Making the decision that the stock audio quality in your car is unacceptable is a decision that leads you down a path that will require you to make many more decisions.
It starts with choosing a budget, then choosing which brands to go with, choosing where to place your speakers, how loud you want them to get, which type of subwoofer enclosure to use, which amp to buy, whether you’ll need to upgrade your battery or alternator, which wires to use, and the list goes on.
If you’re trying to go all out with your aftermarket stereo system, then certain choices are a given. For example, there’s no way you would plan a full upgrade without adding at least one amplifier, or without replacing your stock speakers, or without adding a subwoofer.
But what about the head unit in your vehicle? Is it necessary to upgrade it? Let’s look at why you may want to upgrade, and why some people choose not to.
Reasons to Upgrade Your Stock Head Unit
The head unit is what most people picture when they hear “car stereo”, it’s the deck that sits embedded in your dash that allows you to interface with the rest of the sound system, adjust volume, change tracks, connect your Bluetooth, and so on.
Not all head units are created equal, even when we’re talking about stock ones. Some stock head units are going to be a lot better than other ones. Having said that, if you want to unlock the best sonic performance from your vehicle, this is usually one of the first upgrades to do.
Quality: Car manufacturers often invest the bare minimum into the stock audio equipment because it keeps costs down and anybody that cares about quality is going to upgrade, anyway. That pretty much tells us everything we need to know.
Missing Features: It’s very likely that your stock head unit is missing some key features, especially if your vehicle is a bit older. You could be missing an aux input to plug in your phone or mp3 player, not to mention missing support for things like Bluetooth or Android Play/Apple Carplay. If you have a rear-view camera in your car, having a head unit with a screen that supports this feature makes it a lot easier to wire it in.
Missing Outputs: If you plan on adding an amplifier, you’ll probably want RCA outputs and your stock head unit probably won’t have them. While you can purchase an adaptor and wire it in without having to get a new deck, this is a good opportunity to just upgrade to an aftermarket deck instead, while you’re already in there.
Aesthetics: Even though the stock unit likely blends in just fine, there are some gorgeous head units available that can heighten the style of your dash. This isn’t the biggest reason to upgrade, but it doesn’t hurt!
Issues You May Encounter
When you decide to upgrade your head unit, there are some potential issues that can complicate the process.
Your new head unit might not physically fit into the same slot as the stock one. The two sizes of slots you’ll come across are called DIN and Double DIN. If the opening for your head unit measures 2″ x 8″, that’s DIN. If it measures 4″ x 8″, then it’s Double DIN. You can fit a DIN into a Double DIN sized slot, but not the other way around (at least not without making some serious modifications.)
Beyond that, the depth of the slots can vary, so in some cases, you’ll need to clear some space behind the head unit to make it fit correctly, which usually involves cutting away some plastic.
Another issue arises if your vehicle has steering wheel controls for your stereo. If you use the steering wheel to adjust volume, change tracks, and tune your radio then you might be out of luck when you upgrade your head unit. Make sure to do some research, because compatibility can vary. There are wiring kits available that will help to restore at least some of the controls in many cases.
When it’s all said and done, those are just minor hiccups that can be overcome, and the benefits of having a modern aftermarket head unit will far outweigh keeping the stock one.
Why Would Someone Keep Their Stock Head Unit?
Nostalgia is a big factor, like if they’re trying to keep as many parts original as possible on a classic car, or they just don’t really care about audio quality in general, and don’t need any of the newer features found in a modern head unit.
This is a worthwhile upgrade even if you don’t plan on upgrading anything else. If you do plan on future upgrades, this is a great way to lay the groundwork. Choosing to upgrade to an aftermarket head unit is one of the easiest decisions you’ll make.
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