If you were to buy a new car 30 years ago, a premium factory-installed stereo system might include an 8-track player and FM-band radio.

Buy a new car today, from the same manufacturers, and you expect a bonanza of features represented by more acronyms than you can shake a subwoofer at.

Start with wireless Bluetooth connectivity, then add on-board mp3 storage, satellite radio, Internet radio, weather and sports scores — and don’t forget the big touchscreen and voice controls to command it all.

It all sounds a bit overwhelming, but today’s consumer is on top of it, and coming out on top as a result. Never before have so many entertainment features been considered standard for so many car models, and at an affordable price.

Here’s what to consider when you’re looking at factory car stereos and what to look out for.

If you’re so bound to your smartphone you can’t pull yourself away from it while driving, getting a car stereo that connects with your smartphone is a good idea. Not only is holding your phone while driving likely to get you a ticket these days, it’s just plain unsafe.

Look for Bluetooth connectivity you can pair with your smartphone, and that can share your phone’s Internet connection or link your phone and the in-dash touchscreen and voice command controls.

There are several benefits to optioning your car with a Bluetooth connection that can piggyback on your phone’s Internet. Toyota’s Entune multimedia system can use your phone’s data plan to stream Internet radio, for example, or draft personalized music playlists. (If Internet radio is a feature you want, keep in mind popular service Pandora is not available in Canada, but Stitcher is.)

Other automakers have developed similar applications that can use your data connection to update your social networks, read your e-mail, or check on local traffic while you drive.

Cars with large touchscreens can sometimes display text messages you receive on your smartphone, so that you can stay hands-free and still read them. The 2014 Mazda6’s stereo system – available, like many other cars’, with speech recognition software you can use to control your smartphone – can even read the messages to you and send pre-written replies like, “I’ll call you soon, I’m driving,” or “I’m on my way now.”

Offering an auxiliary jack on a car dash so you can plug in your mp3 player is old hat for car stereos. Modern systems now offer more sophisticated ways to integrate with your iPod or flash storage, or come with sizeable on-board hard drives to store your music.

The 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe, for example, offers both an iPod input jack and a USB input. If you’ve got a flash drive of your favourite music, you could use the Santa Fe’s controls to navigate through your playlist and blast your tunes. It works similarly for your iPod, except you’ve the added option of using voice commands to call up the song you want with that device.

With more cars offering connectivity features and on-board hard drives, it’s fun to think about a stereo system that, in the near future, could wirelessly connect to your home computer network from the garage. You could sync it with your iTunes playlist, and never be wanting for great music in the car again.

Cars now come outfitted with so many speakers the left-right balance knob is laughable: a 360-degree directional balance control might be more appropriat*e.

The plastic knobs and dials we’re accustomed to tweaking on our car dashboards are quickly being handed “antique” status. As many futuristic sci-fi shows have depicted, automakers seem to be moving towards a sleek, shiny dashboard with touch controls and speech recognition software.
 
Take the 2014 Mazda CX-5, for example. Its centre console stack features a prominent 5.8-inch touchscreen drivers can use to navigate audio options, phone connectivity features and GPS sat-nav maps. You’ll find a 6.1-inch touchscreen standard in the new Toyota Camry, and a full 7-inch touchscreen in the 2014 Chevy Cruze diesel.

Car manufacturers are becoming more confident consumers will be comfortable with touchscreens in their car after the popularity of tablets like the iPad have made them like second nature.

Speech recognition systems have also come a long way — you no longer have to read from a fixed list of commands to unreliable voice-recognition software.

Nuance Communications, the popular tech firm behind the Dragon Naturally Speaking software used on PCs, iPhones, and BlackBerrys, have developed the speech recognition tech for in-car applications like Ford’s Sync system, and Chevrolet’s MyLink. Nuance allows user to talk to their cars in an almost conversational way.

Cars now come outfitted with so many embedded speakers that the left-right balance knob is sort of laughable: a 360-degree directional balance control might be more appropriate, especially if you’re lucky enough to be behind the wheel of a Lexus LS 600h with 19 speakers.

The more speakers you have, the more you’ll be able to tweak the sound of your system to suit your discerning musical tastes — making your mp3s sound like a live orchestra in a concert hall, or a solo minstrel strumming in a cozy tavern, if you like.

Most people will be quite happy with the six speakers provided in the Toyota Camry, and start to feel spoiled by the nine speakers in the Mazda6.

The most common measurement advertised on car speakers is wattage — power. The general idea is more wattage means better speakers, but that’s not necessarily true. What it means is the speakers can handle more power output, but aren’t necessarily louder.

For example, the Mazda CX-5 offers a 225-watt sound system, but uses lightweight materials to offer good sound quality comparable to bulkier systems. Then there’s Ford’s Shaker system for its V8 engine cars, offering 1000-watt speakers for raw power.

Gallery: the evolution of car stereos through the decades

You may come across the odd car stereo that has HD radio listed as a feature. Don’t sweat it if you’ve never heard of this before: it’s not been adopted in Canada yet, except in some limited testing by CBC Radio.

The digital, over-the-air format has been picked up in the U.S. because it offers better sound quality than AM or FM radio bands, plus the bandwidth for information streams like traffic or weather. U.S. firm iBiquity holds the licence rights to the technology, and it rates Canada as “testing/high-interest” zone on its international roll-out map.

Don’t seek it out as a feature, but if your car comes with it, at least you’ll be ready when Canada does deploy HD Radio.