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How to Choose the Right Marine Stereo

In 2024 there are a ton of different marine radio and stereo options. They all come with Bluetooth built-in, so streaming music from your phone isn't a concern because they all do that. There are a ton of other essential features that will help determine the best radio for your boat. Among them are the following:
Form Factor
Do you have an existing radio?

If you have an existing radio, most people will try to find a radio to fit the existing opening. It makes the installation easier, you don't have to cut another hole, and you don't have to worry about filling an existing hole. If you have an older boat, chances are it has a DIN size radio already installed. These are radios that 2" (H) x 7" (W), and they typically have a CD player built-in. This form factor is the "standard" car CD player from the '90s and early 2000s that had a detachable faceplate.

There are many marine-grade DIN size stereos available if you want a cost-effective, drop-in solution. However, some of the newer radios with more features and larger screens have abandoned the DIN size form factor. Now they use standard 3" or 3.5" round openings for mounting. One drawback of the round openings is that they can't play CDs. If you don't want to play CDs, this isn't an issue. If you want to play CD's you will need a DIN size form factory and a marine-grade head unit with a CD/DVD player as one might expect.

  • You don't have an existing radio
  • You have an existing DIN size radio, and you want to Play CDs
  • You have an existing DIN size radio, and you don't want another DIN
  • You have an existing DIN size radio, and you don't care about the form factor
  • You have a gauge or square style radio with a round hole cutout
  • You have a gauge or square style radio with a square cutout
  • You want a black box radio
You don't have an existing radio

If you don't have an existing radio, you can select any new radio because you do not have to worry about filling an already existing opening. The form factor is a matter of preference, and you are not necessarily limited by what is already there.

You have an existing DIN size radio and You want to Play CDs

If you have an existing DIN size radio, and you want the ability to play CDs, you can select from a Kenwood, Sony, Boss, or Fusion head unit. Among these, Boss is the economical option, the Kenwood and Sony units are similar, and the Fusion head units are probably the best in terms of features and water resistance, but they are more expensive than the Kenwood, Sony, and Boss units.

You have an existing DIN size radio and you want to Fill the existing opening.

If you have an existing DIN size radio and you want to replace it with another DIN unit, but you don't care about CD's, there are two options. First, you can purchase whichever DIN size marine stereo fits your budget and feature needs. The second option is that you can convert your existing DIN opening into a dry storage pocket using marine radio cover. Converting your DINThis would create a nice little storage locker for your phone. You can then purchase whichever other radio you choose. If it is DIN, you can install it in the existing hole. If it isn't DIN, convert it to a dry-storage locker.

You have an existing DIN size radio and you don't want another DIN

If you have an existing DIN size radio and you don't want another DIN size head unit, you can convert your existing DIN opening into a storage pocket using this DIN storage pocket, and this DIN size marine radio cover. Doing this would create a nice little storage locker for your phone. You can then purchase whichever other radio you choose. You might be surprised as some of the higher-end head units can be adapted to fit your existing DIN opening.

Internal Amplifier
How are you powering your speakers?

Do you have a marine amplifier, or are you planning on wiring your speakers directly to your radio? Most marine radios come with a built-in amplifier, or what we call, "deck power." With deck power, you can connect your speakers directly to the radio, and the radio will provide the power so that you hear music. Some marine radios like JL Audio MM100s-BE do not come with an internal amplifier. Instead, you MUST use an external amplifier. Most marine radios do come with an internal amplifier ranging from 25-50 watts of power across four channels. 25-50 watts of power from a radio is not comparable to 25-50 watts of power from an external amplifier. An external amplifier will always sound better than deck power because the actual power output is significantly higher. Most radios measure the power output based on peak power output. Most, quality marine amplifiers will base their power rating off of RMS, or constant power.

Do you want to play CD/DVDs?

If you want to play CDs or DVDs on your boat stereo, you will likely need a DIN size marine radio. The small form factor options do not work because most of them are not big enough for a CD to fit. Nowadays, most people are playing music on their phones, and you can save some money by choosing a digital media receiver instead (No CD player).

Do you need SiriusXM?

If you want to play SiriusXM, you will need to choose a marine radio that is SiriusXM ready. None of the units we offer come with SiriusXM built into the radio like a new car does. Instead, the SiriusXM ready marine radios allow you to connect an external tuner. You can then tune and control SiriusXM using the buttons on the radio, just like you do in a new car, but you do need to purchase the external tuner. The most popular is the SVX300.

Does your boat have Wi-Fi?

If your boat has Wi-Fi onboard, the best marine radio is the Fusion MS-RA770. This Fusion marine radio is part of their Apollo series and it has Wi-Fi connectivity, NMEA 2000 certification, and it works with Fusion's PartyBus Network and FusionLink app. The MS-RA770 will connect to your Wi-Fi network and then broadcast that Wi-Fi to other Apollo series radios on board to give you the ultimate in control. This allows you to have your MS-RA770 at the helm as your "Home Zone" radio in the cabin, a radio at the flybridge, a unit at the bow, and you can create multiple groups to connect, broadcast and control the units together or separately. The MS-RA770 has virtually every function you would want, including Bluetooth, USB, AUX, Apple Air Play2, and much more.

Does Your Boat have NMEA 2000 Network?

If your boat has an NMEA 2000 network, you will want to make sure that you select an NMEA 2000 certified radio. Choosing an NMEA certified radio will let you control and view your radio controls across other MFD devices on board, such as a plot charter or fish-finder. If you already have the functionality, it makes it much nicer to be able to use the technology, and it allows more flexibility and a better user experience.

Do you want Additional Remotes?

Adding additional remotes to your boat's stereo system can make things much easier and more enjoyable. Many marine radios allow you to connect additional remotes. These are wired devices that usually look like full-function stereo units, but they only control your main stereo. One of the most popular places to put a stereo remote is at the back of your boat near the swim step. This way, if you are swimming, you don't have to get completely out of the water and walk to the helm to change songs or adjust the volume. These are not usually necessities, but creature comforts that make your life easier and more enjoyable.

Zone Control
How many Zones Do You Need to Control?

One of the most important factors when picking a marine stereo is the number of zones you want to control. Every company counts zones differently.

2 Zones

Two zone marine radios can be a simple Front/Rear fader. Other's might be Front with Rear/Subwoofer where you can either set the rear channel to full range for speakers or as your subwoofer control. Other radios will have 2 zone control with front and rear, where both front and rear have a subwoofer. There isn't any standardization among this, but all are 2 zone radios.

  • Front + Rear
  • Front + Rear/Subwoofer (You select whether it is rear or subwoofer. It isn't both)
  • (Front + Subwoofer) + Rear
  • (Front + Subwoofer) + (Rear + Subwoofer)
3 Zones
  • Front + Rear + Subwoofer
  • (Front + Subwoofer) + Rear + Zone 2
  • (Front + Subwoofer) + (Rear + Subwoofer) + (Zone3 + Subwoofer)
4 Zones
  • Front + Rear + Subwoofer + Zone 2
  • Zone1 + Zone2 + Zone3 + Zone4
  • (Front + Subwoofer) + (Rear + Subwoofer) + (Zone3 + Subwoofer) + (Zone4 + Subwoofer)

In choosing the best radio, the most important factor is whether or not you have an existing radio. If you do, we recommend something that fit's the existing opening. If you don't have an existing radio, skip to buying based on features. If you want a CD player, you need a DIN size radio. If you don't want a CD player, your options are unlimited. It might be DIN, it might not be, but you should buy the radio you want based on the features you need and how compact you want it to be.

In terms of features, all of the marine radios we offer come with Bluetooth built-in. The most important features to consider are Wi-Fi, NMEA 2000 certification, and the number of Remotes. It is a part of the features, but also somewhat complicated, but you also need to know how many zones you want to control. When you have the form factor and features determined, check out our Best Marine Radio article for our recommendations.