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How to Install a Car Radio

An aftermarket car stereo installed in a car.

The stereo your vehicle came with might not have all the bells and whistles you want in an audio system. Luckily, there are a ton of aftermarket options and an entire niche industry dedicated to getting you what you want. The hard part — though it’s usually not that hard — is knowing how to install a car radio.

Depending on the vehicle and stereo model, the project can range from a simple swap to a more involved process, but the basic steps are generally the same. Before you take this on, always verify that the new stereo is compatible with your vehicle, and read and follow all manufacturer-provided instructions.

Out with the Old

The first step is to disconnect the negative cable from the battery to protect yourself and your equipment from shorts and sparks. Next, head to the dash area. Be sure to take pictures at all stages before and during disassembling so you can remember how the pieces go back together.

Remove the trim using plastic tools designed for the job, and watch out for hidden screws. Note that some trims simply pop out, and some have fasteners. You may find that other components are in the way and must be moved or disconnected. Once those are removed, you can begin taking out the stereo itself, which is usually held in a metal mounting frame by screws. Some models may require a special key for removal.

Once the stereo is detached, disconnect the antenna cable (the stiffer one) and any wiring harnesses. These usually have a small tab you have to push in, which will allow you to pull the whole connector out. Remember never to pull the harnesses apart by the wires. The key here is to be gentle and take it slow. You don’t want to break any plastic tabs that may leave your trim loose or rattling.

A Quick Change

It’s rare that a different stereo fits directly into the old setup, plugs and all. You’ll likely need new housing, a bracket, and a wiring harness adapter, which are often sold together as a kit with new stereos. Read the instructions carefully to determine what you’re in for with the harness. You can plug and play certain models, but others require soldering and shrink-wrapping the wires. Similarly, some new stereos come with housing and brackets already installed, while others will require you to install these components.

Some online radio retailers will assemble the wiring and harnesses for you if you provide them with your make and model. If you’re doing it yourself, it’s important to make sure you’re connecting the wires according to the schematics. Often this is as simple as matching like colors together, but don’t make assumptions. Depending on the swap, you may also end up with a couple of extra wires in the end, which you can tidy up with zip ties.

In With the New How to Install a Car Radio

Connect all wiring harnesses and the antenna, and if separate power and ground wires exist, connect those as well. Before you reassemble it all, you need to make sure everything is working. Reconnect the battery, turn on the new unit, and check for power and functionality. If all is well, disconnect the battery and reassemble your dash in reverse order of how you took it apart.

Be sure to replace all housing and bracket fasteners, put any surrounding components back in place, and carefully snap the trim back in. With everything installed, turn the vehicle back on for one final function test — and hopefully a victorious jam session.

Again, always ensure compatibility between your vehicle and the new stereo before purchasing. Beyond that, the installation job is usually doable if you take the time to follow the instructions. Remember that seeking professional help is always an option as well.

Check out all the car audio products available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how to install a car radio, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photos courtesy of Blair Lampe.


Blair Lampe View All

Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter.  In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.

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