Unless this is the first time you’re on this website, you’ll know that I don’t like factory car audio systems.
It’s because no matter expensive your vehicle is, it will have average-quality car audio components. Those components will not only give produce a mediocre sound but have a shorter lifespan too.
This results in even worse sound in the long run.
Replace these factory components with their aftermarket counterparts.
But upgrading the car audio can be expensive as most of us only have a limited budget.
Therefore, you’ll have to make a proper plan regarding which components you want to upgrade first and which ones later.
How Much Does it Cost to Install a Car Stereo System?
In this post, we’ll talk about car stereo installation costs for three types of budgets: Entry-level, Mid-Level, and High-Level.
Before starting the post, you need to remember that the budget criteria I’ve made for this post do not include the labor cost. But it’s something that you should consider if you’re hiring a mechanic to do all the installation.
Any certified professional charges almost $100 per hour these days. And while the car speakers can be replaced within one hour, installation of other complex components, such as a head unit, can easily take 2-3 hours.
As you’ve realized, this can increase the overall costs dramatically. Therefore, do proper calculations before making any decision.
Entry-Level Car Stereo Installation
If you have a full factory car audio system, you should upgrade the subwoofer and amplifier before anything else.
Many vehicles don’t usually come with a subwoofer out of the box, but it’s something you should have. Adding a subwoofer adds depth and clarity to the sound and gives your speakers some breathing space to work with other sound frequencies.
But even if your car comes with a factory subwoofer, it’s nowhere close to any decent aftermarket sub due to a couple of reasons.
The first one is the build quality. Like speakers, OEM subs degrade quickly over time, and their bass distorts over high volume.
Secondly, the OEM subs are placed in tight locations and don’t get much air to displace for bass production.
One common mistake people make in this phase is that they pair their aftermarket subwoofer with the factory amplifier.
This doesn’t improve anything since the factory amp simply cannot supply the new sub with enough power to produce the required bass. Therefore, you should treat the subwoofer and amp as a combo, and upgrade them both when possible.
As we’re planning to have the amplifier solely for the subwoofer, we don’t need to have any 4 or 5-channel amp. Any decent monoblock amplifier costing $250-$300 would be enough.
Now since we’re not upgrading our head unit in this phase, we’ll need to convert the speaker-level signal from the head unit to the line-level signal of the aftermarket amp. For this, you’ll need a line output converter, aka LOC.
A high-end LOC would cost you $100-$130.
Mid-Level Car Stereo Installation
In case you have some more cash to spare, I would recommend upgrading your factory head unit.- especially if you have an older vehicle.
The main reason you should replace the factory head unit is the below-par Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC). The DAC is what determines the overall quality of the sound signal. No matter how premium speakers/subs you have installed, their impact will be limited if the signal quality is poor.
On the other hand, an aftermarket head unit gives you better equalizing options and allows you to play music from different input sources. Some high-end models also allow you to play lossless music formats and utilize the Apple Carplay/Android Auto features of your smartphone.
That being said, replacing a head unit in a newer vehicle is not as easy as in older ones. Modern cars have their head unit connected to other systems of your vehicle which makes the replacement too complex.
So, have some professional help in this regard and upgrade the head unit only if it’s safe to do so. If the replacement is not possible, I would suggest you a pre-amp output. It will give you a flat, clean audio signal out of the factory head unit that you can send to the aftermarket amplifier.
High-End Car Stereo Installation
In this step, we’ll replace our factory speakers.
Aftermarket speakers come with better build quality (no paper/foam surrounds, for example) and circuit design that allows them to produce high-quality consistent sound without any deterioration.
Factory car audio systems have an amplifier built into the head unit to power the speakers. This amp is quite weak in terms of power delivery. Therefore, you need a dedicated amplifier for new aftermarket speakers to work up to their full potential.
Since most vehicles with two speakers at the front and rear, a 4-channel amplifier would be a perfect match here.
The last thing you should have in your car audio system is a Digital Signal Processor aka. DSP.
It is a device that sits between your factory/aftermarket head unit and the amplifier. Using a DSP, you can make fine adjustments to audio signals before sending them to the amp. The main features you can find in a DSP are time alignment, crossover, and equalization.