Like everything in the car audio space, there always a multitude of things to consider before you buy a car stereo. Often referred to as the ‘Head Unit’, ‘Receiver’, or ‘Car Radio’, the car stereo is the composer for your car audio system, so getting the right one is as important as getting the right amplifier, subwoofer or loudspeakers.
It gives us much of the control we need at the touch of a button within a few inches. Like everything, they have improved no end as the technology has evolved, and the best car stereos can do so much more than orchestrate our music for us.
There are two main types: ones with a disc player and others without that just connect to our smartphones or play music. However, for those of you that enjoy the retro feel, some manufacturers are still producing classic cassette head units.
But of course, today’s car stereos can do much more than play music. We can watch movies on them, they can be our GPS navigation, parking aids and much more.
But replacing your factory car radio with the latest head unit isn’t as straightforward as you might like. As with everything and car audio components, there are a few factors at play.
Problems With Changing Your Car Stereo Head Unit
Many of the latest cars come with excellent head units, especially high-end cars, so most people who own a good new car will unlikely want to buy a new one.
Factory head units might have controls built into the steering wheel, which will unlikely be useable with some new head units, so make sure you’re comfortable with everything before you settle on a new car stereo.
Car manufacturers don’t want aftermarket stereos in their cars because this cuts into their profits on the premium sound systems they want to sell in future cars, so they make the factory head unit complex and compatible with the car.
For example, some factory car radios might have other functions built into them, that might make it impossible to replace it with something different.
Some car manufacturers have also changed the standard DIN size to double DIN or somewhere in-between, and even different shaped head units just to make things awkward.
Car audio manufacturers are fighting back, however, and are making non-standard DIN head units, so they can fit in other sizes.
Things To Consider Before Buying A Car Stereo Receiver
Most aftermarket car stereos will have a detachable faceplate. It’s pretty much the standard now, but make sure you know the size you need.
As already stated, there is a standard DIN (Deutsches Institut für Normung) size, and these are roughly 2 inches tall, whereas double DIN faceplates are about 4 inches tall.
There are some 1.5 DIN and other sizes between single and double DIN, so make sure you know the minimum and maximum space requirements for your new head unit upgrade.
Do you want your car stereo to power your speakers? That’s fine, but if you like your music loud, even the best head unit won’t make a huge difference. Car stereo power rating is usually only about 8-15W RMS per channel so if you like your music really loud you will have to get an external amplifier.
Today’s modern car stereo receivers are more than just CD players, if you get one with a disc option. Some are DVD players, too, and obviously this added feature makes them more expensive.
If you want to play music from your MP3 or smartphone via Bluetooth, make sure it’s Bluetooth compatible. Most will have auxiliary connection anyway so you will be able to wire it up if your mp3/smartphone has that capability.
Some other head units come with built in Apple Car Play or Android Auto, that give you more control of your music and other smartphone features. These are usually Double DIN, so they have a bigger screen, and most of these are made for specific cars, although it’s becoming more widespread now.
Many new high-end cars come with something similar, and they’re becoming the norm as car manufacturers compete to put the best equipment in factory head units.
But for those of you that want or even need a new car stereo, what are the newer features you can get? As well as everything you should expect, here’s a closer look at other features you’ll be able to get…
Key Features Of The Best Car Stereo Receivers
We have come a long way since the classic car radio, and then the cassette head unit. While these are still very useful, especially the radio, we can have so much more on our car stereo nowadays.
Of course, our car stereos need the all-important switches, dials and connectors. After all we need to switch on and off, turn the volume up (and down sometimes), and flick from song to song. But the best car stereos are much more nowadays.
As well as the necessary controls, here’s more features we might consider when we look for a new car stereo:
Most people don’t buy CDs anymore, but many modern car stereo systems still come with a CD player. While driving, there’s nothing better than listening to music, so if you still use CDs of course, they’re important.
But it’s not just Boomers who should consider a CD player for their car radio. If you have CD capability, it will free up your smartphone, and who knows, your passengers might bring along a good CD that they want playing.
As for DVD, obviously watching a movie while driving isn’t recommended, but it will give your passengers many hours of fun, especially if you have a double DIN head unit.
With a DVD player, you can also ensure you have plenty of hours entertainment if you’re a long distance truck driver for those lonely nights in your cabin. Sure, you can stream movies, but having the DVDs will save your data.
USB ports are very useful in a car stereo head unit. They can be used to charge your smartphone or other device. Modern car stereo USB ports have a fast-charging feature nowadays, so anyone wanting to charge their phone can do so in much faster time.
As well as being a charger, a USB allows you to store lots of music and videos on them, plug them in and play. This way it takes up much less space than a bunch of discs, and is much easier to carry around, or hide when you’re parked up.
Bluetooth is an important feature that connects our smartphones to our car stereos letting us play our music library in our car whenever we like.
As well as streaming music from your device, some Bluetooth devices allow us to listen to and dictate text messages, make hands free calls among other things.
Not all Bluetooth systems allow this, however, so make sure the system on your car stereo does exactly what you need before buying it.
Auxiliary ports have long been extremely useful for drivers as these give us the option of connecting pretty much anything that fits a 3.5mm jack. Since Bluetooth, they’re less used, but it’s always a great backup in case the Bluetooth isn’t working.
Touch Screen and Mirror Link
Many double DIN car stereos are touch screen, and can replicate your smartphone interface thanks to Mirror Link feature. This sensitive touch function ensures that you can control things like answering or making calls quickly and accurately.
Apple Car Play or Android Auto
These features are becoming more popular, and they allow you to easily access your music, GPS, send and receive messages all through voice control, saving your hands for the steering wheel.
They also allow you to control many apps that are on your smartphone, such as audio books, messaging apps, news and much more. It’s like having your iPhone or Android, but on your car radio.
Some double DIN car stereos come with an inbuilt satellite navigation. Everyone knows how handy this is as we all get lost from time to time, and of course, the best GPS applications steer us away from traffic congestion if it’s possible.
As useful as this is, it will be available via your smartphone anyway, but if you do have it built into your car stereo receiver, it will save data from your phone package, so they are very useful.
Of course, we all need the radio from time to time, and no head unit would be complete without this feature. As well as the traditional radio frequencies, some car stereo receivers allow us to connect to radio stations on the Internet, giving us many more options.
It can be done through your smartphone or some head units have it built in, but of course you will need an Internet connection to play your favorite radio channels from around the world.
MP5 is a newer feature that is becoming available on the best Double DIN car stereos. An MP5 file is most commonly a digital video file that allows HD-like quality in much smaller in size than other video file formats.
Back Up Camera
Some of the best quality car stereos now come with an HD waterproof backup camera, which automatically display crystal clear images on the monitor display when you’re reversing.
They usually have an ultra-wide viewing angle to ensure there’s no blind spot, making reverse parking easy for everyone. Well, maybe not for everyone, but…
As well as all the Treble and Bass features, some of the better car stereos include an inbuilt EQ and a customised EQ that allows you to sculpt the soundscape you want.
Each brand is different, but this feature will generally give you more control over your loudspeakers, subwoofer and amplifier, making sure you can get the very sound you want with the slide of your finger.
Similar to USB ports, these ports allow you to use flash memory cards for storing music and other data. Not as useful as they used to be, but they’re still good to have.
Speed-sensitive Volume Compensation (SVC) automatically turns the volume up or down in relation to the speed you’re travelling at, so you don’t have to keep adjusting the volume while you’re out in the car.
Why do we need a remote control when everything is within arms distance? I hear you ask… Some remote controls come with large LED displays making them easier to use. Or some can be installed on your steering wheel making them much more accessible than your head unit, so a remote control for your car stereo makes driving much safer.
Buying The Best Car Stereo For You
Before buying a car stereo, you should do a bit of research. You have to know what size you can fit in your car. Most car stereos are single DIN (about 2 inches tall), but the video players are usually double DIN and offer more features.
Whatever head unit you choose to get, make sure it has all the features you want at the size you can install.
Remember, a new head unit won’t make a huge difference to the volume of your speakers or subwoofer. Sure, receivers will give you more control over your car audio system and will make a difference, but for power and clarity, you will need a full system make over.
But of course, the car stereo is your composer, and will allow you to easily sculpt the soundscape you desire. Whatever it is you’re after for your main head unit, the options are far greater than just the car radio that we had to use yesteryear.