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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.

  • Jim C from Springfield MO

    Posted on 10/19/2023

    This was a great read. My son's old civic beater is getting some holiday attention. The info presented was helpful, and NEEDED.

  • steve from So Fla

    Posted on 10/18/2023

    Why "assume" the reader is not interested in a unit with CD player along with XM? I have several older vehicles to which I might want both features.

  • Dave from Tampa

    Posted on 9/1/2022

    No mention of GPS in "extra features"? I consider it the most important feature in buying a new system. My factory system already plays music and hands-free bluetooth. If I am to spend up to a grand for a new system it better have GPS, two camera inputs, as well as hands-free and a decent audio system. Problem is finding one that fits 1-din dash of an old BMW E36.

  • Chris D. from Greer, SC

    Posted on 8/31/2022

    My Kenwood DMX1057XR lacks only one factory stereo feature: Speed adjusted volume. But the huge, bright display, exquisite audio control, and instantaneous touchscreen control combine to make listening to music and using CarPlay a joy.

  • Ricardo B from Sout San Francisco

    Posted on 7/5/2022

    What are the requirements of audio equipment needed to be able to play Hi REZ music to its full potential on my 2016 CRV also I need to retain my vehicle factory features. Thanks

    Commenter image

    Crutchfield Writing Team from Crutchfield

    on 7/6/2022

    Ricardo, With questions like that, it's always better to have a conversation with a real live human. 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.
  • Rob from Las Vegas

    Posted on 2/2/2022

    Pros and Cons of floating screen vs in-dash?

  • Nickolas Flores from West Covina

    Posted on 1/25/2021

    Can these top end products play full HD video directly from YouTube?

    Commenter image

    Alexander H. from Crutchfield

    on 2/1/2021

    Nickolas, you'll want to look for head units with built-in WebLink, which allows access to YouTube when your vehicle's parking brake is engaged.
  • Brian from Pittsburgh

    Posted on 11/23/2020

    I am looking to buy a 10 in touch screen with all the perks. Phone, Nav, reverse camera, CD if possible. I have a 2016 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. I just want to know I have a good unit and I'm willing to spend a little more if I get more. I would like a package with speakers and amps. any suggestions would be great from someone who really knows stereos. Thanks, B

    Commenter image

    Jon Paul from Crutchfield

    on 11/24/2020

    Brian, 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.
  • 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

    Commenter image

    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.

    Commenter image

    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.

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