Everyone – whether it’s the average car owner who just wants a simple upgrade or the person looking to build a sweet sounding, multi-channel system – deserves the best for their money. And I hate seeing good people get ripped off or getting terrible advice from salespeople.
It’s very important to be well-informed when trying to figure out the best place to buy a car stereo.
Things have changed dramatically over the last few decades and the internet has made it possible to buy car stereos online. You’re no longer at the mercy of local shops or “big box” stores when it comes to choice and pricing.
Unfortunately, there’s still a good chance you could make a mistake. My goal is to give you a solid, helpful understanding of the different places you might buy a car stereo.
How the car stereo retail world has changed
Things have changed remarkably when it comes to the products available for car audio electronics as well as the way you can buy them. 15-20 years ago buying items online was nearly unheard of and (normally) unless you lived near a big city it was hard to find brand name speakers, car stereos, amplifiers, and accessories.
Market and pricing control
Local small shops were the primary way of buying the equipment, and unfortunately in many cases they had a monopoly on the market because of it. Prices were very high and selection was very limited.
Additionally, while do-it-yourself was possible for the average person there wasn’t much information out there like today. It often came down to just a lot of hard work, investigating everything with a test meter, and getting creative.
Many car audio manufacturers would sell only to authorized distributors and retail stores. The local small shops had little or no competition and so they could charge more and would gladly do so – you didn’t have other choices!
Local shops used to be the only place you could find the best car stereo brands, and the mark-up was huge! It was a great money-maker for them (especially when paying for additional accessories) but very expensive for the average customer. I used to drive down to this shop on occasion (Opelika, Alabama) but the prices were outrageous.
I remember having to save up quite a bit of money to buy some of my favorite brands because they were next to impossible to find and buy. That meant I was at the mercy of retail shops if I wanted any at all.
t always made me angry because I knew I was being forced to pay far too much for something, and similar for my friends.
There I was, a student and part-time worker, having to pay an outrageous amount of money for a particular Clarion head unit and additional items I wanted And that’s if I could find it! All the stores I checked had very limited models to choose from and I had to special order items at times.
In the 1990s several major brands like Clarion, Alpine, and others were major players in the car stereo world and considered “high-end.” I owned a Clarion DRX9375R and paid $400+ for it and paid $97 for a special cable I needed because of market control back then. Today a shopper has far more options and you can pay close to 1/2 as much as those days for the same or better technology!
A few stores like Wal-Mart and others did carry some brands but were generally cheap junk and not very good quality. Not something you’d want to buy if you wanted great sound and a quality stereo – that’s for sure! If you lived in relatively small area you had very few choices and just had to do the best you could with limited options.
How the internet changed everything
Brands that were once only selling through traditional retail stores tried to fight it, but as the availability of the internet began to grow and flourish in the 1990s eventually the free market won out.
Eventually “big box” stories like Circuit City and Best Buy also began providing customers with the ability to buy more reasonably priced brands as well as offering installation too.
By the time the 2000s had come, it was too late – online car stereo websites began selling brands that were once limited to only authorized distributors, whether “forbidden” or not, and you could now buy it on websites like eBay.
Eventually more places like Amazon started and for the most part, the sales and pricing control held by the small store market was busted!
Chain stores like Circuit City and Best Buy were large competitors to the traditional small car stereo sales & installation shops that once ruled the marketplace. Although these were once your only option I began to notice that they had a definite impact on the small shops.
Circuit City and other “big box” electronics stores were the next biggest competitors to small car stereo shops and offered a more reasonably priced option, along with installation services too. Amazon and other strong customers soon came and as internet retail sales grew things were changed forever.
Unfortunately for the customer, things weren’t always great when dealing with retail salespeople when it came time to buy as I’ll explain more below.
More options, more info, and do-it-yourself (DIY) possibilities
As the internet grew places like car audio and electronics forums could help you find out more about what you needed to buy. You could buy your own electronics online for a great price online then either have it installed by someone or do it yourself and save a substantial amount of money.
One of the benefits of the internet for car stereo shoppers today is choice.
You’re able to read reviews, examine specs, and (hopefully) determine what’s best for you, rather than having to settle for a limited number of options in a retail store like in the past. Installation guides and wiring details are now available for a small fee or for free.
These wiring guides and vehicle color listings were in the past available only to dealers in CD format and were expensive.
These days it’s just a matter of knowing the best place to buy a car stereo and then going from there
Comparing places to buy and recommendations
In order to keep it simple, I’ll focus on the 3 main categories today and because it’s not as simple as “this is the best place to shop for one” I’ll explain the pros and cons of each. I feel confident this will give you a better understanding of where to being shopping based on what your goals and budget are.
1. Small shops
A local small shop can offer friendly and personalized attention and won’t be clueless like general-purpose retail salespeople. A good shop will also have better installation quality and will be faster at correcting problems than others.
Local car audio shops still exist today for a good reason: despite the internet competition, they can still offer personal attention to service, advice, and you can deal with a real person face to face and get to know them. Also, when things go wrong you can simply return and a reputable shop will make it right.
Additionally with a good shop today you can read reviews and be fairly confident you can walk right in and have your questions answered.
It’s a lot better than walking into an empty sales area with no salespeople around like happens electronic chain stores.
Small car stereo shops: the good and bad
Small shops can also solve one of the most annoying problems when you go to buy a car stereo or amplifier: chain stores typically have salespeople with no understanding of car audio equipment and don’t have the real-world experience to help you.
I’ve seen people become frustrated and walk out of a store because no one could give them a “real” answer to their questions!
For personalized installation and in cases where an install in your vehicle needs clever workarounds, they’re the best.
Always do your homework, read reviews, and get 2nd opinions if possible before visiting a local shop in order to be well-prepared.
- Personalized service – get to know you personally
- Offer higher-end brands that may not sell online and in other stores
- Reputable shops have good, experienced installers and a proper shop and tools, great results
- Good shops will “make it right” quickly when there’s a problem
- Nearly always someone available to help you
- Value your business much more
- Offer extras like a ride during your installation, custom orders, etc.
- Can work-around more difficult installations
- Offer sensible recommendations for your needs and the type of car stereo sound you want
- Higher cost for car stereo products (25%-40% is not uncommon)
- Poor-quality shops can damage your vehicle or do poor work (causing a re-do for extra money elsewhere)
- Limited car stereo product selection
- May not wish to sell you product models available online
- Likely cannot price match online retailers
2. “Big box” retail stores
Major retail stores make it easy to buy a car stereo the same day, but salespeople generally aren’t reliable for good advice and questions. Also prices are often “ok” but still not as competitive as major sources like Amazon. People today often use them as a “showroom” before buying at an online-only retailer!
Stores like Fry’s Electronics and Best Buy offer more mid-tier or low-tier products than small shops generally do. Therefore you can walk in, buy a budget car stereo, and walk out and install it yourself the same day. Most medium-to-large size locations like these also offer installation service and
However, in my experience (and according to many people I’ve known personally) they’re not very knowledgeable. Installation services are available and some may offer free installation unlike like smaller shops (plus required parts of course) but the labor quality isn’t on par with reputable small shops.
I’ve had customers I did work for tell me the recommendations that salespeople have made, and they were totally wrong, or not at all what the best choice would be for the customer.
Also, chain stores do have moderately and good priced selections, but are still somewhat limited.
More to think about
If you’re lucky you can get what you’d like and be done quickly (assuming it’s in stock, which is another issue) but generally you need to do your homework first to find what you need then head out to buy it.
You can’t get the personalized attention like at an independent shop and you can’t rely on special favors and treatment like keeping your car overnight if you’re out of town for work or having them work around your schedule and give you a ride to and from work if needed. It’s definitely something to consider.
In my opinion is: if you know what you’re looking for and it’s available, you can often run right in, buy it, and have it the same day.
Prices are generally close to but usually not quite as low as online-only retailers. Selection is moderate to low.
- Generally good pricing
- Extremely simply purchase process, can often check it it’s in stock before driving
- Walk-in, walk-out same day purchase ability
- Many offer installation for reduced labor cost
- Many sell lower-priced, low-tier budget brands
- Longer store hours than small shops
- Special promotions and sales on car stereo products sometimes available
- Salespeople normally aren’t knowledgeable, may not be available at all
- Moderate-to-limited product selection; some stores don’t carry good selection of quality brand products
- Oriented more towards sales than good service
- May be frustrating to deal with
- Some give out bad advice and don’t understand car stereo knowledge as needed
- Installation labor quality can’t match that of the best independent shops
- Takes more time and sometimes is difficult to get issues resolved
- Cannot special order particular models you’d like to buy after shopping online
- Harder to search through the store production selection than online-only retailers
3. Online-only retailers
Shopping from online-only retailers is often the best choice and today is nearly the only way to find the best price and reviews before buying. Also the maximum number of choices are out there and the biggest online sellers normally carry many in a product line.
Online-only retailers with a great reputation like Amazon.com and Sonic Electronix make the shopping experience much easier to accomplish today if you’re not looking for advice before making a purchase. That’s the main drawback – being able to get questions answered.
You’ll usually need to do your research to find out what car stereo is best for you before buying.
In my opinion the most significant advantages are the lowest prices are available through them and the excellent selection. It’s much easier to find a wider range of models from manufacturers than anywhere else.
Another great benefit to think about is the product reviews posted by existing customers. It’s a big help and it’s something working considering when shopping.
But like with everything else, not all reviews are legitimate or helpful, so look for patterns of the “cons” for products, as if you find a lot of similar reviews it’s likely to be true and not an exaggerated experience.
Best for smart shoppers and DIY
Online retailers are great for the DIY car stereo installer (which feels great to do, and is very rewarding!) but if you buy online and need someone else to install it, you’ll have to do the additional legwork of finding a shop willing to install internet purchases. This shouldn’t be much of an issue, however.
In my opinion, and for those of us who want to save a lot of money and get the best car stereo for our money this is a fantastic way to buy!
You just need to stick with online retailers that make returns less of a hassle, offer better shipping methods, and can even combine a purchase with the other parts you buy in order to save costs (and maybe get free shipping, too!)
- Lowest prices!
- Excellent selection – models not available in stores can be found
- User reviews help when research choices
- Parts and accessories can be bundled with purchases for reduced cost or free shipping
- The best online sellers have excellent return policies to make it easy
- It’s a complement to the research you’ve already done online – only a few steps more
- Avoids having to drive to multiple retail stores
- Avoids having to deal with salespeople
- It’s the best way to determine if your initial choices are truly the best choice for you
- In some cases you can view the product in a retail store before buying online
- Some online sellers like Amazon offer special shipping programs (Prime, etc.)
- Must be installed either yourself or taken to an installation shop
- Wait time for shipping (can’t buy and install the same day)
- If you’re not happy with the item you’ll need to spend extra time returning it
- Some manufacturers may not honor warranties when purchased from unauthorized online sellers
- May have to sort through many online sellers in order to find the best – many misleading search results
Final thoughts – the best place to buy a car stereo
If you’re here it’s because you’re more than likely planning to buy a car stereo online. That being said, in my opinion online-only sellers overall give you much more value, research value, and much better model options than buying anywhere else. Shipping speeds and costs have improved over the years, too.
I don’t generally recommend visiting retail stores for buying an item unless the cost is comparable to online pricing and/or you need it right away.
I’ve generally been pretty disappointed with quantity of items in stock as well as the whole purchase process. It takes a while and is just a big “turn off.”
Sonic Electronix is one of the best online sellers to buy a car stereo from, but Crutchfield also offers far more application guides, product overviews, customer service, and basic information for customers that no one else does.
However, the problem is that their overhead for the paper sales catalog, the dedicated staff, and so on means that the prices are often much higher than on places like Amazon.com. I’ve seen car stereos sell for $50-$69 higher, for example!
Therefore I can’t recommend Crutchfield as the best place.
The best choice
I recommend Amazon as while it’s not perfect overall it makes buying a car stereo a lot easier and saves a lot of money, time, and hassle. You can find the latest cutting-edge models there rather than hunting them down in stores.
Reviews (although some are not useful or are garbage and contribute nothing) are often quite good and are written by sensible people just like you who have honest expectations for what they bought.
The brand selection is very good (Alpine, JVC, Kenwood, Clarion, and many more quality brands) so you won’t have to spend a great deal of time visiting different sites.
Feel free to reach out to me if you need more advice or have comments.
PS: If you’re looking for an excellent car stereo, check out my review of this amazing Alpine unit that will get you excited!