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While we’re sure there are pros out there who could tell you far more than we can about car stereo installation, we’ve installed more than a few over the years.  And we’ve learned a few things about the process.  Read on past the jump to learn how to save a ton of cash by skipping high-dollar shop installations — and avoiding costly noob mistakes.

Our top five tips for basic installation:

#1: Be very, very patient while removing interior panels.

The single biggest (and most expensive) beginner mistake in stereo installation is breaking interior panels.  Don’t laugh — it’s easy to do.  Interior panels in most cars are held on by either plastic buttons or screws, and it’s very important that you figure out which is which before you start yanking and pulling.  On the other hand, once you discover that a panel is held on only by buttons, you’ll need to pull hard.  A word to the wise: get a panel puller tool and use it slowly and carefully, popping one button at a time.  When the panel comes free, look for any connected wiring before pulling it off; there’s nothing worse than having to re-wire a power plug because you yanked the wires out.

#2: Get the right parts for the install.

If you’re installing an aftermarket head unit, chances are quite good that someone already makes a great installation kit for your particular application.  If you can find it and order it, it’ll save you a ton of time.  While you’re at it, order a wiring harness kit as well.  Be aware that wiring harness kits usually come in two parts: one part that plugs into your car’s stereo multi-plug and terminates in bare wires, and another that plugs into the back of your new head unit and also terminates in bare wires.  Once you connect these two harnesses together, you’ll have a plug-in solution for your application that won’t destroy your stock wiring.

#3: Read the manual that comes with your new stereo, even if it’s in mechanically-translated Japanese.

You’d be amazed how many times some little secret to the proper functioning of a stereo is buried deep in the “installation” section of the manual.  If nothing else, skim the manual for irregularities.

#4: Make good connections.

Even if you get it all hooked up properly, you’ll rue it later when a connection goes bad, leaving you tuneless on your morning commute.  Take a few extra moments to make those inter-harness connections perfect, and you might even consider soldering your harnesses together and using heat-shrink to cover the joints once you’re sure you’ve got everything right.  Also, make sure that all your ground connections make good solid contact with an unpainted section of the car’s body.  This only takes a few minutes during installation, but if you have to pull everything back apart, it’s a pain.

#5: Run wires safely and wisely.

If you’re stringing a long wire through the passenger compartment — like a GPS or XM/Sirius antenna — make sure that the wire can’t get caught up in moving parts like power seats, emergency brakes, or door mechanisms. 

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11 Responses to Tip: Our Top 5 DIY Car Stereo Installation Tips

  1. Randy says:

    On the reasembly, make sure that wires are not caught in places where they will be pinched or rubbed. Use zip ties for a clean wire bundle, especially if you have to make a long run (like outputs and power wires from the stereo unit to the amp in the trunk).

  2. Kurt Schwind says:

    A word to the wise: When running wires in the passenger area, but sure to check out your run with the seats all the way forward AND all the way back. Also fold down the seats that are able. You’ll be unhappy when you realize that the latch used to fold down a seat moves a bar across the top of a wire under the carpet.

  3. Vincent says:

    always, ALWAYS, solder your harness, crimp connectors really become the weakest link in a install between the factory harness and the after market adapter. I don’t know how many friends cars I have had to *fix* this one small issue one. Invest in the 5$ it costs for heat shrink tubing as well, its well worth the insurance of knowing your install will be short free.

  4. Pat says:

    Don’t assume that the wiring harness kits *are* actually right for your car, rather than just claim to be, and check that all of the functions work (power on & off) BEFORE you put the damned thing back together.

    Yes, bloody obvious, and of course *I* would never fall into that sort of a beginners mistake

    …grumble…

  5. Fletcher says:

    Dismayed that you need a special tool to remove that stock Ford head unit? If it’s the variety that has two square holes on either side of the unit, simply bend two lengths of coat hanger wire into ‘U’ shapes, insert one in to each side, and pull out the unit.

  6. dbett says:

    If you have to tap into a DC power line, use a DC Noise filter to prevent some of the ‘buzz’ you might otherwise get.

  7. fjr says:

    I suggest using “linerless splicing tape” such as

    http://products3.3m.com/catalog/us/en001/electronics_mfg/esm/node_PDVQFRP70Zbe/root_GST1T4S9TCgv/vroot_DPB1Q1MJ7Nge/gvel_4BSQ4C5VF8gl/theme_us_electronicsesm_3_0/command_AbcPageHandler/output_html
    and here …
    http://makezine.com/pub/tool/Self_Fusing_Rubber_Splicing_Tape

    (its available at home depot)
    Its a soft rubbery tape that fuses with itself.

    Me and my brother used it on our first radio install, did a great job. When we came back and took that radio out 3yrs later, the tape was still intact, it wasnt even sticky. I was able to remove the tape and actually Re-Use it !!!

    Believe me you wont regret getting a roll of this stuff, and due to being able to stretch it over the connections a roll can last a LONG time. Even though it may seem expensive when you buy it.

  8. Ahh, the Ford removal tool. After seeing it in the store, we chopped some coathangers. Now, why they couldn’t simply use screws like everyone else is beyond me

    There are plenty of car audio sites on the net, and some are very helpful. (I like The12volt.com) Also see if there’s a site dedicated to owners of your particular car. They’ll have model-specific advice for every situation, and you’ll frequently find service manuals and schematics posted for your perusal.

  9. TL says:

    The special tool referred to by Fletcher above comes with most new new car stereo head units (it’s the U shaped dodads).

    If you are unsure how to tear apart your dash / doors / side panels /etc. it is very much worth it to order the Crutchfield custom installation manual for your car. They sell them for $5 and have rather good drawings of where all the screws and clips are that you need to remove. Best $5 you can spend for a car you’re unsure of. Their head units and speakers are often more expensive than you will find online elsewhere, but their installation instructions are worth getting even if you buy the expensive stuff elsewhere.

    Note: I’m not connected to Crutchfield in any way, just a satisfied customer.

  10. Crispy says:

    On newer model cars, especially 95 and up, DO NOT CYCLE THE IGNITION after taking off the dash panel and unplugging harnesses for ac, traction control, etc. Some cars will throw an airbag light that you will have to go the dealer to get cleared. The dash panel being off is not important, its the harnesses that are unplugged and its hit or miss which cars will throw them. New Honda Odyssey will definatley throw one, 04 Fords you have to cycle the ignition to get the gear shift lever down to get the dash panel off, so it doesn’t throw a light. Just be careful and avoid cycling the ignition whenever possible.

  11. Fong says:

    If your stereo appears to be working but power cycles, shuts off for no reason or doesn’t work quite right, be sure you have the new stereo grounded to your car frame. I know there’s a ground wire on the factory harness but I’ve spent hours trying to debug weird in-line wire resistors (thanks Alpine!) because of a weak ground.

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