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Everything You Need to Upgrade Your Car's Stereo Head Unit

Graphic: Eric Ravenscraft

Most modern cars come with some form of smart head unit—the box that contains your stereo and its controls—that supports Android Auto, Apple CarPlay or both. But if you don’t want to buy a new car to bring your vehicle into the modern age, you can upgrade the head unit in your existing car.

It’s important to know going into a project like this that all cars are different. The parts you need may be slightly different, or you might encounter a complication that’s unique to your vehicle. Where appropriate, we’ll go over this list using a 2010 Toyota Matrix as an example (as this is the vehicle I personally upgraded recently), but the concepts should apply to most vehicles.

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This also isn’t a strict how-to. Fortunately, you can find tons of videos and guides online for nearly every vehicle under the sun, so if you get stuck, be sure to look up your specific car. With all that in mind, let’s get started.

The Replacement Head Unit

Graphic: Eric Ravenscraft

This is the fun part. New head units for your car can be expensive, especially if you’re upgrading to one of the fancy smart touch screen kind, but you’ll probably like driving your car a lot better once you get one. There are a lot of criteria that goes into picking a good head unit, but there are two big questions you should answer before you buy:

  • Single or Double DIN? “DIN” here refers to a standard created for car head units. While there are a few differences between single or double, the most obvious is the size. Put simply, a double DIN is the size of two single DINs stacked together. Simple, right? You can tell which one you have by looking at the size of your car’s current stereo, but pay attention to how much extra space there is around it. If you have an older car, you might only have space for a single DIN head unit, but some cars have extra space that you can fill with a double DIN if you upgrade. Notably, most touch screen head units will be double DIN, so be sure to check your car before you buy.
  • CarPlay, Android Auto, or both? Most smart head units have their own software for things like playing music or navigation, but if you want to connect it to your smartphone, you’ll need to make sure your head unit is compatible. Some units support Apple’s CarPlay, others support Android Auto, but many like this Sony unit support both in a single box.
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There are a lot more little details to consider—Do you like dials or buttons? Are you also installing a dash cam? Are you going to install one of those crazy subwoofers that rattle your car and everything within a five mile radius?—but these are the two big ones you’ll probably have to deal with. Once that’s done, it’s time to move onto some car-specific parts.

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Mounting Kits

Graphic: Eric Ravenscraft
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Depending on how your current car’s head unit is mounted, you may need to buy a separate mounting kit to hold your new stereo. For example, on my 2010 Toyota Matrix, the factory unit was slightly wider than the standard double DIN, and had oddly shaped sidebars that, without a kit, would’ve left a huge gap in my dashboard.

Fortunately, you can buy mounting kits like this one. These will fill in any gaps, give you new brackets if necessary to make sure your new head unit is mounted properly, and generally make everything look nice and clean. If, for some reason, you’re going from a double DIN down to a single, it can also fill in the gap and give you a new little shelf to put things.

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Wiring Harness

Graphic: Eric Ravenscraft
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Your head unit will likely come with a plug with a bunch of loose wires coming out of the back of it. This will need to be connected to your car’s wiring. The simplest way to do this is to use a wiring harness like this one. You’ll have to wire the plug that came with your head unit to the wiring harness for your car so you can easily connect it to the existing plug in your car. This is going to be a complicated step! If you’re not comfortable working with wires, you might want to pay someone to install your head unit, but it’s not too scary if you’re familiar with basic soldering, or are comfortable learning some simple electronics work. For now, though, find the correct wiring harness for your vehicle and check out the soldering section below for more info on how to use it.

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Clip Pliers

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Most of the plastic components that make up your dashboard are connected using small clips that can be easily pulled apart so you can access all the parts underneath. The best way to pull these off is to use clip pliers to reach behind the panels and pop open the clips holding it in place. Be careful while doing this step, as these clips can break. If that happens, your dashboard panels might not go back in place properly. You’ll also likely find yourself pulling off more parts of your can than you think—many head units require a cable that runs all the way down to your parking brake—so the easier you can make this step on yourself, the better.

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Socket Wrench and Screwdrivers

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In the course of taking apart your car’s stereo, you’ll need to remove some screws and bolts of varying sizes. If you don’t already have one, be sure to get a tool kit that includes a screwdriver and a socket wrench set. Depending on your car, you may need a socket wrench extender and even a telescoping magnet tool. You don’t want to lose one of those screws behind your dashboard. Believe me.

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Soldering Equipment or Wire Connectors

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For this part, I strongly recommend watching a guide on how to connect a wiring harness. The best way to connect your wiring harness to the wires from your new unit is to solder the individual wires together. To do that you’ll need at least a basic soldering kit. For the most part, these wires are going to be color coded, so it should be fairly simple, but you should always look up a wiring diagram for both your new head unit and your car to make sure you’re connecting everything correctly. If you do this step wrong, you could potentially damage something.

If you’re not comfortable with soldering, you can potentially use butt connectors. These aren’t quite as reliable as soldering wires, but they’re simpler and don’t require specialty tools like a soldering iron. If you don’t connect them properly, you may run the risk of a wire disconnecting after your unit is installed, so be careful and watch some guides before you install.

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Electrical Tape

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When it comes time to pack the mess of wires back up and put it all back together, having some electrical tape on hand can help. Wrap the bundles of wires up together into one big cable using the tape and you’ll have a lot fewer snags when you slide it into your dashboard.

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About the author

Eric Ravenscraft

Freelance writer for The Inventory.