How to Install New Entertainment Electronics in Your Car

Is it time to update your old car radio? See more pictures of car gadgets.
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Is it even possible that there's an automobile owner with a soul so dead that they've never said to him- or herself, "My car needs more gadgets"? Well, yes, it's likely that there are a few car owners out there like this; however, unless you've spent a huge amount of cash on a luxury car with all the options, it's doubtful that your car has every piece of automotive entertainment electronics currently on the market. Does it have an iPod dock? Can it play MP3 files off a CD? Does it have state-of-the-art speakers? A backup camera? Can your car parallel park itself? Do you have a grille-mounted (stealth) radar detector? A top-of-the-line navigation system? Has your mouth started to water yet?

If you're wondering how you can upgrade your car's electronics, we're here to help. There's a lot of aftermarket gadgetry out there at fairly reasonable prices and it's hard to get out of an electronics warehouse store without seeing a gizmo or two that would make your driving experience more pleasurable. But here's the big question: How do you get all of that gear into your car? Many retailers will happily install your new device for you at a price, but the cost of installation could easily double or triple the cost of your new toy. Do you dare bypass the professional installers and take your chances with electrical tape and a screwdriver? Do you have the electronic savvy to install it yourself?

­This isn't a question you should take lightly. If you don't know what you're doing when installing automobile electronics, there's a good chance you could harm your new equipment, your car, or even yourself. On the following pages we'll look at what you need to know in order to install your own in-car electronics and also give you a few reasons why you may or may not want to do the job on your own.

Remove Your Old Car Stereo

Are you a do-it-yourself kind of person or would you rather leave it to the pros?
Are you a do-it-yourself kind of person or would you rather leave it to the pros?
Anthony DOUANNE/iStockphoto

So, you've just come home with a fancy new car stereo and a brand new set of speakers. Should you install them in your car yourself?

The short answer is that it depends on how confident you feel around tools and electronic equipment. If you're the sort of person who turns green at the thought of prying panels off your car's dashboard or changing fuses in the fuse box, you should probably leave the installation up to the experts. On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who doesn't feel fully dressed without a digital multimeter in your pocket and wire strippers in your hand, why in the world would you trust someone else to do the dirty work for you? Like most people, though, you probably fall somewhere between those two extremes. So let's walk through a typical installation so that you can see if you might be getting in over your head.

The first step in installing the new car stereo is gathering the proper tools -- this might include Phillips and flathead screwdrivers, a set of wire strippers, pliers and any other specific tools called for in the instructions that came with the radio. The next step is to disconnect and isolate the negative cable from your car's battery. This step could save you considerable grief down the road. Next, you'll have to remove the old radio. This will probably require prying off one or more panels from the dashboard to gain access to the screws holding the radio in place. Other screws may be hidden on the dashboard, possibly behind control knobs or vents. Before you begin to actually remove the radio, it's a good idea to scout around to find hidden screws and then attempt to take the radio out once you're sure it's completely free.

Now that you have the old radio out, its time to put the new stereo into the dashboard opening. Read the next page to find out how to make that new car stereo fit just right.

Install a New Car Stereo

Once your old factory-original car radio is out, chances are that you'll be looking at a relatively big opening that remains in your car's dashboard. You may be wondering, "How is my sleek new car stereo going to fit there?" Fortunately, in most cases the size of the radio bay is standardized so most car stereos will fit. Unfortunately, there are many variations on the configuration of the bay where you'll be inserting the new stereo. Unless the stereo is designed for precisely the model of car that you own, you'll likely need a dash kit to fit it properly in the bay. A dash kit is an adapter designed to make car stereo installation easier. You should be able to buy the dash kit where you bought your new car stereo; just make sure it's the proper kit for your specific model of car.

You'll want to assemble the dash kit before you install the radio. Then slide the radio into the assembled dash kit skeleton. When you take your new car stereo out of the box, it should be encased in a metal cage -- basically a box that surrounds the stereo body like a glove. Most have metal tabs on the edge of the cage that can be bent upward to keep the new stereo in place. These prevent it from sliding too far into the dashboard opening.

Before putting the stereo and dash kit into the open bay, you need to interface the stereo with the car's electric system. All the electrical wires you need should be available inside the dash board and they should all be held together with a wire connector, a small, white, plastic rectangle that keeps the wires organized. Sometimes these connectors convert the color scheme used by the car's electrical system to a standard set of colors. You should look in the instruction manual that came with the stereo for an explanation of the color scheme.

Once you have the wires properly attached, replace the negative battery cable and switch the radio on. Once you've determined that everything is operational, you're ready to set it back into the dashboard and replace the screws. If it doesn't operate properly (or not at all), well, this is when you have to troubleshoot. Did your car blow a fuse? Could you have shorted out something in the stereo itself? If it comes down to it, you can take it to a professional to finish the installation, but don't be surprised if they charge extra to clean up the mess you made.

Up next, we'll look at some examples of electronics upgrades.

Easy Car Electronic Upgrades

Electronic upgrades come in varying degrees of difficulty. Some are "so simple that even a child could do it," while others require a degree in advanced automotive electronics. So what's an example of a relatively easy installation?

The simplest installations actually involve no real installation at all. Some small devices, like satellite radio receivers and some radar detectors, simply need to be placed on top of the dashboard or affixed to the inside of the windshield. Usually these devices will come with some means of attaching them to the dashboard or windshield surface -- a suction cup, for instance, or an adhesive strip. Some in-car DVD players clip on a headrest or even a sun visor. Audio devices will also need to be interfaced with your vehicle's audio system.

If you have an older car that's equipped with a cassette player, yet you want to listen to CD-or MP3-quality sound, you do have options. A simulated cassette with a cable on one end can extend from your old car radio the device. The cassette adapter will play the audio signal through your vehicle's audio system as though it were a tape. But what if you don't even have a cassette deck as an option? A small FM radio transmitter (available from many electronics retailers) can broadcast the signal from the portable device to your car's antenna. Another option is a small cable that can interface the portable device with the radio's AUX jack or you may be able to use a USB cable, if your stereo supports it. If all goes well, installing such devices can take only a few minutes and the only danger is that the adhesive strip might mar the dashboard surface.

But not every installation goes exactly as planned. In fact, if you ask just about anyone that regularly tackles an automotive electronics upgrade they'll let you know that it's wise to expect the unexpected. Read the next page for a small sample of things that can go wrong.

 

Difficult Car Electronics Installations

A difficult in-car electronics installation is any procedure where something can go (or has gone) seriously wrong. The radio installation described earlier in this article, for instance, offers all sorts of possibilities for catastrophe. What could go wrong, you ask? Well, here are just a few examples of how even a simple car electronics installation can be botched.

If you failed to detach the negative battery cable prior to tearing into the project, for instance, you could give yourself a nasty shock or in some instances you might even burn out the car's electrical system. More likely, you'll simply blow a fuse, so it's a good idea to have a few spare fuses on hand to replace the casualties. Look in your owner's manual for your car's fuse box location and then replace any fuse that you may have accidentally blown in the process.

What else could go awry? Even if you're experienced, accidents do happen. For example, a screwdriver could slip and cut into a wire, damage the dashboard or even cut into your hand or arm. Other problems could arise from hardware inconsistencies. In older cars, the radio bay might not be a standard size and might not even work with a dash kit. Or the wires inside the dashboard might not be properly color-coded for your new stereo, opening up any number of possible cross-wiring scenarios. Perhaps you'll end up with a system that works just fine -- that is, except for an annoying buzz in the audio. That may not sound like a big deal, but over time, it's sure to drive you crazy. You might also go a little nutty if you install a speaker too loose and it rattles as you drive. A simple fix, but annoying nevertheless.

By now you may be wondering if installing your own electronic equipment is a serious mistake. Is there any way to make the whole process easier? Well, as you'll find out on the next page, there just might be.

Things to Know About In-Car Electronics

So, now that you have a pile of car audio components, how do you make it all fit within the confines of your car's dashboard?
So, now that you have a pile of car audio components, how do you make it all fit within the confines of your car's dashboard?
Anatoly Vartanov/iStockphoto

­Is it getting simpler to install electronic components in your car? Is it at least any easier than it used to be? Not necessarily. The sheer proliferation of electronic devices for your car has complicated the most basic issues: Where are you going to find the space to install these things? Most cars come with a slot in the dashboard that can hold a stereo and a CD player, or alternatively a DVD player, a navigation system or maybe even an iPod dock. Sure, getting these devices mounted in the dash and interfaced with the car's electrical system and speakers is a complex task, but not really any more difficult than it ever was.

But what if you want all of these things at the same time? Again, we're back to the simple question, where are you going to put these things? If the DVD player or navigation system requires a video display, how does that fit in? If the problem you're facing is an embarrassment of electronic riches, Kenwood electronics has a possible solution: the Kenwood CarPortal. This device, which debuted in 2007, is a floating console that fits over your dashboard, and allows you to install several different types of electronic gadgets without having to open the dashboard at all. Devices that can be installed via the CarPortal include satellite radio receivers, digital (HD) radios and DVD players. And not only can these devices be present at the same time but they can be controlled through a common LCD touch-screen interface. The touch screen can even be used to control your iPod [source: Crutchfield].

Kenwood's CarPortal isn't quite as good as having all these devices preinstalled in a high-dollar luxury car, but it's a lot cheaper -- about $350, not counting the cost of the electronic gadgetry you plan to install.

Read the next page for a few examples of in-car entertainment electronics offered by the well-known names in the industry.

Car Electronic Brands to Consider

Everyone has their own idea about which electronics manufacturer provides the best quality, offers the biggest bang for the buck or simply has a name you can trust. Now, we can't tell you what brand of aftermarket electronics to purchase, but we can give you an idea of what's on the market from a few of the major automotive electronics manufacturers.

Sony offers a fairly complete line of in-car entertainment electronics. Sony in-dash car stereos, available at several different price points, will not only play MP3 music files off of CDs, but will take input directly from digital music players and from USB thumb drives, which can be plugged directly into the unit. The inexpensive MEX-BT2600 will even serve as a Bluetooth hands-free receiver when not playing pre-recorded audio [source: Sony Xplod]. Not surprisingly, given Sony's expertise with television development, they also offer relatively cheap all-in-one DVD video units. The DVP-FX820, priced at less than $200, includes an 8-inch (20.3-centimeter) LCD video display with 800 x 480 pixel resolution. It comes with a 6-hour battery that can be recharged in the car [source: Sony Style USA].

Kenwood has a complete assortment of gadgets for your car, too, including in-dash CD and DVD players, GPS navigation systems, speakers, amplifiers and CD changers. Remember the useful Kenwood CarPortal on the previous page? The DNX8120 includes a navigation system, DVD player with video display and an integrated Bluetooth interface for your cell phone. It will also work with an iPod [source: Kenwood]. The CCD-2000 is a backup camera so that you can see behind your car when maneuvering in reverse [source: Kenwood].

Alpine makes a line of car stereos, but their IVA-W205 DVD player provides a 6.5-inch (16.5-centimeter) LCD screen that will work in double-sized dashboard slots. It will also play CDs, DVD audio and digital music files in MP3 and WMA formats [source: Alpine Electronics of America, Inc.].

If you'd like to read more about automotive electronics and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

 Sources

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