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Car Stereo Installation 101

We discuss car stereo dash kits, removal/installation, single-DIN vs. double-DIN configuration, wiring harnesses, antenna connectors, steering wheel button interfaces, and more.

The purchase of a new car stereo (also called "receiver" or "head unit") brings the promise of better sound, the thrill of new features, and the enjoyment of simply experiencing music in a way that is not possible with a factory sound system. We hear the excitement and anticipation in our customers' voices every day as they select and order their new equipment, and we help guide them through the process of stereo installation all the time. We know our customers' questions, and we see the most common roadblocks they come across.

Car Stereo
Single DIN Radio
A single DIN radio.

In this article, we'll give you the basics of car stereo installation, keeping our discussion focused on the head unit removal and replacement. And before you tear your old stereo out of the dash, read this entire article first because we will also discuss a few additional items you will need to make the installation proceed as smoothly as possible. In short, if the radio you're purchasing doesn't come with a vehicle-specific dash kit, wiring harness, and antenna connector, it's in your best interest to purchase them separately to ensure you get the most enjoyment out of your hard-earned money.

Tools Needed:

"Single DIN Radios" Vs. "Double DIN Radios"

You may encounter these terms when dealing with new car stereos. A "single DIN" aftermarket radio requires a dash opening which is approximately 7" wide by 2" high. Most stereos that fit into a single DIN opening have simple controls with single CD capability.

A "double DIN" aftermarket radio is taller, using an opening that is twice the height, at about 4". Aftermarket double DIN head units usually have a greater number of features, such as navigation, a DVD player, or a touch screen.

Double DIN Radio
A double-DIN radio.
Single DIN Radio with Flip-up Screen
A single-DIN radio with flip-up screen.

Some hybrid single DIN radios are designed in a slimmer, compact size but offer double DIN functionality via a motorized touch screen that slides out horizontally and flips up vertically.

When selecting your new receiver, you may see both single DIN and double DIN units for your specific vehicle, or, you may find only one size to choose from. Depending on the configuration of your vehicle's dashboard, aftermarket manufacturers may be able to provide a choice. Be aware that if you replace a single DIN unit with a double DIN (or vice versa), some additional installation components may be required. We will cover this in more detail later on in this article.

Removing Your Old Stereo From The Dashboard Console

Disconnecting Vehicle Battery

An important first step is to disconnect the vehicle's battery. This is to prevent any accidental short circuits or unintended warning lights. ALWAYS remove the negative cable, and NOT the positive cable, when performing this step. Once this is done, you'll need to determine which way your factory radio is bolted in. Most OEM radios are either mounted inside a metal sleeve or bolted to the dash with brackets.

If you see two sets of small holes along the left- and right-side face of your radio, you'll need a set of U-shaped metal hooks known as "DIN tools". Inserting the U-shaped hooks in the receptacle holes allows you to trigger and release two spring clips inside the radio that hold it in place.

Simply insert the DIN tools and wiggle them until a click is heard as the spring clips are released. Pull the ends of each DIN tool away from each other (similar to pulling on a wishbone) so their shape widens and provides more grip for pulling the radio out of the dash.

U-shaped Metal DIN Tools
A set of U-shaped metal DIN tools.
Metal Sleeve for Car Stereo
A metal sleeve inside which many car stereos sit. The sleeve bolts inside the radio cavity of the vehicle console, and the radio slides into and out of the sleeve.

If your radio is bolted in place, you will likely need to remove one or more interior trim panels first. Check with your vehicle manufacturer for specific instructions on how to do this, as clips can be hidden in odd places. A recommended method for prying against somewhat fragile trim pieces is to use plastic pry tools specifically made for this purpose.

Once the cover trim is pulled away, remove any bolts or screws which secure your radio to side brackets or to the front of the dash. Pull the old radio out and disconnect any wiring harnesses. If there is more than one connector, make note of the connectors' locations.

Using DIN Tools
Above, a radio is being removed from its sleeve with DIN tools.
Installing Radio Directly to the Vehicle Console
Some radios bolt directly to the vehicle console instead of to a sleeve. After removing the factory trim cover piece, a basic screwdriver or nut driver is all you'll need.

The replacement stereo unit is a "universal fit" to the extent that it is sized to fit many different vehicles. In order for it to precisely fit into your vehicle, you will need the following vehicle-specific items.

Vehicle-Specific Dash Kit

Dash kits mate the universal head unit to your specific make and model vehicle. It is safe to say that you will always need to obtain a dash kit. A kit will come with customized mounting brackets and/or a fitted radio sleeve, with mounting tabs and holes to match those on your vehicle's console frame. Hardware that's the right size lets you physically mount a new radio in place so that it fits tight and looks right. A dash kit is a must if you are converting from a single DIN unit to a double DIN one (or vice versa).

Vehicle Specific Dash Kit
An example of a vehicle-specific dash kit.
Vehicle Specific Dash Kit In Blue Color

Unlike dash kits of yesteryear which used plain panels to fill any gaps, today's dash kits have much better-looking filler panels - ones designed to match the factory look and finish of your surrounding console. If your newer vehicle has integrated controls for climate control, door locks, and other interior controls, replacement dash panels available on the market also offer up similar buttons and controls.

OEM features such as digital display for dual-zone climate settings, colored LED lighting and soft touch buttons may also be found on aftermarket radio dash kits, and many can also be programmed to retain specific functions such as OnStar, navigation, and Bluetooth pairing.

Vehicle-Specific Wiring Harness

OEM wiring for stereos does not follow any standardization within the automotive industry. Aftermarket radio manufacturers also have their own preferences for wiring and wiring harnesses, so we can conclude that the two wiring harness ends will not be compatible. A vehicle-specific wiring harness cures these woes because it's been specifically designed to (literally) bridge this gap. In effect, it serves as the adapter piece between your new aftermarket radio and your vehicle.

Sony Aftermarket Radio With Wiring Harness
An aftermarket radio and the wiring harness provided with it.

The aftermarket vehicle-specific wiring harness has a plastic connector on one end, and loose wires on the other end. The connector plugs directly into the vehicle's factory wiring harness. The loose ends are connected one-by-one to the loose wires coming out of the replacement head unit (or to the similar connector provided by the radio manufacturer). Matching them up is easy, as they are color-coordinated. The wires can be joined using solderless crimp connectors, or they can be twisted, soldered and wrapped.

Vehicle-Specific Antenna Adaptor

Vehicle Specific Antenna Connector
The ends of a typical vehicle-specific antenna connector.

Your vehicle's antenna is typically separate from other radio wiring, and it may come in the form of a single plug, a connector piece, or loose wires. Similar to the wiring harness discussion above, there will frequently be incompatibility between the factory antenna harness and the new radio's antenna connection.

Also similar to the harness solution, the aftermarket has made antenna adaptors readily available to solve this dilemma. The adaptor makes hooking up your existing antenna a "plug and play" proposition. Don't forget this small but important piece of hardware, so that your radio has the strong, effective signals that can be heard clearly.

Steering Wheel Audio Controls

Does your vehicle have audio controls on the steering wheel? If so, you'll want a Steering Wheel Control Interface piece to ensure any factory controls on the steering wheel continue to work with your new radio.

Steering Wheel Audio Controls
Steering Wheel Control Interface
An example of a steering wheel control interface that allows you to retain the function of steering wheel-mounted radio controls with an aftermarket stereo.

To minimize the amount of room required, the interface piece will typically mount in sequence with your vehicle specific wiring harness. As a side note, if you've got an OnStar system on your vehicle, your new aftermarket radio may require an OnStar Radio Replacement Interface to retain that functionality.

Installing Your New Radio In The Dash

Once you've completed all electrical connections, start by bolting into place any new metal sleeve if that is part of your vehicle-specific dash kit. It should fit in your vehicle's radio cavity snugly without modification, and mounting holes should match those already on your vehicle. Follow the instructions that came with your in-dash kit on how to bolt the radio securely to the sleeve.

A best practice is to test the new receiver before completing the mechanical installation. This means reconnecting the battery, so be certain that all your electrical connections are securely made. Continue with the dash kit, installing the new pieces where required to give you that professional look. The remainder of the installation is the reverse of the disassembly.

Stereos With Retro Looks And Modern Functions

If you’ve got a classic car that rolled off the assembly line before CDs, MP3s, HD radio, Bluetooth, and USB ports were even imagined, we’ve got a special selection of radios that reflect a timeless vintage look while discreetly adding those modern conveniences. In our Classic Car Stereos section, you’ll find radios with a choice of traditional auxiliary input jacks or USB ports – both are usually available with jacks in the front or rear depending on your preference.

Custom Autosound Single DIN CD/Radio/MP3/WMA Receiver
The Custom Autosound Single DIN CD/Radio/MP3/WMA Receiver.

We’ve also got a great selection of modern-looking Apple compatible radios, Android compatible stereos, Bluetooth stereos, satellite radio stereos, and much more!

Stereos With Retro Looks

To help guide you through the selection of vehicle specific dash kits, radio wiring harnesses, antenna connectors, steering wheel control interfaces, and other components you may wish to upgrade such as speakers, subwoofers, amplifiers, and other related parts, we have set up our website to provide you only the choices that will fit your specific make, model, and year. Once you car's information is provided, you'll automatically see all applicable choices.

Vehicle Specific Dash Kits Stereos Installation

We know installing stereos can be challenging, and we encourage you to contact us seven days a week with questions you may have before purchasing. Enjoy your new sounds!

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