Stereos for cars: Car Stereo: Stereos, Radios & Receivers

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Car Stereo: Stereos, Radios & Receivers

How to shop for a car stereo

Your car stereo is the centerpiece of your car “infotainment” system. As such, it needs to tie in your smartphone with hands-free calling, music streaming, and more.

Below, you’ll find brief descriptions of the varieties of new car stereos and features available. For more-detailed buying tips, check out our car stereo buying guide.

You’ll find a lot of variety in the feature sets. A stereo might have:

  • a CD player (it’s optional these days)
  • one or more USB inputs
  • Bluetooth® capability
  • touchscreen controls
  • and there are different degrees of smartphone compatibility

Before you get too distracted by the options and the hundreds of models available, it’s important to know which stereos will work in your car. That’s just one of the reasons we ask you to tell us what you drive — it’ll make your shopping easier.

Let’s discuss the four broad categories of stereos as a starting point. We also group them based on some of the most popular features, but we’ll get into that later.

CD receivers

The basic car stereo. It plays CDs, usually has an auxiliary (minijack) input and maybe a USB input to let you play music stored on or streamed through your phone. They often have Bluetooth capability, but they do not have touchscreens.

DVD receivers

DVD receivers have a video screen, which is almost always a touchscreen. Touchscreen control of your stereo makes it tons easier to make adjustments and customize the settings. And yes, they play CDs, too. They’re usually double-DIN size, but there are also some 2″-tall models that have either smaller screens, or full-sized, fold-out screens. These stereos tend to have more features, often including Android Auto or Apple CarPlay for the best smartphone integration.

Navigation receivers

Navigation stereos feature built-in GPS guidance, with large touchscreens that’ll display your route information. Most will play DVDs.

Digital media receivers & digital multimedia receivers

These stereos are designed for people who no longer listen to CDs. They do all the stuff that other stereos do, but they don’t have a disc player built in. The lack of disc player means that the stereo chassis (the body behind the faceplate) can be a lot smaller. These stereos will fit in places where other stereos won’t, which opens up new options for many vehicles.

We subdivide these stereos into two groups. Digital multimedia receivers offer touchscreen displays which will play video, while Digital media receivers do not.

There are many ways to approach shopping for a new car stereo, so we’ve tried to give you a head start by grouping them by popular features. Here’s what you’ll find:

Car stereos compatible with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto

One of the most important car stereo features today is smartphone integration. The two most popular ways to use your phone in the car are Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. So if you know that one of these features is a must, then these groups will show you only those stereos that offer one or the other. And there are plenty of models that can do both. If you want to learn more about this topic, read our articles about Android Auto and Apple CarPlay.

Bluetooth car stereos

If Bluetooth compatibility is a top priority for you, then check out these stereos that allow you to make hands-free calls or stream music. You’ll find lots of options here.

Touchscreen radios

If you know that you want a touchscreen, then you can start here. You’ll see all the DVD receivers, navigation receivers, and multimedia receivers that’ll fit your vehicle. Of course, make sure you tell us what you drive somewhere along the way.

Double-DIN car stereos (4″ tall) and single-DIN car stereos (2″ tall)

Finally, we also let you look specifically at all the stereos classified by chassis size. Some cars will let you choose from either style, but some limit you to one or the other.

Weather-resistant stereos

These stereos are “marine rated.” That means they are water-resistant and usually have displays that are easier to see in direct sunlight. You’ll find them all in our weather-resistant radios category, but they’re also great for Jeeps, golf carts, ATVs and UTVs, and any other situation where your vehicle might be exposed to the elements.

Custom car stereos

This is a specially curated selection of car stereos, designed to fit in and integrate with specific vehicles, including a line of stereos for classic cars. Whether you’re restoring an old Mustang or looking to upgrade your new Wrangler, definitely check them out.

Mounting kit and wiring adapter

These are needed to properly install your new stereo and integrate it into your car’s electronics. We’ll help you find these when you tell us what you drive.

Steering wheel audio control adapters

You need one of these adapters to keep those handy buttons working with your new stereo.

Backup cameras

If your new stereo has a video screen, why not add the convenience and safety of a backup camera when you install the new stereo?

Auxiliary input cable or USB cable

You’ll need these to connect your music player or smartphone to the stereo.

Phone mounts

Keep your phone handy and secure while you drive.

Car audio installation tools

We offer a wide selection of tools that’ll make the installation process much simpler.

Car stereo buying guide

by Crutchfield’s
Dave Delamere

May 22, 2023

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.

W

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. 

Watch the video

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?

Looking for a stereo for your classic car that won’t ruin the classic looks? We carry gear from Retrosound that will do just that. Check out the this ’63 Cadillac Eldorado. We installed a new audio system and kept the original factory look.

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?

Cool cosmetics

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. 

Audio 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.

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 Help


We 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

And don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. Before you know it, our expert advisors (like Rodell, pictured above) will have you riding around with your perfect in-dash stereo.

Car stereos: everything you need to know

Auto

While more and more cars come with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support, you don’t have to buy a new car to get these great systems in your car. Car stereos can be safely considered a brilliant invention of mankind. Let’s talk about them in more detail.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have revolutionized car stereos in recent years. When car manufacturers design new cars, they initially install a certain stereo system, which can limit your capabilities (i.e. does not support the necessary range of applications). But Apple CarPlay and Android Auto open up the possibility of installing new and updated apps at any time. For example, in iOS 13, Apple added a new dual screen feature that greatly improves usability. Every car stereo with Apple CarPlay received this update absolutely free.

More recent car models support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But if you do not have a factory radio, you can install one (or replace the old one with a new one) at any time. But before choosing a new audio device, take a look at these important specs:

  • Wireless Support: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto originally provided their functionality with a wired connection, but the wireless variant of these two technologies is becoming the new standard in car audio. Paired with in-car wireless chargers, connecting to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is as easy as starting your car.
  • Speaker Amplifier : Most aftermarket stereos have much more amplification power than the factory unit. If you want to get decent volume from your speakers, you will need an amplifier with at least 20 watts (RMS). If you are not planning on adding a loudspeaker amplifier such as the Kicker Key 180.4 or Alpine KTP-445U to your setup, you should pay attention to the available amplifier power.
  • Support HD Radio / Sirius XM : Most aftermarket stereos currently support Sirius XM. HD Radio is a little less common. This is unfortunate because HD Radio is a great way to get high-definition digital music for free (live).
  • Capacitive touch screen : Older and less advanced receivers use resistive touch screens, which are slow to respond to touches (and in some cases, these pressures must be very strong). Capacitive touchscreens (the same as your smartphone’s sensor) are far superior to resistive touchscreens as they are much easier and more practical to use, making it an essential requirement for a good car stereo these days.
  • Backup Camera / DVR Support : Support for front, side and rear DVRs is growing in the car stereo segment. Most stereo systems now support two or even three camera inputs. If your existing car system even shows you a “rear view” when you try to park your car, that’s the minimum required functionality for your device.
  • Comprehensive EQ/Crossover support : The ability to dial in audio frequencies to achieve the sound quality you expect cannot be underestimated. It is not enough to simply adjust the bass and treble. In addition, fine-tuning the crossover frequencies for each set of speakers (front, rear, and subwoofer) will result in an overall cleaner sound as well as longer speaker life by directing each speaker to reproduce the frequencies it was designed for.
  • Line out preamp connectors : Three pairs (6 channels) of line pre-outs (front, rear and subwoofer) are also a basic requirement these days. You should reconsider the purchase if the device you intend to buy does not provide the required number of line outputs.
  • Presence of Steering Wheel Controls : Quite a few modern car models come with physical controls built into the steering wheel. You’ll miss out on the ease of use of your car stereo if you don’t have access to controls through your steering wheel. The most common interface solution is the iDatalink Maestro device. Aim for a receiver that supports iDatalink (this will make daily use much easier).
  • Pairing with two phones via Bluetooth : Almost every modern car stereo can pair with a mobile phone via a Bluetooth connection. The best of them provide the ability to work in pairs with two phones at the same time, which allows you to receive incoming calls from one phone and switch between radio stations from another cellular device.
Best: Kenwood Excelon DMX906S

The Kenwood Excelon car stereo series is known for its high-end features such as speaker amplification, better line pre-outs and an extensive list of state-of-the-art features. The DMX906 maintains this pattern with outstanding features such as wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Their interface can be easily personalized (at the request of the user), a comprehensive 13-band equalizer and 3-band crossover, HD radio and Bluetooth support for two phones.

Kenwood also provides standard features such as SiriusXM radio support and three pairs of line pre-outs. The manufacturer has expanded support for iDatalink Maestro, which includes the ability to display additional vehicle diagnostics (such as engine speed and tire pressure). The DMX906S features a 6.95″ capacitive touch screen and delivers 22W (RMS) x 4 channels, enough to drive almost any set of speakers without additional amplification.

Budget option: Alpine ILX-W650

The Alpine ILX-W650 boasts a capacitive 7-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (wired-only in less than three inches deep) at a very low price. This adapter can be a worthy budget replacement for a factory radio. The ILX-W650 also provides a standard feature list that includes iDatalink Maestro support, 6-channel pre-outs, SiriusXM radio support, and customizable EQ control.

Best DVD Receiver: Pioneer AVH-2550NEX

If you just need to be able to read DVDs to watch movies on a long trip, then you will definitely be satisfied with the Pioneer AVH-2 550NEX. This device features a very sensitive 6.8-inch capacitive touch screen, customizable display, and a remote control.

While DVD playback is this unit’s standout feature, the AVH-2550NEX also impresses with Apple Carpay, Android Auto, HD Radio, SiriusXM support, an improved version of iDatalink Maestro that includes vehicle diagnostics, 13-way graphic equalizer, as well as a 6-channel pre-out. However, this unit only supports 14W RMS power for 4 channels, so you may need an additional amplifier to drive the front and rear speakers if you are also trying to improve volume or reduce audio distortion.

Best Single DIN / 9-inch Screen: Alpine Halo9 ILX-F309

If you’re looking for something more than a standard Double-DIN touchscreen, the Alpine Halo9 ILX-F309 is for you. The receiver’s chassis takes up just one DIN space but has a large 9-inch capacitive touchscreen that seems to float right in front of the dashboard. The screen is firmly fixed on a tripod, however, you can easily change its position.

In addition to the Halo9’s functional touchscreen, the ILX-F309 supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, HD Radio and SiriusXM. It also boasts a 9-band parametric EQ, high- and low-pass filters, 6-channel preamp line outputs, and advanced iDatalink Maestro support that includes vehicle diagnostics. This device has the added feature of being compatible with an optional accessory controller that controls up to eight additional devices such as LED lights, suspension kits and power blankets. Gain is a little weak at 18W (RMS) x 4 channels, so you may need an additional amplifier.

Buy Kenwood Excelon DMX906S HERE
Buy Alpine ILX-W650 HERE
Buy Pioneer AVH-2550NEX DVD Receiver HERE
Buy Alpine Halo9 ILX-F30 9 you can HERE

Publication author

folder_open Tagged in: Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, iDatalink Maestro, Kenwood, Kenwood KSC-SW11, Single-DIN, Touch Screen, audio system, car audio, car audio

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