Audio, in general, is a complex and confusing topic. The same applies to your car. One such issue is the difference between car radios car stereos, head units and receivers.

Here is a summary of the most common terms and definitions related to car audio:

  • Head device A: Any car stereo control unit in dash.
  • car stereo : The entire audio system in the car — includes both head units and speakers.
  • Receiver : A certain type of head unit with a built-in amplifier.
  • Tuner : Another term for a head unit — usually one without a built-in amplifier, and usually referring to the radio.
  • car radio : generic term that refers to both receivers and tuners.
  • Controller : A type of head unit that does not include a radio tuner.
  • Mechless : digital media receiver or head unit, that is, one that does not have motorized control.

Car stereos and head units

The head unit is essentially the brains of your car’s sound system, and it can refer to a range of different devices, including radio tuners, CD players, auxiliary inputs, and built-in components such as amplifiers and equalizers.

Stereo is more general, so how it includes head unit itself, as well as speaker systems, including amplifiers , equalizers , crossovers , speakers and subwoofer . The term «stereo» is often used as a synonym for «head unit».

Receivers, tuners and car radios

Two closely related types head units are receivers and tuners. Both include a built-in AM/FM radio. For this reason, receivers and tuners are also often referred to as car radios. Many receivers and tuners may also include CD players, auxiliary inputs, Bluetooth connectivity, and USB ports, but this varies by model.

Where receivers include built-in amplifiers, tuners do not. Most factory head units are receivers because system assembly with an external amplifier bypasses expensive although there are some exceptions. Most aftermarket head units are also receivers, although tuners are also available for people who are interested in adding an external amplifier and getting the best sound quality possible.

Some receivers have preamp outputs. This means that although the head unit has a built-in amplifier, it also has audio outputs that bypass the amplifier. These head units are great for those who build their system piece by piece; You can rely on the built-in amplifier until you can install an external one.


Head units that do not have radio functionality are commonly referred to as controllers. These head units may or may not have built-in amplifiers, and they may have a number of components, including:

Choosing the right head unit

If you are concerned choosing the right head unit then it will be useful for you to understand these terms. For example, if you are using a partial approach to building a car stereo, you may need a receiver with built-in pre-outs . This will allow you to leave the settings open until you decide whether to install an external amplifier.

In any case, it is important to remember that these terms sometimes overlap or are used interchangeably. However, understanding the differences between the two can help design your car’s sound system layout.

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