Replacing my car stereo

I finally got sick of the cassette adapter I was using so that I could listen to my iPod Shuffle in my car and decided to upgrade my car stereo. It turns out that you can get a new base model for $60-70, which was much cheaper than I’d thought! (It really doesn’t take much to leapfrog the technology used in my car’s original 1999 stereo.) Then it’s just down to the investment of your own time to get it installed. (Given Evan’s offer to show me how it’s done, there was no way I was going to pay an installer to have all that fun!)

There were several new features that I wanted: a front AUX input, so I could plug my Shuffle in directly; a display that showed the title of the song currently playing from the radio; and a CD player. At Best Buy, the front AUX port and the CD drive were easy to spot on any stereo, but I couldn’t tell which ones would show song names. I asked the salesperson, who replied, “All of them.”

I picked out the base Pioneer model (1300MP), and a few days later we got together to install it. Evan figured out via google the easiest way to open up my console, and after detaching the wiring plugs for the hazard and rear defrost buttons, we had the stereo out:

We opened the new stereo and commenced to connect its wires to a “wiring harness” that has plugs to fit the sockets provided by my 1999 Nissan Sentra. This meant stripping the ends of 11 wires and then soldering them to their corresponding wires in the harness. I experimented with my “less hazardous” lead-free silver solder, but ended up switching to Evan’s “wash hands before eating or smoking” lead solder, which works tons better. Prior to soldering, Evan threaded bits of heat-shrink tubes onto each wire, and after they were connected, we slid the heat-shrink up over the join and melted it with a device like a super-super-charged hair dryer. The tubes shrank to a neat fit onto the wires, yielding tidy connections that wouldn’t short against each other (stereo out of view on the left, wiring harness on the right):

We then wrapped electrical tape in spirals along the length of the wires to package them up prior to putting the stereo back into the car.

And with that, it was in! It took us about an hour and 15 minutes from start to finish.

I enjoyed the stereo for about 10 minutes until I realized that while the CD player and the AUX port worked fine, it didn’t display anything about the current song playing from the tuner. Arrrrgh! I pored through the manual and found no mention of this feature at all. So I went back to Best Buy where the installer tech informed me that this feature is called Radio Data System and that I needed to find a stereo with “RDS” listed as a feature. He assured me however that Best Buy would take the stereo back since I’d bought it thinking it had a feature it didn’t, even though I’d already installed it.

On Amazon, I found a base-model Sony car stereo (350MP) that does have RDS, and is slightly nicer all around than the Pioneer, for only $10 more. When that one arrived in the mail, I sat down, this time solo, to undo and redo the installation process. Getting the heat-shrink tubes off the wiring harness was a pain:

After a few of these I figured out that I could instead score the tube in the middle and twist/slide it away from the join, then desolder the connection and pull both tubes off. Then even that got tedious, so I started just cutting the wires and stripping them back a bit more to expose fresh surfaces on the wiring harness end. I put on new heat-shrink tubes, then soldered the new stereo to the harness wires and used my multimeter to check that all of the connections were good. I shrank the heat tubes, wrapped the connection in electrical tape, and put the stereo into the car. Interestingly, it wouldn’t power on until I also plugged in the antenna cable — leading me at first to suspect a flaw in my work. But no! All was good with everything connected.

It was at about this point that I realized I’d left a CD in the stereo I’d just taken out of the car. At that point I was two hours in and not willing to remove the new Sony stereo, unsolder its connections, reconnect the Pioneer, eject the CD, undo its connections, and reconnect the Sony. So I called it a day and savored the Sony’s futuristic blue glow, dancing equalizer dots, advanced display, and Radio Data System.

Old stereo… new stereo!


  • To avoid the hassle of soldering, apparently it is possible to use wire nuts (though they may not last as long) or a kind of wire-crimping device that is what Best Buy installers would use.
  • When I took the Pioneer stereo back to Best Buy, they sadly were not willing to take the time to get my CD out of it (e.g., pull out the Pioneer display stereo, plug the one I had in, and eject the CD). So I ended up returning it with the CD inside. At that point, any route to recover the CD would cost far more (in money and/or time) than simply replacing it. I did try hooking up the yellow (+) and black (-) wires to a 12V power supply, but that had no effect, and I didn’t want to experiment further and kill the stereo in the process.

National Train Day… and more trains

On May 7, I headed down to Union Station to celebrate National Train Day. I rode the Gold Line Metro to Union Station, delighted not to have to tackle parking in downtown Los Angeles. I arrived just as the event started, in time to trail along behind a contingent of the USC Marching Band (!) that was proceeding with much fanfare through the station.

The festivities included a variety of fun sights and experiences. There was a large model train setup with three trains running at the same time, weaving their ways through miniature trees and houses. There were tons of booths giving out railroad safety stickers, brochures about how to get to San Diego (and many other places) on the train, and information on the railroad workers’ union. A particular highlight was a cooking demonstration by renowned chef Tom Douglas, who owns five restaurants in Seattle and has crafted recipes for Amtrak’s trains. He showed how to make a grilled salmon + cucumber salad dish using the kind of stove available on the train — and then everyone in the audience (100+ people) got to try it. It was fascinating to see a top chef fillet a 15-pound salmon up close! (See picture at left of Chef Douglas, with an angled mirror above him so you could watch him work.)

There were brochures and information of every stripe, except one. I asked around a few places for information on Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass. I’d read some information about it online, but I was sure at this event, of all places, there’d be more to learn. But I came up totally empty-handed. You could learn how to get to Fillmore, to shows in Anaheim, and even to the Grand Canyon, but no information on the 6-month rail pass. The best I could get was a suggestion to call an 800 number. Amtrak, what a huge missed opportunity! (Or do you not want people to take advantage of the rail pass for some reason?)

As time went on, the number of people at the event ballooned. Apparently this was THE place to be on a Saturday afternoon with your kids. I was glad I’d arrived when I did, since an hour later there was an hour-long wait just to walk past the booths with brochures and stickers. However, because I’d saved the “Train Equipment Tour” for last, I ended up not getting to see what it was all about — the line stretched almost all the way through the station, with waits even for people who’d requested timed tickets (I didn’t know you could do that :) ). So, perhaps another time!

In related news, I later got to visit Travel Town, a local railroad museum. It’s a yard full of old engines and cars, most of which you (sadly) cannot climb on or walk through. Some few are open for curious eyes and hands, though. It’s also fun just to walk around and work out how the wheels and brakes and other pieces on the outside must function. You can even rent out a rail car for birthday parties. I admit, I was tempted! It turns out that Travel Town, like so many other organizations, makes good use of volunteers; you can even volunteer to learn how to LAY TRACK! Oh, for more hours in the day.

I also recently watched “Unstoppable”, a movie about a runaway (uncrewed) train that is a dramatization of real events. It’s exciting and action-y and definitely a dramatization; but interestingly, the main setup and events really did happen. It is an awe-inspiring thing, to see a behemoth of mechanical energy loosed from human control and rampaging blindly through the countryside. How, how to stop it? Watch the movie and find out!