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Everything You Need to Upgrade Your Older Car’s Audio

A radio inside a classic car

Some people get attached to their old cars; others are stuck with them. But you don’t need to spend a fortune or upgrade your whole vehicle to improve your experience while driving it. However old your vehicle is, bringing your audio system closer to the 21st century is not difficult.

You can either push your technical abilities to the limit and go all out—or opt for a simple plug and play upgrade. Either way, you can replace that old Mariah Carey cassette with whatever artists are still on Spotify by the time this gets published without breaking the bank.

You have a number of options ranging from easy plugin and go solutions to more complex upgrades that will require a screwdriver, up to an hour of your time, and ideally a YouTube tutorial specific to the car you want to modify.

Older Systems Make Things Easier

A tape deck inside a car with a cassette hanging out.

Cars with CD Players

Cars manufactured in the late 90s to early 2000s are usually equipped with a CD player, which was cutting edge at the time but isn’t your best choice in the 2020s. Unfortunately, a lot of the cars from that era tend to lack an Aux port, which will make connecting a phone or a Bluetooth adapter difficult.

It is possible to fit a CD to Aux adapter to a slot in the bottom of your radio. These adapters are fairly cheap, but you will have to disassemble a fair amount of your center console to rig them up, and then find a way to get the wire out. So expect to spend a good amount of time popping out panels, and accept you may have to drill a hole through your console.

Even after that, the functionality on CD to Aux adapters is limited. You won’t be able to use your car’s controls to skip or pause songs for instance. And if your new cable ever gets damaged, you’ll need to replace the whole thing.

Given the amount of work involved, you should seriously consider just replacing the entire radio if that is an option. But if you’re stuck with a CD player that is integral to the car’s console, it isn’t the end of the world.

Older Models with Cassette Players

Older tech actually means an easier upgrade when it comes to installing Aux capability. If your car is still sporting a cassette player, installing an Aux adapter is as easy as putting any other type of cassette tape into your car radio. Plug it in and away you go, if it breaks buy another one for $10 and plug that in instead.

The quality may vary on cassette adapters as established companies with good reputations don’t tend to produce them. But all the ones I’ve used have done their job perfectly well. They are definitely a quick and easy solution if you don’t want to commit to a full upgrade.

Aux To Bluetooth is Simple

A car aux to Bluetooth adapter

If your car already has Aux support, or you’ve chosen one of the above options, you’re one step away from having most of the audio capabilities modern vehicles have. Bluetooth receivers that plug into your Aux port are cheap and plentiful, helpful if your phone lacks a headphone jack.

These adapters cost around $20 and vary in quality; so shop around, compare features, and read some reviews. Bluetooth audio adapters usually have features like hands-free calling, alongside the ability to play your favorite songs. If you really want to push your upgrade to the limit, you can even have a full-blown voice assistant in your car. If your phone’s microphone struggles to hear you over the sound of the road, something like Amazon Auto could be the solution to all of your problems. Simply plug it in, connect it to your phone via the Alexa app, and you’ll have all of the benefits of Amazon’s voice assistant with fewer traffic-noise-related struggles. Devices like the Amazon Auto

Most adapters will either plug directly into a 12-volt cigarette lighter socket or a USB adapter for one of those sockets. If your car’s cigarette lighter socket has died from old age, battery-powered adapters are available.

The 7 Best Hands-Free Voice Assistants for Your Car

Best Overall
Echo Auto- Hands-free Alexa in your car with your phone
Best with Alexa
Roav Viva Pro, by Anker, Alexa-Enabled 2-Port USB Car Charger for Navigation and Music Streaming, for Cars with Bluetooth/CarPlay/Android Auto/Aux-in/FM Reception
Best budget choice
Avantree CK11 Car Bluetooth Speaker with Loud Speakerphone, Support Siri Google Assistant & Auto On Off, Volume Knob, Wireless Car Kit with Visor Clip
Best Alexa car mount
iOttie Easy One Touch Connect Pro (New) - Gen 2 - Hands Free Alexa in Your Car - Car Mount Phone Holder with Alexa Built in for iOS & Android, MFi Certified, Universal
Best multifunction
Garmin 010-01862-00 Speak Plus with Amazon Alexa, Black, Pack of 1
Best do-it-all
Car and Driver INTELLIDASH with Apple Carplay and Android Auto, 7'' IPS Touchscreen Multimedia Player with Bluetooth, Mirror Link, SiriusXM, Google, Siri Assistant Dash or Windshield Mounted (Wired)

You Can Replace the System Entirely, Sometimes

The entertainment unit in a car pulled out for disassembly
Dmitry Dven/Shutterstock.com

Depending on what your car’s center console looks like, you may be able to replace your car radio without too much trouble. If your car radio looks like something you can remove and replace with a unit that’s roughly the same size—upgrading to a modern radio is only slightly more complicated than fitting one of the Aux cables we mentioned earlier. With basic tools, you should be able to remove the obsolete radio and wire up a new one in less than an hour.

However, if your radio seems to be an integral part of the car’s center console, upgrading might not be an option. Consult your car’s manual, take a look at the console’s construction, and scour youtube for videos of people who have done similar upgrades. All of this should give you a solid idea of what’s possible. If a straight swap of the old radio isn’t an option, consider other spaces like a well under the center console, or attached to a bracket underneath the glovebox.

An upgrade is your best option if you can make it work. Smaller radios with Bluetooth capability and an Aux port are available for under $30. Why spend that much on an adapter when you can install something far less temperamental and with more features on offer.

If your car has room and you really want to take things to the next level, you can get a radio with a 7″ touch screen display for less than $100. So, along with music and calls, you’ll be able to enjoy other modern features like a sat-nav display and a reversing camera if you want to hook one of those up too.

Double and triple check compatibility, because you don’t want to order something that won’t fit. If you’re creative enough, you can make almost anything work. But this is about upgrading an old car on a budget—don’t go spending more than the value of your vehicle redesigning the entire center console.

FM to Bluetooth Adapters Should Be a Last Resort

An FM to Bluetooth Adapter

You’ve seen them in every gas station, Amazon has hundreds of them for sale, you may have even owned one. If you haven’t, please don’t join the club. FM to Bluetooth adapters are absolutely awful.

Like their Aux hijacking cousins, FM to Bluetooth adapters draw power from one of your car’s 12-volt lighter sockets and connect to one of your devices via Bluetooth. The adapter then transmits an FM signal you can pick up with your car’s radio, thus connecting your phone or MP3 player to your car’s audio system.

The concept is great in theory but terrible in practice. The main issue is interference, you need to pick an FM frequency that a radio station isn’t using. The further your device’s transmission is from any other transmission, the clearer it will be. Unfortunately, there are a lot of radio stations—so finding a clear spot is a nightmare. And if you do somehow find a band that works, don’t take your adapter on a road trip. You’re guaranteed to hit something on your frequency. Sometimes other cars will interfere with your signal.

The better adapters come with a few pre-programmable spots, so you can quickly switch frequencies if something begins to interfere with your signal. But even these don’t guarantee clarity and you’ll often find yourself frustrated to the point where you just give up and accept whatever country music station has forced its way through your speakers as your new overlord.

If all you have is an FM radio and you can’t put a new system in, one of these adapters may be your only choice. If you have any other option, do that instead.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »