Buying a new head unit for your car sound system can be overwhelming. If you’re new to car audio, it’s easy to get lost in all the features and design differences and ultimately be unsure about the perfect unit for your car.  For the up-to-date audiophile – there’s fear of missing out on the latest and greatest.

In addition to getting higher sound quality and a better-looking interface, upgrading your car stereo receiver is a terrific way to add more features and make driving more enjoyable. But there are actually many possibilities to think about, so this decision might not be as straightforward as you might assume.

If you are unfamiliar with car audio, purchasing an aftermarket head unit may seem intimidating to you. We’ll cover everything you should know when buying a new car stereo in this blog.

A Brief Background To Aftermarket Car Stereos

Aftermarket stereos can come with any number of upgraded features over factory units. These products are developed with an improved circuit design and more built-in power to get the most out of your speakers, woofers and amps.

A head unit is the stereo control unit. It can come with added functions that factory units don’t. Aftermarket units can come with built-in navigation, HD radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, DVD player for the rest of your passengers, smartphone integration and much more.

It is important to know how much room you have in your dash to install a new head unit. They come in Single DIN and Double DIN configurations – 7” x 2” or 7” x 4”.  The former is typical in older vehicle models with a standard radio, cassette or CD mechanism. The later Double DIN has become the norm in recent years with touchscreens as the preferred stereo interface.

Identifying Your Car Stereo’s DIN Size

Vehicles with a double-DIN space provide more flexibility for your purchase. If you are looking to install a single-DIN stereo into a double-DIN space, all you need is the proper dash kit which will include a buffer/pocket space to insert above or below the new unit. 

What makes double-DIN appealing to users is that they can have larger and easier-to-read displays. The screen size will vary depending on what type of unit you purchase. Double DIN units typically have between 6.2″ and 7″ displays.

Being restricted to a single-DIN unit doesn’t mean forfeiting the functionality of a large touchscreen display. Select Single DIN units can include a motorized pop-up display or floating screen.  

Custom-fit head units are available for drivers who don’t want to alter the look of their dashboard. They’re designed for a direct fit to provide a true plug-n-play solution.

Determining The Features & Functions You Want

If the plan is to continue using your stereo as is, maintaining your CD slot and old-school push buttons – a single-DIN head unit with USB connectivity and Bluetooth streaming capability would be great added functions. It simply expands your music playback options without muddying up your interface.

Once you’ve determined the DIN size and stereo interface you’re looking for, it’s time to research what functions you’re looking to maintain or add to your system.

Digital Media Receivers & CD/DVD Playback

With built-in HD Radio, auxiliary inputs, USB ports, Bluetooth connectivity, SD card slots, and SiriusXM compatibility, digital media head units offer a wider variety of audio playback options.

They often rely on digital music playback and are “mechless,” lacking a CD drive. Auxiliary inputs for previous portable media players and some phones can be found in digital media stereos.

In-dash CD players are the classic aftermarket head unit. These head units are compatible with MP3 and WMA formats, allowing you to play both regular and burned CDs. Basic CD player units are the most common type of head unit. 

Select CD player units to include features like smartphone playback. They can have built-in USB ports for digital music playback and smartphone/MP3 player connections or Bluetooth to stream without a cable. They’re available in both Single and Double DIN configurations, although they are most commonly a Single DIN design.

Adding home entertainment functionality into your vehicle with an in-dash DVD player is a great option for long road trips or installation into an RV or camper. Most of these units come as a Single DIN with a pop-out screen or as a regular Double DIN. They generally feature dual zones, which enable the unit to play multiple audio or video sources in separate locations. This allows you to listen to the radio up front while your backseat passengers enjoy a movie. To play your DVDs on headrest monitors, dropdown screens, or any other in-car monitor, connect them through the built-in A/V outputs in the head unit.

Bluetooth Connectivity & Smartphone Integration

In addition to the size and type of head unit you want to purchase, you also can choose from a wide range of additional features to add to your vehicle. Many aftermarket head units come with built-in Bluetooth which allows for smartphone integration with your vehicle’s sound system as well as hands-free conversation. 

With Apple CarPlay, all native Apple applications present on your iPhone can be operated through your built-in stereo or aftermarket radio. You can listen to your preferred music, make calls, send and receive messages, and obtain directions. All on the dashboard display of your car. Additionally, CarPlay now offers more app categories as well as personalized dashboard wallpapers.

If you’re an Android user, Android Auto is designed for GPS mapping and navigation, audio playback, calls, SMS, and web search, in a safe and convenient way via their car stereo while you keep your focus on driving. Both touchscreen and button-controlled head units are supported by the system.

Taking smartphone integration a step further, units with the MirrorLink allow you to control your phone from the head unit’s display. In addition to your standard AM/FM receiver, you can also purchase an aftermarket head unit that is HD radio and/or SiriusXM ready you can activate with a subscription.

GPS Navigation Assist

A vehicle GPS navigation system would be useful if you frequently drive for large distances. The map databases used by these navigation systems include those from TomTom, Garmin, iGo Primo, Navitel, NAVTEQ, and Tele Atlas.

The maps can be seen in both 2D and 3D in different models. They might offer pre-set and programmable home and work addresses, turn suggestions for current traffic, and lane guidance.

Live video directions are possible with a touchscreen. This capability has mainly been replaced by smartphones thanks to Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.

Factory Stereo Upgrades

If you are looking for Android integration, Apple integration, Bluetooth, HD radio, or an entire OEM replacement, Sonic Electronix offers everything you need to easily add aftermarket components to your vehicle. Here are some factory stereo upgrades:

Graphic & Parametric Equalizer

Adjustable graphic and parametric equalizer bands allow you to customize your music settings to meet your tastes and music style. 

A graphic EQ is the version most commonly used. They come with preset frequency bands you can adjust the level of. Usually a sub, treble and midrange – but can have up to 12 presets.

A Parametric EQ gives you complete control over your sound. With this EQ you can adjust the bandwidth you’d like to tone – into larger or smaller sections. This level can be adjusted by the center point of the bandwidth you determined. 

Head units can also come with Digital Time Alignment which synchronizes the timing of your speakers to provide an optimized sound stage. Preamp RCA Outputs allow for stronger signals which clean up distortion and unwanted sound.

Backup Camera

Since 2018, all cars come equipped with a backup camera. Most aftermarket head units also come with a video input for this or a dash cam. The video can be displayed on an in-dash touchscreen, through your smartphone or through a small window in your rearview mirror.

Steering Wheel Controls

Installing a new head unit also doesn’t mean giving up your steering wheel controls. Select receivers come with built-in steering wheel integration, but some require an additional adapter. 

Updated functions can include your car’s climate, voice command, and sound system controls.

Getting Your Aftermarket Unit Installed

After installing a new aftermarket stereo, your car’s interior may appear entirely different. Additionally, the sound quality might be greatly impacted by the caliber of your newly fitted infotainment system. It typically takes 30 to 90 minutes to replace your car stereo. Watch the video we’ve posted above for a thorough overview!

Sonic Electronix provides the best vehicle receivers available with Smart device connectivity, DVD playback, rear-view camera compatibility, and an assortment of other capabilities to satisfy all of your infotainment requirements. We also include complimentary vehicle stereo installation equipment with the purchase of any of our car radio receivers. This consists of your dash kit and every wire harness you’ll require to install your new audio correctly. Our customer service and technical support teams are available to you five days a week, and we’re always happy to help!