Car stereo buying guide
How to choose a car stereo that's right for you
The car stereo is the centerpiece of any car audio system. With so many to choose from, how do you pick the right one? This article will help you narrow down your choices to get the right stereo for you and your car or truck.
hy get a new car stereo? A new car stereo (also known as a car receiver or head unit) will give you better sound, more connectivity, and more playback options than the typical factory stereo. We'll discuss these topics and more while asking a few basic questions about how you use your stereo. And if you have any questions, you can contact one of our advisors (like Ivy, pictured above) at any time. They're patient, friendly, knowledgeable, and eager to help.
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Before we go into the details, let Crutchfield's training manager give you the highlights.
Why do you want to replace your current stereo?
This is one of the first questions our advisors will ask when you call us. Whether you simply want a replacement for a defective radio or want to upgrade features you don’t have currently, answering this question can help you focus on what exactly it is you're missing and what you want to gain with a new stereo.
Brit loves the way her new stereo spruces up her older vehicle.
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 mean that you can do a better job of fine-tuning the music the way you want it.
If sound quality is your thing, look for a stereo with precision sound controls like digital time correction and parametric equalization. You’ll usually find them on higher-end models, but even lower-priced aftermarket stereos will offer more audio control than the typical factory radio.
Touchscreens can make it easy to control the stereo, adjust settings, plot your route, and integrate your smartphone.
New sources for music and added functions
One of most common reasons to get a new stereo is to expand your listening options and other functionality, such as:
- Digital media playback, including high-res music files
- Android™ and iPhone® support, including Android Auto® and Apple CarPlay®
- SiriusXM satellite radio
- Bluetooth® connectivity
- GPS navigation
- Support for Pandora®, Spotify®, and other app-related sources (such audiobooks, podcasts, etc.)
We carry a variety of custom-fit stereos for Jeeps and a few other vehicles.
What fits your car?
It's important to make sure you choose a new stereo that fits in your dash. Checking fit is easy using our vehicle selector tool. Enter your specific vehicle information, and we'll filter out the options that won't work in your vehicle and display the ones that will. Plus, we'll let you know about the installation kits, special adapters, and instructions that you'll need — which we offer at a discount when you buy your new stereo from us.
Need a stereo for your classic car?
How do you listen to your music?
Answering this question is the next step in selecting the right car receiver. Knowing which options are "must-haves" will help you narrow your search and focus on the features that are important to you, so that you can listen in your preferred ways:
- Android Auto™ and Apple CarPlay®: We carry a wide selection of receivers that offer this smartphone functionality. They provide access to a huge array of music apps (and more) right from the touchscreen or voice control. Check out our guides to car stereos with Apple CarPlay and car stereos with Android Auto for more details.
- Music from your phone: Look for a stereo that will control your phone or that has Bluetooth® streaming capability.
- Thumb drives or music players: Most in-dash receivers feature USB inputs, so you can have a ready-to-go library of music in your car all of the time, loaded onto a thumb drive or other type of mass storage device. An auxiliary input lets you connect non-USB devices or portable music players. Some receivers feature SD™ card slots, too.
- CDs: If you still listen to those shiny discs (many of us here still do), make sure your new stereo can play them. A CD or DVD receiver is what you need. If you don't need disc playback, then a digital media or multimedia receiver might be best for you. Read our digital media receiver buying guide for more info.
- SiriusXM: If you want to add satellite radio to your new car stereo, make sure the stereo you choose is "satellite radio-ready." That means it can control an optional hideaway satellite radio tuner. If you already listen via the phone app or have a portable satellite radio, then your new stereo just needs an auxiliary input or Bluetooth.
- FM radio: Radios with a low FM sensitivity do a better job of pulling in radio signals. An FM sensitivity of 8 to 12 dBf is considered very good. Be sure to look for this detail in the stereo's description if a better-than-most AM/FM radio is high on your list.
- HD Radio™ broadcasts: Radio stations broadcasting digital signals are becoming more and more prevalent. To gain the benefits of static-free reception and better sound quality, your stereo must have an HD Radio tuner.
The Alpine UTE-73BT stereo's simple display gives your dash a classic aftermarket look
What are the non-music functions that you want?
Today's car stereos can do much more than just play music. Consider other options like these.
- Apple CarPlay and Android Auto: As I mentioned above, touchscreen stereos do the best job of bringing your smartphone into the car. The CarPlay and Android Auto apps pull in your favorite car-centric phone services (navigation, calling, news, audible and voice-texting, and podcasts).
- Bluetooth: Bluetooth connectivity gives you the freedom of hands-free calling and audio streaming when used with a compatible phone. Frankly, even if you think you don't need this, you should probably make sure you new stereo has it.
- GPS Navigation: Stereos with built-in navigation help prevent you from getting lost (or help you find your way if you do). The navigation screen is much larger than your phone and most portable navigators. And you get the added luxury of touchscreen controls for your stereo.
- Speaking of touchscreen controls: Large screens, loads of built-in features, and easy viewability are just some of the advantages to building your audio system around a large touchscreen receiver. Read our article about the advantages of a touchscreen receiver to learn more.
Modernize your dash with a floating screen.
What other things should you consider in a car stereo?
Aftermarket car stereos, with their high-tech displays and cutting-edge layouts, can enhance the appearance of your car's interior. Consider a multi-line display so that you can see song, album, and artist information without a lot of scrolling. They also make it easier to control and adjust the stereo.
Your options include full-color animated displays and customizable color schemes for a better match to your dash lighting. If you want to heighten the listening experience, look for a stereo with lighting that flashes to the beat!
The hot trend in car stereos today is a floating screen – a screen that doesn't fit in the dash, but "floats" in front of it, typically measuring between 7 and 11 inches. These stereos bring even better "ease of use" functionality and definitely step up the stereo's "wow factor."
Being able to use a backup camera with a touchscreen receiver's display can save the day.
Driving assistance and backup cameras
More and more touchscreen stereos include at least one camera input, and some offer as many as four. Adding a backup camera, a dash cam, and/or side cameras can help keep the safety factor high. Some of our car stereo integration adapters can also help you integrate factory cameras, so you can keep their functionality even when you install a new car stereo.
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.
If you’re building upon your system with more audio components, preamp outputs let you connect external amplifiers to power your speakers or a subwoofer. The number of outputs can vary, but you should have at least one set. Output voltage typically ranges from 2 to 5 volts. The higher that voltage rating, the cleaner the signal sent to your amp. If you know you will be adding a subwoofer, look for a model with a dedicated subwoofer output — this will allow you to adjust the subwoofer volume independently, rather than using the bass control.
DIY Installation HelpWe have the installation parts, accessories, and tools needed to install a new stereo.
- We include step-by-step instructions specific to your car, if available, for free. For most vehicles, we also carry the installation parts and accessories you'll need and you'll get them at a deep discount when you buy any receiver from us.
- 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. Once you tell us about your vehicle and choose a stereo, we'll tell you which adapter will work for you.
- We also show you the standard household tools (like a screwdriver) that’ll be useful to have on hand when you install your receiver. And if you don’t have these tools, we sell ‘em.
What's the next step?
Keeping the points we mention in this article in mind, write down a list of the features you most want. Then, use our vehicle selector to create a list of stereos that fit your car. Narrow down the list by using the filters on our site to highlight your favorite features. Or worry about that later and jump right into the in-dash receivers!
For an easier time, check out our list of the Best Car Stereos for 2023.
If you want deeper dive into a specific type of receiver more before you start shopping, our expert guides can help:
- Advantages of a touchscreen stereo
- Digital media receivers buying guide
- In-dash navigation buying guide
- Marine stereos buying guide