So what should you look for when choosing for a new receiver? Here are the attributes that we consider when recommending a car stereo, along with a few of our top picks to get you started on your search.
The most important bits that you should look for are the audio sources that you most often use.
Do you need a CD player? Many units are starting to be offered without CD/DVD Player. Will you be using your receiver for DVD playback when parked? Have you ditched discs in favor of digital media? Depending on your answer, you’ll have to decide whether to go with a traditional CD-receiver with a slot for your discs, a larger A/V receiver with a color screen, or a mechless receiver that ditches the drive and all of the moving parts that come with it.
Even if you still keep a book of CDs in your car’s glove box, odds are good that you or a passenger will want to plug or interface a phone or media player up to your car at some point, so make sure that your new receiver at the very least includes a USB port for MP3, AAC, or WMA playback from flash storage devices or utilizes Bluetooth A2DP streaming or Mirroring.
Apps and smartphone integration
Nowadays the odds are good there’s a smartphone in your pocket that you’ll want your new car stereo to play nice with. The broad advice is to ensure they have Airplay and will totally interface with your Iphone. Users of the iPhone 5S, 5C, and above or any of the iPads that use the new Lightning connector will also want to make sure the receiver uses a plain-vanilla USB port and not an older 30-pin connector.
Android, Windows Phone, and Blackberry users have no badges to look for. Either pick a receiver that uses A2DP stereo Bluetooth audio streaming for wireless media playback or make use of the aforementioned auxiliary input for the simplest connection.
Heavy users of streaming apps like Pandora, Spotify or iHeart Radio should look for receivers that feature Internet connections and Ram (1 or 2 GB) for those apps.
Users who want a more closely integrated app experience should look at app mirroring devices and the variety of MirrorLink and MHL compatible receivers. Compatibility with these app mirroring systems is relatively new tech and is currently available on more current units.
Local and DAB+ radio
Every car audio receiver sold today will feature an AM/FM radio that will tune into your local stations, but you may want to improve on that. Picking a receiver that has the DAB+ adio option will dramatically improve the variety of local radio stations broadcast in the digital format. You’ll also be able to access digital subprograms for stations that support multicasting to increase the amount of available free programming, as well as iTunes Tagging of broadcast songs for purchasing and downloading later.
Sports fans may also appreciate the variety of programming available. Most new car stereos that are able to support DAB+ radio will do so via an optional receiver and antenna. So be aware that you may need to purchase and have additional equipment installed.
GPS and navigation
Car audio receivers can do more than just play your music; many can also help to get you where you’re going with turn-by-turn GPS navigation. You’ll want to look for flash memory-based maps that can be upgraded via a removable SD or microSD card. Traffic reporting is extremely useful and can be had for free over the RDS-TMC band or through the HD Radio tuner.
More than a few of you are already poised to argue that the navigation app on your phone would be superior to an in-dash system and you’re basically correct in that assumption. Smartphone navigation apps such as IGO/PRIMO, Waze, Google Maps, and Scout work well with some in-dash GPS receivers that I’ve tested, offering more up-to-date and accurate maps with fresher traffic data, voice commands, and better destination search.
Physical dimensions, physical controls
With your audio source wishlist locked in, you’ll want to consider the physical dimensions and interface of the receiver itself. Primarily, this means deciding between a single-DIN or double-DIN receiver. Single-DIN receivers occupy less space in the dashboard, are less obvious to outside viewers and would-be thieves (particularly models that feature detachable faceplates), and fit into a wider variety of dashboards. Double-DIN models take up more dashboard real estate and often feature large, touch-sensitive displays. If you answered yes to wanting DVD playback, GPS navigation, or app mirroring above, you’re most likely ending up with a double-DIN unit in your dashboard.
Consider also the controls on the receiver’s face and the software’s interface. Touch screens are nice, but let’s not downplay the ease of use afforded by good physical controls when you’re doing 70-plus mph. Likewise, a confusing interface or a touch screen that’s sluggish to recognize your inputs can cause you to spend more time fiddling with the receiver when you should be watching the road. Personally, I like a good physical volume knob over buttons for quick adjustments, but you may prefer a receiver that supports the steering wheel controls on your personal car via an adapter. Steering wheel compatibility varies wildly between the make and model of your car and the model of your chosen receiver, so you’ll need to do a bit of research before you buy. Most Android head units today have programmable steering wheel control interface when properly connected or via Canbus.
In many cases the units are are designed to be an exact match but not always. You may need a separate car kit with fascia to complete the job.
In addition to accepting your audio sources, the purpose of the in-dash receiver is to output that audio to your car’s speakers via its internal amplifier. The power of this amplifier is stated in two ways: peak power and RMS. The peak power is measured in watts and is the maximum amount of power that the amplifier is capable of producing. Unless you always listen to you music at the maximum possible volume, you’ll want to ignore this number…for now.
Instead take a look deeper into the list of specs for the RMS power rating, which is essentially the amount of power that the amplifier will consistently produce with regular use. The power rating will also include a number of channels that the amp is capable of outputting (usually four: front right and left, and rear right and left) and will be presented something like “25Wx4 RMS” or “52Wx4 max.”
There is no sense having the power if you cannot control it ! A proper DSP will have at least 10 Channels and you should be looking for SUB Control. This will allow you to properly control and fine tune the sound.
Most screens have a terrible glare rendering them almost useless in normal sunshine. Ask your supplier about the quality of the screen and if it is able to be easily seen in bright sunshine. Especially you convertible owners.
Average boot time on the Android head units. Navall has a unit that boots in 3-5 seconds. 25 Seconds may not sound like much . Sit down, pretend you are starting your car and count of 25 seconds. Imagine doing that every time you start the car. Usually reverse camera views will appear on the screen even while the unit is still booting.
You want to check the Ram (Memory) the storage capacity (Nandflash) and the processor (Quadcore or Octacore are the most current ut ever evolving) . This is the heart of the machine. If these are not sufficient then the head unit will lag and crash.
Other things to check
Does it have a Rear view camera input? Maybe you are an avid TV watcher? Check with the factory or dealer to find out if they have a receiver that is suitable for your area.
Some vehicles have designs or systems that cannot be integrated or require special adapters. Be especially cautious if your vehicle has BOSE or has factory Navigation. Check to see if maybe a bypass cable is available if you have a digital Amp. All of the android units available today are Analog and do not work with digital Amps. Some cars use fibre optics. (Mercedes is one example) .
Take the time to check and your experience should be an enjoyable one.