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There is a lot of debate and opinions for what is the best car stereo. Realistically, this is a tricky question to answer because each person (and vehicle) has different needs. Instead of giving just one option that I think is the best car stereo, I’ll list out my favorite receivers in different groups. Hopefully this will help you find the best stereo for your car and application.
Best Budget Car Stereo
As far as I’m concerned, any car stereo under $100 should be considered a budget stereo. Of course there are really cheap car stereos that you can buy at Wal-Mart for $45, but there is a big difference between cheap stereos and budget stereos. My favorite budget car stereo is the Pioneer DEH-X4900BT.
This is a name brand, Bluetooth car stereo with tons of features for under $100. It's got a CD drive, front USB, front aux input, Spotify support, and is both Android & iPhone compatible. It is also compatible with Pioneer's ARC (Advanced Remote Control) App for simplified stereo control from a connected smartphone.
I don’t think that this will be any surprise here. My pick for the best audiophile car stereo is the Pioneer Stage 4 DEX-P99RS. It features tons of sound quality features such as L/R Independent 31-Band Digital Equalizer, Auto Time Alignment and Auto EQ, 32-Bit Binary Floating-Point DSP, and much more.
This is a high-end, audiophile car stereo with tons of advanced features designed to let the user fine tune the sound quality. From a 31-band EQ to a 32-bit DSP, this stereo does it all.
When it comes to a navigation receiver, the clear winner is Kenwood. Typically I’m not a big fan of Kenwood for a variety of reasons, but their navigation with Garmin is really the best. My choice for best navigation receiver is the Kenwood eXcelon DNX693X. The Garmin interface is easy to use and the navigation is near flawless. It also features a 6.2″ touchscreen display (there are still buttons and knobs), smartphone connectivity and MHL connections, as well as complete Bluetooth functionality.
Kenwood eXcelon DNX693s
This is a full featured 6.1 inch navigation receiver that features the famous Garmin navigation, as well as iPhone/Android support, MHL/HDMI connectivity, parking guide lines, and many more features.
With the release of newer technology like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, it is pretty easy to see the Pioneer AVIC-8200NEX is the clear winner. Most notable is the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality that enables advanced connection of a smartphone to the car stereo with a very intuitive user interface. For those iPhone users out there with Siri, the AVIC-8200NEX has complete Siri control for true hands free control of the stereo and phone.
This is a flagship stereo from Pioneer that features complete control with Apple and Android devices by using Apple CarPlay and Android Auto respectively. Both of these applications provide superior control of the smartphone directly from the receiver.
The most common size for a car stereo is a single DIN. These stereos are approximately 7″W x 2″H in size and will fit in just about every vehicle.
At twice the height of single DIN stereo, double DIN stereos measure in at about 7″W x 4″H. THe extra height adds more real estate to the front face of the stereo which is often filled with a large touchscreen.
Some vehicles do not easily allow a single or double DIN stereo to replace the OEM stereo and require an aftermarket stereo that is molded to the same size and dash as the OEM stereo. These stereos are referred to as OEM replacement.
Car Stereo Features
Stereos that have Bluetooth technology are designed for hands-free talking. This means a user can pair their Bluetooth enabled phone (like a smartphone) to the car stereo to make and receive calls. The stereos feature an external microphone (mounted during installation) and play the audio through the car speakers. This is the most convenient way to talk while driving. Some Bluetooth stereos also feature A2DP audio streaming to allow an audio signal from a Bluetooth device (like the Pandora app on an iPhone) to play through the car speakers.
Just about every aftermarket car stereo has a CD player (with the exception of digital media receivers). Other stereos feature DVD playback which can be used for watching movies or playing back music if the DVD is burned with MP3 files. Typically, only double DIN touchscreen receivers have DVD playback because they have a display that will actually accommodate the DVD playback.
Newer stereos have USB ports on them to allow a better connection to digital devices. This enables a user to plug in a USB flash drive, a smartphone, or in some cases a portable hard drive. These digital devices have more music storage than most CDs so a listener can have more music with them on the go. It is excellent for long road trips or when you want to quickly share some music with a friend.
If you are traveling a lot and want to make sure you know how to get to your destination, be sure to consider an in-dash GPS receiver. These receivers come with a GPS antenna and all the software needed to navigate from one destination to another. Several of the name brand stereo manufacturers have partnered with the industry leaders in GPS technology (such as Garmin™) to provide the most up to date map information.These stereos are typically a double DIN or single DIN flip out because the larger diaply makes it much easier to see the maps.
Many of the newest car stereos are compatible with iPhone and Android smartphones via a USB connection. That means a user can simply plug in their phone to the car stereo with the same cable that the phone came with. Once the phone is connected, many new features become available depending on the car stereo. Some of these features might include audio playback of music on the phone, video playback, Pandora app control, Siri control, Apple CarPlay compatible, MirrorLink compatible, and many other innovative features. These stereos are perfect for those that use their phones for music streaming.
MirrorLink Car Stereos
Perhaps the latest trend for car stereos is a technology called MirrorLink, which allows the display of a connected Android smartphone to be mirrored on the display of the car stereo. Depending on the unit, the user may or may not be able to control the phone using the stereo controls. The benefit to this is accessing smartphone apps (such as Waze, Spotify, etc) from the touchscreen of the car stereo. The most common use for MirrorLink right now is being able to connect a compatible Android smartphone via USB and setting the phone in the glove box. The user can still access of the apps they want without the distraction of text messages, emails, or other potentially dangerous distractions that the phone might cause.
Replacing the stereo in your car will enhance the sound quality, make your ride more enjoyable, and offer more features than the OEM stereo. Since every car is different, replacing the stereo can be very simple or quite difficult. If you are not completely comfortable replacing your car stereo, it is recommended that you seek out a professional installer. For those that want to learn how to install a car stereo on their own, follow the steps below:
1. Purchase the Right Gear
Before you can install your new car stereo, make sure you purchase one that will fit in your car. The two most standard sizes are Single DIN or Double DIN. Use an online retailer (like Sonic Electronix) or an manufacturer (such as Metra) to find out what size stereo you need for your car. Most stores include free installation accessories with purchase of a car stereo. These accessories are very important.
2. Remove the car stereo
The first step in the installation should be to disconnect the negative battery terminal to prevent any electrical issues. Then follow the instructions provided in the car stereo installation dash kit to learn how to remove the OEM car stereo. These instructions include removing panels, unbolting screws, and any other information that is necessary to gain access to the current car stereo. Once exposed, there are typically a few screws holding the stereo in place. Simply unscrew the screws, remove the stereo, and unplug all the wires.
3. Prepare the wiring harness
The wiring harness will be the main connection between your new car stereo and the vehicle. You will need to connect the vehicle specific harness to the harness that came with the aftermarket stereo. Since these two harnesses are aftermarket, they should follow the same color pattern. Simply connect each of the wires using one of 3 different methods: crimp caps, butt connectors, or soldering. The butt connector method is the most common. Soldering the wires together is the best method, but also the most time consuming. I highly recommend watching the video below for this step.
Video: How to properly connect a wire harness
4. Install any accessories
Depending on your car stereo and the features that you want, you may have to install a few other accessories before you put the new stereo in the dash. This might include accessories like Satellite radio (such as Sirius or XM), GPS navigation, bluetooth microphone or a back up camera. For a detailed walkthrough on installing each of these accessories, watch the videos below that are relevant to your installation.
Once you have the harness prepared and all the accessory cables ran through the car, the stereo is ready to be placed in the car. To do this, first mount the stereo to the dash kit by following the instruction included with the dash kit. Usually this is done by attaching a side bracket to the car stereo and then mounting that to the dash kit. Once the dash kit is mounted to the car stereo, plug in the wire harnesses and any other accessory cables. Then mount the new car stereo in the vehicle’s dash. At this point, you should be ready to reconnect the battery and test the stereo.
6. Put everything back together
If everything is functioning properly, then carefully put back all the dash panels in the reverse order that they were pulled off. Once everything is put back together in the car, simply clean up all your tools and you are done. Enjoy the new stereo.
It is important to note that the information on this page is merely a generic guideline, not a strict how to guide. If you are not comfortable installing a car stereo, you should contact a professional car audio installation shop. It is better to be safe than sorry. An improper installation could potentially damage your vehicle and/or its electrical system.
The information on this website is based on my experiences and opinions. It is always recommended to consult with a professional installer before doing anything on your car. LearnCarAudio.com is not responsible for any typographical, conceptual, or visual errors on the website.