You spend a lot of time in your car. It allows you to commute to work, run errands and go on long road trips. Your car is more than a vehicle that gets you from one place to another. It's like a second home. It's important to be safe, comfortable, entertained and connected. While a factory-installed car radio provides some entertainment features, it generally lacks the audio quality, safe hands-free calling features and smartphone integration of after-market car stereo systems. The best car stereos provide high-quality audio with many playback options while maintaining a hands-free connection to your phone.
While car speakers, subwoofers and external amplifiers all have a role, the best car audio experiences start with the car stereo head unit. Factory-installed car stereos are generally cheap, with few features and subpar audio quality. The best car stereos combine high-fidelity audio with comprehensive playback options and smartphone integration. The Sony MEX-GS810BH, Kenwood eXcelon KDC-X998 and Pioneer DEH-X9600BHS are prime examples of the best car audio systems available. To learn more, read our articles on car audio receivers.
Vehicles are notoriously bad spaces for sound. Not only does your car stereo have to compete with the sound of a revving engine and the tires rolling over the road, but the shapes and materials of your interior can reflect and absorb the audio differently, resulting in a wide range of audio quality from car to car. With a flat EQ setting, the same car audio receiver can sound amazing in a Ford and terrible in a Dodge. The same car stereo could sound better in a parked car than when you're on the freeway. The best car stereos give you as much control over the sound frequencies as possible so that you can adjust the audio accordingly.
After control, you should consider your preferred playback options and smartphone integration. Below are the criteria we considered in our reviews.
The most important specification to consider is the power output, because it needs to match up with your car's speakers. If the power output doesn't match with your car's speakers, then the speakers can't produce that audio accurately. An underpowered speaker is more prone to damage than an overpowered speaker is, so it's better to go with a higher-powered car stereo. The max power output is the most power that a car stereo can produce for short periods, while the continuous power output is the amount of power the internal amplifier can produce on a regular basis.
Another indication of audio performance is the signal-to-noise ratio and the pre-out voltage. The signal-to-noise ratio represents quality of the audio signal fed to the speakers. It's the ratio of the wanted signal to the unwanted noise, which is signals created by the amplifier, additional frequencies and static electricity within the unit. Similarly, the pre-out voltage is the strength of the signal output to the speakers or external amplifier. A higher voltage reflects a stronger signal with less unwanted noise.
To deal with the ever-changing acoustic environment of your car, you should consider the amount of control you have over the shape of the sound. This control exists within the EQ band presets. Each EQ band allows you to enhance or diminish specific frequencies, which allows you to compensate for losses in quality. The best car stereos have 10 to 13 EQ bands.
The best car audio receivers offer comprehensive playback options. Internet radio apps use a Bluetooth or USB connection with your smartphone to stream music from apps. AUX ports allow you to connect any playing device, whether it's a music player or a smartphone, to play any type of audio file through an analog signal. CD players aren't as popular as they once were, but they still provide the highest-quality audio. USB ports allow you to play audio files from flash drives or music players.
The best car radios also come with HD Radio, which is a digital broadcast with much better quality than traditional radio. Since the signal is digital, HD Radio contains metadata that allows you to view the song's artist and album. The best car stereos are also SiriusXM ready, which means that all you have to do is purchase the receiver and monthly subscription and you'll have access to satellite radio.
Using your smartphone is one of the most dangerous things you can do while you're behind the wheel. However, this doesn't mean that you can't remain safely connected to your phone. The best car stereos fully integrate with your smartphone, allowing you to stream audio and take important calls without ever touching your phone or taking your eyes off the road. Smartphone integration includes features like Pandora control, voice dialing, playlist control from the dash, caller ID and iTunes tagging.
The best car stereos also come with noise-canceling microphones that filter out the road noise and eliminate echoes caused from feedback. This allows your callers to hear you clearly.
Most car stereos are far more stylish than the factory-installed receiver your car came with, which can attract unwanted attention. A detachable faceplate is a critical display feature to thwart theft because it allows you to remove the most functional part of the car stereo when you leave your car. Another display feature to consider is the variable color display, which allows you to change the color of the lights to match your interior or personal aesthetics.
Help & Support
The best car stereo has a three-year warranty, but most car stereos have a one-year warranty. Car stereos aren't always easy to install, so it's important to make sure that the support staff is easy to contact and able to help you with any concerns you encounter. You should also look for authorized service centers to help install or service your car stereo so that you don't void the warranty.
Whether you have a long commute or you run a lot of errands, you spend a lot of time in your car. Don't waste that time with a cheap factory-installed car stereo. Upgrade your car stereo and start enjoying those hours on the road.