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What Car Stereos Can and Cannot Play

Today, some car stereos come with disc readers that will allow you to play your music through CDs. But, because music files come in all forms and file types depending on how they were encoded, you may be wondering what car stereos can and cannot play.

What car stereos can and cannot play depends on the head unit you have installed in the car. Most modern head units play MP3, AAC, FLAC, and ALAC, but some head units tend to be pickier than others.

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Tip: If you listen to music not only from the radio or via Bluetooth but also from various devices, including CDs, DVDs, or MP4 formats, you will need a stereo that can play all of the tracks.

My favorite is the BOSS Audio Systems BV9358B Car DVD Player, which can handle, decode, and play different digital music files regardless of whether they may be from CDs or DVDs. It is available on Amazon, so if you want to give it a try, click the above link and check its recent price.

In today’s digital world, days, where we have to rely on CDs and cassette tapes to play music in our car’s stereo system are gone.

That’s because the modern sound systems found in our vehicles rely more on reading and playing music that can be stored digitally in smaller storage systems rather than getting burned on compact discs or cassettes. 

Some sound systems can be unique because a particular head unit may or may not play different file types. Some file formats are non-playable in most head units, regardless of their brand and manufacturer.

In the article below, I will go through the most popular types of music files to guide you on what car stereos can and cannot play.

Can car stereos play DVD-R?

Even though DVD-Rs are much more advanced than CD-Rs, there is still a question as to whether or not car stereos are capable of handling DVD-Rs and playing them when you burn music into them.

There is no question that most home stereos and entertainment systems can read DVD-Rs and are even most likely able to play Blu-ray discs already. But what about car stereos?

Well, it still all boils down to your car’s head unit. There are plenty of different types of head units that are just simply unique from one another because one head unit doesn’t have the reading capabilities of the other. 

what car stereos can play

Because music files are not that large, even as file sizes are getting bigger and bigger in today’s digitized world, the CD still has its place as the most widely used medium when it comes to selling physical copies of music albums. 

When you are burning music files at home with your computer, it is also better and more economical to use a CD-R instead of a DVD-R. There is no reason for you to go for the much more expensive option when there is a more affordable and equally capable alternative for you.

So, in that regard, most car stereo manufacturers still make and develop stereos and head units that are only capable of reading CDs instead of other types of discs such as Blu-ray.

In most cases, when the head unit’s disc player was not designed to play in-car movies, especially when your car’s sound system was only meant for music and nothing else, there is no reason for the stereo to be able to play DVD-Rs.

Still, because of how advanced today’s head units are, they can handle more different digital files than the older units. If you have an older stereo, you will most likely not have any luck trying to make it play your music from a DVD-R. However, newer stereos like BOSS Audio Systems BV9358B Car DVD Player can handle, decode, and play different digital music files regardless of whether they may be from CDs or DVDs.

In other cases, especially when purchasing a second-hand stereo, you should check the manual before buying it.

If you will replace the factory sound system in your car, search for a head unit with many different playback options such as CDs or DVDs. 

Most head units will have the playable media and files printed on the boxes, regardless of 1 din or 2 din size. Meanwhile, if you leave your factory stereo, check the manual to see the media and the files that it can play.

Can car stereos play WAV files?

If you rely more on saving file sizes and therefore space on flash drives and memory cards when you are listening to music in your car while driving, it is important to use the right file type. There are plenty of different file types that your car’s stereo may be unable to read and play if you kept them mixed in your flash drive.

One of the files that stereos must read is the waveform or WAV format.

So, if you’re planning on playing WAV files on your car’s stereo, there is probably no way to do it from a flash drive of your head unit is older. You cannot simply plug and play a flash drive with the WAV file and expect your car’s head unit to read and play it.

That’s why the best way for you to play those WAV files is by burning them into CD-Rs.

To be able to play WAV files in the car, you need the following:

  • A blank CD, or a CD-R. This is where you will be burning your WAV music files on. Do not use a rewritable CD or a CD-RW because CD players don’t usually read CD-RWs. CD-RWs are designed to be data storage devices.
  • You must have a CD writer on your computer. If your computer does not have a CD-reader, use the external. For example, fantastic quality offer Rioddas reader/writer. The laptop or computer you are using should also have software that will allow it to burn movies and music into the CD.
  • Follow the burning process of your chosen software. I have been using a Nero Express, and I like it so much. The process is straightforward and easy to follow. Simply drag and drop your WAV files, arrange them in the order you want to play them, choose the configurations so that the CD will be recognized as a music CD (not a data CD), and then start the burning process.
  • After your computer has completed the burning process, you can now play the WAV files on your car’s audio system by simply inserting the CD into it.

In most cases, however, it is still best to check with the car’s manual if you are relying on your factory audio system. But, if you bought a new sound system for your vehicle or if you are still planning on doing so, always check the label to see if the stereo supports WAV files.

The new car stereos can play any music files regardless of whether they are burned on a CD or stored in a flash drive or memory card.

can car stereo play mp3

Can car stereos play m3a?

I do not know if many of you have come across the m3a file type before. However, the .m3a file extension you may see in your different files is actually MPEG-3 audio files or MP3 files.

These music files are the most popular nowadays because they are compact and are quite versatile.

As to whether or not your car stereo can play m3a files or MP3 music files, well, the simple answer is yes. In most cases, the MP3 file is the most widely used when it comes to playing music in the car simply because of how compact and versatile it is.

That’s why you probably won’t have a lot of problems playing MP3 files on your car’s stereo.

You can play m3a or MP3 file formats by making use of a USB flash drive that can be connected to your head unit’s USB slot or by using a memory card that can be inserted into the memory card reader on your car’s audio system.

Can car stereos play MP3 CDs?

While not many people still use CDs, there are still cars that come with built-in CD players or CD chargers to allow you to play your favorite tracks just by inserting the CD into the car’s CD reader.

However, the problem is that most CDs use WAV files because most CD players are only capable of reading WAV files when it comes to the music format. That’s why there will be car stereos that probably won’t be able to read MP3 file formats on your CD.

Still, again, you always have to check the car’s stereo system if it can decode MP3 CDs and not just CDs that contain WAV files.

There are plenty of different head units capable of decoding and reading MP3 CDs and not just CDs containing WAV files in them. But the fact of the matter here is that it still boils down to your car’s stereo system, and that is why it is better to check the manual first or to go and buy a stereo that can read MP3 CDs.

A great example of such a head unit is the JVC KD- T915BTS Bluetooth Car Stereo Receiver

However, take note here that MP3 files may be compact and versatile, but the quality of the music is inferior to that of WAV files, which are lossless audio files. That means that you are not losing sound quality when it comes to the WAV audio format. In this case, there is no logical reason to burn MP3 files on your CD instead of WAV unless the highest priority is the compression of the files.

Will MP4 Play on a car stereo?

MP4 file formats are different from the MP3 file format because you are not only storing audio but also video. MP4 file formats are meant for videos in general and not just for audio and music. But can car stereos play MP4 files?

It will depend entirely on your car’s audio system’s head unit. The newer cars usually have factory sound systems with head units that are pretty much capable of playing any audio format, but MP4 capability usually comes together with a built-in screen. That means the head unit will be either 2-din or 1-din with a retractable screen like Pioneer AVH-3500NEX.

In most cases, if you have a car with a total entertainment system in the sense that it can play movies, there is no reason it won’t be able to play MP4 files because of how this file format was primarily made for videos. But if your car’s stereo is only capable of playing audio files, you may still be able to play MP4 files as long as the head unit is capable of decoding them.

However, when playing MP4 files either through a burned CD or through a USB flash drive, always make sure that they are MP4 music files and not audio files. Otherwise, your car’s stereo system won’t be able to read them.

Which USB format works in a car?

Most USB file formats usually work for your car’s stereo system’s head unit. This may include standard USB formats such as FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS.

FAT32 tends to be the most popular file format that is readable in most head units found in car stereo systems. 

When buying a head unit, make sure it is capable of reading any USB file format so that you can also use other types of USB devices such as your phone or your external hard drive when you want to play music in your car.

Formatting USB flash drive for car stereo

When you want to format your USB flash drive for your car stereo, you need to use a Windows computer to make the process easier. However, you can also do the same with a laptop running on macOS.

  • Connect your USB device or flash drive to your Windows computer. Open the file explorer option and search for your USB device in the “This PC” location.
  • After you have found your USB device, right-click on it, and different options will appear. Look for the “Format” option.
  • Choose the option to format your USB, and choose what type of formatting you want for your USB drive. The choice depends on you and on what your car’s head unit is capable of reading:

FAT (exFAT or FAT32)

The FAT format is faster and takes up less space on the device. It is also the most widely used, so most head units are probably capable of reading it. 

If you are simply using a USB flash drive, it might be best to stick with FAT. The exFAT format is for drives larger than 32GB, while the FAT32 is for flash drives 32 GB or smaller.


NFTS is usually for external and internal hard drives and often for drivers larger than 32GB. You can also transfer larger files if you are using the NFTS format. However, since this is usually reserved for computer drives, not many car stereos can read the NFTS format.

If you have a stereo capable of reading NFTS, you are lucky because you can use your external hard drive for your car’s audio system.

  • Start the formatting process, erase all of the data on your USB drive, and then format it to your desired format. This may take a few minutes, depending on how fast your computer is.
can car stereo read usb flash drive

Video format for car USB player

If you have a car stereo system that’s also capable of reading and playing videos on the screen on the head unit or in the monitors found in the back seats, here are the video formats that most car USB players should be able to read:

  • MP4 is the most recognizable format because of how it is compact and versatile. However, there will be some losses in the video’s overall quality due to how compressed it is. Still, most cars will be able to play .mp4 formats via the USB drive.
  • MOV is probably second only to .mp4 in terms of how common and recognizable it is. This file format is much closer to Apple devices, but they are just as mainstream as .mp4 formats. That means that your car will be able to play this format with no problems.
  • DIVX may also be popular, but it isn’t nearly as popular as .mp4 and .mov. Still, most car entertainment systems will be able to read this file format through the USB player. 
  • MKV may be the most popular when it comes to overall quality, but the problem is that most stereos do not usually support it. In the past, not even the video players that come with most computers can play .mkv files because of how tricky it can be. Nowadays, computers are easily capable of playing .mkv files using most video player software, but you probably won’t be able to expect your car’s USB reader to be able to play .mkv files. It is best to convert .mkv files to .mp4 or .mov if you want your vehicle to read them.