Do It Yourself for Dummies: Installing a Car Radio
Howdy! So hopefully you’ve come here because you noticed it is nearly a hundred dollars to have a car radio professionally installed. You might be thinking that it costs that much because it is a super hard project! Well I can’t say for sure but the chances are that it isn’t actually a difficult task. Just be ready to bring a little bit of courage and I’m going to walk you through how to install a radio in any car under the sun. Part of these instructions are cheating but they are exactly what I did so let’s begin.
Step #1: Figure out what kind of car you have.
Ok this might sound stupid but I had no idea what year our car was. So naturally I asked my Wife and Father-In-Law since our car was their car originally. We came to the conclusion that it was a 2002 Hyundai Accent. This is important because all further steps are going to be tailored to this car. You however will want to replace 2002 Hyundai Accent with whatever kind of car you have. These instructions should work for any other car as long as you do that.
Step #2: Google “Installing a Car Radio in a your car’s year and name here.”
Again this probably sound patronizing but I’m just walking you through everything I did. There won’t be any joke at the end where I call you an idiot or whatever. I had done some install work at Circuit City ages ago but the majority of the work had already been done by the actual car audio installation guys. I was merely riding on their coat tails and trying to learn. This above all else is why I think you should do this yourself rather than an installer. You get to learn a new tool and in the process learn a lot more about your car. Every project you take on yourself is money you save and knowledge you gain. Much like learning new languages it makes all further projects easier because most skills cross domains.
Googling “Installing a Car Radio in a 2002 Hyundai Accent” brought me to this helpful video. Additionally I found picture steps of the install here. An install in my car would be 6 steps, or 12 total counting the reverse of the steps to install it into the car! Fantastic, I can handle a dozen steps for sure! Watch the videos and read the guides for your car and try and map them out in your brain. The reason I suggest this over only having them on a phone by your side is that they help you to really see the project while you work on it.
Step #3: Buying all the necessary parts.
Obviously you’ll need to buy a radio if you want to install one. The first thing you want to know is if your car is a single din or a double din. Personally I think you can figure it out by just looking at your dash but you can also google “Is X car a double din or single din.” and you should find the answer. What will you need other than the radio? Results will vary but I believe buying all of the following should get you set for now and for many future DIY projects involving electrical wires.
(Get the one for your car not mine! :p)
Mounting Kit [If Applicable]
(Get the one for your car not mine! :p)
Once you have these things you should be ready for the install. Double check with the guides you’ve read and make sure your car isn’t special and needs something else. I’m going to walk through you why you want all of these things in the next part.
Step #4: Preparing the Radio.
This part is fun! Kinda. Alright so take the wiring harness that came with your radio and the one you just purchased. Immediately you should notice that they both have the same colored wires on them. What you want to do is open up your Electrical Caps packet and start sticking like colored wires into the caps, one at a time. Each time you put the two wires in you want to “crimp” them with the crimpers. That’s a nice way of saying you want to squeeze the shit out of them until they are clamped together.
The reason you own wire strippers is that my wiring harness wasn’t pre cut and I had to strip the wires myself. If you get lucky you won’t need to do this. If you DO need to do this try and cut the plastic off equal lengths for both wires. This way you have no excess plastic up in the cap. But if you DO have it in there I don’t think there will be any problems. My crimping job was hardly clean but it appears to be working just fine. Repeat the matching and crimping process until you either have no wires left or you have single wires without any friends.
Take the metal for those wires and bend it over itself to create a nice little bulb. Then put a cap on those just like the others and crimp them to close them off. This protects you from having them touching other things and creating an electrical fire. If there is anything I hate more than being electrocuted it is being immolated. We want this project to lead to 0 immolation.
The next step is entirely up to you whether you want to do it before you test your wiring job, after you test your wiring job, or not at all. Basically take the electrical tape and start taping up your harness so that it becomes a single long black wire instead of a dozen different little ones. This creates a much stronger single wire to deal with rather than a tone of little ones you could damage during the install. Again I personally tested my capping job first because I don’t trust myself but maybe you have more confidence than me.
That’s uh…that’s it for the radio or it should be. Your radio might be special but that’s all I had to do for mine.
Step #5: Install the Radio.
Alright I’ll walk you through the more broad instructions and you just change where applicable from your guides. The first step is opening up the hood of your car. Get whatever tools necessary to remove the negative connection from your car battery. Not the positive! The positive should be covered but in doubt check, then double check, that you are about to be touching the negative. I don’t think touching the positive will kill you but I’ve not looked into the matter and if you die you won’t get your car stereo installed. My negative was held tight with a single bolt. I used a pair of pliers (which I pray you have, I didn’t include it above because I assume all households have basic toolsets) to loosen and tighten mine.
The reason I suggest doing this is we cut power to the car which means no matter what crazy shit you get up to in the car you aren’t going to electrocute yourself. I don’t know about you but I have terrible luck with electrocuting myself (as sorta mentioned prior) so I figured I’d make it impossible.
The next step is to find all the things that are connected outside of your radio dash that you can reach. For me I had one wire behind my glove compartment and two underneath my steering wheel. I am a thin man so I was able to disconnect things behind the glove compartment without even taking it off. If you aren’t skin and bones like me you’ll probably need to unscrew a few things in the car. Just keep all like screws from each part in a single place and label a piece of paper with them if needed. Remember that nearly everything in your car is snapped into place like legos. You’ll be hearing some very unsettling sounds when you are taking it apart but know that 99% of the time you aren’t breaking your car. Just be smart and take it at whatever speed you find comfortable.
Once all external connections are undone you’ll want to start prying off the relevant part of your dash. For the Hyundai Accent it was the off color central console. I should note that mine had some hidden screws behind the cup holder that actually held it in place. Check your instructions and see if yours does too. If I had to give you an idea for how much pressure it should take to remove a central console I would say it is about as tough as tugging open a jar of pickles that have had a slight temperature shift before their first opening (still sealed).
If at any point while removing your console you feel like its ‘stuck’ on something immediately check all external connectors. They might have little finger grips that hold them in place. Think like that clasp in your hood that holds the metal bar when its not up holding up your hood. I had three of those to remove my wires from when pulling it out. The next thing you want to do is glance around behind the console for any plugs that might be stuck in it. I didn’t need to remove any for mine because I had enough space but you may find yourself needing to so that you don’t damage them. These are likely to be pains in the ass because they’ve not moved since you bought the car.
Once everything is disconnected you’ll want to unscrew the (likely) 4 screws holding your factory radio in place. Once those are out and set aside you’ll want to jiggle the radio up and down a few times to dislodge it form the sediment that has probably filled the cracks between it and the sides of the console. Then just pull it out until you can see the plugs in the back of it. Most radios will have a single wire plug (the rectangular one) and an antenna plug (looks like an old style thick headphone plug). The wiring plug is going to probably be a huge pain in your ass. Honestly that was the hardest part of this project for me. Removing that was harder than just about anything I’ve ever had to unplug from anything ever in my entire life.
I’m not exaggerating. If you feel like you shouldn’t have to pull that hard you are probably wrong. You aren’t pulling hard enough no matter how hard you might be pulling. If it isn’t coming loose its because its a stubborn bastard. Yours >may< have a clip also so be sure to look for that. Mine did not and was just set in from over a decade of being stuck in the same radio. Also be sure to not pull by the wires only pull by the harness itself. If you tug by the wires you risk pulling them out of the harness and that would be super bad. But if I could get my harness out without breaking it I’m sure you can.
Once the radio is unplugged remove it from the car and do whatever you want with it. Maybe keep it if you ever plan to resell your car. That radio won’t raise the resale value much (if at all) and you might as well keep it for a future car maybe or a friend/family member. Next you want to plug your new super cool harness into the plug that was in the back of your old radio. If necessary you’ll want to install the ISO kit you bought for your car. If your radio doesn’t fit you’ll need to file it down which is unfortunately the case sometimes. Be very careful when filing! You can only remove so much before you’ve removed too much.
I actually never used my ISO kit. I just took the mounting brackets from the old radio and mounted them on my new one. It was extremely tacky but it is apparently very secure and I doubt I’ll change it in the future. Once your kit is up there you’ll pull the antenna wire and Wire harness through. Then plug them into your new sexy radio. Once that is done you’ll slide the radio into the harness like a boss. Next you’ll check your radio by putting the negative back on your battery (touch the car first to discharge any static on your body, I feel like static shocks through car batteries hurt more than normal. Might be my imagination.) Put the car into the step just before the engine and play with your radio. Is it working? I know mine was and you are awesome so yours is probably too. Alright turn the car off and remove the negative again.
Push all wires into their proper places and make sure nothing is stuck. You may need to remove the face of your radio before the next step (might as well for safety). Plug all of the things back that you unplugged to pull the console out. Push the central console back up and snap everything into place. Next track all of external connectors you may have had and reattach them in reverse of whatever fashion that you undid them in. Make sure they you get them in those little clips as well if they are analog temperature controls, else you’ll have vents that open but don’t close (don’t worry, if you goof this is a stupid easy fix, they are just metal wires).
Make sure to screw back any screws you took out. You don’t want to end with more parts than you began. I do that more often than I’d like to admit.
Alright now put your negative back on the battery and tighten whatever device was previously clamping it to your battery. Pat your hands a few times and make some kind of manly sound, you’ve earned it. Remove the rod holding up your hood and close it with a satisfying “thump!”
Get back in the car and set it to the alternate just before the car actually being on (no need to waste gas and if you are in a garage no need to kill yourself with exhaust fumes). Put the face of your radio back on and test all the functions. Next turn your vents up all the way and flip through all the settings on your console. Make sure each works. If something doesn’t work and you can fix it without touching exposed wires of any kind then do so. Otherwise flip back a few steps to that car battery. But you are too cool for anything to be wrong.
Congratulations! You’ve just saved yourself a hundred dollars (or way more for some cars) and learned all the following things:
Safely disassembling a car (eg. Undoing that negative!)
How to undo parts of a car (See ya, center console!)
Removing a factory radio.
Installing an after market radio.
Preparing, crimping, and taping up electrical wires.
Understanding the workings of the systems connected to your console.
Probably more I’m forgetting!
If you are anything like me you’ll be incredibly satisfied. I actually ran the microphone that came with my radio through the ventilation (because there are no moving parts in the console for it) and it can be conveniently connected to the sun visor or retracted into the vent. This is my second DIY project in a couple weeks and if both of them hold for a month I’ll consider them successes. If they both last a year I’ll feel totally macho and you should too!
Who knows what or when the next DIY will be. But for now this should get you through installing your own car audio system. It’s genuinely easy and I’d argue it is a bit of fun. You save a ton of money and become a more self sufficient person in the end. I highly recommend it.