Car Stereo Buying Guide
A car stereo is the brain of your entire mobile entertainment system. This is the component within your vehicle's audio system that controls what you listen to, how the media is delivered, the volume and tone etc. In addition to controlling your media there are a great number of units that can also interact with your smartphone, enabling you to have access to your messaging, phone calls, audio files, and even navigation. It’s best to think of your car stereo as the portal to your mobile entertainment world.
Today’s car stereos offer tons of features coupled with a whole lot of acronyms. It is understandable that you may have some apprehension about trying to figure out which receiver will work best for you. It’s not so intimidating if you think about what you want out of a new car stereo.
Ask yourself why are you wanting to upgrade your receiver? Sure there are several reasons; music streaming capability, connectivity, touchscreen display, navigation, or maybe you are planning on building a complete car audio system, the list goes on and on. Once you have determined what you are after you will be able to narrow your options down to a handful of choices.
What Receivers Will Fit Into My Vehicle?
Simply use our Fit Guide located below the menu on our Home, Car Stereo, Car Video and Speaker pages. Just select the year, make and model and the guide will let you know which receivers and speakers will fit into your vehicle.
Common Car Stereo Sizes
Stereo openings are classified in DIN standard. DIN (Duetch Industri Normen) is a standardized car stereo opening size, established by european automobile manufacturers in the mid 1980s. If your vehicle was manufactured after 1988 there are for the most part two standardized sizes available in aftermarket car stereos:
- Single DIN (or DIN)- the opening for the receiver is roughly 7 ⅛”W x 2”H.
- Double DIN - has an opening of 7 ⅛:W x 4”H and is common in newer vehicles.
There are a few exceptions but you probably will not have to worry about that.
Single DIN Car Stereo
Double DIN Car Stereo
What If You Want A Touch Screen Car Stereo But Only Have A Single Din Opening?
Not a problem, there are several manufacturers that offer a Flip Out touch screen display in a single DIN configuration.
Control Your Car Stereo With Your Smartphone
In addition, some manufacturers offer receivers that utilize your smartphone’s display to control the car stereo, so that your phone is the touch screen for the receiver. The app-based interface lets you stream music, control the radio, read your text messages aloud, access navigation, make and receive phone calls, advanced audio controls and much more.
Determine Your Audio Source
What is the type of media that you will be listening to? Will you be listening to CDs, radio, satellite radio, flash drive or SD card; or maybe you would just like to use your smartphone to provide your entertainment? All of these things are possible, and determining what you want at the beginning will make your search that much easier.
Media Playback Options:
Streaming Music: Stream music from your phone directly to your vehicle's stereo
SD Card: Stream your own music from an SD Card. Download compatible audio files from your computer onto the SD card, insert the card into your receiver, and now you can enjoy hours of your own personal music. Compatible audio files depend on the car stereo that you choose.
USB: When connected to your smartphone you will be able to stream or play music files, manage messages and phone calls all while charging your phone. Additional options such as Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are also available depending on the your receiver’s compatibility. You can also connect a USB Flash Drive and play compatible music files, it works the same way as it does on an SD Card.
Bluetooth: Enables wireless connectivity allowing you to stream music, manage messaging and phone calls.
BlueTooth + WiFi: Connect wirelessly to your smartphone and have control over your messages, phone calls, cellular navigation, and music streaming. The WiFi allows you to stream data rich app such as navigation to your receiver’s display.
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are available depending on the receiver that you have chosen. Note: The WiFi is only used for larger data streams such as music or navigational data between your smart device and your vehicle’s receiver, it is not a WiFi Hotspot.
- Android Auto: Brings the Android platform to your Android Auto compatible car stereo. Designed to reduce distractions while driving, Android Auto enables you to manage your messaging, send/receive phone calls, cellular based maps/navigation and play or stream music via simple touch screen input or voice commands, all while allowing you keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.
- Apple CarPlay: Enables your Apple CarPlay compatible receiver to communicate with your Apple smartphone allowing you to access Apple maps, send/receive phone calls and texts, as well as listen to music. All of this is accomplished by a touch on the receiver's touchscreen or through Siri voice commands allowing you to focus on the road and comply with local hands-free laws.
CD/DVD: If this is your preferred method of audio enjoyment, you’re in luck. Many receivers support additional file formats such as MP3, WMA and AAC. This means that you can burn a CD from your computer and have 100s of songs on one disk as opposed to 10 - 20 songs on one standard CD.
FM Radio: A standard on almost every car stereo, there are certain specifications that you may want to look into if this is your primary choice of entertainment. Units that have an FM sensitivity of 9 - 11 dBf have better reception. The lower the number, the better the reception.
HD Radio: With High Definition Radio you can listen to FM radio in CD quality and AM radio in FM quality.
Satellite Radio: Audio programming broadcast via satellite means a wider coverage area than AM/FM and cellular based broadcasts. The subscription-based service provided by SiriusXM offers over 140 channels of audio entertainment. Some tuners may not be SiriusXM compatible and may need additional hardware (sold separately) in order to receive SiriusXM content
Types Of Car Stereos
Car stereos can do more than just play music. Current models available will let you listen to the radio, play a CD or DVD, access apps on your smartphone, or even integrate with your vehicle’s factory infotainment and vehicle information, such as HVAC controls and performance information. Depending on what type of control you require will directly affect the type of car stereo that you choose.
CD (Only) Receiver: Necessary if you would like the ability to play CD’s. The majority of these units offer bluetooth/wireless or USB connectivity, giving you the capability to connect your smartphone for additional entertainment and convenience.
CD/DVD Receiver: Similar to the CD Receiver with the added ability of playing DVDs. This type of receiver is needed if you have rear entertainment in your vehicle.
Digital Media Player (Mech-less) Receiver: These decks do not contain a disc mechanism and therefore lack the ability to play CDs or DVDs. They still contain a radio receiver and are capable of connecting to a smart device, USB or SD Card inputs, meaning the majority of your entertainment and information will be provided by your smartphone or digital media storage device.
GPS/Navigation Receiver: This is basically an added capability of a receiver. Some of these models have the ability to play CDs or DVDs and some are Mech-less. The main advantage of this type of Car Stereo is that its navigation is provided by Satellite GPS, providing you with a larger coverage area than navigation based off of cellular towers, like the navigation found in smartphones and similar devices.
Additional Features For GPS/Navigation Receivers:
- Guidance by Garmin: Garmin navigation software, offering a variety of display options to make your driving easy, such as Photo Real Junction View and Lane Assist.
- Lane Assist: Lane Assist guides you to the correct lane for an approaching turn or exit, making unfamiliar intersections and exits a breeze to navigate.
- Lane Information: Pioneer’s proprietary app that displays the best lane to travel in for the quickest route.
If your current car stereo is not sounding a great as it once did, replacing the unit may not breathe new life to your audio system. If you are looking for sharpness and clarity, you may want to start with a speaker replacement. For more information about speakers please visit our Speaker Buying Guide.
Replacing Or Upgrading Your Factory-Installed Touchscreen Stereo
Upgrading Factory Installed Systems: If your factory installed receiver controls vehicle functions such as HVAC, factory installed infotainment and vehicle information, then you will want to make sure that the deck that you have selected will integrate with your vehicle. Car Stereos that are iDataLink Maestro RR compatible are specifically designed to interact with your vehicle’s factory connected options allowing you to upgrade and still maintain control of factory installed functions.
- iDatalink® Maestro™ RR: Is an OEM Radio replacement interface that can connect with the vehicle’s factory systems such as hands free telephone, media player, steering wheel controls, HVAC, engine check codes, etc.
Many car stereos offer feature that are specifically designed with driver’s safety in mind. Features such as Lane Departure Warning, Forward Collision Warning, Back Sensor and Blind Spot Detection are available on select car stereos. For more information please visit our Vehicle Safety Upgrades page.
Commuter/Grocery Getter: Your vehicle is mostly used for driving to or from work or running errands. You may not need all the bells and whistles but some modern day convinces like Android Auto and Apple CarPlay might be nice to have.
Road Tripper: You spend a lot of your time in your vehicle, and hands-free smartphone connectivity is a must for you. Stream an endless playlist for that long road trip or receive real time traffic updates warning you of potential delays and detours.
Kid Taxi: The primary purpose of your vehicle is running errands or driving your kids to their next activity. Since time and conveniences are a commodity in your life, smartphone connectivity is a must. Now you can handle your phone calls, manage your messaging and even get directions to your next destination, all while keeping your hands on the wheel. One other option to consider is Rear Seat Entertainment. Now you have control over what your children watch as you are on the go.
Earth Shaker And Audiophile: If sound quality is important to you, then you will want a car stereo that supports Hi-Res audio files such as FLAC, sound quality that exceeds that of CDs. You will also want to make sure the unit is equipped with plenty of onboard audio functions such as a Graphic EQ, Time Alignment, Subwoofer Volume Control, Crossover and additional Sound Staging Functions. If you are planning on building a system, you will want to make sure that there is plenty of room for expansion in the way of Preamp outputs, this way you can add additional amplifiers and not have to worry about audio signal limitations.
Below is a list of options that are not so mainstream, but you might find come in handy. Please note, some of these options are proprietary and may not be available on all receivers.
- Android Rapid Charge: A quick charger built-in to the receiver USB port that allows you to rapidly charge your Android device. Amperage of charger may vary depending on the receiver model.
- AppRadio Live: Pioneer's proprietary AppRadio Live offers quick and easy access to personalized information needed in the in-vehicle environment including: Maps, Media, News and Calendar. In addition it has the capability to pull information from apps that you have selected and display it in the AppRadioLive interface.
- Backup Camera Ready: Back-up camera input enables you to add a reverse (rear facing) camera that can assist with rear visibility, towing, or parking.
- Capacitive Touchscreen: A type of touchscreen that is very responsive, like the screen on modern smartphones.
- Clear Resistive Touchscreen: A type of display panel that features a high contrast ratio for brighter and sharper graphics/text.
- Dash Cam Ready: Video Input for a dash camera. The video is stored on your receiver typically in 3 minute incremental blocks, the new video block continuously replaces the oldest video block. The number of video blocks stored on your receiver is determined by the amount of storage that the unit has. Additional safety features such as crash avoidance are offered depending on the manufacturer of the receiver.
- Display Mode Off: The ability to shut off your receiver's display to reduce glare, this is useful when driving in extremely dark conditions.
- Drive EQ: Adjusts the volume of specific frequencies with the audio signal to compensate for road noise.
- Dual Camera Input: Two Camera inputs for Front and Rear cameras.
- Dual Phone Connection: Enables 2 phones to be simultaneously connected. Each phone has the same capabilities such as, streaming music, managing phone calls/messaging etc. These capabilities are dependant on the receiver.
- Dual USB: 2 USB ports available to connect your smart device or a flash drive/memory stick/thumb drive.
- Dual Zone Entertainment: Enables rear passengers to have their own audio/video entertainment such as rear seat monitors or headphones while the front driver/passenger can listen to audio, access messaging etc.
- Graphic EQ: A Graphic Equalizer allows you to adjust your audio system to your liking by boosting or cutting predetermined frequency ranges.
- High Resolution Audio (Hi-Res): Allows playback of up to 192kHz/24bit resolution files such as FLAC, WAV, DSD and ALAC. Supported file formats may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
- LED Backlight: The light that allows a flat screen or display to create an image.
- Mix Trax: Creates a non-stop mix of user-provided music while displaying a dynamic dance club-like lighting effect on the receiver's display.
- Motorized Display: A motorized display that can extract/retract into the receiver's housing, typically this happens when the unit is powered off, or when the CD or DVD slot is accessed.
- OEM Integration: A car stereo’s ability to connect to the vehicle's information, such as its heater controls, or monitor any system warnings.
- Pandora: An internet radio app that lets you choose styles or bands of music that you like and mixes in music that is similar to your selection within the playlist. This is a great way to discover new music.
- Parking Guidelines: Guidelines that are displayed when your backup camera is in operation to assist in navigating your vehicle.
- Viewing Angle: The face plate can be angled for best viewing sightline.
- Siri Eyes Free: Pioneer's integration of Apple's Siri app. With a touch of a button on the receiver's touchscreen, Siri will be ready to assist you.
- Sirius XM: Satellite based radio with over 140 channels of audio entertainment.
- Sound Retriever Air: Pioneer's wireless connection method that does not require cables to stream music to your receiver.
- Speed Limit and Warnings: Speed limit notifications and traffic/hazard warnings are displayed based on your GPS location. This function is typically associated with Navigation equipped receivers.
- Subwoofer Control: Adjustable volume control for the subwoofer.
- Time Alignment: Enables user to adjust the speaker output timing so that all of the sound arrives in a specific area at the same time. Typically this is the driver seat position.
- USB Direct Control for iPod/iPhone: One of Pioneer's methods of connecting your iPod/iPhone to the receiver (requires a USB cable). This method allows you to search and play music while it charges your iPod/iPhone.
- Wireless: A connection between a device and receiver that does not require cables.
- Wireless Music Browsing: Search and select songs from your music collection through a Bluetooth connection.
As you can tell, there are dozens of options for you to choose from. Make a list of which options matter most to you and that will help narrow your search down to a more manageable size. Using the filters within our Car Stereo pages will help you choose right the car stereo that is just for you. If you need further assistance you can always drop by your local Car Toys store, our staff of Product Experts and Professional Installers are happy to help you with all of your mobile entertainment needs.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article there are a whole lot of acronyms associated with mobile audio, see below for some of the most common used in the industry.
- 24-Bit DAC: 24-Bit Digital to Audio Conversion. Allows for higher quality audio.
- A2DP: Advanced Audio Distribution Profile - The protocol that allows audio to be streamed via a Bluetooth connection.
- AAC: Advanced Audio Coding - A compressed audio file used by iTunes.
- AIFF: Audio Interchange File Format - A compressed audio file format.
- ALAC: Apple Lossless Audio Codec - A High Resolution file format.
- AVI: Audio Video Interleave - A video file format created by Microsoft.
- CD/CD-R/RW: Compact Disc ReWritable.
- D/A Converter: Digital to Analog Converter - Converts the digital signal from your media to an analog signal to send to your speakers.
- DivX: A Video Player
- DSD: Direct Stream Digital. A hi-res audio file format developed by Sony and Philips.
- FLAC: A high resolution, lossless audio file encoded at up to 192kHz/24 bits. Allows CD quality playback with a smaller file size.
- HPF: High Pass Filter - An electronic filter that allows frequencies above a specified point to be audible, and mutes all signals below that point. Used for sending select signal to different speakers such as a tweeter.
- LPF: Low Pass Filter - An electronic filter that allows all signals below a specified point to pass, and mutes all signals above that point. Used for sending select signals to different speakers such as a woofer.
- Mini-jack: Auxilary input for 3.5mm or 1/8" jack.
- MP3: Compressed Audio File.
- MPEG-1: A lossy compressed A/V (Audio Video) file.
- MPEG-2: A lossy compressed A/V (Audio Video) file.
- MPEG-4: A lossy compressed A/V (Audio Video) file.
- NFC: Near-Field Communication allows two devices to establish communication when they are in close proximity (about 1.6"). Commonly used as a syncing method in car stereos. Preout: A volume controlled output signal. This option is needed if you intend to connect additional amplifiers to your receiver. Presets: Stored information within the receiver such as radio stations or EQ settings.
- RCA: Type of connector that is commonly used for Pre Output signals on a receiver.
- TMPS: Tire Pressure Monitoring System
- WAV: High Resolution uncompressed audio file.
- WiFi: Wireless connection established between a device and the receiver for transmission of information such as audio and navigation.
- WMA: Windows Media Audio - Compressed audio file.
- WMV: Windows Media Video - Compressed video file.