In this article: We'll walk you through all the information you need to know about building a stereo for your car, truck, UTV, boat – whatever – without a traditional head unit. We'll define what it means to have a headless stereo, the benefits and use cases and provide you with some good examples of products to start building your own!
- What is a Headless Car Stereo System?
- Who Wants a Headless System?
- Types of Headless Systems You Can Build
- Adding a Digital Signal Processor
- Ultimate Amplifier and DSP Upgrade
- Headless Car Stereo Considerations
- A Portable Headless System
Most car stereo builds begin by selecting a head unit for the application, followed by the process of matching up speakers, amplifiers, external crossovers, and other components. The head unit is generally one of the largest expenses in the process and is the biggest determining factor of what you can do with your system in terms of connectivity and expandability. Today, we are going to discuss how you can build a car stereo system that has all the modern features you want without buying or installing a head unit.
What is a Headless Car Stereo System?
A headless system takes advantage of modern connectivity features of many newer amplifiers to bypass the need for a head unit. In the most basic configuration, a headless system allows you to play music from a remote device through a wired connection. You can skip tracks and change volume, but that’s about all that you can do.
A more complex installation can add features like wireless calling, Bluetooth control, and EQ functions to tailor your tunes the way you want. A complete build can add USB ports to your dash or control panel for charging and audio playback and can incorporate some features from AI systems like navigation commands and iOS or Android assistance.
Who Wants a Headless System?
A traditional head unit that is designed to install in your dash normally looks good, works great, and makes you happy. But what if your car doesn’t have a dash opening that is appropriate for the type of stereo you want to install? In these cases, unless you’re doing a custom setup, you are going to be stuck with whatever is on the market at the moment, which may not be that great.
A headless system is an ideal solution to vintage cars that use two-post radios for which modern replacements look out of place or require irreparable modification. It’s also a great option for compact vehicles like ATVs and boats that do not have factory stereo setups. You can even put together a headless system for a tractor! Try doing that with a double-DIN touchscreen head unit.. Good luck!
What are the Benefits of a Headless System?
The main benefit of this type of system is the compactness and simplicity but also its price. There are only a few components that are easily hidden, and many installations can be done without altering the vehicle. This is particularly important when working on classic cars and trucks where even drilling holes reduces the value and desirability of the vehicle. It is much easier to design a headless system that is weatherproof than trying to compile a head unit system that can handle nasty weather, so a headless system works great in rock crawlers, mud boggers, and dune buggies. You can even make a semi-portable setup that lets you bring high-quality audio on your boat, trailer, or buggy for way better sound than a boom box.
In the case you are looking for a head unit, heck out these lists!
Types of Headless Systems You Can Build
There are a few ways to go about building a headless system for your vehicle that all use similar principles. You’ll need to start by identifying how many speakers you plan to install. This will determine the type of amplifier you will want to purchase. From there, this build can be as simple or as complicated as you would like, and there are plenty of opportunities to chase wild ideas when putting together a headless system. Below, we will show you how some of our favorite speakers and amplifiers can be useful when building a headless system.
Two-Channel Amplifier, Wireless Connection: Kinter A7BT
Kinter A7BT Quick Review
This is a super simple and cost-efficient set up that takes advantage of a Class-D 2-channel amplifier with Bluetooth connectivity. To set up a headless stereo with this product, you would only need to wire the amp into your vehicle, connect to your speakers, and pair your compatible device. You’ll have the ability to stream music from your device through your speakers wirelessly.
The downside to this setup is the lack of control. All track shuffle, volume adjustment, and other options run through your device, to varying degrees of quality. There are apps available for both iOS and Android to enable EQ balancing, but you’ll have more success installing a slightly more complex system to gain better control over the frequencies your system produces.
- Easy to install and set up
- Super-compact for installation in small spaces
- Under $20
- Limited frequency and volume control
Four-Channel Amplifier, Wireless Connection: Kenwood KAC-M1824BT
Kenwood KAC-M1824BT Quick Review
This is a great amp for any car audio system, but the wired remote control is what makes this an excellent amp choice for a headless system. It packs serious power into a little package and offers super easy control over numerous features. It delivers 45 watts RMS to four channels and is simple to set up. Built-in Bluetooth connectivity gives you streaming options. The remote control provides volume, track selection, and controls Bluetooth connectivity.
This one pairs quickly and easily to most phones. The amp produces quality, clean sound, but still lacks some adjustability features. This amp does not have gain controls and could benefit from external EQ balancing. The rear fader allows some control over speaker output.
A serious benefit of this amp is the marine designation. That gives you an enhanced level of water and dust control along with rubber-booted connectors. This is an ideal amplifier for ATVs, boats, or just about anything else that is likely to get in the elements.
- This setup uses a high-quality amp with decent power
- The Bluetooth connection allows easy streaming
- A wired remote provides easy access to frequently used features
- No gain control
Four-Channel, App Controlled, True Headless Unit: Memphis MXAMCAPP
Memphis MXAMCAPP Quick Review
When you don’t want to guess about which components are going to work and you don’t want to spend a fortune, Memphis Stereo gives you the MXAMCAPP. This is a stand-alone system that includes everything you need to install a headless system in any 12V vehicle. It’s a compact and full-featured set up that is as simple as you’ll find.
This setup includes a processor with a built-in amplifier specifically designed to handle input from a smartphone. The amp provides 50 watts to four channels. Source input gives you six selections that include AM/FM, USB, AUX, Bluetooth, and Weather-band. The package includes a wired remote for function control that mounts in a standard rocker switch cutout.
What sets this product part from everything else on the market is the app-control feature. With the app, you have control over source, EQ settings, and lots of other features to tailor sound to your specific vehicle. The entire system is super compact and is easily hidden away.
- Specifically designed for headless car audio
- Compact design is easy to find a place to install
- App control allows for EQ setting adjustment
- May be underpowered for some applications
Adding a Digital Signal Processor
The way to gain EQ control is through adding a Digital Signal Processor, or DSP. These products are popular when modifying factory head units and can be a difference maker when installing a headless car stereo system.
Taramps Pro 2.6S Quick Review
This is an affordable solution to gaining EQ control on your headless system. Taramps provides two inputs and six outputs. Installing this DSP inline with your amp gives you high-pass and low-pass filters to direct particular frequencies to the proper channels for your speakers.
To install this product, you’ll need a signal converter that carries the HDMI output from your smartphone or tablet and converts it to RCA. This gives you wired control over your system. Adjustments are made manually on the processor using the LCD screen.
- Easy way to add EQ control to a headless system
- Affordable way to fine-tune audio output
- Requires manual adjustment, so no on-the-fly changes are really practical
Rockford Fosgate DSR1 Quick Review
When you are interested in going with the best possible solution to a headless car stereo, you can use a product like this 8-channel DSP to get massive control over your system. The RF DSR1 uses the same processor found in the company’s flagship DSP, but adds Bluetooth connectivity for iOS and Android.
What you get with this DSP is a total of 245 EQ bands to adjust, time delay, and adjustable crossovers with user selectable slope. That gives you a tremendous amount of control over how your system sounds. To make it even better, RF uses an app to control the DSP, so you can make adjustments anytime.
Connecting this DSP is super simple. It pairs wirelessly with your smartphone and simply wires to your amp, speakers, and components. The level of control and adjustment you get from this DSP rivals those of much more expensive products.
- Easy way to add massive amount of control over frequencies
- App is simple and perfect for convenience
- Adds a significant expense to your system
Ultimate Amplifier and DSP Upgrade
So far, we’ve covered some good-quality amplifiers that work well for designing a custom headless system. We’ve also shown you how to add a DSP to control output. The next option takes advantage of the latest in technology to add a superior amplifier without a head unit while providing wireless control over your DSP.
Sony XM-GS6DSP Quick Review
We love this bold 6-channel Sony amplifier. It’s wonderful when paired with Sony’s newest touchscreen head units. This is a compact amp that provides versatile configurations for different speaker setups, and offers the key features you want to build a headless system. It also incorporates a DSP to give you the kind of control you’ll need.
The basic configuration provides 45 watts at 4 ohms to pairs of front and rear speakers and 600 watts output to your subwoofer. An onboard crossover and built-in bandpass filters let you build a three-way system so you can drive 45 watts to a pair of tweeters and a pair of mid-range drivers with 90 watts going to a pair of woofers.
This amplifier has a built-in DSP that is controlled through a dedicated app. Bluetooth connectivity and WiFi capabilities let you take advantage of a 10 band dynamic EQ, faders, and speaker level balance right on your smartphone. Bluetooth lets you stream content directly from your device so you can eliminate the head unit in your project.
- Combines a fully-featured amplifier and DSP
- Provides options for custom-built systems
- Ideal option for a full feature headless car stereo system
- DSP function doesn’t provide enough control as a dedicated DSP would
- Not powerful enough for some projects
Headless Car Stereo Considerations
There are some features that you may opt for or against, and in the realm of headless car stereo installations, your imagination is the only limit. There are a variety of ways to gain EQ control, add specific features for different levels of stereos, and a ton of different ways to put a system together. A few products can improve the process for you.
When connecting your phone or tablet directly to an amp or DSP, you’ll likely need to use a signal converter cable. This one is a USB-C connector to RCA. It’ll work for most Android phones and tablets. For iOS, you will need a Lightning-to-RCA connector. These are inexpensive solutions to connecting your devices.
Buying an amp or DSP with Bluetooth control or relying on your device isn’t the only option available. There are numerous products that you can use to install custom knobs, switches, or dials to control various aspects of your system. You’ll need a line converter and rotary switches wired into each channel. This can give you some volume control of individual channels or your subwoofer but adds complexity to the system.
A Portable Headless System
Now, this is fun and really easy to put together. All you really need is one of the Bluetooth amplifiers and a loaded speaker box. Bolt the amplifier to an isolation pad on the box, connect the wires to the speakers, and run a heavy-gauge wire that connects to battery and ground.
Now, when you get to your campsite, parking spot, or favorite hangout, you can pull the box out, hook up the power, connect your phone, and you’ve got a mobile party machine putting out way more power than any old school boom box and it’ll sound way better than a Bluetooth speaker.
Designing and installing a headless system doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. There are many solutions available today that weren’t even a consideration just a few years ago. The widespread inclusion of Bluetooth connectivity means that you have a huge selection of amplifiers and DSP units to choose from. You should check out some of our “Best Of” lists to get an idea of the products you’ll be happy using.
There are lots of excellent reasons to choose a headless system. Vintage car owners have been a driving force behind the advancement of headless systems because of the relative difficulty of installing modern equipment in a vintage car. A headless system allows an invisible installation without cutting the dash, drilling a bunch of holes, and tearing the car up. Plus, a properly designed system will be able to function just fine on vintage charging systems that don’t have the amperage output of modern alternators.
These systems are also ideal in boats and ATVs because they don’t take up a bunch of space. Keep in mind the power requirements, though. A powerful stereo will quickly drain a battery that can’t be charged fast enough.