A Guide to Car Stereo Installation for Guaranteed Crisp and Clear Audio Today

car stereo installation

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On average, American adults spend about an hour in the car each day. How will you pass the time? Is it time to think about the sort of car stereo installation that will meet your needs?

Whether you are an old timer who just needs your favorite radio station or an audiophile seeking out the latest and greatest, car stereo installation may be just what you need.


While there have been many changes and advancements in car stereos, certain aspects remain primary building blocks. They may have changed in appearance and space, but they are still necessary starting points. 

The first basic component is the head unit. This unit produces an audio signal.

The second component is the amplifier. The amplifier, of course, amplifies the audio signal.

The final basic component is the speaker. Speakers are where we hear the sound. If you have these three things, you have a stereo.

Component No. 1 — The Head Unit

What most folks call the “stereo” is what we know as the head unit

This is the familiar piece of hardware with a radio display and buttons. This is where the signal is produced.

car stereo

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Head units serve the same primary purpose whether you are streaming internet audio or listening to your dad's favorite old cassette tape. 

Today, head units can do a myriad of tasks including playing video manipulated on a touch screen.

Typically, the more concerned you are with expanding your entertainment options, the bigger your LCD screen will be. Head units today may look more like robots than traditional car stereos.

Single and Double Din

Head units can be single din or double din. The difference is in the size of the unit. Single din units are usually 8x2 inches. Double din are about 8x4.

Component No. 2 — The Amplifier

No matter what type of signal the head unit produces, it must be amplified. 

Remembers, speakers must move to produce sound, and an audio signal without an amplifier will not be strong enough to make the speaker function.

Usually, there is an amplifier contained within the head unit. Almost any head unit you buy will include an amplifier, so you the naked eye a car stereo can include a head unit and speakers. The signal is still being amplified.

car stereo

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A separate amplifier, however, can dramatically increase sound and power in your car stereo.

Component No. 3 — The Speakers

Almost all cars come equipped with at least four speakers. 

The amplifier will take the audio signal and turn it into mechanical energy that causes the speaker cones to vibrate. The vibration creates sound waves that travel through the air and are received by our ears as sound.


The stereotypical speaker is pictured as a large cabinet with three individual speakers: a woofer (for low frequencies), a midrange (for middle frequencies), and a tweeter (for high frequencies).

Often, car speakers are full range, meaning each speaker covers a wider variety of frequencies, though they typically do not go as low as a woofer or as high as a tweeter.

The Complete System

While there are many more advanced components, we will examine later. No car stereo installation will be successful with careful consideration of the three primary components.

A top-of-the-line head unit is useless with no amplifier. An expensive amplifier is a waste of money without speakers capable of making undistorted sound.

Eventually, you may want to include equalizers or crossovers. Or you may decide to upgrade your existing primary components before adding supplementary components. Car stereo installation often depends on your budget, your needs, and your wants.

Cars, Trucks, and Vans, Oh My!

A final variable in car stereo installation basics is your type of vehicle. For instance, pickup trucks are often at a premium for space. Some vehicles have dash and door areas that are not easily accessible.

The sound quality in each car is also randomly different based on the materials used in the seats, doors, and other interior items.

Why Go for a New Car Stereo?

You may have a desire to upgrade your current car stereo sound quality by eliminating distortion or broadening your frequency range.

Others may want to expand music playback options in your car. Today's musical playback capabilities include:

  • MP3 players
  • Smartphones
  • Satellite radio
  • Video sources, such as MP4
  • DVDs
  • And more!

If this is you, keep an eye out for expandable options, such as USB or other auxiliary inputs. These will allow you to connect your personal devices and to experiment with other ideas as time goes by.

Simple Needs

Still, others seek simplification in a tech-heavy age. You may desire car stereo installation in order to have large screen readout, the ability to use the touch screen, or a simple way to keep your kids amused in the back of the van.

It's Just Cool

Let's be honest. Some of us just want to have the coolest look in our cars that we can. There is something about futuristic digital displays and flashing lights that give us the feeling of a modern-day Knight Rider.

As a side note, if you plan on making your car something to grab other people's attention, be mindful that some people are not lawful. Always be sure your car insurance covers your aftermarket car stereo installation investments.

Can I Buy Used?

We can all, at times, succumb to Craigslist. But you must consider carefully what you are or are not willing to buy used as you invest in car stereo installation.


My dad used to say that the more parts something had, the more likely it was to break. For that very reason, he would not buy a car with automatic windows.

Perhaps a bit overcautious, his idea rings true in car stereo purchases. Doo-dads on used equipment are more likely to be worn out or in need of repair than solid units with no moving parts.

Amplifiers may be safer to buy than head units with knobs and levers.

Puffing

The same unlawful folks who force you to carry theft insurance may also be more likely to puff up their product listings. For that reason sites like Craigslist can be more reliable than other non-localized auction sites like eBay because they give you the chance to inspect your items before you pay cash.

On the downside, Craigslist offers bigger dangers than simply being lied to about stereo equipment. If you buy used, keep some simple safety tips in mind.

  • Do all business during daylight hours.
  • Trust your gut. If something doesn't feel right, it's not worth it. Go home.
  • Don't travel alone. Meet other people a friend. Big strong friends are the best
  • Always meet sellers in public places.


If you choose to do safer business by mail, be ready for Ebay-style precautions.

  • eBay allows the use of Paypal that provides a reasonable level of security. Never give a check number or credit card information.
  • Never pay cash.
  • Read the seller's description carefully. Often descriptions include subtle suggestions that the product may not work. Just because it worked when they plugged it in does not mean they are guaranteeing it will work when you buy it.
  • Anything sold “as is” means you are taking a huge risk.
  • Don't be afraid to communicate with the seller. Ask a lot of questions! Is it guaranteed? Does it have a warranty?
  • Check all seller feedback carefully, especially those who did not give a positive response.

Back to audio issues, make sure your current system is compatible with any used pieces you buy. Know your plugs and connectors. If in doubt, check with the manufacturer.

Equalizers

Beyond the three primary components of car stereo installation, there are any number of components that can add to a first-class system.

Equalizers can increase or decrease the intensity of particular frequency ranges.

Graphic Equalizers 

Graphic equalizers have sliding levers that adjust particular, fixed frequency ranges.

Parametric Equalizers 

Parametric Equalizers adjust the intensity of specific frequencies, unlike the determined ranges of a graphic equalizer.

EQ Boosters

Some equalizers, or EQ boosters, combine equalizers and amplifiers so you can adjust frequencies and volume.

Digital Equalizers

Unlike the traditional sliders, digital equalizers store frequency settings internally.

Crossovers

What is a crossover? And how do you know whether it is useful for your own car stereo installation?

While equalizers can adjust the intensity of certain frequencies, it is also true that certain speakers are better able to produce certain frequencies. 

Tweeters produce high frequencies. 

Woofers produce low frequencies.


If you are using component speakers (individual woofers, midranges, and tweeters) crossovers can ensure that only particular frequencies go to particular speakers. 

This can improve the sound of your car stereo system.

Crossing Over

Crossovers are easily spliced between the amplifier and the speakers where they can navigate and direct certain frequencies.

More complicated crossovers require their own power sources. 

These active crossovers can direct and use all frequencies, while simpler, passive crossovers filter out particular frequencies for particular speakers but are unable to make use of them.

Most speakers come with some ability to manipulate frequencies, so the addition of a separate crossover is typically not required. This is particularly true of full range speakers.

car stereo

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Full range speakers have coaxials that do the work of a crossover. 

However, like particular equalizers, crossovers can enhance the sound in a top-end car stereo system. 

Crossovers are particularly important when individual aftermarket amplifiers are dedicated to individual component speakers.

The crossover will be first in the schematic allowing it to send a particular frequency range to the necessary amplifier. Each amplifier then drives a particular speaker.

Digital Signal Processors

A digital signal processor can accomplish the same features as an equalizer while adding the benefit of crossover capability. While perfecting your frequencies, they can simultaneously adjust the frequency flow to each speaker.

Some head units will are created to manipulate frequencies in order to compensate for poor speakers. If you add quality speakers, later on, you can hear a dissonance between the two.

These situations can be remedied by a digital signal processor. They are installed between the head unit and the amplifier rectify the manipulative workings of the head unit.

What's Involved?

Equalizers can be built directly into head units. Sound processors, though, are more likely to be tucked away in the trunk with the aftermarket amplifiers.

Wiring a sound processor is much like wiring an amplifier, but it usually comes between the head unit and the amplifier. If there is no amplifier, sound processors can be installed between the head unit and speakers.

Satellite Radio

Satellite radio can be a little scare for some of us even though it's been used for many years. A great advantage to adding satellite radio to your car stereo installation is that satellite radio is commercial free.


The flip side is that satellite radio requires a paid subscription. You may find it to be worthwhile for content that is not only free of commercials but also is available over a much broader range than traditional radio.

You can literally travel thousands of miles without changing your station. Typically these stations are accessed through Sirius Satellite Radio or XM Satellite Radio. By way of merger, SiriusXM is now a possibility.

Roughly 26 million households are satellite radio customers, and satellite radio is now an option in many new car purchases. Portable receivers are also available that would allow you to listen to your favorite satellite programs on the way to work and carry them over into your office or workspace.

How Much Are We Talking?

As exciting as a new car stereo installation may sound, your personal budget is important. It is probably obvious to you based on the previous content of the article that prices will vary widely because car stereo installations vary widely.


Beginning with the three primary components of a stereo system, we can take a look at some very generalized prices.

A head unit that is both easy on your wallet but worth an investment will probably go for around $150.

Don't be surprised if you feel the need to go to $200 or more. If you are seriously considering a top-of-the-line system, you can push well over $1000.

The Price of Amplification

Again, amplifiers will come with a wide range of prices based on your budget. To ensure you get a good product while saving as much money as possible, you should plan on spending at least $300.

Similar to the head unit, you can easily reach the thousands if you have the desire and finances.

Speakers

Woofers are often the most exciting speaker to buy. The picture of a big woofer or two in the trunk can get your audio juices flowing. Plan on at least spending close to $100 for a reliable woofer.

A woofer or subwoofer with dual voice coils can receive left and right channel audio. A pair of woofers will push $200.


car stereo

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A high powered subwoofer can easily reach $1000 plus the cost of enclosures.

If you stick with full range speakers and simply look to upgrade the ones you already have, plan on $100 per speaker.

You can begin with the three primary components of a car stereo system and upgrade to a very good system for around $800 on a budget-minded car stereo installation.

With more expensive components as well as crossovers, equalizers, and web-based products, you can easily spend several thousand.

Hotspots

So how do you actually get internet capabilities in your car during car stereo installation? A hotspot is a great option. Hotspots are not marketed specifically for cars, but they serve a great purpose for internet-related car stereo installation.

Hotspots allow you to latch on to a wireless signal, much like a wireless network, but hotspots offer the perk of mobility. Depending on your cell phone type and description, your phone may actually come equipped with hotspot ability.

With a hotspot in your car you can listen to internet radio or allow your passengers, maybe even your own children, to watch internet videos or text.

Remember, car stereo installation is as much about the passengers as it is the driver.

Bluetooth

car stereo

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Bluetooth allows for short-range wireless interaction of computers and online devices. Devices can communicate with each other within a car or room in the house. Bluetooth offers safety for traveling such as hands-free calling and remote control over the system.

Always be sure you know the law in your local area for being on the phone while driving. These laws may differ from locality to locality and may be different for hand-on calling and hands-free calling.

Car Stereo Systems of Choice

Certain car stereo systems are consistently regarded as user favorites. A few of them include:

Pioneer AVIC-5100NEX

Pioneer's AVIC-5100NEX is a head unit with stereo and navigation. As a double DIN, it is easily installed in your 8x4 dash opening.

Features

  • 6.2-inch touchscreen WVGA display
  • Speech-to-text
  • Bluetooth compatibility
  • Plays FLAC files and much more
  • Apple friendly & ready to play music from your iPhone

Kenwood DDX9703S

The DDZ9703S is a Kenwood Double-DIN car stereo featuring a CD/DVD/FM receiver. It's LED is aesthetically pleasing with adjustable angles for the display screen.

Features

  • 6.96-inch touchscreen
  • Android friendly
  • Apple Carplay compatible
  • HD Radio.
  • Hands-Free calling
  • Dual phone-linking
  • Use Spotify, iDataLink, Pandora, & Siri

Sony XAV-AX100

Sony's XAV-AX100 Android Auto receiver with an attractive price tag. 

Features

  • Built-in Bluetooth
  • 6.4-inch screen.
  • Apple Carplay compatible
  • 55W per four channel
  • Dynamic Reality amplifier for incredible sound
  • Audio is adjustable between +8 dB and +18 dB,
  • Dynamic Stage-Organizer
  • 10-band equalizer to customize your sound

Don't Settle for Junk

car stereo

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As a general rule, if you have never heard of a particular brand, be very careful in purchasing it. Perhaps you are totally new to the car audio world and there many names you haven't heard of. But if you've been around the block at all, know your brand.

If you've never heard of the brand, you've obviously never heard it firsthand. Let alone the longevity of the product even if it does not sound half bad when you hear it.

Having a budget is fine. Finding ways to save money it totally acceptable. But buying cheap will ultimately be wasting the budget you do have.

You may just need to be patient and save your money a few more months. In the meantime, the price tag on a junk product can tempt you to go on the cheap, but in the months you could have been saving you may already be experiencing problems with your junk purchase.

Even if you convince yourself it sounds okay, there will likely be a difference besides the base model of a respectable brand. You see, junk brands are able to sell cheaply because they use cheaper parts. Cheaper parts will negatively affect longevity and sound quality.

Junk companies find other ways to cut corners on products, such as having no secondary amplification for CDs. We learned that head units have an amplifier within. Otherwise, they could not power the speakers.

Amplifiers within a head unit will usually push around 20 watts per channel of continuous power. Junk brands may only push a single watt. So without a separate aftermarket amplifier, your sound will distort quickly, and “loud” music will sound terrible.

Finally, junk products often have no warranty. Otherwise, they have short warranties filled with caveats. You've come this far. By all means, be resourceful and frugal, but don't waste your time and money junk.

What About Installation?

If you purchased your car stereo system at a major retailer such as Best Buy, you may likely have the option of using one of their contracted specialists to perform the installation. This is a sales pitch for the store, so you can often negotiate a reasonable installation price.

The installation price can also be included in a total package that can be financed over multiple payments. If you're not up for a DIY, this option also removes the burden from you of finding your own installation specialist.

If you do go the route of calling a professional, you will likely pay labor rates and/or a component price. With so many options, we will offer some general price ranges.

Hourly labor rates depend on your market. You can estimate about $90 per hour. Installers may also have an installation price per component ranging from $50 to $200.

D-I-Y?

The most efficient way to save installation costs is to tackle the project on your own. Before you do, take a few moments to seriously consider the task.

Installing a simple head unit is a reasonable task for many inclined to do so. But is it a good idea?

Modern car stereo installation can involve not only head units and speakers but also equalizers, crossovers, hot spots, and other components. This isn't your daddy's car stereo installation.

car stereo

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Members of the same households may also have very different needs, from a standard CD to AM talk radio, to streaming satellite radio and MP3 files.


With so many options and advantages, installation can become very complicated. Here are some things to consider.

  • Audio and Technology used to be two different things. Not anymore. High-quality audio equipment is also considered technology, making it more delicate than in time past.
  • The actual vehicles today are also filled with substantially more technology. It used to be easy to scan the dashboard and find screw heads to begin removing large pieces of plastic. Now, dashboards are contoured, cramped, and filled with delicate technology.
  • Head units used to easily be pulled from their frames the turn of a few screws. They are substantially more complicated to remove today, and sometimes a specific tool is required unique to your make and model of car.
  • Do you know how to read a wiring schematic? It is essential.
  • Mistakes are costly. Literally. Why invest in a car stereo installation only to ruin components through a wiring mistake or similar error? Self-installation may also affect the validity of your warranty.
  • If your car's stereo system has already been replaced or modified in the past, you cannot be sure proper wiring color codes were followed. This can lead to miswiring.
  • Advanced components, such as active crossovers, can dramatically complicate installation. For example, active passovers require separate power sources, so power and ground will be needed for each unit.

In short, highly specialized equipment requires highly specialized training. Not all of us have that. Hiring a professional allows you the peace of mind that it will be done well and that somebody else is responsible for any collateral damage to your components.

How We Got Here

It was about 80 years ago that cars were equipped with radios. Simple AM radio revolutionized the car experience.

The radio picked up its signal from giant antennas on the ground. Today satellites deliver signals from space. Streaming radio and the internet work in harmony, whereas in the 1930s children and adults had to travel with no radio at all.

Can you imagine a five-hour drive to the in-laws with no radio? Even AM radio must have been a welcomed amenity.

Think about date night with no music to set the mood. Yet the simple radios of the time could have never competed against the other electrical circuits and interference in the early cars. It took time for the technology to evolve, but it did.

Of course, early dashboards had no spot for a radio, so early units were housed anywhere from under the hood to under the seats. Extra batteries had to be on hand for power because there was too much static produced by the engine's generators.

Radio signals were not particularly strong in those days, so reception was also an issue. The answer was an abnormally long or netted antenna.

A prototype debuted in 1930 called the “Motorola,” meaning motorized Victorola. The company later became Motorola Inc., modern day producer of electronics.

How to Install A Car Stereo

Be sure to have all of your tools together and ready for the job. You should have studied the provided instructions for each component and done any background work necessary.

Youtube videos may be your friend, but be sure they have been posted by a reputable provider.

Step 0: Tools Needed

A couple of screwdrivers and a wrench or socket set for the battery cable are most common.

Wire strippersElectrical tape

Wire connectors either crimp caps or butt connectors.

DIN tool (You may or may not need this tool)

car stereo

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Step 1: Access the Current Stereo Head

Removing your current head unit requires careful and delicate removal of the dash panel until the head unit is fully exposed. This will vary greatly by make and model of your vehicle, so consult your dealer.

Once you reach the head unit, it will have to be freed and removed. Some units are secured by spring clips and must be removed with DIN tools. These tools can be inserted through holes on each side of the unit.

The springs will release allowing you to pull out the unit with your DIN tool. Remove it from the dash.
Other head units will be secured by bolts. Because you already carefully removed the dash panel and related trim, you should be able to see the bolts. Remove the bolts and take the unit from the dash.

Finally, some head units are connected to a guide rail behind the dash. Guide radio gently off the rail. You may not need the rail if you are installing an aftermarket head unit.

Step 2: Disconnect Wiring Harness

Always disconnect the power to your car stereo system. It is best to disconnect the ground terminal from the battery.

The wires in the back of the head unit will need to be disconnected. If you are removing the original factory stereo, the wires likely have a large connector that plugs into a complementary plug behind the dash. Simply unplug the wire.

If a non-factory radio has previously been installed, disconnecting the wires will depend on how they were previously connected. They may have been spliced with electrical tape, crimped, or joined with a wiring harness or “pigtails.”

The antenna wire may need to be separately unplugged from the rear of the head unit.

Step 3: Wiring The New Unit

If you were able to unplug your previous unit or unplug a previous harness, you would be well served to purchase pigtails.

If you are using a wiring harness, you can make one-for-one wire connections. If not, you will need to wire specific power wires.

Constant power wires receive power at all times and keep your head unit's clock and settings current. It is therefore referred to as the memory lead.

Switched power wires are powered when the car is on and lose power when the car is off. In other words, it is the reason your car stereo shuts down when the car is off.

Most often, head units have eight wires to account for four traditional speakers. This includes a positive and negative for each speaker.

A ground wire must be properly grounded for the unit to function. If not connected to a wiring harness, it must be grounded to the metal frame of the car.

Do not splice wires with electrical tape only. Make all connections with crimp caps or butt connectors then apply electrical tape.

car stereo

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Step 4: Mounting The Head Unit

It is highly recommended that you purchase a mounting kit to install your new head unit based on the make and model of your car.

Always follow the instructions that come with the kit.

Remember, your wiring harness needs to be placed through the mounting kit frame so that the head unit can be placed in the frame without wires blocking its path. If you are forced to make direct wiring connections without any harness or pigtails, you need to wire the unit through the mounting kit frame.

Don't forget to reconnect the antenna.

Following the wiring kit instructions, place the unit in the dash opening. Do not secure the unit in place.

Check to make sure the unit is working as expected while wires are still easily accessible.

If working properly, fully secure the unit.

Carefully replace all dash panel and trim.

car stereo

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Standard Color Coding for Car Audio Wires

Pin NumberWire ColorFunction
1WhiteLeft Front Positive
2GreenLeft Rear Positive
3VioletRight Rear Positive
4GreyRight Front Positive
5Blue or WhiteAmplifier Remote
6BlueAntenna Remote
7RedAccessory 12 Volts
8BlackGround
9White or BlackLeft Front Negative
10Green or BlackLeft Rear Negative
11Violet or BlackRight Rear Negative
12Grey or BlackRight Front Negative
13Sky BlueTelephone Mute
14Orange or WhiteIllumination
15Not usedNot used
16YellowConstant 12 Volts


This is a very basic summary of a simple car stereo installation. Needless to say, many variables are involved, and it becomes more involved for each component you wish to add or upgrade.

A Few Suggestions

1. Remember, plastic is fragile. Even inexpensive cars today, most interior aspects are made of plastic. If you are investing in a quality stereo, you may just have a quality car to go with it. Be careful not to mar it.

For instance, sometimes when removing a plastic dash component, you will not know if it is held together by plastic clips or by underlying screws. How hard should you pull before you are sure? You may want to talk to your dealer about purchasing a panel puller.


car stereo

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2. Installation kits come in universal models that are reasonably user-friendly, readily available, and affordable. Yet if you've come this far, you may want to take the time and extra couple dollars to locate and purchase a kit made specifically for your specific application.

That is the perfect time to be sure you have a good wiring harness as well as effective connectors. I prefer crimp caps.

3. The two primary culprits for disappointing after a DIY installation are a loose ground wire and poor connections. Even if using a harness, bare wires need to be connected to bare wires. If bare wire touches the wrong bare wire from a nearby connection, the result will be unpleasant distortion.

Similarly, the more time you take to establish a secure, strong ground, the better off you will be. If not splicing into a harness, be sure it is secured to an unpainted portion of the car's frame.


car stereo

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4. Run wires with care. Be sure wires are hidden out of harm's way. For instance, if you are running a wire from the in-dash head unit to the trunk, hide it for the sake of aesthetics. But more than that, be sure it is not in a location where it may be pinched by a door or caught up in mechanical parts, such as power seat movement.

On The Open Road

The average one-way work commute in the United States is over 26 minutes. Round trip, five days per week, 52 weeks per year. The minutes you spend in your car will add up.

If you have children, that is an added dimension. Vacations and road trips add another layer. We are fortunate to live in a day when car stereo systems have evolved into broad entertainment sources for the driver as well as the passengers.

Only you know what decision is right for you. A car stereo installation must fall within your budget yet be worth the investment. You know have the knowledge to get your journey started.

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