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Digital media receivers buying guide

How to choose the digital media receiver that's right for you

In a nutshell: Digital media and multimedia receivers make up the bulk of the car stereos we carry. In this article we'll dig into what sets them apart from other receivers, why they're so popular, and most importantly, which one is right for you.


uying a new in-dash receiver for your car used to revolve around two basic choices: CD or cassette. But cassettes are a faded memory, and in today's age of streaming music, you might not even own CDs anymore. This fundamental change in how we listen to music has spawned new categories of in-dash players that are generally smartphone-centric.

Side by side

To touchscreen or not to touchscreen...

When looking at stereos that don't have disc players, you'll often hear two terms used to describe them: digital media receivers and digital multimedia receivers. What's the difference?

A touchscreen interface.

Digital media receivers focus on audio playback and tend to have a more "old school" car stereo look, with most of them built for single-DIN application.

Digital multimedia receivers bring video capability into the fold and open up possibilities with touchscreen menus that make source selection and EQ adjustment a lot easier. Thanks to innovative designs like fold-out and "floating" touchscreens, these receivers fit in more dashes than ever before.

So what makes sense for you? The best way to start is by entering your vehicle information in our vehicle selector tool to filter out the options that don't fit in your car. From there, you can decide on the features you need the most.

What's the same about them?

Digital media receivers and digital multimedia receivers have one big thing in common — they do not play CDs or DVDs. However, all of these receivers still offer loads of options like:

  • USB ports
  • Bluetooth connectivity
  • SD card slots
  • auxiliary inputs
  • built-in HD Radio
  • SiriusXM-compatibility

And with every new year, manufacturers take big strides in making these receivers easier and easier to use with your smartphone.

Kenwood in the lab

Voice control — a popular new feature

A wireless connection between your smartphone and many car stereos gives you push-button access to the voice assistants you use most, like Siri® and Amazon Alexa. Ask for directions, compose a text, control smart devices, and more, all while keeping your eyes on the road. Check out my experiment using an Apple CarPlay-equipped receiver to get a feel for what else you can do in the car with Siri's help.

And when you’re shopping, remember to confirm that the stereo you’re considering has this voice control feature.


Why to buy a digital media stereo

Digital media receivers are generally our most affordable car stereos. So, if budget is your priority, you'll want to start with these. Then, it's a matter of what music sources you use the most.

At the less costly end of the spectrum, you can count on:

  • built-in AM/FM tuner
  • Bluetooth connectivity for making handsfree calls and streaming music
  • USB input for charging a smartphone and playing stored music files
  • 3.5mm auxiliary input for playing music from an older music player
  • preamp outputs for use with an external amplifier

As you go up in price, you'll gain features like:

  • additional USB inputs
  • playback of high-resolution music files
  • built-in HD Radio tuner
  • app support for music services like Spotify on your compatible smartphone
  • enhanced smartphone control and integration of virtual assistants like Amazon Alexa
  • satellite radio compatibility
  • expansive EQ tools
  • better preamp output options

If adding a touchscreen to your dash isn't a priority, installing a digital media receiver lets you incorporate a whole lot of terrific audio features into your vehicle for a fraction of the cost of the least expensive digital multimedia receivers. 

Digital media receivers also make a lot of sense for vintage vehicles (especially those that didn't accommodate a radio in the first place). In particular RetroSound has many vehicle-specific options to make integration easy on the eyes in a classic dash.


Why to buy a digital multimedia stereo

If you rely on your smartphone for more than just phone calls and streaming music, stepping up to a digital multimedia receiver makes a lot of sense. You'll have your choice of the features above, plus next-level smartphone integration and video capability. 

Opting for a digital multimedia receiver really steps you up from traditional car stereo to contemporary car command center. Integrating touchscreen control and driver assistance features, your receiver provides more than just entertainment — it can enhance your driving experience. Let's explore how...

Sony with Apple screen

Apple CarPlay® and Android Auto™

Built-in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto can be found in more digital multimedia receivers than ever, making interaction with your dash's touchscreen feel as familiar as with your iPhone or Android.

The list of apps compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is long (and exciting). With touchscreen control over your favorite app in the car, you'll gain a unique interface optimized for use in the car. Listen to podcasts on Stitcher, music on Spotify®, catch up on the news on NPR One, and most importantly, get directions and traffic updates with Waze. That's just the tip of the apps-berg.

EQ and TimeAlignment displays

Convenient sound-tweaking tools

Controls beyond basic bass and treble adjustments let you tailor the music to your car's acoustics. Many digital media receivers incorporate expansive sound-sculpting tools, but using the touchscreen interface of a digital multimedia receiver opens up new possibilities and makes adjustment easier than ever. Tweaking time alignment and EQ curves in some digital multimedia receivers can be as simple as dragging your finger across the display to manipulate your sound in real-time.

Kenwood Parking Assist

Adding a backup camera

Installing a new car stereo is a great time to add a backup camera to your vehicle, and a digital multimedia receiver acts as the monitor for your new cam. Some let you incorporate additional cameras, like dash cams and trailer hitch cams.

Vehicle Info

Vehicle integration perks

Keeping important factory features like a factory backup cam, steering wheel controls, and access to vehicle data is understandably a priority when installing a new car stereo. With an iDatalink Maestro radio replacement package and a compatible digital multimedia stereo, you'll have the best upgrade experience available.

Lex holding Pioneer headunit

Extra-large screen

Factory radio displays have gotten bigger and bigger in recent years, and our digital multimedia receiver selection has kept up with screens larger than 10". Using a "floating" screen design, these receivers can fit in dash openings that previously could not accommodate touchscreen car stereos. A bigger touchscreen display makes at-a-glance stereo operation easy and fun.

DIY Installation Help

You can get the installation parts, accessories, and tools you need at a deep discount when you buy any receiver from us.

  • We include step-by-step instructions specific to your car, available for most vehicles, for free; for most vehicles, we also have the installation parts and accessories you'll need.
  • A panel removal tool will make the installation easier in most cars and help prevent scratching your dash.
  • The Posi-Products Car Stereo Connector Kit makes it easy to connect your car's wiring harness to your new car stereo.
  • Want to continue using your steering wheel audio controls with the new stereo? You'll need a special adapter.

What's the next step?

Write down a list of the features you most want, then look over the selection of stereos that fit your car. Or just start browsing our receivers to see the styles and options that are available.

And don't hesitate to give us a call if you have any questions (1-888-955-6000). Before you know it, you'll be riding around enjoying your music library on the perfect car stereo.

Last updated 5/5/2020

Please share your thoughts below.

  • Keith Archibald from PORT ST LUCIE

    Posted on 8/11/2020

    Thanks to u guys for so much knowledge , I'm actually in the market for a new touch screen radio , and GPS , and back up camera

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield

    on 8/11/2020

    Keith, Thanks for the kind words! Give us a call and talk to one of our advisors. We can help you choose the right gear and give you the right advice on how to install it.
  • Christophe Donnait from Oakville

    Posted on 7/14/2020

    Where can i find a complete list of "L shaped" receivers for my KIA Forte 2019. This is the only type I can use.

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 7/16/2020

    Christophe, you can use our vehicle selector to confirm which stereos fit your car and get some info on what else is needed for the installation.
  • Scott Brown from Mayer, AZ

    Posted on 6/4/2020

    Why is there a limitation of sources in digital receivers? I mean you can get a unit with an HD radio tuner OR satellite ready, but not both? I don't understand why both are not feasible in the same unit.

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 6/4/2020

    Scott, you can have both in one receiver. Here's a list of 41 car stereos with HD Radio and SXM compatibility. You can also use the filters on the left of the page (on desktop) to dial in additional features you like best. Be sure to use use our vehicle selector to confirm which stereos fit your car. And if you need any advice, definitely give our Advisors a call -- they'd be glad to help out.
  • Mark from Atlanta

    Posted on 1/8/2020

    So you have a new head unit with 128 gigs of sd card and another 64 gigs on a usb stick. Why is it that none of the head units I've found support standard playlist files? That seems to me to be such a basic function for a player that I'm astounded that it's lacking on all brands of high end models. It's a function within an iphone, ipod, or android, but not for your sd card, usb, or dvd.

  • Jack Weinstein from Miami

    Posted on 12/25/2019

    Do you have a backup screen available on any of these units. The camera maybe extra and I understand the rear camera maybe an additional cost. So will most of the screen units have the automatic backup feature when the car is in reverse?

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield

    on 12/30/2019

    Jack, Yes, we can help you with this. I've sent your question to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.
  • John Watkins from Canton

    Posted on 7/28/2019

    What is importance of FM sensitivity and what is better: bigger number or lower?

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield

    on 7/29/2019

    John, It's a measure of how well the receiver picks up those FM signals. The lower the number, the better.
  • Rick from Savannah

    Posted on 2/24/2019

    Says "some" receivers come with SD slots. Tried to find those, gave up.

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield

    on 2/25/2019

    Rick, You can search for receivers with SD card inputs using the "sort" menu on the left-hand side of the car stereos category page. But in the meantime, I've sent your question to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

    Posted on 1/25/2019

    I am looking for an affordable stereo with app functions xm/siri compatible and most importantly a Bluetooth with microphone built in it I am not wanting to have a microphone sitting on my dash or anywhere. Only thing is I don't know anything about stereos. So would really like some advice or suggestions on this if possible

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield

    on 1/27/2019

    Jesse, We can help you with that. I've sent your question to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.
  • Leonard Weltman from Fairfax

    Posted on 6/11/2018

    I'd like to know which brands have the most intuitive, easy-to-use user interface

    Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    on 6/13/2018

    Leonard, The quick answer is "It depends." The key is finding the one that works best for you, and the best way to figure that out is to have a conversation with an advisor. I've sent your question to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.
  • Jack lee from Lansing

    Posted on 4/9/2018

    A disturbing trend I am seeing in mechless units is that there is no setting to keep the clock on top at all times (often, you have to press a button to check the time and the clock display goes away after two seconds). I think it would be helpful to have a "clock on top" filter. (I am aware of the "clock display" filter but it appears to include the "momentary clock display only" feature I described above). I just read the owner's manual for a couple of units and could not tell for sure that I would be able to keep the clock display on top of the unit when playing music.

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 1/3/2017

    Michael, That's a pretty rare (and beautiful) vehicle, and we haven't been lucky enough to research one yet. From what I can see online, replacing the "big screen" receiver is probably quite a challenge. That said, if you give us a call and talk to one of our experts, we can probably suggest some ways to improve your stereo situation.

  • Michael from Atlanta

    Posted on 1/3/2017

    Can you do anything for a 2005 Maserati Cambiocorssa? Thanks

  • Crutchfield Writing Team from Crutchfield

    Posted on 11/28/2016

    I've sent your question to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • Pktypedthis from Palo Alto

    Posted on 11/26/2016

    Hey really looking to get a Touchscreen in-dash receiver. But with so many choices Im not sure what to buy. I just want to invest in a receiver once and have it fit into my 2010 corolla. What do you think are some good choices? Expensive and Non-expensive ones.

  • Mark from Charlotte, NC

    Posted on 8/16/2016

    My 2014 Escape came with a CD player so yes I use it but sparingly since I have recorded music on a USB drive. Some CD's are not available universally so I have to play them in the car.

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/30/2016

    Kevin, In most cases, you will lose the factory mic when you replace the factory radio. As for your camera/receiver question, there really isn't a universal answer at the moment -- it depends on the car, the receiver you choose, etc. I'll forward this to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email. In the meantime, thanks for the question!

  • Kevin from Baltimore

    Posted on 6/30/2016

    Many of the new cars have two or more cameras. Do the after market radios support this. I don't see anything regarding cameras support in the descriptions? Also, cars may already have mics built in. Can they be used?

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/31/2016

    Mitch, Since there's no CD player to worry about, digital media receivers are generally built on short chassis. But you'll want to measure things and probably talk to one of our advisors before you buy one. I've sent your question to our sales team, and they'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat. Good luck!

  • Mitch from Visalia

    Posted on 5/30/2016

    Hello, is pioneer mvh 580 bs on short chassis? The reason I'm asking this is to determine if there will be room behind it for the convertor that's needed to connect to factory amp. I have a 1997 E420 Mercedes. Thank you.

  • GW from Cinti

    Posted on 2/3/2016

    Looking for a DMR that supports FLAC and has a front USB port.

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/24/2015

    DJ, Excellent choice! As for the speakers, I've sent your question to our sales team for the best answer. They'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat. Good luck!

  • DJ from Reno

    Posted on 8/23/2015

    Well, I'm definitely with getting a Digital Media Receiver over a CD Player. I'm eyeing the Alpine UTE-52BT. The Jetta is second hand, less expensive, and older. This restricts me from higher-end purchases. However, I won't restrict myself from a Digital Media Receiver. Going over necessary specifications I need an I-Pod, Cell Phone and Satellite Radio Ready Receiver; as well as a Sophisticated Equalizer. The Receiver also needs to be extremely fluorescent and fun based. Furthermore, I also plan to put Aftermarket Speakers in the Jetta but no Subwoofers. What do you think?

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 6/29/2015

    Marshall, Sounds like you're building a pretty nifty system. As for the sub, I've sent your question to our sales team for the best answer. They'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

  • Marshall Border from Jonesboro , Arkansas

    Posted on 6/28/2015

    Hi I'm a crutchfield customer, have already installed complete Pioneer FH-X720BT Radio with Kicker speakers in the door and behind in overhead of headrest. Regular cab 2013 Chevy, looking at your Sound Ordance Amplfied subwoofer model 8" or 10" model. Would the Sound Ordance connect with the Pioneer for a on and off activation.

  • Jon Paulette from Crutchfield

    Posted on 5/4/2015

    Phil: we sent your question to our sales team for the best answer. They'll be contacting you via email soon. For immediate help, you can contact them via phone or chat.

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