How To Test A Car Stereo – Steps, Diagrams, And More!

How to test a car stereo featured image

As an installer, I saw a lot of used car stereos that customers brought in for installation but ended up being bad. In fact, it happened so often we never would install a car stereo without bench testing it first.

It’s so important to know how to test a car stereo before investing your time & money installing it. That’s why I put together this article – to help you do it yourself!

Here you’ll learn:

  • How to connect & test a car stereo at home & without a car (no, you don’t have to install it!)
  • What you need to power & test a car stereo
  • How to use a computer power supply or car battery as a power source for testing
  • Helpful tips and diagrams to make it easier
  • Common problems with bad car radios
Contents

Basics first: what you need to know before testing a car stereo

Image of teacher instructing how to test a car stereo

The truth is that you don’t really need to “stress test” car stereos. Especially with second-hand and used radios, the real goal is just to be 100% sure your car stereo works before you go through the trouble, time, and effort of installing it.

Fortunately, it’s actually fairly easy to do. You’re going to need to do just a few things:

  • Connect it to a power source properly so it can turn on.
  • Test the speaker outputs: I’ve seen quite a few car stereos where the former owner burned out the speaker outputs due to a poor or incorrect installation.
  • Check the main functions: CD player (if present), radio, Bluetooth, and volume controls.
  • Check for worn-out buttons and other parts.

The great news is that you don’t need to install a car stereo just to check it properly. In fact, you can use just a few simple things and be done in a little while. You’ll need the following:

  1. A test speaker you know is good [see below for suggestions]
  2. +12V to 13.8V power supply (or a vehicle battery – more about that later)

In this article, I’ll cover the steps for testing a car radio, how and which power supplies to use, and the important details to help you before you start. If it’s your first time, I’d plan for spending about 10 to 30 minutes of your free time going through the steps.

Once you’ve done it, however, it’s a lot faster the next time.

Standard car stereo wiring colors: wiring color chart & notes

example of a car stereo wiring harness with standard wire colors

Most – but not all – car radios have a wiring harness that’s color-coded to make installation easier. Power and speaker wiring is usually color-coded while some additional specialty wiring depends on the brand. Note that not all manufacturers follow the wiring color standards so it’s best to check to be sure.

Standard car stereo wiring color chart

Above is a handy chart to help you connect the speaker and power wiring you’ll need when testing a car stereo. Car stereo harnesses you find on most – but not all – brands use standard wiring colors that tell you exactly what they’re for including power, ground, and the speaker connections including positive & negative markings.

This is especially helpful if the radio’s wiring label is torn off or damaged like happens with older radios or if it’s nowhere to be found. Note that some specialty wiring like the dimmer input wire, a mute input for a GPS system, or a few others may use custom colors that only that car radio brand uses. 

Not to worry though as those you won’t normally need to bother with just to test and check out a radio.

Note: Standard car stereo wiring colors are used by many but not all manufacturers. It’s always best to double-check to avoid any problems.

What you’ll need: speaker & power supply notes

Examples of items needed to test a car stereo at home

The good news is that it’s actually pretty simple to get what you need together for testing a car radio. What’s great is that you’ll only need a few parts to get the job done:

  • A test speaker: This can be nearly any full-range or midrange 4 ohm or higher speaker (yes, home stereo 6, 8, and 12Ω peakers will work). Using a tweeter can work but I don’t recommend it as that’ll make it harder to hear sound from the radio’s speaker outputs. You want at least a midrange or full-range speaker.
  • A 12V or 13.8V DC power supply: you’ll need about 1 amp (1A) or more of current for powering on, getting sound from, and checking out most car stereos. You can also use a vehicle battery or computer power supply if you don’t have a 12V DC supply handy.   See the detailed diagram and section below to learn more  
  • A test CD for CD players and/or Bluetooth device: For modern car radios with Bluetooth functions, a smartphone is usually fine to get a Bluetooth audio test source. For CD players it’s best to try out the CD function so you’ll want a disc that you know is good.
  • Electrical tape or similar: not a requirement, but it’s much better to insulate speaker wires you’re not using so they can’t short to the radio’s metal body or each other. Duct tape or other kinds of tape can also work.
  • Needle-nose pliers, cutting pliers, or wire strippers: you’ll need to strip insulation from the radio wiring for testing so a decent tool you can use to remove the wiring insulation is needed here.

Note that while most car stereos use 4Ω speakers, there’s no harm in using a higher impedance (higher Ohm) rating speaker for test purposes.  Any speaker that’s 4Ω or higher will work.

You wouldn’t want to higher impedance speakers every day in your vehicle for the reasons I explain here, but when just checking the speaker outputs anything handy will do.

The main thing is to use a speaker you know for 100% sure is working. Don’t guess – be 100% sure your test speaker is good and plays well when connected to a radio or you could mistakenly think your car stereo has a problem when it doesn’t when testing it.

Note that 1 amp is usually enough to power a car head unit just enough for checking the functionality and getting sound with a test speaker. For driving a car radio with higher power output to multiple speakers, you’ll need more current (a higher amp power supply).

How to test a car radio (diagram and notes)

How to test a car stereo diagram

How to test a car radio

To test a car radio, there are 3 main things you’ll need to do:

  1. Connect the power and ground wiring
  2. Use a test speaker on the speaker outputs to verify they work
  3. Try out any other audio functions you’ll need to use

1. Connecting power to the radio

As I mentioned earlier, you can use a +12V to 13.8V DC power supply for your car radio. Optionally, if you don’t have a 12V supply you can temporarily connect it to a 12V car battery long enough to check out the radio.

In either case, you’ll need to do the following:

  1. Connect the +12V BATT and ACC wires together then to the +12V source. You’ll need both wires to be connected for the radio to turn on. Connect both of these to the +12V output of your supply or the battery.
  2. Connect the ground (“GND”) wire to the negative supply or battery terminal.
The red wire, “ACC” is a +12V input that signals the car stereo to switch on with the ignition, while the yellow “BATT” wire is the main power source. The ACC wire must have power for the radio to work.

Be sure to insulate any unused exposed wires including the speaker wires (more about those later). You don’t want any wires shorting together during testing. For insulating them, electrical tape works great or you can use duct tape or even masking tape carefully if you must. I’d avoid transparent Scotch tape as it tends to come off too easily.

The idea for testing is to temporarily do what you need to for checking that it works. For a real vehicle installation, better connections like crimp connectors should be used.

CAUTION: If using a vehicle battery to power you radio under test, never allow the metal case of the radio near the battery. The metal body is grounded and could cause a dangerous short ciruit if it were to touch a positive wire or terminal.

2. Testing the speaker outputs

Example of the rear of a car stereo installation closeup

Most car stereos use an internal amplifier integrated circuit (IC) chip to provide the power to drive speakers in a vehicle via the speaker wire outputs. Bad speaker outputs due to improper installation (short circuits, low speaker impedance, etc) are a common problem with used car radios.

It’s important to check these and make sure they’re working as expected before bothering to install it. To do so, you can use a test speaker as mentioned earlier with an impedance of 4Ω or above. Even a 6, 8, or even 12Ω speaker you’ve got at home works great for this!

To test the speaker outputs:

  • Connect a test speaker to each speaker wire output pair one at a time, being careful to keep the wires from touching. Keep unused wires insulated with tape or connectors to prevent a short.
  • Turn on the car radio and play music from the FM radio tuner or other functions.
  • A properly working car stereo should have good speaker volume and sound output.
  • Repeat this for all of the remaining speaker outputs.

Note that of all the car radios I’ve tested, it’s not unusual to run across used radios that have no audio from the speaker wiring. 9 times out of 10 this is due to a poor-quality installation where the wires were allowed to touch, someone trying to “get more power” by wiring it the wrong way, or using the wrong impedance (Ohms) speakers.

When a car stereo’s amplifier chip is damaged, it’s permanent and the output transistors fail, no longer able to produce a musical signal. There’s no solution for this outside of paying for a manufacturer repair or just replacing it.

Note: The good news is that generally you shouldn’t need to test RCA jack, if present, on your car radio. These rarely if at all fail. Speaker wiring outputs are the main concern.

3. Testing other functions

Example of testing a car stereo Bluetooth audio function Kenwood KMM-BT518HD

Be sure to test the other functions you’ll use the car radio for: USB audio, CDs, HD radio, Bluetooth, phone direct control (USB cable connection), or others.

Finally, if the speaker outputs appear to be good to go, you’ll want to be sure to check the other main audio functions you’ll be using regularly:

  • The CD player: should be able to load a disc, read the tracks, play it and change tracks, and eject it with no problems.
  • HD radio: if available, be sure it’s working ok. You’ll need to connect an FM radio antenna to try this, however.
  • Bluetooth audio/streaming: you’ll need to connect your smartphone and try this out, making sure it connects normally to a Bluetooth device. (NOTE: If too many devices were already added, you may have to delete one or more from the radio’s memory to free up a new connection)
  • USB/memory card playback: You’ll want to put some .MP3 files on a USB flash drive and/or an SD or microSD card as needed to be sure it can read and playback from them. If a media device fails, there’s likely either a memory card/flash drive formatting problem or the radio itself has a problem.

Also, always be sure to try out most of the buttons to make sure they work properly and aren’t worn out. 

How to know if a car stereo’s controls are in good condition

Rotary volume controls should have a good feel to them and the volume should adjust up or down without a problem. Buttons also should have a good “feel” and shouldn’t be stuck, fail to respond (a sign of a worn-out button switch), or do nothing.

If one or more buttons don’t work or seem right, that’s a red flag that the car radio has either been abused and may not last too much longer. Faceplates can be replaced for brand name head units, but you can expect to spend $50 or more easily for a replacement if you can find one!

One big sign of a car head unit with a ton of use (and wear) is that the printed labels are worn off or show signs of wear already.

How do you hook up a power supply to a car radio?

How to wire a computer power supply to a car stereo diagram

As I mentioned in the beginning, you can use a PC computer “ATX” power supply you have handy to power a car stereo for testing. It’s not that hard as you only need a few steps:

  • Power connections: Cut a +12V wire (yellow) and a ground (black) wire from the main connector. Strip the insulation to leave about 3/8″ to 1/2″ bare wire. Use a crimp connector, solder, or another connector type to join the power supply’s +12V output (yellow) to the radio’s +12V battery wire (yellow). Do the same for the ground wires (black).
  • Supply on control: PC supplies don’t turn on even if the on/off switch on the case is used. A PC motherboard uses a control signal to the “supply on” wire pin. To do the same, you’ll need to find, cut, and jumper this control signal wire to a ground wire either directly or with an on/off switch if you like. ★ See diagram above ★
  • Radio accessory wire: Connect the radio’s accessory/on wire (red) to a +12V power wire from the supply either directly or you can use an on/off switch if you like.

Of course, you can use only one +12V wire from the supply and connect it to both the radio’s ACC and battery wires together if you like. Once power is connected to the radio, connect the “supply on” wire in the diagram to another ground wire as shown. The supply should start and your car radio should turn on. 

Note that some car stereos are switched off by default when they’re first connected to power so you may need to check the power button.

NOTE: Switching off the power supply will cause the radio to lose its “memory” (settings, last station you played, etc) so you may find it easier to use the radio’s power on/off button until you’re finished testing it.

What if my car stereo isn’t working right?

Man thinking about bad car stereo failed testing

I’ve seen some odd problems with used car stereos over the years. It tends to be the same group of problems over and over again – sadly, in a lot of cases, it’s not economical or practical to deal with the headaches.

Here’s a list of problem you might come across and what your options are:

  • No sound from the speaker wiring: If you’re sure you’ve got a good test speaker and there’s nothing else going on, unfortunately, if you don’t have sound the radio’s outputs are likely burned out or have failed. For a few rare models, the internal speaker amplifier can be turned off so you’ll want to be sure that option isn’t causing the problem. Otherwise, it’s most likely the radio is bad and you’ll need to replace it.
  • Won’t turn on with power correctly wired: If you’re 100% sure the wiring is correct, I recommend double-checking for voltage at the pins in the radio’s plug-in harness connector with it unplugged. Some units have an inline fuse you’ll want to check and replace if needed. If the fuse blows again after replacement and the radio still won’t turn on, it has an internal problem and it’s a dud.
  • Controls or volume only partially work/bad buttons/etc: For radios with control buttons like presets, up & down volume, or others that do nothing when pressed, it’s probably because they’re broken or just completely worn out. A clue to this is that there’s no tiny “click” feel when you use them. Bad buttons have no “feel” to them – they’re sort of “stuck” and don’t move. You can try finding a replacement faceplate to remedy this; otherwise, it’s time to find another radio.
  • CD won’t load/can’t read a disc/CD is stuck inside: CD players that can’t read a disc often have a laser lens problem and need repair or adjustment. If a CD can’t be loaded, it’s often a mechanical failure and will require replacement of the whole CD assembly (not easy to find). CDs that are stuck can sometimes be removed safely, but you’ll have to take apart the whole radio, carefully remove the CD, re-assemble it, and try it again. More than likely, however, you’re better off replacing the radio.
  • The faceplate is “loose” and/or it has to be held in place to work: some detachable-face radios can develop a poor connection where the faceplate connects to the main body. You can try some contact cleaner for the faceplate’s electrical contacts, but most likely it’s a bigger problem.

There are always exceptions, but these tend to be some of the most common problems you’ll find when testing car stereos. Thankfully, more and more sold these days use fewer mechanical parts so they’re less likely to have the same problem (aside from wear and tear of the buttons).

If after testing you discover your car stereo isn’t working right and has some issues (especially if there’s no sound from the speaker outputs) my advice is to move on and get a nice condition replacement with modern features.

For under $100 these days you can get excellent sound, features, and customization that didn’t exist a few years ago. It’s not worth the headache of trying to deal with a broken car stereo in most cases (unless it’s vintage and rare items).

More great car audio and speaker articles

Like this article? There’s even more great stuff to see as well!

Got questions or comments? Feel free to leave a comment below or Contact me here.

Advice On Finding The Best Place To Buy A Car Stereo

image of a car stereo shop

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.

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.

Contents

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 the 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!

Image of front of Auburn AL car stereo shop

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 more 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 a lot 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.

Image of Clarion DRX937R font

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 want great sound and a quality stereo – that’s for sure! If you lived in a relatively small area you had very few choices and just had to do the best you could with limited options.

How the internet changed car stereo buying

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” stores 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 storefront image

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

Image of car stereo shop salesmen

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 to be well-prepared.

PROS:
  • 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
CONS:
  • 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

Image of retail electronics store interior

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 well-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 personalized attention like at an independent shop and you can’t rely on special favors and treatment. For example, keeping your car overnight if you’re out of town for work or having them work around your schedule. Some will even give you a ride to and from work if needed.

It’s definitely something to consider.

In my opinion, it’s better 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.

PROS:
  • 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
CONS:
  • Salespeople normally aren’t knowledgeable, may not be available at all
  • Moderate-to-limited product selection; some stores don’t carry a 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

Image of man casually shopping online with a tablet

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!)

PROS:
  • 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 compliment 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.)
CONS:
  • 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 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 the number of items in stock as well as the buying 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 at 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!

3 Of The Best Touchscreen Radios For Your Money

Best touchscreen radios featured image

Looking for a great new stereo for your ride? Picking the right can be a pain – especially with so many to pick from and the many features available.

Rather than give you some long, lengthy list of many models I’ve briefly reviewed 3 of the best touchscreen radios for your money. I’ll also share with you some important things to know before buying a touchscreen double DIN radio.

Contents

Touchscreen double DIN radio basic buying guide

Image with caption be prepared avoid problems
Before you run out and get a touchscreen radio, I’d strongly you advise you to read more. Double DIN stereos often have more details to consider than standard single-DIN stereos do.

Be prepared before begin and I want to you be aware of some of the obstacles you might not know about. You’ll have a much better chance of avoiding problems and making mistakes if you’re well educated.

Installation – important things to know

Installation example for hard double DIN install
Think it’s going to be easy to buy and install a double DIN stereo? NEVER assume that! If you’re lucky, all you’ll need is a custom kit or the original stereo’s brackets. In more difficult installations, however, you’ll have to fabricate your own brackets as you see here.

Double DIN stereos are a standardized (more or less) size of car radio which are sometimes more difficult to install. Especially those with extra features like an optional backup camera, GPS antenna, and so on.

If you’re a do-it-yourself (DIY) kind of person, it’s possible you can do it alone, but it’s important to anticipate the difficulties involved in installing a double-DIN (also called “2DIN”) sized touchscreen stereo in a vehicle.

It’s incredibly important to do as much research as possible beforehand – be prepared! You’ll need to find out if a kit is available for your vehicle to make it a simple job.

Otherwise, there’s a good chance it’s going to be tough and you’ll have to fabricate your own brackets. In that case, I recommend metal stereo installation straps like these:

Car stereo mounting straps 5 pack blackYou can find some excellent ones that I use here.

With these installation straps and some metric or machine screws, it’s possible to bend them into custom brackets and overcome some of the hardest installation obstacles for a touchscreen radio.

Double DIN trim rings

Sometimes, unfortunately, installing an aftermarket touchscreen stereo leaves a visible gap around the stereo itself. It looks bad and it’s frustrating to end up with that in my opinion.

Custom installation double DIN trim ringsDouble DIN trim rings can be very helpful for covering or filling in gaps left after removing a factory stereo and installing a new stereo. They’re normally around $10 or so, depending upon where you find them. Here's a great example of some readily available.

In that case, you can also purchase custom installation trim rings to help. Whether with a hot glue gun or some other type of adhesive fastener, it’s possible to cut them and attach them, covering the gap nicely.

Using original mounting brackets

Double DIN stereo with factory brackets
Installing a new stereo using original factory-installed brackets. Note: often not all of the screw holes will line up on your new stereo or the depth (for the front of the radio to the vehicle’s trim) isn’t correct. Never just assume you’ll be able to use them. Some may require using only a few of the screw holes or brackets that may need modification.

Some imported vehicles (especially Japanese) have factory metal brackets that can be removed from the original stereo. It’s possible, in some cases, to attach them to the new stereo. However, it’s rare that they align perfectly during installation.

For that reason, it’s still a good idea to check for the availability of an aftermarket installation kit.

While the cost is often a bit high, the amount of stress and time you’ll save justifies it in many cases.

Installation kits and mounting sleeves

Example double DIN installation kit Pioneer AVH-290BT

Example aftermarket double DIN installation kitTop: a Pioneer add-on installation kit available for some models of their touchscreen radios. Included is a mounting sleeve in case you have a sufficient opening to mount it. Bottom: an aftermarket installation kit designed to fit a factory opening well.

If luck is on your side you’ll be able to use an aftermarket installation kit to do the job. Most 2 DIN touchscreen radios don’t provide or aren’t designed to use installation sleeves but some Pioneer models do.

In some cases those are sold separately but if you can use them they’re an easier way to accomplish the job.

Consider paying an installer!

If you don’t feel prepared for having to do a lot of work to install a large touchscreen stereo, I highly recommend using a professional installer.

Trust me when I say, speaking from considerable experience, that it can be a very tough job sometimes. Unless you’re fairly confident you’ve read enough to know it’s not so bad, considering paying a reputable shop to do it for you.

This is especially true if your vehicle has a factory-installed premium sound system as those can be difficult to integrate with an aftermarket stereo.

Touchscreen types

Image of an example touchscreen car radio
The display panels used by touchscreen radios today are more and more using capacitive technology, although some are a number still use resistive touchscreens.

Resistive touchscreens

Resistive touchscreens are the original touch-sensing technology in which a 2nd layer of material transparent plastic is placed over the LCD display. When touched, a resistance reading is measured and the radio detects the position of your fingers.

The drawback is that they’re not as responsive as capacitive designs, and sometimes they’re slightly less clear too (due to having a 2nd material covering the display). They’re less expensive, however.

Capacitive touchscreens

Capacitive touchscreens are the type used by cell phones and tablets today. They work by sensing a changing amount of capacitance which is detected by integrated circuits and interpreted as a location on the screen.

You can expect to find these in the better quality radios as they’re generally more expensive than resistive types. They’re also more responsive than their cheaper counterparts.

Another benefit is that displays using them are more clear – even beautiful and crisp!

Features & connectivity

Apple CarPlay example image

Android Auto and Apple CarPlay

Some models allow integration with your phone in such a way that you can get some of the same functionality your phone provides on the stereo. Using voice commands, receiving and making calls, text message notifications, and audio app controls are a few examples.

Models that support Apple CarPlay will allow iPhone 5 and later uses to take advantage of these features and use Siri voice commands to control it. Android Auto is similar and Google Voice controls work similarly for Android phone users.

Bluetooth and Pandora control

Pioneer touchscreen with Pandora Bluetooth front image
By now I’m sure you’re familiar with Bluetooth for using a wireless connection for music playback. However, additionally, some models offer direct control of the Pandora app on your phone via the Bluetooth connection.

In this case, you’re able to control your phone’s music selection directly on the touchscreen rather than having to pick up your phone. It’s a convenient feature if you’re a Pandora music fan.

Quality sound

For getting the best sound, ideally buy a good quality brand as they tend to be better designed in terms of sound quality.

Lower-end touchscreen stereos often have a poor signal-to-noise ratio and lower signal level out RCA outputs. This is especially important if you’re building a system with amplifiers and better speakers.

Parking brake override

What you might not be aware of is that in-dash car stereos that are capable of video playback have preventative features. For example, many require the parking brake signal to be wired to an input on the radio’s wiring harness.

In this case it means typically you’ll have to activate the parking brake in a pattern before the stereo will allow videos to work.

This is a built-in safety feature and protects the manufacturer from liability due to drivers being distracted while driving. But what if you want to bypass this?

Pioneer AVH series radio parking brake bypass

In this case you’ll need a video bypass module like this one for Pioneer touchscreen radios. A bypass module will fool the radio into thinking the vehicle is stopped and you’ve carried out the safety override.

That way you can bypass safety warning screens as well as play videos as you like.

Why buying a quality radio is important

Image with representation of quality
One major issue with buying cheaper touchscreen stereos is their higher rate of defects, poor reliability, and even software problems.

Lower-end brands are often generic and sell an identical or similarly styled product under different brand names called “rebadging”. Cheaper brands don’t have the same investment in quality control and check software bugs as more reputable brands do.

I’ve noticed over the years how cheaper touchscreen radios may seem appealing at first, but they have fairly high defect and malfunction rates. It’s reflected in the buyer reviews you’ll see when shopping. Sometimes their software is buggy and also slow.

Those are the kinds of unexpected problems you won’t know about until it’s too late, and you realize you’ve made an expensive mistake!

Better brands rarely have these same issues. Because of this I strongly advise you to stay away from the cheapest models.

Considering how much you can get for just a little above $200 these days, there’s really no reason to make that mistake.

★ The best touchscreen radios for your money ★

ImageProductDetails
sample-table__imageOur #1 choice!Alpine iLX-207 Mech-Less Receiver
  • Fantastic sound and picture quality. Alpine advanced tech in your dash!
  • Apple CarPlay/Android Auto/Bluetooth controls. Built-in HD tuner
  • High-res. display, integrated maps/calls/apps. Great for Pandora and streaming
Check on Amazon
sample-table__imageSony XAV-AX100 Apple Car Play/Android Auto
  • Excellent, icon-based display w/ maps and text message use. Enhanced 4 x 55W internal amp design
  • Fantastic audio digital processing, easy-to-use rotary control
  • Voice control w/ Apple CarPlay or Android Auto
Check on Amazon
sample-table__image★ Under $250 ★Pioneer AVH-X390BS Double Din Bluetooth
  • Advanced audio controls and great visuals. A value winner!
  • 14W x RMS powerful internal amp, speaker time alignment, RCA outputs
  • Pandora/Spotify app control, system expansion options, subwoofer outputs
Check on Amazon

1. Alpine iLX-207 7″ digital media receiver – One of the most advanced touchscreen radios sold today!

Alpine iLX-207 angle view
The iLX-207 is a digital media receiver (no DVD player) with a unique design. There’s a sharp-looking double DIN 7″ capacitive display on the front and a single DIN chassis on the rear. That gives a big advantage with more installation possibilities where space is a concern.

Of course, Bluetooth is built-in, but unlike many other products, there’s an HD radio tuner built-in as well for great radio clarity.

Looking for flash drive convenience? You’re covered there, too! A USB cable makes playing music files from your flash drive a snap.

Alpine iLX-207 showing engine data

What’s even more awesome is the engine data display capability. By adding the compatible Maestro iDataLink module, your vehicle’s operating data like RPM, speed, fuel, and more and be shown right on the screen. It also allows you to keep factory features like steering wheel controls and more.

It’s designed to work with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for seamless voice operation if you’re a fan of those platforms. You can also view and access text messages via the front panel.

One of the coolest features is the HDMI input which allows you to display your tablet or computer’s video output on screen! Control panel buttons on the screen’s bottom can be changed, too.

Alpine iLX-207 rear and side views
18W RMS x 4 internal power is provided for driving speakers directly. However, for the best sound quality possible, use the 4V RCA outputs with provide front, read, and subwoofer outputs.

GPS navigation is provided, as well, using the magnetic GPS antenna provided. Take and make calls via the Bluetooth connection, as a microphone is included as well. Want to add a backup camera? No problem – there’s an input for that as well.

One amazing feature is the ability to control external outputs like relays to activate a winch, lights, and much more (you’ll need the KAC-001 External Accessory Controller, sold separately).

PROS:
  • Built-in HD radio
  • Text message access
  • Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support
  • Bluetooth connectivity for audio and hands-free calling
  • Beautiful 7″ capacitive touchscreen display
  • Maestro iDataLink compatible for engine display/factory features
  • Supports satellite radio (add-on available)
  • USB flash drive support – 5′ cable
  • 6 channel RCA outputs: front/rear/sub
  • 18W RMS x 4 internal amplifier
  • HDMI input
  • Compatible with most steering wheel adapters
  • Hands-free mic included
  • GPS ability / antenna included
  • MediaXpander sound enhancement feature
  • CEA-2006 compliant
  • Includes trim ring for installation
  • Single-DIN chassis makes installation easier
  • Control up to 8 external motorized accessories w/ the KAC-001 add-on
  • Great sound quality
  • Supports FLAC/MP3/WMA/AAC/HE-AAC music playback via USB
CONS:
  • No SD card slot
  • Higher cost than competing touchscreen radios
  • No DVD player
  • Interface is well-organized but not all may like it
  • No front USB drive port
  • USB cable/jack must be routed & located where accessible
  • CarPlay reported to be slightly laggy at times
  • Requires using E-brake signal to enter settings
  • No rotary volume control

Without a doubt, this is one of the most advanced touchscreen radios sold today. It’s a great choice for anyone who uses digital media on a USB drive or via Bluetooth apps like Pandora.

Head over No products found.

2. Sony XAV-AX100 6.4″ CarPlay/Android Auto media receiver – Great sound and interface…you’ll love it!

Sony XAV-AX100 front view 1

The Sony XAV-AX100 brings you into advanced audio and features with a great interface and clean, sleek design. Its design makes Android or Apple smartphone control intuitive and user-friendly. Unlike many others today, it features a rotary volume control so there’s no fumbling with buttons or screen controls.

As it supports both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, the hands-free operation is easy.

Sony AVX-X100 Bluetooth call interfaceSony makes taking calls and viewing text messages super easy! The display is excellent and very straightforward.

Bluetooth support allows you to use your favorite apps for streaming music or hands-free calling using the included mic. Pandora control also means you don’t have to touch your phone to channel music sources or tracks.

Don’t worry, though – with all these great features you’re not giving up great sound quality! The XAV-AX100 also includes high and low-pass filters as well as a powerful 10-band equalizer to tailor the sound to your system.

Sony XAV-AX100 rear and side viewsThe unique design uses a full double DIN front section with a smaller single DIN section on the rear, making installation easier. Got limited space? You won’t have to stress over hiding cables like with larger units.

Running external amplifiers? 5 RCA outputs are provided for front, rear, and subwoofer use. You’ve also got 20W RMS x 4 channels of power to drive speakers with. Using the high or low pass filters you can get excellent, low-distortion sound and great clarity.

Need extra punch on demand? Hit the button to engage the ExtraBass for advanced sound boosting with low distortion.

Music fans with a USB flash drive can use the convenient USB jack (cable included) to play files directly from a USB stick.

Need a rear camera input? This model has you covered there as well, as there’s a camera input provided. A handy remote control is included too.

Sony AVX-X100 remote
For those who love streaming music and digital music files on the go, it’s a fantastic choice. (Note: there’s also a version with a DVD player too).

PROS:
  • Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support
  • Hands-free Bluetooth calling (includes mic)
  • AM/FM tuner w/ RDS display data support
  • USB flash drive port
  • Powerful 10-band audio equalizer
  • Adjustable high and low-pass filters built in (5 settings)
  • Separate subwoofer level
  • Subwoofer phase control
  • Rear camera input
  • Beep tone (can be turned off)
  • Bass boost feature
  • 6.4″ capacitive display
  • Great user interface and big, clear graphics
  • Built in amp is 20W RMS x 4
  • Separate front/rear/subwoofer RCA outputs
  • Rear chassis is smaller for more installation ease
  • Rotary volume control makes changing volume easy
  • Clean, simple design
  • Works with steering wheel controls (adapter needed)
  • Includes remote control
CONS:
  • No built-in GPS or antenna (uses smart phone GPS app)
  • No custom-color button backlighting options
  • Single mono (rather than dual) subwoofer output jack
  • Not ideal for using without AirPlay or Android Auto
  • Faceplate is not anti-theft
  • No front USB drive port
  • USB cable/jack must be routed & located where accessible
  • 2V RCA output level (vs. 4V like Alpine)
  • No HD radio tuner
  • Safety prompt at start-up you must click to override

If you’re planning to take advantage of AirPlay or Android Auto’s ease of use, it’s a fantastic choice. The sound controls are great, sound quality is excellent, and the user interface is clean and easy to deal with.

Don’t hesitate to head over and see the excellent buyer reviews and find out more.

3. Pioneer AVH-X390BS DVD receiver – Affordable quality that’s expandable. Great sound and sharp display!

Pioneer AVH-X390BS front imageLooking for a touchscreen radio that’s high on value but not short on performance? The AVH-X390BS may just be exactly what you need. The 6.2″ WVGA (800 x 480) display is sharp and clear – it looks great!

This model features AppRadio One which gives you the ability to control compatible iPhone and Android smart phone apps to have easy access to your media files right from the touchscreen. You’ll need the CD-IU52 cable for iPhones and CD-MU200 USB cable for Android phones.

Hands-free calling via Bluetooth is a snap and so is streaming the music you love! You can display the artist, album, and even use voice recognition over Bluetooth. Making phone calls often? thanks to the Wideband Speech Handsfree Profile 1.6 the signal is similar to FM reception clarity.

You can even connect 2 devices at the same time via Bluetooth!

Both Pandora and Spotify uses are in for a treat – control your favorite app’s music playback right from the screen. Pandora users can even perform “thumbs up” and “thumbs down”, too. Pandora users get the added bonus of being able to create new stations while using the app.

Pioneer AVH-X390BS equalizer

Want good sound control? You’re in luck. The 13-band equalizer gives you far more control than a lot of the competition. Built-in high and low-pass crossover filters let you build a system with more clarity and lower distortion that you can drive even harder.

And independent subwoofer control lets you get bigger bass without being limited by the front or rear output levels. For even more advanced features, you can add the CCD-MC20 for time alignment control and Auto-EQ. It’s truly an advanced head unit for the money.

Pioneer AVH-X390BS rear viewSeparate front, rear, and subwoofer outputs provide a great 4V of clean audio signal for building a system.

Pioneer AVH-X390BS remote

The AVH-X390BS includes a remote, although I think it’s a bit redundant to use it considering how easy the touchscreen is. Still, it’s a nice option to have included for the price.

Play back most major file formats whenever you like. The USB interface supports FLAC lossless audio files and even AVI/DivX/MPG4 video files, too.

The list of features goes on and on…but some of the best are:

  • Backup camera input
  • Composite video output
  • USB direct control for iPhone or iPod
  • AUX inputs (rear)
  • Customizable display and key colors
  • Choose from 13 backgrounds to customize your display
PROS:
  • Clear, sharp display with large & clear icons
  • Includes remote control
  • 13-band graphic equalizer
  • Add-on module can provide time alignment and Auto-EQ
  • Customizable key colors and screen backgrounds
  • Pandora and Spotify direct controls
  • iPhone and Android direct controls
  • Supports GPS navigation via AVIC-U280 module
  • High & low-pass filters
  • Separate front/rear/subwoofer 4V RCA outputs
  • USB port for flash drive music & movies
  • DVD player
  • Bluetooth support with higher call audio quality
  • Bluetooth music streaming & touchscreen control of phone
  • Less expensive (typically about $250 or less)
  • Works with factory controls with add-on adapter
CONS:
  • No built-in GPS support
  • No HD tuner (available in AVH-X391BS version)
  • No Apple AirPlay or Android Auto support
  • No Maestro iDataLink support for engine data display
  • Volume controls are push button (no rotary control)
  • Rear chassis is not as compact as some competing models

For the price, the AVH-X390BS is truly a great sounding and feature-packed touchscreen radio you’ll love. If you need one that’s affordable, you don’t need AirPlay or Android Auto support, it’s a fantastic choice.

I really love the customization features, 13-band equalizer, and the add-on module for time alignment and auto-EQ.

It’s a definite winner, but don’t pay too much! I’ve found some excellent reviews and one of the lowest prices over here at Amazon.

Note: Need a unit with HD radio support? Check out the AVH-X391BS, its sibling with a HD tuner built-in.

Honorable mention – Pioneer AVH-290BT

Pioneer AVH-290BT front image

Although it’s a slightly older model, another excellent choice is the Pioneer AVH-290BT. It’s a Bluetooth DVD multi-media touchscreen receiver with a lot of great features for the price.

So much so that I wrote a long review here about it here.

It’s not just my opinion that matters – check out the may great buyer reviews and the price over at Amazon.

All things considered though, if you’re an audio fanatic the many features and expandability of the AVX-X390BS are just to hard to pass up in my opinion.

In summary

When you’re looking for the best touchscreen radio for your money, remember my basic advice:

  • Avoid unknown brands and don’t shop purely by price – by a well-known brand when possible
  • Be sure to check smartphone compatibility beforehand
  • If you don’t already, consider using the Pandora or Spotify apps for streaming – touchscreen control is so much better!
  • I highly recommend getting a model with good audio controls and subwoofer output
  • Apple AirPlay and Android Auto support make using them even more safe and much easier – they support voice control
  • Don’t forget to check your installation needs beforehand – double Din touchscreen radios often are more difficult to install and require custom work. Consider using a professional installer.

Considering adding a subwoofer? Here’s some great additional reading:

Be sure to contact me via the comments section or the contact page if I can help.

Rockford Fosgate P300-12 & P300-10 Full Review: A Powered Car Subwoofer Done Right

ockford Fosgate P300-12 review image

Powered subwoofer enclosures are a great option for too many reasons to list here. I’ve installed many over the years, too. However, it’s critical to buy one that actually delivers the bass you’re looking for.

The P300-12 (and its sibling the P300-10) is a subwoofer enclosure that stands out from others in many ways. But how does it rate? How does it sound? And most importantly, will you be happy with it?

In my review, I’ll cover everything you need to know in detail before buying.

Contents

First impressions and evaluating the quality

Rockford Fosgate P300-12 first image

The P300-12 is solid and well-made and definitely comes across as such. The black material covering it is an industrial heat-activated vinyl. It’s scratch and ding resistant. Nice!

Note: as it’s the sibling to the P300-10 which features a 10″ subwoofer, many features and performance points are the same. I’ll try to point out differences where they exist.

First impressions

When I got my hands on it and pulled it out of the box I thought to myself right away Man, this one’s solid!” and I’m sure you will too. It even has that “new speaker box smell” too, the one always gets you excited when you first get your hands on some awesome new car stereo subwoofer stuff.

The whole thing is very solid, being made from 5/8″ medium density fiberboard (MDF), a material popular for speaker enclosures as it’s cost-effective but also has high density. This is a necessity for high-powered subwoofers as a dense material is needed to resist flexing during air & cone motion, and to trap sound for producing the bass you love.

The Rockford Fosgate design uses a sealed enclosure rather than a vented one as many car powered subwoofers do, so it’s helpful to bear that in mind when buying.

At just under 30 lbs (13.4 kgs) it’s kind of heavy – this thing is not flimsy! This is a “real” speaker enclosure and not a watered-down pipsqueak of a speaker enclosure like some others I’ve seen.

Parts & assembly line up well and it looks well done. No sloppy construction or “cheap-looking” production methods appear to be used. I’m really curious about the connection & wire terminal section, one of the biggest advantages the P300-10 & -12 subwoofers have over others sold today.

It measures about 15″ (h) x 19.8″ (w) x 11″ (d, at the bottom) so you’ll need to measure and make sure you’ve got room in your vehicle. The 10″ version measures nearly the same, at 13.3″ x 17.9″ x 8.8″ in size. Ideally, you’ll be able to fit but I know from experience that sometimes even an inch can make all the difference!

Power connections and audio inputs

ockford Fosgate P300-12 connection block

The connection & input plate brings everything to one place and makes installation (and removable) pretty simple. It’s much more well-thought-out than other products I’ve seen and used. Here you can make all connections for the power & and audio input signals, as well as adjusting bass using the bass boost feature (Punch EQ), low-pass crossover, and 0/180 degree phase control.

Rockford Fosgate has apparently put some good engineering design though into the connection “plate”, a square assembly on the left-hand side of the enclosure (it’s on the left-hand side when you’re facing the front of the speaker).

What really sets it apart (from the cool features that provide some big advantages I’ll get into below) is that the power connector allows for quick connections and disconnection of the positive, negative, and remote-on wiring.  After that, you can simply unplug the audio input connector and bass remote plug and you’re done!

That’s a huge advantage as with most similar products you have to disconnect each wire individually every time you remove it.

That’s fantastic for those individual instances in which you’re running out of cargo space and need to remove it temporarily. Or maybe you’ll be out of town for a few days and don’t want to leave it inside for thieves to steal it while your vehicle is at airport parking. I can think of many more examples of why this is a great feature to have, especially for leased vehicle owners who know they’ll have to take it out one day.

Connecting audio sources

The P300-12 can connect to both speaker level or aftermarket stereo system using the supplied harness which provides RCA jacks to connect. However, for speaker-level inputs, you’ll need to cut the harness and attach the wiring with crimp connectors or some similar method.

That’s one thing I don’t like – I would have preferred a slightly simpler option like having the speaker-level inputs wired next to the RCA jacks to allow the buyer to connect to them.

That would avoid the need for cutting the wire and reattaching it later if you needed the RCA connections when your system changes.

Turning on the built-in amp – extra features you’ll like

Fortunately, there are 3 ways, not just one (unlike other products) to turn the amp on & off:

  1. Auto-on using audio sensing
  2. DC OFFSET – this features needs only 6V to switch it on
  3. +12V remote on wire (standard way)

The first 2 are great because normally an amplifier remote-on wire uses a +12V signal to control it for on or off purposes. This keeps an amp from draining the vehicle battery when not in use. However, some vehicles today are harder to work with and an accessory-switched +12V wire can be hard to find.

The P300-12 provides 2 great ways to work around that! And I personally really can appreciate that. However, note that the DC offset feature only works for high-level inputs. Audio sensing works for both.

Amp wiring connectivity

The removable connector which firmly slides in or out of the connector plate accepts 4 gauge wire with set-screws to keep the wire secure and from loosening. I like it.

Audio controls

Gain, in case you’re not already familiar with it, adjusts the amplification factor of the system based on how strong of an input signal is available. Ideally gain is set low, when possible.

The low-pass only crossover is easy to use and is adjustable from 50 to 200Hz, with a 12dB/octave Butterworth filter cutoff. You can’t bypass it as the system is designed only for low bass response.

As bass sound waves are very large in size and the subwoofer is most likely located in the rear, in many installations bass sound slightly out of tune with the front speakers. In that case, changing the phase switch to 180 degrees, which inverts the speaker movement, may improve it.

Power/Protect LED

A bi-color LED is used to indicate power-on a green power-on condition or show red when a short circuit or overload condition is detected. In that case, the amp will shut down automatically. It’s a good feature I like. Simple, but effective.

Of course, you’ll have to remove the subwoofer to begin troubleshooting if a problem puts the amp in that state.

Remote Punch feature

ockford Fosgate P300-12 remote Punch control

The remote Punch control is an easy to use add-on (included) with a long cable and 3.5mm headphone-style plug which plugs easily into the connector panel on the subwoofer assembly. With it you can adjust the bass level from the front of your vehicle.

It’s a nice touch, and the control is easy to use. I don’t particularly like the “ovalish” shape of the assembly for the remote, but that’s a minor complaint. It has a good “feel” and is a nice touch.

The owner’s manual

The owner’s manual is great and one of the best I’ve ever seen! It’s relatively brief but has measurements, thorough installation details, and clear, detailed information. I really like it, and I’m confident it will be helpful to people who aren’t very experienced with car audio installations.

(click to enlarge)

ockford Fosgate P300-12 manual example

The instruction manual is clear, detailed, and explains the amp features and connections very well. I think it’s a great example of an owner’s manual done right. So, don’t sweat the instructions! That’s one more great thing about the P300-12 and -10.

10″ vs 12″ version comparison

To summarize everything, the P300-12 and P300-10 are very similar. Check out this comparison:

P300-10 Specifications
  • Woofer size: 10″
  • RMS power: 300W
  • Crossover slope: 12dB/octave
  • Cross. freq.: 50-200Hz
  • Punch Bass: Var. 0-+12dB @ 45Hz
  • Freq. response: 35Hz – 200Hz
  • Input sens.: 100mV – 3V
  • Fuse: 30A
  • Size: 13.3” x 18.0” x 8.9”/5.9”
    (33.7cm x 45.7cm x 22.6/15cm)
P300-12 Specifications
  • Woofer size: 12″
  • RMS power: 300W
  • Crossover slope: 12dB/octave
  • Cross. freq.: 50-200Hz
  • Punch Bass: Var. 0-+12dB @ 45Hz
  • Freq. response: 35Hz – 200Hz
  • Input sens.: 100mV – 3V
  • Fuse: 30A
  • Size: 15.0” x 19.8” x 11.0”/7.0”
    (38.1cm x 50.3cm x 28/17.8cm)

Ultimately it won’t make a huge difference which one you pick, but like I always recommend, if you can fit the 12″ in your vehicle, buy that one. The reason why is that there’s no substitute for cone size. A bigger subwoofer can move more air and hence produce a bit more bass sound and volume, sometimes with more impact.

Interestingly enough, there doesn’t seem to be much difference, if any, in costs between the 2 models depending on where you shop. However, as I’m reviewing (mainly) the P300-12 I’ll refer to that here. Expect to pay close to $200 if you shop smart. Otherwise you could end up spending an extra $50 dollars elsewhere.

One note about Rockford Fosgate and the specifications

Rockford Fosgate provides industry-standard Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) ratings for the performance of their amplifiers and speakers. What this means to you is that they’re not inflated (or made up!) numbers like you’ll find with many other brands – they’re reliable and accurate.

Rockford Fosgate Klippel image logCEA logo

Klippel is a speaker certification program Rockford Fosgate uses to deliver some of the best subwoofers on the market. The CEA-2006 standard was established to assist consumers with the misleading power ratings that have plagued the industry for decades and mislead consumers. A handful of industry-leading car audio companies support these reliable means of rating their products.

Fitting the subwoofer enclosure in your vehicle

You probably already have a few great ideas about where you’d locate the powered subwoofer, but since it’s so convenient it can work really well in so many applications:

  • In car trunks
  • In the rear of Jeep Wranglers and other sport vehicles
  • In cars with limited space like sports cars or 2-seat coupes (behind the seats)
  • Underneath rear fold-up seats in truck cabs or in the rear floorboard
  • In SUV cargo spaces

ockford Fosgate P300-12 truck

ockford Fosgate P300-12 in car trunk

ockford Fosgate P300-12 in SUV cargo space

The RF P300-12 looks great and fits in a wide variety of spaces in vehicles. I like the modular design and it looks professional and not at all cheap in just about any installation.

Honestly, you’re really only limited by your imagination if you have (small) room to fit it.

The one “real” (well, ok, it’s still pretty minor) issue is that you really do need to strap down or mount the subwoofer box to keep the whole thing from sliding around or falling if it’s standing upwards. At close to 30 lbs weight, I’m sure you can understand why I saw that.

ockford Fosgate P300-12 manual example

You’ll probably need to plan for how you’re going to keep it in place and figure out something. A great idea would be some inexpensive elastic bungee cords, for example. Or perhaps a factory cargo strap like in the back of this SUV.

Plan on having to pick up a few as there aren’t any type of straps included with it as I would have preferred to have seen. That’s another minor complaint I have. The subwoofer doesn’t include any kind of straps of any sort to help with installation.

Evaluating the speaker grill

The speaker grill is made of a nice mesh metal and is well-secured to the box. It looks great and doesn’t obstruct sound at all. I can’t understand why some competing products have no grill or have one that can allow objects to touch and potentially damage the speaker cone. That’s not a concern here, and it’s a nice touch.

How good does it sound?

The sound? Ah yeah! Bass is smooth, punchy, and sounds very nice. I really like it.

Music tests

Fergie Glamorous subwoofer track image

Playing some familiar test tracks with bass that helps to notice any flaws in performance, the P300-12 responded well and really sounded satisfying. How can you do the same? 1) Buy it, 2) install, and 3) enjoy!

Pop music like Fergie’s 2007 Glamorous or Outcast’s So Fresh, So Clean, great tracks with a hearty bass beat, produced responsive, beefy bass that really juiced up the low end.

The P300-12 puts out that great bass sound that makes music so much livelier and fun than a system without it. I really like how it made my music change from just sound to, well…music!

Adjusting the Punch Boost (centered at 45Hz, by the way) adds just the right level of extra emphasis on low-end bass that “hits” and sounds great!

While at high volumes the P300 didn’t produce the same bass as two equally-rated 12″ woofers in a larger or vented box, but honestly, that’s to be expected. I didn’t mind as it does it’s job and does it well – without the extra hassle or having to give up valuable cargo space like a huge speaker box normally would.

Bass is clear and filtered very well – no noticeable vocals or upper-end noise with the low-pass filter set to around 80Hz.

Ultimately, the P300 produces excellent low-end sound with great volume – it doesn’t sound “thin” or shallow like a tiny car powered subwoofer that has to compromise a lot.

Final thoughts and review score

What do I think? I like it, and it’s a good choice. The bass is satisfying and is “real” bass, not some weak version you’ll get from cheaper and poorly-designed models.

You’re not going wake the whole neighborhood up and rattle all the windows, but you’ll definitely get great sound and a lot of high-quality bass with good volume that you’ll enjoy.

Head over and have a look at the fantastic P300-12 powered subwoofer at Amazon.

Overall
9.1/10
9.1/10
  • Quality - 9.7/10
    9.7/10
  • Sound quality - 8.8/10
    8.8/10
  • Installation ease - 9.3/10
    9.3/10
  • Features - 8.7/10
    8.7/10

A high-quality powered subwoofer that really delivers - but in less space. Great sound you'll enjoy!

The P300-12 (and slightly smaller P300-10) is an all-in-one powered subwoofer that performs well for its size. Features and quality are excellent. I’m impressed by both the appearance and performance for the price. Sound quality is great: detailed, clear bass with good volume and punch.

Excellent owner’s manual. Good engineering went into the quality power connector which makes removal easy. You won’t beat more costly (and larger) subwoofer systems in a sound off, but for what you pay it’s very satisfying. Cheaper alternatives exist but most can’t match the performance and quality. A great choice for factory or aftermarket stereos.

Pros

  • Set-screw power terminals accept 4 gauge wire
  • 3 on/off remote switching methods provided
  • Accepts RCA and speaker-level inputs
  • Easy connect/disconnect and removal
  • Good size for the sound
  • Quality material, very solid (5/8″ MDF)
  • Recessed connector plate doesn’t stick out
  • Industrial vinyl material protects the enclosure, looks nice
  • Great speaker grill
  • Controls are simple to adjust and well-documented
  • Provides thermal overload and short-circuit protection
  • Vertical wedge shape allows the system to fit many vehicles
  • 300W amp provides plenty of power
  • Subwoofer itself is good quality, not high-end but performs well
  • Punch bass remote is included & works well
  • Rockford specs are CEA-2006 compliant/reliable
  • Owner’s manual is well-done, clear, and helpful

Cons

  • No straps included which are helpful for many installations
  • No installation brackets for permanent mounting
  • May tip over when moving if not secured
  • Audio signal harness must be cut if speaker inputs used – odd design
  • Heavy – almost 30lbs
  • Sealed enclosure can’t quite match the volume of vented box
  • No daisy chain option for connecting two P300-12s easily

Alpine CDE-HD149BT Full Review – A Bluetooth Car Stereo With Amazing Value And Sound

Alpine CDE-149BT front image

I’ve been an Alpine car stereo fan for years and I love using Bluetooth with my Android phone to enjoy great-sounding music and videos.

However, for many people, that require an adapter and dealing with poor sound quality.

In my full review of the Alpine CDE-HD149BT Bluetooth and HD radio head unit, I’ll show you why it’s a great buy for your money, as well as any little things you need to know.

Seriously, this thing is great!

Contents

Alpine CDE-HD149BT – basics and first impression

Over the years Alpine has produced more and more car stereos with Bluetooth, iPod, and even Pandora features built-in. However, you’re able to now enjoy all of those features and iPhone and Android smartphone capability, advanced audio controls, and superb flexibility for far less than ever before.

In the past, comparable products cost as much as several hundred dollars while the CDE-HD149BT sells for between $225 and $260 typically (prices vary widely, so see my recommendations at the end).

Alpine CDE-149BT front imageThe CDE-HD149BT is a great looking single-DIN (standard sized stereo) unit with both a tilting faceplate for loading a CD and a removable faceplate for discouraging theft of your audio investment. It’s a fun and exciting unit to use! The dot matrix display lists channels, audio source, song titles, the time and date, and so much more.

Music source features

This is a very cool head unit! Just being in front of it you feel a sense of excitement knowing how much audio control and listening advantages you have. These include:

  • Bluetooth with A2DP audio quality support and AVRCP for controlling music from the control panel
  • HD radio tuner built-in (years ago these required a separate purchase)
  • CD player
  • USB music storage support: MP3, WMA, and M4A audio files supported
  • AM/FM tuner with presets
  • SiriusXM tuner controls (add-on tuner purchase is required)
  • Pandora streaming music app remote control over your phone’s Bluetooth connection
  • Rear AUX input for all other music sources

And yes! It will charge your smartphone, too.

Don’t worry about having to manually stop the music or fumble with your phone someone call – the stereo will automatically switch over to hands-free calling when necessary and you can use the included microphone to talk. Call waiting even works, too.

Speech volume can be adjusted if you like and there are 5 sound settings to choose from to improve audio for calls.

Alpine CDE-HD149BT included hands free microphone

A microphone is included for the hands-free calling feature of the head unit. It is easy to install, and I find the mic and plug-in cord to be a pretty easy task as far as installation goes. Most of the work is simply hiding the cable once it’s connected. The clip allows good positioning on your sun visor for the best results.

Alpine’s proprietary MX setting can be enabled to improve the sound of audio depending on the audio source you’re currently listening too, including Bluetooth audio. Think of it as a “boost” feature, although I personally recommend getting much more familiar with the excellent audio controls at your service, as they allow you to tailor the sound exactly as you’d prefer rather than the fixed changes that the MX function applies.

First impressions

The unit is well-built and the rotary knob for volume and other settings feels great in the hand. The center can be pushed for additional select/menu features when applicable.

CDE-HD149BT up close image

The CDE-HD149BT is a great looking and pretty easy to use model. They’ve squeezed so much into the design that the majority of settings and initial features you’ll use (until you’re set up) are accessed through software menus.

Push the open button to release the faceplate in order to insert a CD. Pushing it back up snaps it into position again firmly and without issue. The 256 x 64 dot LCD display is clear and works great.

Text and graphics are well thought out. But in heavy sunlight, the glare can make it a little hard to see the images and readout.

Menus are fairly easy to use but you’ll definitely need to break out the instructions (I used the .pdf version from Alpine) and I recommend save the .pdf to your smartphone later use – that’s a lot easier than having to hunt for it and download on the road.

Firmware update ability

Firmware can be updated by USB easily, which is a feature I always look for. Cheaper brands don’t provide this at all. But at this level of engineering expertise, I kind of knew Alpine would provide a way to do so.

Note: I did not need to perform a firmware update before this review so I can’t report on the experience.

Audio quality features and advanced controls

Here’s one area where it really outshines the rest. The built-in audio controls and equalizer features are worlds above many others and weren’t available in car stereos of this price range in years gone by. I’m truly impressed with the level of control you have for the price. 

It’s largely thanks to the digital signal processing (DSP) design the company used to give a whole list of possibilities and 24-bit digital audio quality.

The most notable ones are:

  • Individual time correction (TCR) controls for each audio channel to adjust stereo imaging
  • High and low pass crossover filters with 0, 6, 12, and 24 dB/octave slopes and 20-200Hz frequencies
  • 6 available audio user presets so you can make and compare changes without having to worry about losing any
  • SPATIAL feature: an Alpine-only option to expand the audio listening sound space for a more realistic experience
  • Selectable volume level for each audio source (like CD, Bluetooth, and so on)

I’ve owned advanced car audio equipment for years including digital signal processors and equalizers by Alpine.

Those are units costing hundreds of dollars, some close to $800 and this is the first time I’ve seen an in-dash car stereo that nearly everyone can afford contain so much processing and adjustment power.

It’s pretty astounding and I’m sure you’ll come to appreciate as much as I have.

For decades you were stuck with some “bass and treble” level controls and little more, perhaps with a bass boost button control as well. The great news is those days are gone! The design includes 10 equalizer presets available for selection including “flat” (no effect, default setting) and works great.

Alpine CDE-HD149BT rear view
6 rear RCA jacks are available for connecting to external amplifiers for even better sound. An AUX input jack is available there as well, along with the USB cable for USB music access.

If you’re like me you don’t like being restricted to presets in order to get the best sound possible you need a true equalize to do so. You’re in luck there, too, as Alpine includes a 9-band parametric equalizer with user storage preset. And let me tell you, it’s very easy to use and works great.

If you’re not familiar with how an EQ works, it’s pretty simple so don’t worry. The parametric equalizer basically allows you to adjust a range of audio frequencies to boost or cut the level of sound in that range.

Adjustable frequency bands: (20 Hz to 20 kHz)

Band 1: 20 Hz ~ 100 Hz (63 Hz)
Band 2: 63 Hz ~ 315 Hz (125 Hz)
Band 3: 125 Hz ~ 500Hz (250 Hz)
Band 4: 250 Hz ~ 1 kHz (500 Hz)
Band 5: 500 Hz ~ 2 kHz (1 kHz)
Band 6: 1 kHz ~ 4 kHz (2 kHz)
Band 7: 2 kHz ~ 7.2 kHz (4 kHz)
Band 8: 5.8 kHz ~ 12 kHz (8 kHz)
Band 9: 9 kHz ~ 20 kHz (16 kHz)

And it even has an adjustable bandwidth (called “Q”) too!

Subwoofer controls

As the unit has 6 available RCA outputs to connect to external amplifiers (front, rear, and subwoofer) it’s helpful to know that the subwoofer output is independently adjustable (including on/off) so you won’t need any additional components to do so if adding a subwoofer to your system.

AMAZING smartphone audio control

One thing that really blew me away was being able to control the stereo from my Android phone after installing the Alpine TuneIt app which is also available for iPhone too.

Alpine CDE-HD149BT phone app screenshots

With the app, you have the ability to wirelessly control the equalizer, time correction, EQ presets, and all major built-in advanced audio controls. Unfortunately, while the app generally works well it seems like it’s a bit “quirky” at times and still leaves room for improvement.

With the level of quality you get in the head unit itself, I would have expected better from Alpine, but it’s a relatively minor complaint.

I imagine it is likely due to them using a 3rd party app developer without sufficient testing and debugging before release (just my guess).

Quick note: My observations seem to reflect reviews on the Google App Store: some users have posted complaint reviews describing issues with the app during use. The app is convenient and not at all necessary for the features, so while it would be great to be better it’s not a big issue.

Pandora controls

Connected via USB or over Bluetooth, you may control your Pandora music app using the faceplate controls for added convenience instead of having to pick up and touch your phone while driving. You can even use the Thumbs Up & Down buttons!

Alpine Pandora badge

One really cool feature I like (as I’m a Pandora user, too) is being able to add a Pandora station and bookmark it for calling back later.

Faceplate color customization

Another great feature is the ability to change the faceplate’s button backlighting. Selectable colors are blue, green, red, and amber to match most vehicle interiors at night.

Steering wheel interface capable

Not surprisingly the stereo can also be controlled with your car’s factory steering wheel controls. That requires an aftermarket adapter and there may be some limitations to which buttons will work with the control interface, so be aware of that ahead of time.

Normally the basic controls will work but a few may be lost when changing from the factory to an aftermarket stereo when installing the steering wheel interface adapter. (This isn’t the fault of Alpine – companies like PAC who make these specialty adapters have to work around limitations of the vehicle)

iPod controls

Nearly all major iPods and iPhones are supported via the USB connection, but a USB adapter is required for that (KUC-445i) so you’ll have to spring for more money if not using Bluetooth and want to use the built-in iPod controls.

The KCU-445i must be purchased separately if you’d like to use a plug-in iPod or iPhone control. It sells for close to $25 or so. But it’s not necessary if you’re using a Bluetooth iPhone.

Note: I do not own an iPhone or iPod so unfortunately I couldn’t test those as well. However, I’ve heard good things, aside from minor complaints.

iTunes tagging feature

When you hear a song you like, simply press and hold down the CDE-HD149BT’s Volume button for two seconds. The tagging feature lets you tag songs you hear on SiriusXM and stores the info on your iPhone. The next time you connect your iPhone to iTunes, you can be able to preview your selections and then buy/download them directly from iTunes.

GameAlert for sports fans

Want to know if your favorite sports team is playing live but want to keep enjoying other music in the meantime? The CDE-HD149BT has GameAlert that will display an on-screen message if your favorite teams’ games are being broadcast.

You can then jump to that station with the push of a button so you can listen to the game. It’s a cool feature even though I’m not a sports fan, personally.

Sound quality

Alpine CDE-HD149BT installed in dash

I’m sure your next question is “But how’s the sound?” The answer is…great!

The audio is crisp and clear thanks to the digital signal processing when using the internal amplifiers, although just like other head units you’re limited to 18 watts per channel at 4 ohms.

I would have liked some type of higher power Class D amplifier but perhaps there’s simply not room after packing so much into it already.

Like most stereos, the CDE-HD149BT is good for casual everyday listening and some high-volume listening, but as expected it can’t drive woofers or components speakers (especially with heavy bass music) too hard without beginning to distort from a lack of sufficient amplifier power.

For a great, low noise output signal the RCA connections can provide up to 4V of line-level audio.

If you need higher power I definitely recommend taking advantage of the RCA outputs, and you’ll actually be able to get even cleaner sound! A great amplifier I can suggest is the MRV-F300 that I wrote about here.

Anti-theft features

Alpine CDE-HD149BT anti-theft faceplate imageThe detachable faceplate actually swings down when released for inserting a CD. But it also easily detaches and can be re-inserted when you leave your vehicle unattended and is stored safely in the included protective case.

What’s included?

Alpine CDE-HD149BT box and accessories included imageThe box includes the standard basic items for a single DIN size Alpine car stereo, plus a few additional items you can use right away.

These include:

  • Plastic protective case for the detachable faceplate
  • Removal keys for the locking installation sleeve
  • Hands free microphone with visor clip, double-sided tape, and cable
  • Power and speaker output wiring harness
  • USB female extension cable (for using a flash drive)

I definitely recommend planning before installing it in case you’ll need additional cable extensions or speaker wire. You may also need the right vehicle harness adapter and installation kit. (My advice is to check out Amazon because small car stereo shops make a lot of money off of items like this, plus you won’t have to spend a whole day searching this way).

Final thoughts & review score

All in all, this is hands down one the best car stereos under $300 you’ll find anywhere, and it’s a great value for what you get.

Bluetooth connects and stays connected reliably and quickly, too. It’s capable of remembering the last device it paired with (your phone) which means it won’t attempt to connect to nearby devices while you’re trying to do the same already.

If you’re looking for great features and excellent sound from your phone via Bluetooth (or many other sources!) don’t hesitate to check it out!

Head over to see the latest low price and get free shipping from Amazon.

Overall
9.3/10
9.3/10
  • Overall quality - 9.5/10
    9.5/10
  • Performance/Sound Quality - 8.5/10
    8.5/10
  • Installation ease - 9/10
    9/10
  • Features - 9.5/10
    9.5/10
  • Value - 9.8/10
    9.8/10

An amazing amount of technology and control for its price. Wonderful Bluetooth sound quality and surprising audio controls

The Alpine CDE-HD149BT is a VERY impressive car stereo with some of the best features money can buy. Featuring digital processing technology, A2DP Bluetooth audio support, and both iPhone and Android compatibility it has something for everyone. With an advanced audio equalizer, crossover, and time correction controls it can satisfy even the most advanced music listener. If you love a good value and want great Bluetooth performance you’d have to be crazy to pass up such a great choice.

Pros

  • Great sound and clear audio
  • A2DP Bluetooth support for great sound quality
  • Pandora control functionality
  • Facebook notification support
  • 9-band EQ with user presets
  • 10 selectable factory audio EQ settings
  • Detachable faceplate and storage case
  • AUX input
  • USB flash drive support
  • iPod support (with required cable)
  • 4 selectable illum. colors
  • 6 RCA outputs: 4 front/rear, 2 dedicated subwoofer
  • Can connect to steering wheel control adapter
  • iPhone & Android app wireless audio adjustment
  • Hands free call feature
  • Auto-answer & phone book features
  • iPod & iPhone plug-in control possible
  • CD/FM/AM/HD radio built in
  • SiriusXM ready (requires tuner)
  • Subwoofer output level/phase/type controls
  • Rotary control knob
  • Firmware update cable via USB
  • USB supports MP3/WMA/M4A
  • Time and date
  • 6 presets for storing user custom audio adjustments

Cons

  • Limited internal amp power (18W channel/4 ohm stable)
  • Push-button remote is separate
  • AUX input is located on the rear-requires extension cable
  • iPod plug-in support cable is separate
  • Music app control is limited to Pandora
  • No digital audio output (TOSLINK)