Can integrate with backup camera and steering wheels. Features clear microphone for calls or Apple Siri access.
Issues with AppRadio. Lacks second USB port.
CD, MP3 and WMA playback, front AUX input, and Advanced Sound Retriever tech. LCD display is 35% larger than previous models. Can play CDs and take audio from smartphones via a 3.5mm mini-jack. Versatile entry-level car stereo.
Installation instructions are vague. It may lack necessary wires needed to install.
Versatile car stereo omits the CD player but adds Bluetooth hands-free, USB port and SD memory card port for audio playback. 50 watts x 4 maximum power.
Buttons are clicky and feel cheap.
Control and charge iPod or iPhone using USB connection. Plays various digital audio formats. Built-in MOSFET amplifier (22 watts RMS/50 peak x 4 channels).
Lacks some bells and whistles at this price point.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
Most people buy new smartphones more often than they buy a new car, which makes sense, given how expensive cars can be, but it’s left many drivers with an odd conundrum: what do you do when you want your phone’s modern tech on your car’s ancient stereo?
Aftermarket car stereos have come to the rescue, offering drivers an affordable way to bring modern mobile conveniences like hands-free calling, high-fidelity music, and traffic-aware GPS apps to the comfort of their cars. Unfortunately, as with all modern tech, the market is full of a confusing mix of solid performers and underwhelming knockoffs, so it pays to do your homework before you go shopping.
Read on to get a handle on what you want out of your next car stereo, then check above to see our most recommended models.
The first big decision to make when you’re shopping for a car stereo is whether you want one with an LCD screen, or you prefer the old-school simplicity of a straightforward CD player. You’ll likely encounter references to the different types based on the two sizes of car stereo: single DIN and double DIN.
Single DIN car stereos were the default standard in cars prior to the tech revolution. They only take up a small rectangle’s worth of space in your dashboard and commonly include a CD player and an alarm-clock-style display. Single DIN (or just DIN) units are the most affordable available. While they generally don’t support advanced features like apps or GPS, these models do often include support for Bluetooth. DIN car stereos are ideal for anyone on a budget or anyone who doesn’t care for the distraction of a screen in the car.
Simplicity at its finest
Living up to the name, Pioneer was one of the first car stereo manufacturers to offer Apple’s in-car support system, CarPlay, and they’ve brought their experience to bear on the AVH-1300NEX. It’s got everything you never knew you needed in a car stereo: voice-controlled operation, support for Spotify, as well as audiophile features like FLAC music playback. We love that it’s as simple to use as iOS, and the built-in DVD player doesn’t hurt either.
Smartphones and car stereos have always had a complicated relationship. While many drivers rely on their phones for directions, traffic alerts, and music, distracted driving is still a significant problem on the roads. To help create a compromise, both major mobile operating systems (Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android) include “driving modes” that deliver the convenience of certain apps while minimizing distractions. Here’s what you need to know about each.
It is the interface used by newer Android smartphones when they’re connected to a supported car stereo. Android Auto gives you easy access to key apps from your car stereo’s LCD screen and, in many cases, from the steering wheel controls. Android Auto also enables you to mute some notifications, so you don’t get distracted by things like emails and text messages when you’re on the road.
Apple’s iPhone-in-the-car mode, CarPlay, is still in its infancy, but it includes key functionality like support for your iTunes library, popular music apps like Spotify and Pandora, and, of course, Apple Maps. Best of all, CarPlay works with Siri, so, in many cases, getting to your destination is simply a matter of asking for turn-by-turn directions.
Not all Android phones support Android Auto, and not all iPhones support CarPlay. If you’re unsure if your phone is current enough to include a driving mode, look in the Settings for the appropriate car application, or search the web with your phone’s model number.
Car stereos often include a long list of features, but not all of them are always useful. Here are the car stereo features we can’t live without.
Whether it’s for the convenience of hands-free calling or just the luxury of playing your phone’s music through your car’s speakers, Bluetooth is a must-have.
Rear backup cameras are worth their weight in gold. We’re not sure how anyone parallel parked before they existed. Whether your car already has a rear backup camera installed or you’re getting one put in, make sure your car stereo can help you take advantage of this headache-saving feature.
Most car stereo manufacturers, such as Kenwood, Pioneer, and Alpine, have developed their own proprietary apps so you can use your smartphone to control your car stereo. These can often be a much easier way to select your music than using the car stereo’s built-in interface.
If you want to use your car stereo’s Bluetooth functionality for phone calls, remember to buy a microphone. Most microphones for aftermarket car stereos can be positioned discreetly to maximize how much of your voice is picked up without requiring any exposed wiring.
It’s easy to get sticker shock when you’re shopping for car stereos. You can pay anywhere from $30 to $1,000, so keep these price ranges in mind.
You’ll find DIN units that include the basics like a CD player, Bluetooth support, and, in some cases, limited app support for between $30 and $99. If you’re just looking for a stereo to get your phone’s music in your car or a hands-free calling solution, you can find a solid performer for less than $100.
Expect to find a variety of average-performing double DIN car stereos for between $100 and $399. Units in this price range include some nice perks like Android Auto or CarPlay, but it’s tough to find a model with GPS for this much money. If you’re looking for a dead-simple way to interact with your critical driving apps (like Apple Maps or Google Maps), but you don’t need built-in navigation and you don’t mind a resistive touchscreen, you can find a solid choice for less than $400.
You’ll encounter models that are easy to use and include a complete set of features for between $400 and $1,000. If you’re looking for a car stereo that doesn’t compromise and includes a capacitive touchscreen, full built-in GPS navigation, high-fidelity audio, and wireless Android Auto or CarPlay support, get ready to spend some extra cash.
Low-end looks, high-end features
The Pioneer DEH-X6800BS may look like a car stereo from yesteryear, but make no mistake: when paired with a smartphone, it can play and control music from Pandora, and it includes full iPod support. If you don’t need visual features like GPS, or if you simply want to keep costs down, the DEH-X6800BS is a solid bet.
If you enjoy listening to local radio stations, buy a car stereo that supports HD radio. HD radio is a set of digital broadcast frequencies that some car stereos are equipped to receive. HD radio digital FM broadcasts are still free, they sound much better than traditional, analog FM broadcasts, and they’re less prone to bad reception. Your favorite radio stations are already broadcasting in HD, so if you’re a fan of radio, getting a car stereo with HD radio support is a worthwhile upgrade.
Find a local installer who will let you purchase the car stereo yourself. Car stereo installation can be a hassle, so you may want to consider outsourcing the job – just make sure to find an installer who will let you bring in the car stereo. Many car stereo installers will tell you they can offer you a better deal on car stereo hardware than you can find on the internet, and that’s not always true. Pay an installer for their time, as well as any adapters they identify as necessary, but purchase the stereo itself independently if you can.
Q. My car has a unique dashboard. Can I still install an aftermarket car stereo?
A. Yes, with a third-party dashboard. It’s fairly common for car dashboards to be designed in custom shapes and for their stock stereo units, but, thankfully, it’s easy to find a replacement for most cars that includes a generic port for a DIN or double DIN aftermarket car stereo. Getting your new car stereo to integrate seamlessly with the existing look of your car’s dashboard can be a challenge and is probably a good reason to hire a professional for installation.
Q. What are the differences between resistive touchscreens and capacitive touchscreens?
A. Resistive touchscreens use physical components and require the user to push. Capacitive touchscreens, found on smartphones and tablets, rely on swiping and tapping. Resistive touchscreens can wear out, and are generally less responsive, so buy a car stereo with a capacitive screen if you can afford it.
Q. How difficult is it to install a car stereo?
A. It depends on the car, but in general, if you don’t have experience with car maintenance, it’s best to hire a professional to install your car stereo for you. Connecting a new car stereo to your car isn’t the hard part – what can get complicated is the wiring harnesses, adapters, and adjustments you’ll need to worry about along the way. In most cases, it’s better to save the headache and hire someone with installation experience.
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