In the popular rush to install dashboard cameras, parking sensors and satnav systems, your car might be missing out on some more basic upgrades – like your car stereo system.
Most manufacturers fit cheap and basic car stereo systems relying on decades-old audio technology, which doesn’t really match our listening needs. Fortunately, there are plenty of choices available to help you upgrade your car audio experience and listen to all your favourite tunes out on the road.
While car makers are talking up their newest Apple CarPlay and smartphone integration developments, the reality is less exciting. A huge number of new cars are still lumbered with audio systems relying on AM/FM radios and CD players. In some parts of the civilised world, it’s still possible to buy cars with cassette players! And of course, older cars were similarly supplied with audio technology that was probably less than state-of-the-art when they were new. Whilst proud owners of “totally rad” ’80s mixtapes may be winners in this arrangement, why do car companies bother with defunct technologies today? And what should you be looking for in a new car stereo if you decide to replace the one you have now?
Buying a new car stereo
Audio format trends for radio (AM, FM, DAB, internet radio) and recorded music (cassette, CD, MP3, FLAC, streaming audio, etc.) have changed significantly over the years. The first thing to think about when choosing a new car audio system is which formats you use now, and what you expect to use over the next five years. You can’t see into the future and know what will become available, but you know what playlists you are currently operating with, so start at that. On the safety aspect, many new systems allow you to keep your eyes on the road at all times, while listening to your music or even skipping tracks. Gadget-related distractions have been the number one reason for car crashes in the past decade, and a car stereo unit with lots of fiddly knobs and buttons can take your attention away from the road for serious amounts of time. Look for units which are really easy to understand and use – bearing in mind that it’s much harder to operate the stereo while driving along than it is when you’re standing in the showroom giving it your full attention.
Smartphone-based audio systems
If you keep the music for your daily commute stored in your smartphone or on a portable music player, you will simply need an amplifier with a 3.5mm jack input along with either a mini USB port or Bluetooth option to link them together. Most smartphones have voice-operated assistants so that changing tracks or albums does not distract you from the road. If you prefer to push buttons rather than talk to your car stereo, take note of an old trick: if you have stereo controls on your steering wheel, you can usually connect the amplifier to these to allow you to control volume or change tracks/stations using these buttons.
Universal car stereo
All-in-one solutions are often the most convenient way to go. The best of both worlds is a stereo that keeps the CD player but adds a USB port or Apple iPod/iPhone connection. These types of car stereo systems are the most common aftermarket units available. This way, you can still browse your old CD collection while staying fresh with your favourite new Spotify channel.
Of course, don’t forget about your AM/FM channels and DAB digital radio. Home radios may be all but nonexistent today, but cars are where radio stations and podcasts still have a huge following. Digital radio has seen an explosion of new stations available to cover every imaginable musical taste, and the sound quality is much better than FM as well.
Having spent your hard-earned money on a new car stereo system, you don’t want to throw it all away by wiring it up wrong and frying the circuits. Unless you are a qualified auto electrician, it’s usually best to get a professional audio installer to mount your new stereo in your car. Many modern cars have moved away from the industry standard stereo size formats (DIN and Double DIN) to a bespoke look, which means you may need a custom installation to fit your new stereo anyway.
What about classic cars?
It is possible to have a modern stereo wired up and hidden out of sight in a classic car, so that you don’t lose that original look. You can even have your old radio set up as a remote control for the new stereo. This means that you can be pushing the buttons and twiddling the knobs on your 1960s Long Wave radio, but you are actually controlling a state-of-the-art digital system hidden in the glovebox or under the seats. Best of both worlds, isn’t it?
When it comes to upgrading your car stereo, the only limits you really have are your budget and your imagination. Car manufacturers usually fit very cheap and poor-quality audio systems (remember, they are buying thousands and thousands at a time, so saving a little bit of money per unit makes a big difference to their profit margins), so you will almost certainly notice a big improvement to your sound experience with a decent car stereo upgrade.