Car stereos have a wide range of capabilities, and the prices of these systems are equally variable. Features may include everything from Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) navigation systems to wireless technology that allows the stereo to be used as a conduit for hands-free cell phone communication. The most important factor when selecting a car stereo is whether the unit will fit in your car's dashboard. You must also make sure the stereo's sound output is compatible with your car or risk damaging your speakers.
Although car stereo systems enthusiasts often focus on having the best possible speakers and amplifiers, you should never underestimate the importance of installing a head unit that complements your personal priorities. No matter what extras you choose, make sure the head unit has large buttons that are easy to reach while you're driving and an LED or LCD display that can be read in varying light conditions. Beware of small buttons and LCD displays that wash out in sunlight. If you've got the money and a compatible car, some head units offer controls that wire into your steering wheel so you can keep both hands on the wheel while you change stations or volume. The head unit is the cornerstone of great car stereo systems.
The head units of car stereo systems typically include a cassette deck or a CD player. With CDs dominating the market, choose a head unit that plays CDs over a cassette head unit. Spending more will get you a head unit that holds multiple CDs.
All car stereo head units include AM/FM tuners with electronic tuning that lets you scan stations at the push of a button. If you're a heavy radio listener, be sure to look at the number of presets or programmable station buttons the tuner offers. Look for a minimum of 18 presets, 12 for FM and 6 for AM as a good rule of thumb.
Some car stereo head units are designed to work with satellite and HD radio services. It's important to know the difference between these. HD radio is not satellite radio, but rather a digital radio signal broadcast by a terrestrial station. Depending on where you live, you may find dozens of additional radio stations available if you have an HD radio tuner. Satellite radio requires a subscription to the XM or Sirius satellite services to work. If you opt for satellite, look for a car stereo with a removable satellite tuner that you can also use in your home or office.
Car Stereo Media
Car stereo systems can work with most of the media storage types used today, including CDs, MP3 players and USB memory cards. Thinking about how you carry your music is the key to finding the best car stereo head unit.
If you frequently use an MP3 player, look for a car stereo with an iPod dock or an MP3 input. If your car stereo has a cassette player, you can get an inexpensive cassette adaptor that will connect the headphone jack of any MP3 player or portable CD player to your car stereo.
CD lovers have no shortage of choices, from trunk-mounted CD changers that hold hundreds of discs to in-dash multidisc car stereos to disc changers that live under the front seat. If CDs still rock your world, choose a car stereo that can attach to an external CD player and offers controls that let you change discs, skip tracks or simply shuffle through everything. If you want a simple solution, look for an in-dash car stereo that can read and hold several MP3 or WMA CDs, which will give you hundreds of song choices in one easy-to-reach location.
Some car stereos include USB ports that let you plug in portable thumb drives loaded with your favorite music, which is safer than leaving an iPod in an unattended car. Look for Secure Digital (SD) card slots if that's your preferred form of media storage.
Most car stereos use three different types of speakers: a tweeter, a midrange and a woofer. The tweeter, which is usually the smallest of the car stereo speakers, is designed to transmit the highest-frequency sounds. The midrange speaker and woofer deliver medium and low frequency sounds, respectively. Some car stereo systems also include a fourth type of speaker called a subwoofer that delivers an ultra-low frequency bass sound.
Most new cars are set up with four speaker units, two in the front and two in the rear. If you want a subwoofer, it can be mounted anywhere in the car, since the human ear can't tell where low-frequency sounds originate. Generally speaking, you don't need to worry about speaker wattage unless you're using a separate amplifier.
Amplifiers and Extras
Because car stereo head units have built-in amplifiers, you don't need a separate amp unless you want louder sound. Amps can be mounted anywhere in your car, and you need to make sure that the amp you choose won't put out so much power that it blows your car stereo speakers apart.
A built-in Bluetooth connection turns your cell phone into a hands-free device by routing the sound through your car stereo. If you choose this type of car stereo, look for an easy-to-reach mute button or a feature that automatically mutes the stereo when you're using your phone.
Getting a car stereo with the features you want to fit into your car may be a challenge. Amplifiers, CD changers and speakers all require room and mounting, and some car stereo systems may be too big for your dashboard. It's a good idea to consider professional installation, even if you're shopping online.
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