Almost every new car and truck in the United States comes with a touchscreen infotainment system these days. The factory-installed head units have come leaps and bounds from only a few years ago, and today, replacing the receiver with an aftermarket unit isn’t as important as it once was. This is a good thing in many ways, since most of the designs out there integrate the car’s stereo with numerous other features like climate control and seat adjustments and everything in between. A lot of owners are finding that upgrading the head unit is both unreasonably expensive and extensively difficult, requiring an expert level of wiring knowledge and dedicated controllers to keep factory functions working with little to no improvement in actual sound quality.
There is a reason that manufacturers put touch screen stereos in cars today, and it has less to do with consumer demand than you might think. In fact, the US auto industry has been required to include a backup camera on all new vehicles sold in the US since the 2018 model year. That means every car needs a screen somewhere, so it only makes sense to add a touchscreen head unit from the factory. Base model vehicles typically provide basic radio functions, camera access, and a few other features. More commonly these days, climate controls are part of the head unit even on base models. Higher-end factory “premium” audio packages make some improvements, but often fall flat in several areas like bass and balanced treble.
We recently had the opportunity to check out the newest audio system Audi is using from Bang & Olufsen. The design incorporates 23 speakers and two touchscreens, and it sounds amazing. The price of the system -$5,900- is shocking and puts the price of the newest Audi electric sedan at nearly $90,000. That’s a chunk of money for anyone and way too much when you are just trying to get good sound from your new car.
Increasingly, auto manufacturers are installing odd sized touch screens that don’t line up with aftermarket sizes. Quite a few vehicles also use odd configurations behind the dash to allow room for vital components but it restricts the space. This makes installing traditional single or double-din stereos difficult or impossible. In these vehicles, you are stuck with the user interface and appearance of the factory system, but that doesn’t mean you are stuck with a weak sound that you can’t tune properly.
One of the major issues with most base factory stereos is the lack of ways you can connect amplifiers and subwoofers to improve sound. Fortunately, there are workarounds that you can use to gain power and control over your car audio system when the integrated head unit isn’t replaceable.
A line output converter takes the signal from the head unit and speaker wire and converts it to RCA outputs so that you can add amplifiers to factory systems. These have been around for years, but the newest converters are more efficient and easier to use than before. One of our favorites is the AudioControl LC8i. This converter lets us take up to eight channels and convert them into four RCA outputs for tweeters, mids, highs, and subwoofers. Sometimes the factory wires speakers in bizarre ways that aren’t easy to remedy. The LC8i sums input signals then sends them out to the appropriate RCA outputs. That means you’ll get a smooth and clean sound even at loud volumes.
Another nice feature that you’ll gain is the ability to connect devices through auxiliary inputs. That means you can connect an ipod or another source and play music directly. Line output converters like this one will continue to improve in the years to come as they become more essential to adding upgrades to your audio system.
Many of the newest cars on the market incorporate the notification alarms for functions like lane departure mode or other similar warnings that are wired through the vehicle's audio system. When you want to upgrade your amplifiers, you may run into a problem with the audible notifications failing to work or becoming piercingly loud.
A digital signal processor can take the speaker level outputs from your stereo and allow you to connect subwoofers and more powerful speakers without losing or amplifying notification alerts. DSPs have come a long way just in the past decade, and we foresee an even bigger and better role for them in the future.
A DSP controller can give you equalizer control far in advance of even the very best factory systems. Today, the easiest way to add a DSP to your factory system is by installing an amplifier with a built-in DSP. You’ll find monoblock amps ideal for designing a subwoofer system. You can also use multi-channel amps with a built-in DSP to provide power to upgraded speakers and subwoofers simultaneously.
We recently got the chance to unbox and review the Sony XM-GS6DSP six-channel amplifier and we came away impressed with the bang-for-the-buck features, impressive power capabilities, and the highly useful 10-band equalizer built into the DSP. This product goes to show that the future of high-quality audio improvement doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars.
The foil to manufacturers' difficult to replace components has led to the advent of vehicle specific products. We think that aftermarket companies are already finding ways to efficiently build components that fit in place in factory locations and provide an easy way to connect the wiring to your factory head unit. While this is a popular upgrade for cars like the electric Tesla, we’ll be seeing these options for most new cars in the near future. This will be one of the best ways to add subwoofers and component speakers in new cars without disturbing the factory head unit and integrated functionality.
Kicker introduced its VSS PowerStage series of products a few years ago. These are custom-designed to maximize audio performance and install easily. It’s a simple way to give new life to your dull and lifeless factory car stereo.
Just a couple years ago, the idea of having 3D audio in the car was crazy. But as people have come to use and love 3D audio in their home theaters, it is becoming popular in the automotive world. Several manufacturers now build new cars that come factory equipped with realistic, three-dimensional sound profiles that are tightly controlled to ensure specific frequencies are in the proper place and time-adjusted for the location of the speaker in the car. A great example is the system in the newest Audi.
The future of 3d audio in your car might use technology that is currently in use. Continental, a British tire company, introduced a speaker-that’s-not-a-speaker design a few years ago. The system uses an actuator to create movement and the panels and structure of the vehicle as the speaker and basket. This allows for a wide range of different frequencies in a lightweight package that can create a truly three-dimensional effect.
We expect that someday soon, you’ll be able to order custom door panels and headliners for your car that incorporate actuators to give you the effect of a realistic and lifelike sound in your car without having to power 20 to 30 speakers.
Almost every new car stereo comes equipped with Bluetooth to stream music from your phone to the speakers in your car. It’s a great feature that adds a ton of convenience, but the downside is that the compression process leaves you with low quality audio. Even if you are streaming lossless files, you aren’t getting lossless quality.
An increasing trend is the use of a decoder protocol called aptX and most recently, aptX HD. While more common in-home theater systems now, we think this technology will be making its way to the car audio world in the near future. When it does it will allow for high-fidelity streaming of content from almost any compatible source.
Lots of new cars and aftermarket components available today take advantage of Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, or Apple Siri. These programs make it simple to get directions, change songs and sources, and make phone calls. It’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, these programs were irritating and difficult to use. Today, they are almost indispensable both in home and car audio worlds.
We see a major improvement both in the functionality and in the ease of use with AI programs in the future. The push toward safer driving habits is something that manufacturers will have no choice and a big incentive to invest in. As self-driving technology becomes more reliable and commonplace, a fully outfitted AI will be an essential element.
The future of car audio looks promising, even if aftermarket head units end up falling out of favor. There will always be ways to get the most perfect and clean stereo sound you’ve ever heard. The way in which installers will get more power and better sound from a car stereo may change somewhat, but there will always be a way to improve on factory equipment. Today, the most challenging thing about upgrading factory audio equipment is getting the proper wiring connections to make your aftermarket improvements perform while keeping original and important functions.
We tend to think that automobile manufacturers make car stereos for base models that lack desirable features in an effort to upsell buyers to premium components. The manufacturers almost seem to intentionally design factory head units to be impossible to replace, making the decision to purchase the best system possible.
As complicated as manufacturers make car audio upgrades, the aftermarket companies will find ways to make it easy for you to get the best sound out of even the most complicated factory systems.