In the past, if you wanted the best music reproduction and the latest and greatest electronics in your new vehicle, you drove straight to a car stereo shop after buying it. There you'd have the stock stereo swapped for aftermarket gear that was typically of higher quality and cost less than what you could get from the automaker.
Now that the car companies have stepped up their technology game, factory and dealer-installed infotainment options often provide similar performance to that of the aftermarket — and it may sometimes even be a better buy. Plus, electronics have become so integrated in vehicles that it can be difficult to change the radio without affecting another separate system.
But if you aren't satisfied with the technology that came with your car, you're not stuck. And you also don't have to start from scratch. With automakers cutting in on tech territory and discretionary dollars that the aftermarket once owned, car stereo dealers have gotten adept at helping car owners upgrade their stereo systems rather than replace them entirely.
To show how you can give your car an "OEM upgrade," we took three vehicles belonging to Edmunds staffers and replaced stock electronic components with aftermarket gear to gain certain features that were lacking from the factory. Keep in mind that the price totals given for the equipment are based on MSRP, and you'll usually find the components mentioned here selling for less.
Consumer Advice Associate Ron Montoya only wanted to add Bluetooth hands-free capability and iPod integration to his wife's 2006 Acura RSX, without changing anything else. After consulting with the folks at Al & Ed's Autosound in West Los Angeles, we chose a Kenwood DDX616 DVD/CD receiver that adds those features and also comes with a 6.1-inch touchscreen interface.
For "full speed" iPod/iPhone capability, the Kenwood DDX616 requires a separate KCA-iP301V accessory cable, so that was also added. The head unit will play both iPod music and video, although the video is locked out when the transmission is shifted out of Park. For Bluetooth, Kenwood uses technology from Parrot and offers address book access.
The installation of the Kenwood head unit was straightforward. The stock head unit was a single-DIN model, with a stock storage compartment underneath. Al & Ed's used an American International fit kit to mount the taller double-DIN Kenwood DDX616 in the factory-radio location, and an American International wiring harness to integrate it with the stock system. The new stereo's 22-watts-times-four (50-watts-times-four max) amplifier powers the Acura's factory speakers.
Cost: Kenwood DDX616 $830; installation $200; grand total $1,030
Result: Montoya reported that he and his wife are very happy with the Kenwood head unit. "For as many features as it has, it's very easy to use," he said. "The interface has large icons that are easy to read while driving, and the touchscreen has a soft reactive touch. It also works great with the iPhone. It's very impressive how the Kenwood unit syncs the phone's contacts and allows you to search through them easily. The call quality is also great."
Adding Audio Power to a Porsche
Our former director of video content, Glenn McClanan, bought a 2006 Porsche Boxster last year but was disappointed with the sound of the stock stereo. While Glenn wanted to upgrade the audio, he didn't want to alter the car in any way or have aftermarket stereo components visible.
He brought the car to Al & Ed's Santa Monica location, which recommended that he go with an all JL Audio setup. This included pairs of pre-production C5-400-CM 4-inch midranges and C5-075-CT 0.75-inch tweeters and 6W3v3 6.5-inch subwoofers. The mids and subs fit in the factory locations in each door, while the tweeters were mounted in the stock cutouts in the dash. A pair of C5-525-XO passive crossovers, also mounted in the doors, separate the audio signal between the mids and tweets.
To provide enough depth for the door speakers and to give them a solid mounting surface, custom 1.75-inch wooden baffles were added to the stock locations. The inner and outer metal door skins were also covered with Dynamat sound damping to quiet any unwanted resonances. The stock door with integrated factory grilles covers the speakers for a stock appearance.
Adding some audio firepower to the Porsche is a JL Audio XD400/4 amplifier (75 watts-times-four at 4 ohms). The amplifier fit perfectly where the factory amp for the Porsche's stock system was attached to the firewall of the car's front trunk, and a wooden mounting board was used to secure it.
Two of the amplifier's channels were bridged to mono to drive the 6.5-inch subwoofers, which were wired to create a 2-ohm load so each sub gets 100 watts. The other two channels run the mids and tweets, and they receive 75 watts per pair. To integrate the JL amplifier with the factory radio, Al & Ed's created a custom wiring harness and added a line-level adapter.
Cost: JL Audio components $1,320; installation $650; grand total $1,970
Result: According to McClanan, "The level of clarity and depth of the sound is very impressive, and the upgrade made a significant difference from the stock setup that the car came with. There's tons more sound with no visible change to the stock system or interior."
Honda CR-V A/V Upgrade
The third upgrade was in my family's 2008 Honda CR-V LX AWD that my wife drives. The base model came with a bare-bones audio system, and my wife wanted Bluetooth capability to comply with local hands-free laws. We also wanted a navigation system, plus iPod integration so she could control the device through a head unit rather than plugging into the vehicle's aux-in jack.
We were able to get all of this by using an OEM replacement radio from Rosen specifically made for the CR-V (the company supplies such head units for a variety of vehicles). It features a 7-inch touchscreen, a flash-based navigation system, iPod integration, a DVD/CD drive and the ability to add a back-up camera and Sirius Satellite Radio.
The installation by Car Toys' Gateway location in Portland, Oregon, was straightforward; all that was required was to remove the stock head unit and a storage pocket underneath and slide the Rosen unit in place. To upgrade the sound, Pioneer TS-A1683R 6.5-inch coaxial speakers were dropped into the factory locations in each door, front and rear.
An Audiovox VOD10PS2 overhead video console was also added so my wife and I can enjoy the upgraded audio system while the kids are quietly entertained on long trips. The VOD10PS2 has a 10.2-inch screen as well as a built-in PlayStation 2 video game system, and it comes with a wireless remote control, two pairs of wireless headphones and two DualShock2 wireless game controllers.
The overhead video console installation was quick and easy, and the unit has a very low profile. It covered the stock dome light but has two built-in lights that are actually brighter than the single light from the factory. The Audiovox VOD10PS2 also has auxiliary A/V inputs and a jack for adding a set of wired headphones, as well as an FM transmitter to wirelessly send audio to the vehicle's sound system.
Cost: $2,800 for the equipment; $600 for the installation; grand total $3,400
Result: My wife is happy to have hands-free capability when she talks on a cell phone while behind the wheel, as well as the ability to control an iPod via the head unit. She also has a full-featured in-dash nav (which, if we'd gotten the factory system would have required stepping up to the top-of-the-line EX-L with Navigation and paying almost $5,000 more) and the stereo is now listenable thanks to the upgraded Pioneer speakers. And, of course, the kids are thrilled to not only be able to watch DVDs but also play video games on long trips.
Get Exactly What You Want
Because automakers are increasingly offering technology consumers want in their cars — and at prices that make it more attractive — there's not as much incentive to go the aftermarket route to get similar electronic amenities as there used to be. But if you want to add tech features to your car on a piecemeal basis and get exactly what you want installed the way you want it, the aftermarket can provide it. And, as these three OEM upgrades show, it can be easy and relatively affordable.