Looking for a car stereo with a good UI.
October 17, 2005 6:36 AM   Subscribe

The factory-installed stereo in my car has stopped playing CDs, and my commute is fairly long, so this is essentially unacceptable. I've looked into getting it repaired, but the whole stereo'll have to be sent away for weeks, and it'll end up costing a bunch. But I've yet to find an add-on in-dash stereo for $200 or less that isn't terribly ugly.

I have a 2003 Nissan Altima; the current stereo (and dash) looks like this, which I'm otherwise 100% happy with. I'm not really an audiophile, so pretty much any stereo will probably sound good enough for me. I've considered buying an MP3 player, but my stock stereo doesn't have an aux port, and it'd require a lot of CD-ripping time to convert all of my collection. I'm savvy enough that I have absolutely no problem mounting a stereo myself.

But I absolutely hate the trend of blinking lights and tiny lettering on tiny chrome buttons that seems pervasive in the car stereo market. My priority is a good UI. Is that too much to ask for?
posted by Plutor to Shopping (15 answers total)
Check out Crutchfield. I've bought several car stereos from them. They have a handy guide to what will fit in your vehicle, and they provide you with a nice installation kit that makes is an easy job. I'm not sure you'll be able to find a stereo without the blinkenlights, but I seem to recall that Blaupunkt makes stereos that aren't overly gussied up.
posted by cosmicbandito at 6:50 AM on October 17, 2005

How's this?. The buttons are chrome, but they look pretty readable, and the price is right. Accroding to them, this fits your car too. (I assumed you didn't have the Bose system when I chose the options)
posted by cosmicbandito at 6:53 AM on October 17, 2005

An aftermarket unit is likely to have better sound than the standard unit that came with the car. This unit (Clarion) has a more traditional interface. I agree that most of the crap out there has far too many buttons and they are poorly laid out, essentially forcing you to take your eye off of the road just to change stations etc. I wish the PI lawyers would go after the manufacturers of such crap and make it more expensive to have a busy layout and make the idea of knobs not seem so expensive.
posted by caddis at 7:03 AM on October 17, 2005

Have you thought about a Mp3 player with an FM transmitter? You don't need to burn everything to CD or have an AUX plug.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:15 AM on October 17, 2005

Response by poster: cosmicbandito and caddis, those are both good examples. I spose I should look a little more carefully at Crutchfield's list. I also seem to remember seing a site out there at some point that specialized in "plain" (i.e. boring) looking car stereos.
posted by Plutor at 7:59 AM on October 17, 2005

I replaced the factory HU in my WRX with a Alpine CDA-9815, which does a really good job of playing pretty much anything I throw at it. The interface is rather good and the display very clear, especially when compared to other, more expensive models (the Sony in my wife's car has a nightmarish UI, is practically unreadable and costs twice as much as what I paid - I mean, you have some fancy graphics of a rally car and what looks like dolphins having sex on hers). The 9815 is the 2003 model, so you should be able to find it on the cheap now.
posted by kuperman at 8:03 AM on October 17, 2005

For $200 you can get a trunk or under seat MP3 capable CD changer plus the interface box. I'm quite happy with the JVC I intalled in my Caravan. The remote screen is simple text however the buttons are fairly small.
posted by Mitheral at 8:16 AM on October 17, 2005

Best answer: Why not look on ebay for used stock Altima head units? People without your taste in appearance and interface must be selling theirs when they "upgrade" to the ones that have animated bikini-clad women as part of their displays. Or, go to www.car-part.com and search for one there. Looks like you could get a replacement for $75-$100. Just skip a few pages, since the parts are sorted by price, highest to lowest, and you can't reverse that apparently.
posted by autojack at 8:35 AM on October 17, 2005

Response by poster: Woah, autojack, I didn't even consider that. Some earlier models of the stock radio had aux-in, also, so I might be able to kill two birds with one stone.
posted by Plutor at 8:58 AM on October 17, 2005

Have you tried using a cleaning disc (link goes to example)? Your problem may be related to dust or other fuzzies obscuring the laser.
posted by pmbuko at 10:24 AM on October 17, 2005

Response by poster: Yeah, I have. The CD player isn't even spinning up, so the disc doesn't even get a chance to do its magic. I tried to open the stereo up this weekend, but the CD player itself is sealed pretty tight.
posted by Plutor at 11:35 AM on October 17, 2005

I recently replaced my car's audio system (in-dash unit and 4 speakers) because all five components gradually gave up the ghost. I was looking specifically for an mp3 cd player with front-panel aux. A couple of points:

- I couldn't find a unit with decent looks, much less with ergonomics that pleased me. I was especially displeased with: tiny crowded buttons, cheap knobs, lack of a good dot matrix display on all but the most expensive models, lack of a brightness controller with sufficient brightness range, shiny flashy surfaces, ergonomically stupid mp3 playback (can't rewind to the previous song in random mode, etc), and lack of foreign language support in id3 tags.
- I was left with the impression that there is no tangible difference between most $200 and $500 units.

So this is not so much a recommendation as an experience of what bugged me and a question if anyone has in-dash units that address any of the above.
posted by azazello at 1:24 PM on October 17, 2005

As cosmicbandito alludes, your solution may be different if your system is a Bose. I recently replaced the head in my Maxima and had to replace all the speakers as well. All the Bose speakers had their own amps and adding an aftermarket head would blow the speakers at higher volumes.

I didn't believe the first guy who told me this, so I went to four different places, including a Nissan dealership, and got the same answer. Check your system before you buy a head.
posted by forrest at 4:29 PM on October 17, 2005

Response by poster: Azazello: Yeah, those are all pretty much exactly my complaints. Which is why I've marked the comment on getting a used Altima stereo as "best". That's almost certainly what I'm going to do, because I like the simple, understated, blending-in looks. It'll be a shame not having MP3 playback (which I was kinda hoping for in a new stereo) but given the choice, I'll take a usable stereo anyday.

Forrest: No, I don't have the Bose system. But now, for the first time, I'm glad I don't have one.
posted by Plutor at 4:20 AM on October 18, 2005

Response by poster: autojack: "Why not look on ebay for used stock Altima head units?"

Yesterday, I finally got a used head unit from Ebay. It cost me only $75 with shipping, and it works beautifully. Plus, I got a 2002 model, which has an auxiliary-in din port on the back. My factory 2003 didn't.

I'm really happy about this. Thanks, autojack.
posted by Plutor at 6:12 AM on January 10, 2006

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