Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Is Aftermarket Car Audio Going Extinct?

Are aftermarket car stereos going extinct?By Michael Rentfro

There are four things in my life I'm passionate about. God, (who is a topic best left to other venues of discussion.) my entirely-too-hot-to-be-my-wife  wife and my children, all things automotive, and music. My taste in music and my love for car culture has changed and evolved over the years, however, one thing remains the same; they go hand in hand for me.

I have a 50 minute drive to and from work every day. As engaging as driving a 2007 Suzuki SX4 crossover with a manual transmission can be, it still gets pretty mundane after almost nine years. I've tried taking the long way (as if anyone really wants to make a 50 minute daily drive LONGER ...) and come to the inevitable conclusion that west-central Indiana has about as much stuff to look at as the student art gallery at a university for the blind. I've tried talking on the phone. OK, no I haven't. I'd really rather poke myself in the eye with a branding iron than talk on the phone. So what's left? Well for me it was a well tuned, well rounded stereo and my "top 5" driving CDs (or MP3s as you kids say nowadays!).

Given my obsession with the automotive culture, I read/watch/listen to many car reviews, even when I'm not actually shopping for a new car, and outside of Andy's reviews for this blog, I rarely hear mention of what I consider the most important part of the car for me. I simply MUST have a good stereo. If not, it takes me usually less than a couple weeks to remedy the situation.

In the mid 1990s I became part owner in a gas station turned car audio shop in a small town in central Illinois that sparked quite the addiction for me. This was no more apparent than in 1996, when I regretfully (yeah right!) offered up my nearly new 1994 Saturn SL1 as the shop demo and competition vehicle. All in all, my poor, cheap, little econobox family Tupperware car was packed to the gills with nearly $100,000 in aftermarket goodies from the likes of Kenwood, Soundstream, and Orion. I had more channels to equalize than Time Warner Cable, and enough juice coming from the three trunk-mounted batteries to jump start a 747. I was probably the loudest, fullest-sounding, and most expensive Saturn on the planet in those days.

Nearly 20 years ago, you could easily pick my car out of a crowd by the pounding and vibrating lows associated with Dr. Dre's "Chronic" album at 156.1 decibels of earthquake-inducing, thug life livin', complex havin', pure Gangsta overcompensation. Now things are very different. My trusty Suzuki utilizes the factory head unit, but simple Pioneer coaxials in the doors, and a self-powered 12 inch MTX subwoofer in the hatch. Nothing fancy, and not overly loud, but just enough to make Dream Theater's "Metropolis 2000: Scenes From A Memory" sound like an actual memory.

This poses a question for me. With stock "media centers" and infotainment systems in new model cars becoming quite good, what do you think will happen to the aftermarket in the years to come? Where there used to be the simple choice of single or double DIN when choosing a new source unit, almost no car manufacturers use any type of universal mounting or measurement system at all anymore. Do you think this is a blatant ploy by auto companies to deter customizing "their" masterpieces to your liking, or is it simply modern design and aftermarket companies aren't keeping up?

I have noticed, however, many aftermarket companies have developed OEM systems for the manufacturers as an option package. The source unit in my Suzuki is by Clarion and is actually upgradable. The entire system in my wife's 2010 Suzuki Kizashi is by Rockford Fosgate and is actually one of the best OEM systems I've heard to date. Maybe this is a sign that the future of aftermarket sound systems will be limited to the addition of 1.21 Gigawatt subwoofer systems like the 19 year old college kids that live down the block from me that refuse to understand that this old man doesn't want to hear the newest Kanye West release from 1,000 feet away. At 3:00 AM. On a work night. As good as the song is, I am almost 40 you know ...


Ducati Scotty said...

I wonder about this too. I think that right now the technology of the control/infotainment/all in one device is very new, so every manufacturer is trying their own approach. Soon the cream will rise to the top and the electronics firms who make these will settle on a golden feature set with universally recognized inputs and outputs for touch screens, climate controls, audio, etc. Once that happens you'll be more able to swap out the audio component.

Wasn't it Chevy that recently ditched the on board navigation? Instead of building it in they just released some apps to tap your phone into into the screen. Why bother trying to compete with Google Maps? I think things will go this way more and more.

In the meantime, with the audio buried way down deep in the bowels of the dashboard, you have fewer worries about getting in your car only to see a ragged hole where your radio was yesterday.

Tony said...

I think something to consider going forward is large players and how we use audio in our cars. Most of us use an iPod or a phone or some sort nowadays, which via a USB port has been the norm for the better part of a decade.

Now with Google's Android Auto and Apples Car Play, it's essentially replacing the in-car infotainment with a full and rich GUI experience, that provides you with music, navigation, and more without having to have anything special in the car other than support for the software. At CES a lot of aftermarket OEMs like Pioneer and Kenwood were showing off head units that allowed this functionality to be retrofitted into older models. As the owner of a brand-new Fiat 500 Sport with a measly single-din stereo and the Blue&Me integration.. knowing that I can upgrade my OEM stereo and include this software is nice, but at the same time I wish I'd waited until the next year when this stuff would be popping up in almost all new vehicles in one manner or another.

Til then, Car dock and Bluetooth I suppose.

Unknown said...

Even though factory audio is getting better in regards to the head units the speakers themselves unless they are purchased just don't have the guts to make it past a volume where you can still hold a conversation being pleasant. I think that speakers and subwoofers will still be a staple for the electronics companies however the head unit offerings will most likely be reduced. People again want more and more to have an "OEM" look. The crux to this is that the head units that have the OEM look tend to come at a premium from the aftermarket. There of course is the integration of Apple products however Android it is too open for it to properly take off. Then the other issue for Android integration is it appears the manufacturers that do offer them do not have desirable voltage outputs. With tech the way that it is a 5v preamp output should be a mininum, but I digress. Another consideration that is already impacting head unit replacement is the antitheft circuitry from the likes of GM. We had for example looked into upgrading even to a factory nav unit in our previous 2011 Silverado and it would require the dealership to install since they are coded to the ECU otherwise they will not work. Even to add an aftermarket head unit or output you must buy a pricey module. I fully believe that the auto manufacturers are attempting to dissuade folks from upgrading and bullying the everyday man and woman to pay the upgrade cost for a higher end factory product. I would not doubt it for example if GM in the next few years tries to call it a warranty voiding situation if you attempt to change the factory stereo system and they will be able to tell through the black box just as they can for reprogrammers for performance.

Unknown said...

I personally think Smartphone integration is the way the future of car audio is going. Pioneer is already seeing success with it's Appradio, which is a good product in an attractive package for a reasonable price. I think what's killing the aftermark, is auto manufacturers integrating everything into one control module. I really think this will push most aftermark companies either away from designing their own source units completely, or relying on OEM to design the source unit, and aftermarket to design operating apps and software only upgrades for existing units. Even if somone comes up with a universal unit that would control any OEM "black box", outboard amplifier, steering, gps... The next hurdle would be the God aweful over-engineered space age dashes in newer model cars. The new Festiva is a case in point. The car is attractive enough, but the dash it so annoying IMO with all the sharp angles and multi-tone color scemes that it's nearly impossible to change the source unit out. I test drove a brand new Hyundai Accent for a work car a few years ago, and even though the rest of the car was fine, I turned it down because the factory source unit was AWEFUL and because of the hideous spaceship dash, It was impossible to change without making it look completely obvious...