Are you a bit intimidated by the idea of installing your first car stereo? No worries, we’ve all been there. In this post, I’ll walk you through step by step how to install a car stereo. If you stick with me through this post, you’ll have a good understanding of how to remove the factory radio, how to prep the radio wiring and dash kit, and how to install and test your new radio.
Materials You’ll Need
Before you start taking anything apart, let’s make sure you have all the parts you need to get the job done. Below is a list of the most common parts that are required to do a stereo install.
- Dash Kit – A vehicle specific dash kit is what allows an aftermarket stereo to be installed even when the factory radio is a different size and shape than the new one. There are rare occasions where a dash kit is not required, but the vast majority of vehicles will need one.
- Wiring Harness – Every vehicle has a different style plug that connects the factory radio to the vehicle’s electrical system. A wiring harness will allow you to create an adapter to go between the factory plug and the aftermarket radio.
- Antenna Adapter – Just like the wiring harness, not all vehicles have an antenna plug that can be plugged directly into your new stereo. In these cases, an antenna adapter is required to adapt the vehicle’s plug to the style that is compatible with your radio.
- Steering Wheel Control Interface – Some vehicles come with buttons on the steering wheel that can control the factory stereo. You can retain these controls with your aftermarket stereo by using a compatible steering wheel control interface module. The Metra Axxess ASWC-1 is a universal steering wheel control interface that I’ve had a lot of success with.
While you don’t need to have a master mechanic’s tool box to install a car stereo, there are a few basic tools that you will need. The list below gives the most common tools required to get the job done. Some other tools may be required, depending on the vehicle.
You can find some other handy tools in my list of Top 10 Must-Have Car Electronics Install Tools.
Removing the Old Radio
Before you get your new radio ready to install, let’s start with removing the old radio. This will give you the opportunity to verify that the install parts you got will fit your vehicle.
The procedure for removing the old radio will vary from vehicle to vehicle. You may even already have an aftermarket stereo installed which could potentially eliminate the need to disassemble the dash. In general there are two main ways that your radio will be mounted in the dash:
- With spring clips, or
- Bolted into the dash with brackets
Spring Clip Removal
The most common way an aftermarket stereo mounts in the dash is in the metal sleeve secured with spring clips. Removing the radio from the metal sleeve typically involves removing the its faceplate and trim ring. You, then slide the manufacturer specific radio keys on either side of the radio to release the spring clips. From there you can simply slide the radio out the front of the dash.
Some factory radios can be held in with spring clips too. You’ll commonly find this on Fords and many European vehicles. On these factory radios, there will be a place to insert the radio removal keys either directly on the face of the radio or behind removable cover plates on the face of the radio. Once the spring clips are released, the radio will slide out the front of the dash.
Bolted Radio Removal
The factory radio on most American and Japanese made vehicles is secured in the dash with bolts behind trim panels. In order to access these bolts and remove the radio, the trim panels will need to be removed.
Before you start removing any interior trim panels, it’s always a good idea to disconnect the negative battery terminal first. This will eliminate the possibility of shorting out any circuits or tripping the airbag warning light if you need to disconnect any airbag related plugs.
Removing dash trim panels is usually a matter of locating hidden fasteners, carefully prying to release pressure clips, or both. Since every vehicle is different, you’ll need to do some investigating to figure out how your dash comes apart.
If you get stuck or would just like a step by step procedure for disassembling your dash, don’t panic. The dash kit you got for your vehicle will often come with some basic steps for removing the factory radio. Crutchfield also has some great resources available. Check out this post to find links to their resources as well as additional reading on this topic.
Once the radio is unbolted, you can disconnect all the factory plugs and remove it from the vehicle. This is a good time to check that the wiring harness and antenna adapter you have match up with what’s in the vehicle.
Preparing New Radio for Install
Now that the old radio is out, it’s time to prepare the new one for installation. The nice thing about this step in the process is that much of the work can be done outside of the car on the workbench.
Wiring up the Harness
You may have noticed that the wire colors on the factory harness don’t match up with the wire colors on your new stereo’s harness. No problem, that’s why you got the wire harness adapter! The colors on the adapter harness should match the harness from the stereo.
If there was an aftermarket radio installed in the vehicle already, you may find that the factory harness is cut. For some help on how to deal with this, check out my post on How to Rewire a Car Stereo From Scratch.
The aftermarket radio and the wire harness adapter should both come with diagrams that tell you what each wire color does. Refer to these diagrams when you’re making your connections. You should find that all you have to do is match the wires up by color. The table below gives the aftermarket wire colors and their functions.
|Yellow||Constant power. Retains memory for clock, radio presets, etc.|
|Red||Accessory power. Turns radio on when ignition is in accessory and run position.|
|Orange||Illumination/Dimmer wire. Changes radio display to night mode when headlight switch is turned on.|
|Blue||Power antenna wire.|
|Blue/White||Remote amplifier turn on.|
|White||Front left positive speaker wire.|
|White/Black||Front left negative speaker wire.|
|Grey||Front right positive speaker wire.|
|Grey/Black||Front right negative speaker wire.|
|Green||Rear left positive speaker wire.|
|Green/Black||Rear left negative speaker wire.|
|Purple||Rear right positive speaker wire.|
|Purple/Black||Rear right negative speaker wire.|
There are a couple of acceptable methods you can use to secure the sure connections:
- Soldering – Soldering is the most reliable and secure method of connecting the wires together. Use heat shrink to insulate the solder joint after it has been made.
- Crimping – If you don’t own a soldering iron or you don’t know how to solder, crimping can be an acceptable alternative. Use either crimp caps or butt connectors to crimp the wires together. Using Klein style crimpers to make the crimp will ensure that you get a solid connection.
Do not use twist-on wire nuts. These are not intended to be used on vehicle wiring and can easily work themselves loose over time from the vibrations of your vehicle.
Steering Wheel Controls
If you plan on installing an interface module for your steering wheel controls, it’s a good idea to get the wiring prepped at the same time you do the stereo harness. The module will need to be connected to accessory power and ground. You can make these connections along with the stereo accessory power and ground connections.
Now that the wiring is prepped, let’s turn our attention to the dash kit. Many dash kits are designed to work on a range of models and years. It may require you to remove portions of the kit that don’t pertain to your vehicle. Others may just require some assembly. Whatever the case, take a look at the instructions that came with the dash kit to determine what steps need to be taken to prepare it for your vehicle.
I often like to get the radio mounted in the kit along with the wiring prep at the workbench. This way, when I get back into the vehicle, it’s ready to plug in and mount up. So let’s take a closer look at a couple ways the stereo might mount in the kit.
Metal Sleeve Mounts to the Dash Kit
The metal sleeve, or cage, has spring clips that locks the radio into position when it slides in from the front. Somewhere in the packaging you will find two metal keys that unlock the radio from the cage. You’ll need to remove the cage from the radio in order to mount it in the dash kit. Remove the faceplate and trim ring from the front of the radio. Then insert the keys on either side of the radio between the radio chassis and the cage. When the keys are in the right position, you can slide the sleeve off the back of the radio.
You’ll notice that the sleeve has several triangular metal tabs all around it. These are used to lock the cage securely into the dash kit. Slide the cage into the front of the dash kit where the radio will go. Once it’s in as far as it will go, use a small flathead screwdriver to bend the metal tabs around the back of the dash kit.
After the cage is mounted in the kit, slide the radio into the cage until it locks into place. Then just put the faceplate and trim ring on and you’re good to go!
Dash Kit Has Brackets That Mount to Radio
Some dash kits will have plastic brackets that clip onto the kit and bolt to the side of the radio. For these, you won’t need to use the metal sleeve. It can be removed and saved in the box.
If you look at the sides of the radio chassis, you’ll notice that there are several screw holes marked with T’s and N’s (we’ll get to what those mean a little later). The plastic brackets on the dash kit will have holes in them that will line up with some of the holes on the sides of the radio.
To mount the radio, hold it in the dash kit where you’d like it to sit. Then use the screws that came with the radio to mount it in place on the brackets.
Often times with these types of dash kits, you will not use the trim ring that comes on the aftermarket stereo. If you are having problems getting the radio to fit, try removing the trim ring.
Using Factory Brackets to Mount the New Radio
There are some vehicles that don’t require a dash kit at all. Others require you to use a dash kit in conjunction with the factory radio brackets. For these vehicles, you will need to remove the brackets from the sides of the factory radio and mount them to the sides of the aftermarket radio. The most common vehicles that require this type of installation are Toyotas and Nissans. Remember the T’s and N’s I mentioned earlier on the side of the aftermarket radio?
The screw holes on the sides of the aftermarket radio might look like they are placed randomly. But they are actually designed to match up with a variety of factory radio brackets. The T’s and N’s that the holes are marked with will give you an idea of which holes will line up with Toyota or Nissan radio brackets.
Find the holes that line up with the holes on your brackets and mount them to the radio with the screws that came in the packaging.
On these types of installs, the factory dash trim will typically fit just around the faceplate of the radio so the trim ring is not required. If you are having trouble getting the dash back on with the radio mounted in there, try removing the trim ring.
Installing the New Radio
Now that the new radio and wiring is all prepped, it’s time to get it installed in the car. Depending on the radio you’re installing, there may be some additional steps you need to take before you’re ready to plug the radio in and test it out.
If you are installing a steering wheel control module, there will be some connections to be made in the car. The wire(s) you will need to interface with are typically found in the vehicle’s factory radio harness. Make these connections and program the interface module per the instructions.
Now would also be a good time to mount any Bluetooth microphones, USB cables, or connect any additional radio wiring that need to be done in the car. If you’re installing an in-dash video unit, you’ll need to make a connection to the vehicle’s parking brake wire.
Once all the additional connections are made and accessories are mounted, you can plug the radio harness in and connect the antenna cable.
Test Your Installation
Before you put the dash back together, it’s a good idea to test all the functionality of the radio first. The last thing you want to do is get it all put back together, test it out, and find out something doesn’t work. It’s much easier to troubleshoot an issue while everything is still easily accessible.
Make sure the radio turns on and off with the key. Then test all the sources and adjust the fade and balance to make sure all the speaker connections are correct. If you installed a steering wheel control module, test to make sure that all the steering wheel controls are working properly.
You’ll need to reconnect the negative battery terminal to test the radio but before you do that, make sure any airbag related plugs are plugged back in so you don’t trip the airbag light.
Assuming everything checks out with the test, it’s time to get the dash put back together and enjoy your new stereo!
To get the dash back together, just follow the same steps you used to take it apart in reverse order. Once everything is back together, run through a quick check of all your vehicle’s electronics to make sure everything got plugged back in and is working properly.
Now that you’ve got a good idea of how to install a car stereo, it’s time to get out there and tackle your own install job. If you get stuck, leave me a comment below and I’d be happy to help you out!
More Helpful Articles
- Replace Your Car Stereo in 7 Steps (Popular Mechanics) – This article has some great pictures of a factory radio being removed with removal keys.
- How Difficult Is It to Replace a Car Stereo (Lifewire) – This article has some good insight on the difficulty of installing a car stereo.