A car stereo with double-DIN touchscreen

How much does it cost to install a car stereo?

Car stereo installation costs can vary enormously, depending on what audio system is being fitted. At the most basic level we're talking about the head unit – the brains of your stereo that sit in the dashboard.

You can expect to pay in the region of £50 for a shop to replace the stereo head unit. Upgrading the car's speakers and fitting a woofer will add to that cost, and fitting a DAB aerial and installing speakers where they don't currently exist is going to add labour costs to the final bill.

The cost of having car audio professionally installed soon mount up, so it makes sense to do the job yourself.

How to fit a car stereo yourself

Does your car stereo still have a tape deck? Does the radio have LW and MW but no FM or DAB? Would you like to use your phone legally while you're driving, and connect it via Bluetooth, answering calls and wirelessly streaming your favourite music while the phone sits in a cradle?

There are plenty of aftermarket car audio systems available to buy – some are single-DIN (by the way, DIN stands for Deutsches Institut für Normung), others are double DIN. This refers to the size of the hole left once you've removed the stereo: most 'old school' stereos are single DIN, but double DIN will allow you to fit something with a touchscreen because, as the name suggests, you'll have twice the area to work with.

Car stereo fitting – need to know:

  • Are car stereos standard size? We’re looking at standard head units here that can be removed at home. Today's modern cars tend to feature audio systems that are integral to not only the design of the car, but also to the functionality of the dashboard or other screens, and these can't be replaced with aftermarket car stereos.
  • Safety first If you’re going to change the radio, always disconnect the battery while you do so. It’s the safest way to approach it – but make sure you know how to reset your car's systems (electric windows, for example). Your Haynes manual will go into detail about how to do this.
  • How do I remove my car stereo? Your Haynes manual will also explain what you need to remove to get at your car stereo. In some cars it's just the unit itself that needs to come out. In others you may need to take off a panel or two. Whatever your situation, the manual with reveal where these panels are and where the clips are located.
  • Tooled up Use the right tools for the job! It sounds obvious but it can be tempting to save time and money and use a substitute instead of making a trip to the car parts shop to buy the proper tool. Do that and you risk damaging something.

How long will it take to change my car stereo?

A straightforward system swap should be achievable in about an hour, but allow more time for unexpected snags, such as potential wiring issues or the fitment of a DAB antenna. It's always helpful to take photos of where the wires were connected on the original stereo, just in case you luck out and the old plugs go straight into the new unit.

How do I get the old stereo out?

Many car stereos require removal tools – known as car stereo removal pins or keys – to come away from the dash. Happily, the internet or car parts shops such as Euro Car Parts or Halfords will be able to supply you with the pins need to get the factory head unit out.

Simply insert the pins and push them together or away from each other (depends on the car) and then pull them forward, the radio should come free. Again, your Haynes manual will explain the process.

What about the plugs at the back?

Car audio usually has two or three connectors that supply it with power and also connect it to the car's speakers. You'll probably also find a lead for the aerial. The latter should pull straight out but the plugs are likely to have tabs that need to be depressed before they can be released from the back of the car stereo. Take care not to force these. The last thing you want to do is to break the plastic. Your fingers should be all you need.

Connectors for a car stereo

Do I need to fit a new aerial?

If you're upgrading to a DAB car stereo you'll need to install a new aerial because your old aerial is designed to pick up analogue (LW/MW/FM) signals.

Fortunately, you should be able to get away with a window-mounted DAB aerial, with the wiring tucked behind the A-pillar (or C-pillar if you're attaching it to the rear screen) trim and fed under the rest of the trim to the dashboard; make sure it's properly secured.

Again, your Haynes manual will have instructions on how to remove your car's trim – some car makers use one-use clips that will break once the trim has been removed, so be prepared to order new clips ahead of the job. 

It's unlikely that your new DAB stereo will come with an aerial in the box, so buy one at the same time (and make sure it's compatible!).

What size connectors for car stereo?

Hopefully you’ll be presented with a standard ISO connection, into the back of which there is logical wiring (red – live, black – ground, etc). If this isn’t the case, you’re going to need to buy a specialist car stereo wiring harness. You can plug the car’s harness into it and then the new one goes into the radio.

How do I secure the new stereo?

If your car is a standard single DIN (letterbox shape), then you just need to fit a 'cage' into which your new radio will go. Consult your car stereo shop about what cage you need.

You’ll have to remove the old cage first (don’t be tempted to use it, you’ll just end up permanently wedging your new stereo in the car), then fit the new one. Using a screwdriver, bend down the internal metal prongs on the cage to secure it.

If you have a car like a Mk1 Ford Focus, or Saab or something that has a large radio face, you’ll need to buy a car stereo adaptor that makes the replacement unit look more at home on the dashboard. Happily, you can buy adaptor facias for most common cars.

There's just one more step to follow before you clip everything into place.

Testing, testing…

Connect all of the leads – including the aerial lead – and check that the new stereo functions properly, especially the digital reception. If the stereo has Bluetooth, try connecting your phone and streaming some music or making a phone call to check for clarity. You could also try using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto at this point.

Some cars might need you to swap the live and ignition live wired around. Handily, most new stereos come with a harness that has a plug on the red live and yellow ignition live wires so you can swap them around if needs be.

Apple CarPlay on a car stereo

Everything works! Can I finally fit it into place?

Yes. Push the radio into the new cage until it clicks. Do not force it. Make sure no wires are caught.

Fit the surround and the stereo face, and then that’s it, the hard part is done. If you haven't done so already, consult the manual to work out how to use all of your stereo's new features.