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Aftermarket Audio: From Replacement to Integration

Back in the good old days, the 1980s and 90s, car audio, like everything else, was simple. Most vehicles had a DIN-, or double-DIN-sized headunit. The headunit would have an AM/FM radio and a cassette or a compact disc player – the truly luxury cars would have both. A small LCD display screen would show the radio frequency or the song number. There would be six preset buttons. Adventurous automakers would integrate CD changer controls which allowed for hours of uninterrupted music, if anyone actually liked the other ten songs those albums.

Today’s headunits are much more than that. CD players are almost extinct. In their place we have USB ports, auxiliary inputs, and blue teeth. AM/FM radio is quickly being replaced by satellite radio. There are apps for Pandora and other such steamers. All of that is displayed on screens that are getting bigger each year, which also display the navigation system. Then there are the camera connections and full integration of phones into the dash. All of this is neatly molded into the dash and controlled from the steering wheel, or knobs or touchpads located by the arm rest. 

All of this makes the simplest audio upgrade, a headunit swap, almost impossible. And frankly, it isn’t desirable, either. Most aftermarket head units never looked right and are often unintuitive and difficult to use. In most cases headunits no longer power the speakers as the use of external amplifiers is increasing. But what if you want a better sound system in your new-ish car?

There are several choices…

Choice number one is to do like the 1990s and take a glance into the Crutchfield catalog. Except that it’s now on online and not monthly in your mail. Plug-in your car make and model, and bam, a list of speakers that will fit your car in every factory opening. They’ll even provide you with painless wire crimping options and mounting brackets. Opt for a powered sub if you’re all about that bass. Crutchfield gives solid directions, too. I’ve done two cars with the products they sell and their accessories, and the installation went mostly well, if a bit longer than anticipated. Their support people are great, too. 

Your second choice is visiting your local professional audio shop. Please ignore any shop that advertises free installation – you get what you pay for. It likely won’t be cheap but a good shop will know all the latest audio trends and products. Chances are that they will tell you that you need more than you think you do but will likely do a damn good job, even if some OEM integrity is lost. They are also likely to push aftermarket head-units on you because it often makes their job easier. Everything has a price and so does a good installation job.

But recently a new option has surfaced. There are several companies out that design systems for specific vehicles. These systems utilize the factory headunit, or infotainment system as it has become known, and all associated factory connections and features. All these systems do take the audio output from the headunit and perform some tuning magic with it. They amplify the signal and properly select the frequency range for each speaker.

Such systems include all new speakers which neatly drop into their factory locations. An external amplifier is mounted in a discrete location, usually under a seat. In addition to the speakers, that amplifier also powers a subwoofer which is placed into the cargo area. All wiring is in specific length and properly terminated, making this a plug-and-prayplay affair. In all, the sound is supposed to be specifically tuned for each model, giving that model the sound of a factory premium audio.

In my research of doing an audio system update to Project 4Runner, I came upon a company called OEM Audio Plus. They make such systems for Toyota and Subaru vehicles. Try as I could, I have yet to see anyone say anything negative about this company. Heck, it was even recommended to me by a Toyota employee. BAVSOUND does something similar but for BMWs and the reviews on that are equally great. 

Have any of you, dear readers, had any experience with such companies and/or such systems? I want to retain my factory headunit despite the fact that it lacks a nav system but the audio quality is killing me.

  • 0A5599

    You forgot one more aftermarket audio option.

    https://www.borla.com/productImages/misc/14659_xlarge.jpg

    • I can’t find it now but there was a pic floating around of a performance exhaust upgrade on a BMW… and it was a picture of an audio system.

  • Fred Talmadge

    I’d like to get Android Auto in my TSX wagon, but I’m too cheap and with the tech improving I don’t feel the urgency.

  • The stock systems in most newer cars are so much better than they ever were that I can’t see that my ears could tell the incremental difference at 70mph. Besides, the manual that came with my newest car devotes about half the pages to the “infotainment” system, which I haven’t read. The new systems are too distracting for me.

  • P161911

    I might actually be in the market for a new head unit for my truck. The only reasons are the 3.5mm input jack (the only reason I upgraded to the AM/FM/CD radio vs the AM/FM only radio) is going out and it would be nice to have Bluetooth. I mostly listen to news and Audible books.

  • outback_ute

    Going back a bit further, my first car had a shaft-drive radio. I was happy – it had FM! My mother’s 1983 Mazda had 2 DIN components side by side. One had the radio, the other the cassette.

    In the olden days the best upgrade was to replace the speakers, which benefit the most from not being cheap garbage. It sounds like things haven’t changed that much.

    I have seen a couple of impressive options in the recent Ford Falcon/Territory where the interface was reprogrammed to add a touch screen and upgrade the audio, integrated to the factory system. Also others where it was bypassed completely and a whole aftermarket system was added with the head unit cut into the base of the centre stack.

    What I’d like is a sub-DIN system to tuck away in my old car, just to play usb/bluetooth and perhaps radio.

    • Hey! My ’84 CJ-7 had a shaft radio!

      • I_Borgward

        Shaft?! Shut your mouth!

  • Zentropy

    I lack the code to access the Blaupunkt in my old BMW, and haven’t bothered to replace it. When driving I’d rather listen to the car. I find music somewhat distracting while driving.

    • You must not drive it daily a hour each way in traffic then?

      • Sjalabais

        Objection your honor! One hour on amazing roads would be the perfect condition for musicless driving.

        Regards,
        Another silent commuter…
        …that only turns on the radio when I hit slow traffic.

  • Harry Callahan

    I hope against hope that the OEM manufacturers return to some sort of DIN (USB tech) arrangement for simplified upgrading. I believe it can benefit OEMs in the long run.

    Let’s say 2018 vehicles will have feature set “X” available in their integrated infotainment systems. By 2021, it is likely that feature set will be obsolete. Doesn’t it makes sense for the OEMs to then offer updated plug-n-play replacement infotainment systems with feature set “Y”—they could then sell for profit via the dealer parts and service departments? Pull out the old head-unit, slide in the new upgraded one. Imagine how much engineering cost could be eliminated if a common infotainment interface could be incorporated across the manufacturers entire line…!

    The after-market could also get involved again if the OEMs use some wisdom and keep the HVAC and other chassis control elements out of the infotainment system.

    Why not?

    • outback_ute

      Can’t unscramble the egg…

      Plus one display screen and some software is cheaper, and the manufacturer doesn’t worry about changing things after the car is built (non-maintenance items at least)

    • Fred Talmadge

      Part of the problem is some of the controls for the car is incorporated into that screen that aftermarket suppliers are not going to be able to deal with. On the other hand there are various faceplate and wiring adapters to do upgrades.

      On the other hand I demoed some after market units and while I like the idea of AA, it is kind of clunky. It’s just slow to respond just like my rather old phone. So for now I’m just mounting my phone to the dash and using bluetooth.

  • Wait, my RSX has a CD changer and a cassette player, so, luxury?

    Also, the AM radio in the Tbird has a separate amp, so I guess I’m ahead of the curve there too.

  • The only time I can hear the audio in my car is when I’m idling at traffic lights so I rarely bother to switch it on.

  • wt

    I have installed BAVsound subs, speakers, and amplifiers in a 2013 M3 and 2015 X1. They really are a big improvement. The only challenge you can face comes if your car was originally optioned with a lower end speaker system and therefore had fewer speakers. Upgrading 8 speakers will only get you so far compared to upgraded 14 or even 20 on the highest end.