are also available in car stereos, allowing users to connect other portable audio sources such as MP3 players and tablets via cables.
  • Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Smartphone users will love the ability to use their in-car radio to control their favorite apps, and these systems have excellent mapping and navigation integration too.

Tips and Tricks for Choosing the Right Car Stereo

With so many options on the market, narrow down the selection for yourself. Along with making sure it has all the features you need and want, here are a few tips and tricks to finding the right one for you.

  • Measure the display size. Get the same DIN size as the original so the replacement doesn’t look out of place – and so it will actually fit!
  • Look for one that integrates your steering wheel controls. You don’t always have to give up your audio controls on the wheel, although you might need to buy an extra adapter.
  • Consider a DVD-capable unit. If you enjoy watching movies in your car, drive-in style, get a DVD unit. Of course, ensure you’re parked before viewing.
  • Check user reviews. Your peers will help you identify the best car stereos based on star ratings and reviews.
  • Look for vehicle compatibility. Shop using your vehicle information to eliminate many non-compatible units.

At AutoZone, you’ll find car audio equipment as well as any other automotive parts and accessories you need. Need advice or assistance? Our associates are always happy to help.

FAQ/People Also Ask

What factors should I consider when choosing a car stereo?

Aside from compatibility, consider the cost, sound quality, and features a car stereo has to determine if it’s a good fit for your needs.

How do I know if a car stereo is compatible with my vehicle?

Measure the display size of your original radio, then find one that’s a similar size or smaller. Compatibility often comes down to finding an install kit that works for your vehicle.

How much should I budget for a new car stereo?

Car stereo prices range from about $50 to $400 or more, and there are various features and quality levels to consider.

What is the difference between a basic and premium car stereo?

The number of channels, the output, the number of aux inputs and outputs, and the screen size and clarity are all major differentiators between basic and premium stereos.

What is the sound quality like for different types of car stereos?

Sound quality doesn’t change much between different head units since it’s the speakers that are most important for quality.

What are the most important features to look for in a car stereo?

Compatibility with your car’s existing features like steering wheel controls as well as Bluetooth hands-free calling are among the most important features.

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