how do i upgrade my car stereo?

Car stereo fitting needn’t alarm you – here’s how to do-it-yourself at home

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 be able to connect your phone via Bluetooth and answer calls while you’re on the move and wirelessly stream your favourite music?

There are plenty of aftermarket car stereos available – 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.

What to know before you remove your car stereo:

  • We’re looking at standard head units here that can be removed at home. More and more modern cars feature entertainment 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

How do I remove my old car stereo?

Many 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?

A car stereo 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 car's 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

How do I fit a digital antenna for my new car stereo?

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.

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 sort of plugs will my new car stereo have?

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.

Do I need a degree in car electronics?!

Not at all. Unless the car had no radio fitted to begin with, don’t go cutting wires and splicing stuff in. This is a deeply unsafe way to approach it. Unless you own something truly unique, there will be a harness adaptor out there that fits it. This is simple and above all, it’s safe.

How do I secure the new car 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 Focus, or Saab or something that has a large radio face, you’ll again need to go shopping. Happily, though, you can buy adaptor facias for most common cars, so your new radio will look right at home.

Can I fit the stereo now?

Not quite. 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! Now can I fit it?

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

Is that it?

Not quite! 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.