If you’re thinking of upgrading your car’s sound system, your first step is more likely to replace the factory head unit with an aftermarket product. As long as you already have speakers running, this movement can instantly improve the sound. There are several names for this system component, and one is head unit, which applies to any interface mounted on the dashboard that controls the car’s audio.
Variety of head units
Tuner – A unit that lacks built-in power amplification. The tuners require an additional amplifier to power the speakers.
Receiver – One containing an onboard amplifier. A receiver can be used to power an existing set of speakers without any other equipment.
Controller – An interface that has no radio function, although it may include any combination of CDs, DVDs, cassettes, auxiliary inputs, and/or USB.
Mechless – A handset or tuner without CD, DVD, or cassette capabilities. “Mechless” refers to the absence of mechanical (moving) components, as these devices have a solid state construction instead. These parts of the gear may have auxiliary compatibility, USB and Bluetooth® as well.
Some of these categories overlap. For example, controllers and mechless-free heads can exist with or without built-in amplifiers. You’ll need to read the specifications of any equipment you’re interested in to make sure it meets your needs.
What do you need?
Now that you know the basic styles, you need to consider the factors that can influence your decision on which car audio equipment to install. If you just want to replace what’s on the board first, you’ll need something with your own power to get the sound out of your factory speakers. However, if you’re going to upgrade your speakers and add sub-woofers and tweeters for a complete overhaul of your car’s sound system, you’ll probably need an external amp liking to provide enough juice. In this case, you can buy a receiver with pre-amp outputs. These outputs will prevent on-board power, causing less distortion so you can bypass louder music without sacrificing sound quality. If the sound quality is your focus and the volume is not important, you can save money by getting out of the amp and subs, using a drive with enough power and buying better port speakers.
Now think about getting in the car and being in the mood to fly your favorite songs. What would you do? Do you have a large collection of documents that you would like to enter and listen to all the way? If so, you definitely need a model with a disk player. Maybe you’ve abandoned your hard copies and your music is stored digitally on your smartphone or dedicated audio player. In this case, you can choose to go completely mechless-free and play your library over a USB connection for the best audio. If streaming services on your phone are your preferred method for retrieving music, a dedicated Bluetooth interface is useful or you must have at least one auxiliary connector.
With what you now know about the brain of your auto audio system, you can prioritize the features that are most important to you and look for a product that offers them all within your budget.