CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Suggestions for aftermarket radio

I’m guessing that among this crowd, many have vehicles old enough that they have needed to replace the head unit. I am also guessing that most of us are looking for good AM/FM reception and a clear display that is readable day or night. Most head units these days use tiny thin font to cram the display with information about the status of features that I don’t care about. They also cover the faceplate with buttons too small for me to press, marked with microscopic words and symbols.

My internet searches indicate that Pioneer used to have the best radio reception, but that was 15 years ago when people cared about radio reception…

My '97 BMW has an in-glass antenna with an antenna amplifier, so a radio that plays nice with an amplifier and has a switched power output for the ‘electric antenna’ (for the amplifier) would be handy.

CD would be nice but not critical. Bluetooth not needed as it just runs down phone batteries and most aftermarket car radio bluetooth phone connections are terrible.

USB and Aux inputs are requirements but every head unit has those these days. It is old style single DIN height, of course.

Getting to picky details, on this car, output goes to a Harmon-Kardon Amp that splits out frequencies among 12 speakers. The amp expects speaker level inputs, but I dare not feed it too many watts for fear of blowing it up. I have not been able to determine the wattage of the original head unit or the impedance the amp shows the head unit. I know that when the original amp failed, I bypassed it and was able to temporarily use four speakers driven directly by the original head unit with no problem. I think that the European style amp expects the sound to arrive on two hot wires of reversed polarity rather than one hot wire and one chassis ground wire. I don’t think that matters going this direction but I would not have been able to send the output of the original head unit to an aftermarket amp because it would have assumed that half the sound wires were common with each other and ground.

P.S. I asked this question of the Crutchfield customer support email and they did not respond.

Suggestions that meet any of these criteria are appreciated.

This sounds like a good reason to use an actual auto sound and stereo shop to have what you want.

While it is true that an experienced auto sound shop would have a far better understanding than I have of what is needed, for over-the counter purchases, their survival demands that they stick to high end equipment with significant markup (remember this is a 20-year-old car). My observation of the results of auto sound shop installation work are that they want to solve every problem by ripping out everything and replacing it. After a few years, there are rattles and shorted wires from the hack job quick-and-dirty installation practices.

Pioneer still has good reception. The power antenna in my MR2 stopped working, and stays permanently in the down position, yet I still get excellent reception on the Pioneer I put in it last summer.

The main problem with Pioneers is that their displays are sometimes not bright enough to see in bright sunlight, but that’s exacerbated by the glass roof in my car - it’d probably be fine in yours. I’ve been very pleased with the head unit. It even has bluetooth audio and a speakerphone built in, so now my creaky old 1993 Toyota has modern luxury convenience. :wink:

I would recommend that you buy whatever you choose through Crutchfield. They’ll have you put in your vehicle make/model/year, and then send you excellent custom instructions for installing it in your car. They’ll also set you up with any faceplate baffles you might need to make it look right, and they’ll have a wiring harness adapter so you can go straight from the vehicle harness to the plug in the radio without a bunch of messy wiring.

If the HK amp is aftermarket, all bets are off, however, unless it uses the stock amp wiring. Else, you’ll have to figure it out on your own, which shouldn’t be too difficult if you’ve done anything like this before.

That has not been my experience at all.

+1 on Crutchfield. When you buy a system from them it includes the mounting hardware and plug-and-play wiring, so no guesswork on what wire does what.

I have to disagree with the OP on Bluetooth. I find it extremely useful. the main thing I use it for is hands free talk. Very useful. Yes it does drain the battery on phone…that’s why I have a charger in my SUV.

2 Likes

I wonder if the lack of response from Crutchfield was because the E36 or E46 BMW I think the OP has is a not sold in US version. Those do not show on the Crutchfield list.

With at least one USB input, you should have phone charging available unless the mobile phone is old enough that it doesn’t have a USB port on the charging cable.

Whatever you choose, I strongly recommend that you use an adapter cable to install it. The adapter cable will have a connector that’ll plug directly into your OEM wiring harness, preventing butchering the wires. You can connect it to the new head unit right on the kitchen table and then just plug it into the car. Butchering harnesses causes more nightmares than imaginable, making the adapter cable a true blessing.

If it is the car’s original radio has stopped working, it’s quite possible you can find a used version of that exact radio at an auto recycler or pick-a-part place. You’d know that will fit and save some money in the process.That’s where I’d start. Certainly no harm asking, the worse they can say is they don’t have one.

E36 and e46 are the chassis identifiers. They are 3 series, sold here.

E36 and E46 are what the OP listed in one of their earlier threads. I thought they signified European versions.

I kinda agree with George SJ’s advice, because every aftermarket radio I’ve looked at is an ergonomic and aesthetic nightmare. Unless you really need features not in your OEM radio, I’d recommend sticking with one, or another radio that was OEM to your brand of car.

I’ve never had very good luck with aftermarket car radios either.

I’ve never had a problem with aftermarket units, but I’ve always used adapter cables.
I never did like the controls in modern systems, however. They’re all menu-driven with only buttons, many of them tiny. I find knobs far easier to use and they don’t require taking my eyes off the road. I do acknowledge that new vehicles have the radio controls on the steering wheel… and I have to wonder how much that complicates replacing an OEM head with an aftermarket unit… ???

I would like to hear from anyone that can recommend a head unit with reasonable (legible) displays and controls. It seems like most look like “Tokyo by night”, crazy colors, tiny buttons, etc. Maybe have to go with an LCD?

I concur with others on Crutchfield. The website is helpful. It might be a tad more $ but worth it to buy all accessories, wiring harnesses etc at once.

I know you e-mailed them, but when I was shopping for a system for my car that was a bit complicated I just called them. They are generally very helpful.

The “generally” is because once when I was installing the system I called them because of an inconsistency between two manuals on where a certain wire should go. When I was pointing this out to the rep, he said “Sir it is a free country, you can do as you wish”. It was a bit smart of him, but I figured it out on my own (and I was correct and he was not).

These days, pretty much.

And even those are problematic because with non-physical buttons when the car is vibrating from driving, it can be easy to miss the target.

If your car can fit a double-DIN receiver, go that route. The buttons get bigger when there’s more real-estate, and some including the Pioneers still have at least one knob.

The double DIN options on Crutchfield that would fit my Forester do have reasonably sized buttons and depending on the brand appear to have a easy to understand layout and display. I kept the search to brands that i’d actually heard of including Clarion which we managed about 20yrs with one before it started going out.

Thanks folks, for all the suggestions. Based on these inputs, I am settled on a Pioneer DEH-X1900UB. Seems to meet everything on my wish list and is only $65 on Crutchfield. That is less than half what I paid for the JVC that is in there now that I have always disliked.

Because I suspect that this new unit might be similar to what a lot of us might be considering, I will report back with a “review from the old guy’s perspective” after I have used it for a while…

1 Like