If you feel like you’ve outgrown the mediocre stock radio in the car, I’m 100% with you. Even if it’s a premium vehicle, the audio quality might not be very good. So, what should you do? Order a brand-new radio, of course! Well, it’s not always that simple. Before you go ahead and buy a new device, do some research and know for sure what it is exactly that you need.
Say, do you need an amp for high-quality music? Can speakers replace a subwoofer, or not? Should you upgrade the factory system, or buy a completely new set? How hard is it going to be to handle the installation on your own? How much does a radio cost? Let’s go ahead and find the answers to all those questions!
#1: Radio vs. Head Unit vs. Stereo – What’s the Difference?
These terms are often used interchangeably, but it can be pretty confusing when you’re shopping for a new radio, and you’ve got a whole line-up of different devices sitting next to each other. Which one should you choose? Here’s a quick and simple explanation. A head unit is the “brains” – the electronic device that sits in the car’s dashboard. Head units don’t include any speakers, woofers, or amplifiers.
A receiver, in turn, is a head unit with a built-in amp. Next, a car stereo is a combination of a standard head unit and a set of speakers. So, what’s a car radio, then? Well, it’s some sort of a “catch-all” term and can describe a “naked” unit, a receiver, or even an all-out stereo setup.
#2: Upgrade, or Build a Whole New System?
Alright, now that we’ve figured out the basics, it’s time to make a decision. Should you buy a new system, or maybe an upgrade will suffice? This vastly depends on what you’re after. For example, if your stock radio has a very weak low-frequency response (the bass doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t have enough “oomph”), I would recommend getting an aftermarket subwoofer. For 100-150 US bucks, you can get a decent sub that will make a big difference.
And what about an amplifier – what’s it all about? This is another must-have device. First of all, it significantly improves the overall sound quality. Secondly, it makes the speakers louder (which is something most drivers crave for). New amps are available for $50-200. The sweet spot is, again, 100-150 dollars. Finally, we’ve got the tweeters (the stereo speakers). In most cars, they’re average at best, but not horrible.
That’s why I would always invest in an amp before buying new speakers. The reason: I’ll get better sound quality for roughly the same price. Speakers that cost $150 won’t be dramatically better than your factory setup – remember that.
#3: When is the Right Time to get a new Radio?
The answer to this question isn’t as obvious as you’d think. We just checked out the average prices on decent-quality subs, amps, and speakers. As you can imagine, a brand-new car radio with all the “extras” will cost you a lot. This is why many amateur drivers go with cheaper devices in an attempt to save some hard-earned bucks. However, they end up being disappointed by the performance/quality.
So, my advice to you: don’t go cheap with the radio. If you don’t have at least $500, don’t even think about upgrading your system. And one more thing: instead of ordering online, check out the available stereos at your local stores. Ask the staff members for a “test-drive” and check how different radios sound. Chances are, your “deadbeat” factory unit isn’t as bad as you thought it was!
#4: The Installation: DIY, or Pay a Mechanic?
I won’t sugarcoat it: car radio installation isn’t particularly easy. Mainly, you’ll need to know your way around wiring. Secondly, the whole process takes at least a couple of hours, even for a pro. And finally, it’s very easy to mess things up. Therefore, only consider handling everything manually if you’ve got the skills, the patience, and the necessary tools. Still think you can pull this off? Alright, then check out my detailed guide on this website!
A quick note: most companies charge quite a lot for the installation of a head unit/radio. On average, the price for one hour of work is +/- 100 US bucks. And, since this can take up to 2/2.5 hours, the labor fee tends to be pretty steep, especially if you live somewhere in NY, San Francisco, or, say, Boston (generally expensive cities). So, if you manage to do it on your own, you’ll get to save enough money for a new amp and maybe even a subwoofer!