No More Aftermarket Stereos for You

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One of the things that wasn’t so great about cars made until just the past five years or so was that the factory stereo systems often weren’t very good. Especially if you went back about ten or fifteen (or twenty) years – and were driving a run-of-the-mill model such as my ’02 Nissan Frontier.

It came with a very mediocre stereo.

But the great thing about vehicles made before the advent of LCD touchscreens popping out of the dashboard like Pop Tarts was that the factory stereo was just the factory stereo. It was not integrated into an LCD touchscreen, as is now the case in every 2024 model, irrespective of make. You cannot avoid the touchscreen in a new vehicle anymore.

And you cannot do something else.

Easily swap out the factory stereo for a better aftermarket unit. That could be easily done before the advent of LCD displays popping out of the dashboard like Pop Tarts because the stereo head unit was a discrete unit. It wasn’t part of anything else. More finely, it could be removed (and replaced) without affecting anything else – such as the car’s AC and heater controls, for instance. Or the GPS. Or whatever else is controlled via the LCD touchscreen interface, in addition to the stereo.

it is no longer a simple matter of removing the old head unit and plugging in an aftermarket unit (made very simple via universal-style plugs that enable an aftermarket stereo to literally be plugged into the existing factory wiring without cutting/splicing wiring). The new/aftermarket head unit was also sized to fit the hole and so when installed it looked as if it had come with the vehicle, from the factory.

The standardization of the LCD touchscreen has changed all that. It is no longer possible to just swap out the factory stereo for an aftermarket unit. You’d have to swap out the LCD screen – and you can’t do that because there are no aftermarket replacements for them. Whatever the car came with is what you’re stuck with, in other words.

This isn’t to say you cannot add a touchscreen to your vehicle, if it didn’t come with one originally. A number of aftermarket head units do feature an LCD touchscreen. But replacing an existing touchscreen – the one that came with the car – is something else.

It’s the latest example of what we’ve lost as a result of things in cars that were once discrete having been integrated into an indivisible whole that is what it is and that’s all there is to it.

For example, it was once relatively easily to swap engines. Maybe you couldn’t afford a Trans-Am like my Great Pumpkin when it was new, back in 1976. But if you could afford a Firebird, you could replace the six cylinder engine that it came with from the factory with a 400 or 455 V8 from a Trans-Am in the salvage yard. And if you had a Trans-Am with an automatic but wanted a manual, replacing the factory automatic with a manual was just a matter of getting the necessary parts and bolting them together. Once installed – if the installation was done competently – everything would work as if it had been installed at the factory.

You can’t replace – let alone swap out – the headlights on some new vehicles without connecting the vehicle to a computer to “ok” the work – and replacing the factory installed engine (or transmission) with one that differs from what was installed at the factory is a de facto impossibility, because the computer won’t accept the changes. And the computer is tied into and controls essentially everything.

New vehicles use computers (body control modules) to control accessories such as power windows and door locks. And they are specific to that particular vehicle.

It’s the same with the LCD touchscreens that are popping up like Pop Tarts in literally every new vehicle, irrespective of make or model. One of the reasons for this is that (apparently) lots of buyers like their vehicles to look like their phones – and work like them, too. Another reason is that bundling most of the vehicle’s secondary controls for accessories such as AC/heat as well as the stereo’s controls into a single LCD touchscreen interface reduces interior clutter (fewer physical buttons, knobs and switches) and eases (read – cheapens) assembly complexity as the vehicle moves down the production line.

Put bluntly, it increases profits by lowering the cost of parts and putting them into the car – which is then sold for more, in part because the LCD touchscreens look expensive to people who don’t know that electronics are cheap.

It also increases profits by pressuring buyers to buy the best factory stereo system they can afford because whatever they end up buying is what they’ll be having. In the past, it was no deterrent to the audiophile that a car he was looking at was abase trim with the not-so-great base stereo. He knew he could install a premium stereo without paying a premium for the vehicle.

Also, if the factory stereo croaked, it was inexpensive to replace it (and only it) with something better.

That’s one more thing that’s receding in the rearview, along with V6 engines in family-priced cars and V8 engines in luxury cars.

. . .

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  1. I’ve been looking to get a new car and, without fail, if you want the upgraded stereo you have to get the package with all the nanny driving help. You can no longer just order the stereo alone.

  2. I’ve been a diy audiophile since I was 13yrs old. The four auto brands I liked the most were Eclipse, Concord, Nakamichi, and Alpine. The Eclipse 4502 pre/tuner/cass head unit ended up being my fav. Coupled to Eclipse or Fosgate amps. Along with a small 6.5″ powered sub. At one point I even ran Danish Dynaco A25 speakers in the back of various VW’s. FF to today and I now drive a 34yr old NA Miata that has small speakers in the bucket seat headrests. Driven by a cheap Pioneer CD headunit with the same powered small sub in the trunk. Sound quality is nowhere near as good as the older headunits. But it gets me by in the noiser convertible. The cassette headunits all eventually suffered plastic transport gear failures or I’d still be running them and making analog tapes. The last thing people need is vehicles with multiple puters all shaking hands or else, while squealing to the clouds 24/7. It’s hard to imagine vehicles where if the radio/touchscreen fails then the vehicle might have to be trashed. But if the replacement is not available that could be the outcome. The days of real consumer choice and protection are long gone in the rear view mirror. There has been multiple vehicles that I intended on purchasing new. Like a 324td, Mini diesel, and the aluminum/ceramic Audi diesel that got 100+mpg. But I waited with high hopes for 17yrs and finally tossed in the towel. As none was ever allowed to be imported. It’s a sad state of controlled affairs.

    • One of the best sounding automotive bass speaker I ever owned was a SAS Bazooka 10″ tube style subwoofer. Man that thing put out some deep lows! At one point I had 2 15″ Kickers in my back seat, but those Bazookas blew them away.

  3. Browsing the Crutchfield website it looks like the aftermarket has some solutions. It seems to be using the factory tuner and then intercepting the signals into another box then aftermarket amp and speakers.
    There’s probably something for integrated stereos somewhere. Of course the problem may be getting it accepted by the car’s network.

  4. I consider this ON topic:

    “Baby got a ’69 Mustang
    Four on the floor and you ought hear the pipes ring
    I jump behind the wheel and it’s away we go
    Hey, I drive too fast, but she don’t care
    Blue bandanna tied all up in her hair
    Just sittin’ there
    Singing every song on the radio”

    “Whiskey Girl”

    RIP Toby Keith.

  5. One reason we pay a bit more for upper trims is due to this problem. Thing is, many of these stereos are much better and make aftermarket systems not as critical.

    Crutchfield still has some good approaches to upgrades. Other than the obvious replacing cheap drivers, sound deadening material is a big help. Replacement or additional amplifiers can be added, too.

    Subaru still had an option to install a CD player in the WRX. Not bad.

    The days of considering double-DIN and stuff has passed for new cars. The aftermarket is pretty creative. Give it time.

  6. Here in WA you can really save on auto audio, roads are so rough you can’t hear over the tire noise, even in the sound deadened Grand Cherokee with quiet Pirellis too. Well, they would be quiet if we weren’t driving on 2” exposed aggregate on every freeway in the state. It’s an election year for state offices so they’ll hit a mile or two here and there get everyone excited that this is it, finally getting freeways repaved.

    Seriously I don’t get the fascination with high end gear in a vehicle, all the racket from the road and car mask any decent sound quality while driving.

    • When I bought my 79 Firebird, the radio didn’t work and I planned to replace it at some point. 2 years later, the same old non functioning unit is still there because I put a set of Summit Flowmaster knock-offs on the dual exhaust and I’d much rather listen to the sound of those pipes barking than music.

      The exhaust sounds so good that I find myself tolerating icy cold temps with the windows down and heat cranked up just to be able to hear it.

      I had cherry bombs on it for a while, but it was just too obnoxious. The Summit mufflers are just the right growl.

  7. I’m lucky enough to be blessed with old ears, makes stereo equipment much less expensive and last a long time.

    But I rented a car with CarPlay, made the stereo work pretty well with my phone. But apparently GM decided that they know how to do touchscreens better than Apple (and get lots of extra revenue from subscription fees), so they decided to drop support.

    Not saying CarPlay is a dealbreaker, but all else equal I’ll probably go with something other than GM next time I buy a vehicle.

  8. I bought a 1986 Isuzu Trooper 2 new in 86 …Didn’t have a radio….Got me a pioneer super tuner 3 cassette tape deck…(remember those) 2 big ass amps a dual amp fader and eq and 4 6×9 speakers……Yep it would ROCK…I miss the 80s.

  9. We make home stereo pre-amplifiers to improve customers’ music listening experience.
    Our units will last for decades without repairs because we purposely avoid unreliable ‘features’ like touch screens. We are in business because we enjoy music and so do our customers.
    We, nor our customers, like missing the music because of repairs caused by bookkeepers doing poor product design. (Power amps coming soon.)

        • Good for you! I applaud the company for building quality tube units here in the US. I’m not at this audiophile level but last winters indoor project was resurrecting my old turntable (new belt, shim aligned the motor mounts, clock syn. oil for the spindle, spent some dough on a decent cartridge). For budget sake I had to go foreign for a small tube preamp and a 300B tube main amp replacing an old JVC S300 receiver. Rebuilt the speaker crossovers, new ribbon tweeters wish it had all sounded this good back in 1978! (SpeakerLab 2.5’s). Glad I kept the ‘70s vinyl collection.

  10. I pretty much only listen to audiobooks while driving. No need for the high dollar infotainment HAL 9000. It’s nice to pipe the audiobook via bluetooth to HAL 9000 in the beeemer. But the iphone speaker works just fine in the ol’ Sierra.

    If the beemer has HAL 9000, then the 25 year old Sierra has a Babbage computer. It’ll still be running long after HAL utters his last note of Daisy Bell.

  11. I’m old enough to remember a host of “converters” that would work with stock audio systems, from FM converters for AM radios to that gizmo that looked like a cassette tape with a jack for a CD player or iPod. You didn’t even have to replace your head unit.

    It would seem that the advent of smartphones and iPods would make stereo upgrades easier—just provide an interface for your device and wire in some speakers.

    But no.

    Gotta have those touch screens.

    • If you’re just going for sound, and quality isn’t a factor, just about any newer vehicle will have a line input or android/carplay support. My ‘16 Cherokee even will limited control my iPhone, but I wouldn’t call the sound quality “premium” at all.

  12. Going to a one size fits all approach might work when the car is new, but once it’s out of warranty and it breaks? What then? Based on the modules in your being locked to the vehicle they were originally installed in, replacing a broken touchscreen with a used one will not be an option.

    Sadly this type of approach will make car repair costlier in the future and may well result in cars being scrapped just because a new touch screen is not available.

  13. Speaking of tunes, I just recently rediscovered this little gem about the 455 Rocket. Why don’t they make songs about Tesla electric motors?

    Mr. Smith had an Oldsmobile
    Baby blue with them wire wheels
    I took her home the day that she was advertised
    He said she leaked when it would rain
    Sounded like an aeroplane
    But I knew she was jewel in disguise

    She had a 455 rocket
    The biggest block alive
    Couldn’t hardly wait just to take my turn
    She was made for the straight aways
    She grew up hating Chevrolets
    She’s a rocket
    She was made to burn

    Well, whose junk pile piece of Chevelle is this?
    You boys come here to race or just kiss?
    Mmm now don’t ya want to know what I got underneath my hood?
    I know she might sound like she’s missin’
    But buddy, she could teach you a lesson
    In just a quarter mile, and I’ll smoke you good

    In my 455 rocket
    The kind the police drive
    I couldn’t hardly wait just to take my turn
    She was made for the straight aways
    She grew up hating Chevrolets
    She’s a rocket
    She was made to burn

    I’m telling you and I ain’t ashamed
    I cried when that wrecker came
    As we skid I thought I heard the angels sing
    Sounded like the Beach Boys
    We hit the curb and began to sail
    Took out most of the safety rail
    Even the cop asked me, “Man what’d you have in that thing?”

    I had a 455 rocket
    The very kind you drive
    You oughta watch yourself when you take that turn
    She was made for the straight aways
    She grew up hating Chevrolets
    She’s a rocket, she was made to burn, burn
    Ohh she’s a rocket, she was made to burn

    • Not a great fan of the music, but I’m guessing I just wanted it to be a bit faster and harder… It happens.

      But how many cars are there in which you can put the whole band and their instruments, including a miniature drum set and what appears to be an upright bass. And probably still smoke your average car off the line?

    • I couldn’t agree more….NEVER, You know what would be smart, make them detachable like a “real” phone and have an attachment like an iPhone charger base. I don’t make 29 million a year and I can figure this out….Even better in high end cars….have a slot they slide down into like the electronic toast they are.

  14. No More Happy Meals for You:

    ‘Last week, a McDonald’s outpost in Connecticut got slammed over its “outrageous pricing” after a customer was charged $7.29 for an Egg McMuffin — and nearly $5.69 for a side of hash browns.

    ‘Over the summer, a franchisee in nearby Darien, Conn., was called out for charging $17.59 for Big Mac combo meal. That location also sold a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Bacon meal that came with fries and a soda for $19, according to viral posts.’

    Meanwhile, the minimum wage for fast food workers in Commiefornia rises from the current $16/hr to $20/hr in April. This will almost surely push meal combo prices past $20 — making fast food a luxury purchase for half the population.

    Undocumented migrants pushing unlicensed taco carts are laughing, though:

    ‘Yanquis — gente extraña, ¿no?’

    • [‘Last week, a McDonald’s outpost in Connecticut got slammed over its “outrageous pricing” after a customer was charged $7.29 for an Egg McMuffin — and nearly $5.69 for a side of hash browns.]- Jim

      Yes,,, that’s the result from printing massive amounts of fiat that many say ‘Deficits no matter’. A two trillion dollar deficit this year. Gots to have it to defend the Ukies border while enlarging Israels. Think it’s bad this year….. Wait.

    • Learning to cook was one of the best investments (of time) in my life.
      I have hated fast ‘food’ ever since I could afford real food, like real hamburgers made at home.
      The beef has been in my kitchen for decades.
      Mexican taco slop has never been ‘food’.

    • Lol – Darien is below the line of pretentiousness. They smell their own farts there, where homes cost multiple millions of dollars. The only McDonalds is at a rest stop on 95.

  15. Patents covering the user interface and software are also at stake with the “infotainment” systems which replaced the factory stereo. Every manufacturer wants to build an “arsenal” of patents to deploy against competitors to generate licensing royalties.

    Who wants to actually make money building … cars? That’s so 20th century.

  16. My Mk. IV Supra had one of the worst stereos known to man, not to mention for an expensive car new. It had tinny-sounding highs, bass that boomed too much and a midtone muddier than the gunk between the Biden Thing’s ears.

    I replaced the head unit and speakers in a day, added a small subwoofer in the back. I’ve replaced those components several times since I bought the car and I even have Bluetooth through my stereo.

    Can’t do that with any car newer than the early 2000s now. I remember the oval Ford Taurus was the first car with a non-DIN slot (I remember the GM cars had that huge slot you could fix with an adapter) that had the A/C controls integrated into the unit.

  17. Ditch the new car and find an old one, by the time all is said and done, you will have something better than new.

    You’ll be singing the blues if and when you buy new. You can avoid a lot of suffering and misery.

    All kinds of songs about cars and travel. Every year in May, Masterresource dot org celebrates the great American summertime travel in your automobile. Driving is something to be enjoyed, not a burden.

    “It ain’t the car, it’s the driver.” Now, it is the car, not the driver.

    Fire on the asphalt, L.A. freeway
    Santa Anna windstorm come blow me away
    This rear-view mirror could use some adjustment
    Some other reflection, some other place
    – Matraca Berg, Oh Cumberland

  18. ‘the stereo head unit was a discrete unit’ — eric

    For repairability and robustness, discrete units are good. Replace or upgrade the broken part; nothing else is affected.

    Having everything computer-integrated is poor design. It is contemptuous of customers. I viscerally reject it.

    I’d like to implant a chip into EeeVee Mary’s skull … then overclock it till she starts fizzing, popping and crab-walking, with smoke blowing out her ears.

    Diagnosis: terminal malfunction. Please remember to recycle the discarded unit.

    • My 2001 Pioneer 4300 head unit is MUCH better than the one knob 2023 menu heavy 6200 crap.

      This is on purpose but I don’t know what that purpose might be?


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