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Car stereo buying guide

Tips for choosing a new stereo for your car

Stereo in the dash

The car stereo is the centerpiece of any car audio system. They look great in the dash and are full of useful features. Also known as a radio, receiver, or head unit, today's car stereo performs a variety of complex functions so that we can better enjoy our drive time. To understand these functions, it's helpful to think of a car stereo as having three different sections:

  1. Source — This is the part that let's us choose what we want to hear. Sources may include a standard AM/FM tuner, CD or DVD player, satellite radio, iPod® or smartphone, or a USB input.
  2. Preamp — This is where all sound adjustments are made. The preamp section includes controls ranging from simple volume, balance, fader, source selection, and tone adjustments to sophisticated crossovers, equalizers, and time correction.
  3. Amplifier — The amplifier section boosts the small (low-voltage) audio signal coming from the preamp section into a larger (high-voltage) audio signal that's sent out to the speakers.

Why would I want or need a new car stereo?

A new stereo will give you better sound and more playback options than the typical factory stereo.

Better sound quality

Superior built-in power and better circuit design mean that an aftermarket car stereo isn't just louder than the typical factory stereo, it also produces cleaner, richer, more-detailed sound. Enhanced tone controls in the preamp section mean that you can do a better job fine-tuning the music.

New sources for music and added functions

One of most common reasons to get a new stereo is to expand your system's music playback and other capabilities. Aftermarket stereos offer advanced capabilities, such as:

  • MP3/WMA/AAC playback
  • iPod® and iPhone® support
  • Support for Android™ phones
  • Satellite radio
  • DVD playback
  • Bluetooth® connectivity
  • GPS navigation
  • Support for Pandora® Internet radio and other app-related sources

In particular, being able to use smartphone apps in the car is a big reason to get a new stereo.

Other things to consider when purchasing a new car stereo

Getting the right listening sources is only one thing to consider. You'll also want to keep in mind some of these aspects of a new reciever. 

How sophisticated do you want to get?

Advanced features on new stereos more detailed displays to make it easier to see what you're doing. You should certainly consider a touchscreen monitor. They make it much easier to control and adjust the stereo.

Better sound controls

Speaking of adjustments, precision sound controls like digital time correction and parametric equalization are available on higher-end receivers for those of you who really want to tweak the sound. But even lower-priced aftermarket stereos will offer more audio control that the typical factory radio. That's just one more way a new stereo can make your music sound better. 

Cool cosmetics

Aftermarket car stereos, with their high-tech displays and cutting-edge layouts, can enhance the appearance of your car's interior. Your options include full-color animated displays, customizable color schemes, and again, touchscreen monitors which usually have selectable backgrounds and colors. If you want to heighten the listening experience, look for a stereo with lighting that flashes to the beat! 

Expandability

Auxiliary inputs, USB connections, and audio/video outputs let you expand your system by connecting portable music players, rear seat video screens, external amplifiers, and powered subwoofers to your new stereo. At the very least, look for a new stereo that has either a USB input or Bluetooth capability so that you can add your favorite listening source. 

Security

Features like detachable face plates and security codes help protect your investment from theft.

What kind of car stereo is right for you?

It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number and variety of models in our car stereo listing. How do you know which one is right for you? Our expert shopping guides can help. Click on the links to learn more.

It might be better to just jump right in! Tell us about your car and we'll show you all the stereos that will work with your vehicle and also tell you about what's needed to install your new stereo. If you have any questions, contact us for expert help from real people who share a passion for car audio. 

  • Doug Feibel from Natchitoches

    Posted on 10/27/2019

    I wouldn't recommend buying anything from Cutchfield unless you just want to listen to a radio. As I just found out with my 2010 Corolla and the Pioneer AVH-501EX. Nothing but the radio works without a parking brake wire being connected and I mean nothing. No Bluetooth, no dvd, no apps even connected USB. Nothing. To connect to said wire, I would have to risk breaking another wire, to remove the connector. In Crutchfield's defense, their tech told me where the wire is and wished me luck but after removing the necessary panels, i erred on the side of discretion and reinstalled the panels. Yes, you can buy a bypass or install a relay to get around said elephant in the room but you'd be better off buying from a local installer and letting them take the risk. I definitely wouldn't recommend anything from Pioneer. The manual they send is absolute garbage. Outside of finding some of the inputs on your unit, you won't find any other information regarding the unit you purchase. I'm highly disappointed. Sure I'll get the work around or take it to a local shop but I shouldn't have to do that for some idiotic interlock. Don't care about the DVD's but I should be able to connect a phone and I can't do that.

    Robert Ferency-Viars from Crutchfield on 10/28/2019
    Doug, I understand your frustration and reluctance. We all have our limits and comfort levels when it comes to DIY projects, and we often don't know where those limits are until we run into them. While I have installed many a car stereo and even built my own deck in the back yard, my plumber is very grateful for my reluctance to turn a pipe wrench. Installing a new car stereo definitely requires connecting a lot of wires, most of which involves wiring between the stereo and installation adapter (we created our ReadyHarness service to remove as much of that work and worry as we can and simplify installation as much as possible). But some connections have to be hard-wired to the car, especially if the new stereo has a video screen. Most of the time, the wire splicing can be done safely and securely by using a common wire tap or Posi-Tap connecter with no cutting needed. But if you're not comfortable doing it, then yes, turn to a professional installer for help.
  • john smith from alaska

    Posted on 9/19/2017

    All most people seem to want from a car stereo is volume and bass. Far too many systems in cars are about quantity, not quality, although as 405line has said, going for high quality is rather pointless in a car anyway. I imagine the Mark Levinson systems in a Lexus LS is about as good as it gets, but haven't tried one.

  • Josh from Woodstock N.B

    Posted on 1/8/2017

    I have 2 15" MTX Thunder6000 and a 1000 watt Sony Xplod 2/1 channel amp will that be enough power for both subs?

  • Ron from Studio City

    Posted on 12/5/2016

    I have a Pioneer HU which has 5-6 volts on all the rca amp pre's and was wondering do I need to make sure on amps if they can accept that high of volts off the rca plugs for the amps?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/11/2016

    Felipe, to gain HD radio and Bluetooth compatibility, you'll need to add a new stereo to your Lexus. I've passed your question along to our sales team for the best answer. An advisor will contact you soon.

  • felipe from houston

    Posted on 7/9/2016

    queston I got a 2007 lexus es350 with navication and I would like to get Pandora without pluging my phone and what do I need to do to get hd readio

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/16/2016

    Rick, based on our research, the best solution is to install an aftermarket receiver and bypass the factory amp if you'd like to replace the speakers.

  • Rick from Minneapolis

    Posted on 5/15/2016

    I would like to replace the OEM speakers in my '02 Camaro with the Monsoon sound system and keep the OEM radio but it seems all of the aftermarket speakers are four ohm and my OEM speakers are two ohm. Can a resistor or coil (for impedance) be put in parallel with the speaker coil to lower the resistance that the amp sees to get the proper performance from the new speakers?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/4/2015

    Mark, you'll need additional gear to install a stereo in your Silverado. I've passed your information along to our sales team. An advisor will contact your shortly to help, or if you'd like to speak with someone right away, just give us a call at the number above.

  • mark from edmonton

    Posted on 11/4/2015

    when I run a custom vehicle search (2011 Silverado) and product is noted as "fits your vehicle" and then inquire for accessories , I only get the three year protection option. does this mean the GM plug in's are a match to the radio, with out any adapters. i'm just doing the head unit and there are no wheel controls or anything involved .... thanks

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/27/2015

    Matt, RDS stands for Radio Data System. When radio stations broadcast RDS information, you can tune in stations by genre, read text information on the radio display, and receive traffic alerts and emergency broadcasts.

  • Matt

    Posted on 8/26/2015

    What does RDS mean when referring to car stereo receivers?

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/16/2015

    Nate, most touchscreen receivers will be a trickier fit in your Silverado, but you do have options. Give us a call at 1.888.955.6000 your in-dash priorities with an advisor.

  • nate from Denver,colorado,usa

    Posted on 7/15/2015

    touch screen, blue tooth,usb,aux. ports,Dvd,Cd,Have An IPhone, may switch to android soon,6 1/2"?,don't know what works with my 03 Silverado,4 speakers,no on-star

  • Alexander Hrabe from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/1/2015

    Taryn, when it comes to professional installation, we recommend using InstallCard, which gives you access to a nationwide network of installers. In your case, an In-dash Video InstallCard will give you credit toward a certified installation in your area. If you have any questions, give us a call at 1.888.955.6000.

  • Taryn Haynes from Mount Vernon, NY

    Posted on 5/29/2015

    I'd like to be referred to a place that will install the Jensen VX3022 radio system into my 2013 Nissan Rogue in Westchester County in NY. Could you help me with this? I ordered the system with you guys. My order number is 41651956.

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