A marine stereo may come in many shapes and sizes and with a wide variety of features. There is sure to be a model for your particular application, but how do you determine what is the best for your situation?
FIRST: Consider Size And Installation Dimensions
if you are replacing an existing stereo this will narrow down your selection a bit. Most marine stereos come in what is called standard DIN (Dash Installation) size. Standard DIN is about 7 inches wide and 2 inches high. Unfortunately, different manufacturers seem to have different ideas about what DIN is so the dimensions will vary slightly from stereo to stereo. Some marine stereos are 1.5 DIN or 2 DIN which refers to the height. 1.5 DIN is appproximately 3 inches high while 2 DIN is about 4 inches high. Obviously, you will need to choose a stereo that is similar to your current unit so that it will fit.
You don't necessarily need to cut a hole for your stereo. A marine stereo enclosure with a gimbal mount will help protect the unit from the elements while providing convenient mounting under a dash or in another location. If the stereo you choose does not have a sealed waterproof faceplate and you are expecting a lot of spray in the area, you will want to consider a splash cover.
SECOND: Power Considerations
Our stereos are all meant to run off of a 12 volt DC marine or car battery. If you are installing in a backyard, pool or hot tub area, or any other land based application, you will need some kind of power adapter to run off of regular household current. Check out our installation tips page for more information on power adapters.
Beyond that, most marine stereos (sometimes referred to as heads or head units) include a built in power amplifier. A quality stereo will usually have 4 separate channels of power output providing one channel for each speaker. The 4 channels make up 2 sets of stereo pairs. Manufacturers add up the total peak power of all 4 channels to give you the total peak wattage of their product. Unfortunately, keep in mind that if you only use two speakers on a 4 channel amplifier you will only utilize half the available power.
It is also possible to power multiple speakers on one amplifier channel, however more speakers do not always add up to more volume if they are not wired correctly. Also you will need to be careful when doing this because too much or too little resistance on a channel can damage your amp and/or your speakers. See our installation page for more information. If you are not certain how multiple speakers might affect your system it is always best to stick with one speaker per channel.
There are two different power measurements for an amplifier.
Peak Output is the maximum power the amp can produce at any given instant. You can expect a quality head unit to produce 40 to 50 peak watts of power output per channel.
RMS Output is the average power the amp can produce over time. You can expect a quality head unit to produce 15 to 20 RMS watts of power per channel.
Many people wonder if this will be enough for their boat, but on a medium to small sized craft it will be plenty in most cases and the sound quality will be very good. On a larger boat you would not necessarily need more power from your stereo. Instead you might want to extend what it has by adding an additional amplifier and more speakers to cover a larger area.
If you are looking for exceptional sound, and/or need a lot of volume you will definitely want to add an amplifier. If you plan on using an amplifier, keep in mind that you will get the best sound if your stereo head unit has pre-amp auxiliary RCA outputs so that you can send a non amplified (or line level) signal to the amplifier. Most amps can accept both amplified and non amplified connections and have a switch or gain control so that you can set it up optimally depending on how you are using it. Keep in mind, though, that feeding amplified output to your amplifier won't give you any more total power output and can add a small amount of distortion to the signal. So, if you have a choice, stick with a non amplified connection. How you wire an amplifier with your speakers is very important, so take a look at our installation page for help with that.
Most quality marine speakers will give you good bass response, but if you are looking for thunderous bass that shakes the harbor you will need an extra amplifier and a subwoofer. (see marine speakers for help choosing subwoofers).
THIRD: Consider Features
Generally, it isn't power that distinguishes marine stereos in price. Rather it is features. Below are a list of features that you can expect to pay more for in a marine stereo:
Weather Resistant versus Waterproof All of our marine stereos are built to be outdoors and are, at the very least, weather resistant. By this we mean that the circuit boards go through a special poly coating process that prevents corrosion in a humid environment. In addition, they are UV protected for exposure to the sun. Weather resistant stereos also prevent water intrusion in varying degrees, but they are not waterproof and water inside the unit will definitely do some damage.
If you plan on your stereo frequently getting in the path of splash or spray you may want to go a step beyond this and get a stereo with a waterproof faceplate. Waterproof faceplates have a sealed gasket so that water can't get into the CD compartment when closed and the buttons and LCD display are waterproofed as well. Keep in mind that the back side chassis of the stereo may or may not be waterproofed and it may need to be safe behind your dash or enclosed in some type of enclosure. To avoid the expense of a waterproof faceplate you could opt for a separate flip down splash cover.
Wireless or Wired Remotes
Some of our stereos come with wireless remote controls or a wireless remote can be added. It is important to understand that most of these are "line of sight" remotes (like a television remote). If you plan on installing the stereo in a cabin, the remote might be useless on deck. Wireless remotes sometimes come with a small infrared "eye" that can be mounted in a convenient place for line of sight control. A wire connects the eye to the stereo. Some systems have other methods for accepting IR remote commands like through special speakers or through mounted wired remotes so you don't have to point the wireless remote at the head unit itself. You will want to check that out ahead of time to be sure. Some RF remotes are now available that do not require line of site in order to work.
Wired remotes are often available that can be surface mounted or flush mounted with a very streamlined look. Most are completely waterproof so they can be installed in a wet area. You might think a wireless remote would be better, but consider that wired remotes never get lost. Mounting a wired remote in an area that swimmers or skiers can easily reach may be more practical than a wireless remote.
Auxilliary Inputs for iPOD, MP3 Player, DVD, Satellite Radio, etc. With auxilliary inputs you can play an external device through your marine stereo by patching the audio signal into the head unit through special jacks (usually RCA jacks). Aux inputs do NOT give you the ability to control song selection, play, pause, or other detailed control over the external device from the marine stereo itself. The only control you will have is volume. Everything else must be controlled from the external device. In most cases the Aux input jacks are on the back of the stereo chassis because putting them in the front presents an opportunity for water to get into the unit. However, you can purchase an audio cable adapter with a plug that can be mounted within easy reach to plug in your external device. The cable runs from the back of the stereo to wherever you mount the plug.
iPod Control If you want full control of your iPod from your marine stereo, such as song selection, play, pause, song/artist display, etc. this feature has become available on some models. A special cable or adapter is usually required, but an additional benefit is that the iPod will recharge while it is connected to your marine stereo.
Ability to Play MP3 files from CDs Almost all stereos will play CDRs (Recordable CDs), but not all can play MP3s. MP3s are compressed digital music files. The quality of MP3 music is not any better than normal CD audio, but since the data is compressed, you can fit a lot more songs on one CD. One CD filled with MP3s could play for many hours compared to a maximum of just over an hour for a normal CD. Naturally, you would only get benefit out of this feature if you have the ability to burn your own MP3 CDs or have someone else do it for you.
USB Port Some units will have a USB port for connecting MP3 players and thumb drives. The stereo will usually play digital music files directly from your devices when connected via USB. Some stereos also allow you to connect an iPod via the USB port, but special Apple software is required so you will want to check the specifications of the unit before you buy.
Satellite Radio Satellite radio is obtained from SiriusXM. Sirius and XM used to be competing companies that have merged into one, however they still offer different services. The Sirius channel lineup is slightly different from the XM lineup so you may want to research that before you buy. There is a monthly subscription fee to use these services. In order to enable satellite radio on your satellite ready stereo you will need to purchase a separate satellite receiver box and antenna. The antenna plugs into the receiver box and the receiver box in turn plugs into the back of the stereo. Once set up correctly, a satellite ready stereo will offer full control over the satellite receiver right from the faceplate controls.
You can also add satellite radio to a non-satellite ready stereo using a portable satellite receiver. These often look like iPods or MP3 players, but their primary function is to receive satellite radio signals. Most stereos have auxilliary audio inputs. To play your satellite radio through the stereo you will need to run a cable from the headphone jack on the satellite receiver to the aux inputs.