Car Stereo Buying Guide

The sound quality of a car stereo depends on the amplifier and speakers that are connected to the same.

From the earlier days of AM and FM radio stations, stereos have taken a quantum leap to provide never-before entertainment options for cars. The introduction of compressed digital audio formats like MP3, and popularity of audio players like the iPod in particular, have ushered in a new era of car stereos. Further, with HD radio and alternate means to store music like USB flash drives, there are a whole new set of considerations that need to be taken care of while choosing the perfect audio system for one's car. Let's take a look at some of the new age factors that matter for car stereo selection.

Radio revolution

A few years back, radio options for car stereos consisted of only a choice between AM and FM stations. However, the new-age radio revolution, led by satellite and HD radio, provides better value for money with enhanced functionality and increased choices for the listener.

Satellite Radio

Thanks to the introduction of the XM and Sirius satellite radio, there now exists a commercial-free radio station that has a better sound quality than AM and FM radio. And although few car stereo head units have a built-in satellite radio tuner, the rest of the majority comes 'satellite audio ready', i.e., these stereo head units can play satellite radio via an add-on XM or Sirius receiver and a radio subscription.

HD Radio

Another major advancement in radios as far as car stereo systems are concerned is HD radio. This is basically a digital broadcasting technology that utilizes the present FM spectrum to transmit a digital signal side-by-side the conventional analog signal. Radios having this functionality (HD receivers) can find their way through multiple signals to reproduce the original broadcast of AM and FM stations, minus the multipath distortion.

 Discs

With the discovery of the latest digital audio formats like MP3 and WMA, one can easily take a couple of CDs with handpicked tracks instead of the complete stack, giving a tremendous amount of convenience to the user. Every car stereo in today's times comes with compatibility for all the popular file formats, but the basic problem, and differentiating factor as well, among all the available options is the extent to which the stereo simplifies locating and playing a particular track from possibly hundreds of songs.

Most of the single-DIN stereos have a single line monochrome LCD display, that displays 8-10 characters for track details, which is certainly not enough to find out the desired song easily. Thus, it is important to check if the car stereo you are thinking about purchasing has any quick search functionality that sorts songs and folders and organizes them for better search and play.

iPod connectivity

There are quite a few options in car stereos to connect the user's iPod and play songs stored on the player.

Auxiliary-input

This is the most elementary means of connecting the iPod to a stereo. The connection is done via a line-in jack and patch cord. Once connected, the user is required to operate the setup from the iPod itself.

Single-DIN

These kind of systems give a greater control over the iPod libraries, with intelligent USP iPod connectivity that enables transfer of data from the iPod to the stereo display. These systems also give a better sound quality compared to auxiliary-input jacks since there is a lesser number of connections to the speakers. These stereos, featuring a USB connector, let the user plug in a  USB key that has all MP3 files, to allow the stereo to use the same as an audio source like a CD. The music is played on the iPod, and its output is run on the stereo, thus giving the sound dual amplification

Touch-screen

Systems that have touch screen capability give better control to users who wish to connect their iPods to the car audio. Many two-DIN stereos  come with a virtual version of the iPod wheel, and sometimes, the screen of the player.

Add-ons

Besides the entertainment part, car stereos also come with additional features that include the use of Bluetooth and GPS technologies.

Bluetooth calling

In order to facilitate Bluetooth hands-free calling, a majority of the current Bluetooth applications need add-on receiver modules that can enable calls to be routed via a connected cellphone via the car stereo's speakers. These add-on kits also include a microphone, which can be attached to the car's dashboard or sun visor. There are also quite a few stereos that come with Bluetooth calling functionality built-in. The primary consideration while making a choice with regards to this feature is to identify which stereo gives a better ease of calling and good sound transmission and reception clarity.

GPS

Some single and double-DIN systems have GPS as a standard or add-on feature, as well as many touch-screen stereos.

Audio quality

The sound quality of a car stereo depends on the amplifier and speakers that are connected to the same. For instance, if there is a dedicated subwoofer, the same would give a boost to the bass effect of the music that is played. Component speakers, another hardware comprising of woofers, mid-range speakers and tweeters, when used along with external crossovers give better audio quality compared to all-in-one speaker arrangements.

In order to select the perfect stereo, you first need to know whether you want to use the in-built amplifier or plug in an external one for better power. In case your choice is the former, here are some pointers:

Power rating

The RMS rating should always be given preference over the peak power rating, since RMS is a measure of the stereo's continuous power that is used for output, while peak power rating simply defines the maximum capability of the stereo. 

Equalizer

There are many basic and advanced equalizer controls available depending on how much detailed you want your music experience to be. Some of the high-end stereos can feature anywhere between four to seven band equalizers.

So that's it, a basic guide on how you can buy the right car stereo for yourself. Just keep the above points in mind and you are sure to locate the perfect system for your car.

With the discovery of the latest digital audio formats like MP3 and WMA, one can easily take a couple of CDs with handpicked tracks instead of the complete stack, giving a tremendous amount of convenience to the user.

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