No More Cutouts: Where Do Aftermarket Stereos Go?

Getting an aftermarket stereo used to be straightforward. Head down to the electronics store, pick a new unit, yank out your old stereo and install the replacement in a same-size dashboard cavity. Installation professionals could do it in a jiffy — and the resulting unit fit snugly, looked OK and brought you up to speed with the latest technology: a tape deck, a CD player and eventually an MP3 jack.

That's hardly the case today. Cars from the Ford Fiesta (above) to the Honda Accord integrate cutout-free stereos into ever-more seamless dashboards, but audio technology continues to improve faster than car companies update models. Market researcher NPD Group reports nearly a third of people already listen to music in their cars off a smartphone or MP3 player, and near-future systems boast complete smartphone integration. Today's new-car buyers don't have the easy ability to upgrade their stereos like they once did.

How it works today
Take away the intricately designed dashboard coverings and many stereos can still be easily removed. Ted Cardenas, marketing director for Pioneer's car electronics group, says connecting an aftermarket stereo — or navigation system, for that matter — to all the associated systems in today's cars is another challenge.

Replacement stereos sit within fitted panels, some elaborately shaped to match the rest of the dash. A job done right should function through steering-wheel audio controls and various vehicle sensors — everything the factory stereo would have done.

The other option for shoppers with complicated dashboard layouts is to use one of the latest types of setups to enter the market. Systems like Sony's DigitalLink have the guts hidden underneath seats, wired behind the dash and use a mountable cradle that fits an iPhone or iPod Touch. Drivers then use the iPhone to control the music. It's not cheap though, starting at $399 before installation. A typical aftermarket head unit costs less than $200.

The transition to these new devices and new cars equipped with better systems from the factory have scraped away at sales for the aftermarket stereo industry, whose halcyon days — the mid-1980s, Sony mobile director Mike Kahn estimates — are long behind. Industry consultancy IHS iSuppli projects stereo head-unit sales, which are now valued around $500 million, will fall to $365 million by 2017.

Still, Kahn says the vast majority of cars on the road today "can still be addressed by traditional aftermarket head [unit] swapping." Down the road, as even used cars start to lack stereo cutouts, that will change.

Prime real estate
Don't expect automakers to return to box cutouts anytime soon. Ford's chief interior designer, Gary Braddock calls the center controls prime real estate and not an area most designers want to revert to a boxed cutout.

"Around 2001, 2002, we really tried to get away from the look," Braddock says. Now "you can create contour; you can create buttons that are a little bigger," Braddock adds. "Every bit of functionality in the car wants to be there."

Toyota subsidiary Scion is among the few holdouts, sticking with boxed cutouts for its four cars. Korey Tsuno, operations accessory manager for the brand, says flexibility was the main driver. Scion dealers can switch in separate units — "probably a five-minute swap," he says — instead of making shoppers choose a different trim with the upgraded stereo. Should owners want to go aftermarket, the switch is a relative cinch or they buy the new car without any stereo.

The downside? Pinky-size buttons and a small display, all hemmed into 7-inch wide box - an interface designers like Braddock eschew. But it allows owners a palette to improve easily upon down the road.

Expanding possibilities
So, where does that leave tomorrow's car stereos? Factory or aftermarket, they'll certainly enable you to play media from smartphones, tablets and cloud-based accounts. But don't expect new cars to revert to the days of swapping out a head unit with ease. Instead, new products will be forced to leave the complicated dashboard as-is while still adding the latest functions.


Allistar Evans

Thats great, there is no turning back now. I have a 2001 f150 and i replaced the entire stock radio with a new headunit, four new speakers, an amp for the speakers, a sub, and an amp for the sub. Now what am i going to do? drive the f150 to the ground because new auto manufacturers give less flexibilty to the costumers? dont give me any crap like new stereos are sufficient. If you like distorted, underpowered music that wnet you turn it up, it only sounds worse, then thats your choice. If you want to be hear from at least a block away(quality wise) then any stock stereo system from the manufacters is an embarassment. This assessment does take into acoount the improved bose or other "high-end" systems that makers entail. It costs a lot of money to get quality sound and for the cheap buyer, a headunit at walmart is not the answer.
Sorry for the rant, i like my music loud and hard with lots of bass. I may go deaf, but i know what a quality sound system sounds like. Its not distorted even at high levels, and the music is as equally loud as the bass. The imputent systems in any new car is just a cost cutting move for a consumer who is accepting less than quality sound.


Allistar, just turn your radio down when you're in an area where people live and/or walk outside. Not everyone wants to hear your bass.


It is getting to the point that when your stereo wears out or is not worth fixing you either replace the stereo with an costly unit from your dealer, go without a stereo, or junk the car. I guess if it comes to that I will go without the car stereo and carry a portable unit with me. I had to replace a factory unit in my '99 S-10. The dealer wanted over $600 just for the stereo with a single CD player. I went to an audio store and for over $200 they installed a JVC with a conversion kit. It looks like that you will not be able to do that.


I thought Uncle Sam sued the car makers in the late 60's early 70's under restraint of trade laws on behalf of the radio makers. Did that get dropped?


My friend and I just swap the head unit from her Cruze in under 10 minutes. Hard? Not really. Just need to know where to open the dash.

john henrie

I get in my shop every day . That is the customer who has a very integrated audio system in their car that has gone bad. Shame is the dealer will want to charge 10-20 % of the cars value to replace the radio ! My opinion is car mfgrs. should stick to making better cars and leave some choice for the car owner to change the audio equipment like scion does !!


I have been around the car audio biz for almost 40 years....yes, our industry did sue the Big Three....BUT...our industry 'leaders' decided to drop that suit (payoff) and they continued to screw the aftermarket AND the they are nuzzling up to the Consumer Elec Assoc (also in DC) and trying to buy their way by this mess they are creating in the dash in the name of won't be able to change out a radio or upgrade w/o going d i r e c t l y to a New Car Dealer for that product and accepting their overcharging of the end-user because you won't be able to go elsewhere....they are and have always been trying to get rid of the aftermarket speeds by the New Car market and leaves used cars that are unrepairable ( Stereo )or not able to upgrade the two or three year old used car. Sorry to rant, but I've been watching this go on for years especially with Gov't Motors leading the pack.


You can thank Steve Jobs and Apple for this business model. Take away the choices and the ability to change because we know what you need and want, you don't. Sounds like socialism to me.


is the picture above of a cheap chinese made boom box. talk about short cuts.


Typical Chevy wanting to rip the customer off. Expectialy with the stereo in the Fiesta... Not even any bass... non at all

Nick Bethel

That's big business and our government helping each other out as usual. Screwing the citizens more to line their pockets


i have found also that with most new cars a lot of the controls for say the a/c and even the gps are integrated into the stereo like what General Motors did in the 80's with the touch screen unit in some Buick models. its a shame that they are making things harder to replace. the system that bmw used in one of their 5 series models where the display for the dashboard dial was integrated into the radio/media screen. also another downfall of that system was that the gps would talk right over a favorite song you would be playing or one you heard on the radio. maybe there is a solution for this issue or maybe not. why cant we just go to a standard size and make it easily removeable


The head unit in my dad's '04 Accord recently died and Honda wanted $600 for a replacement unit. The audio system and HVAC controls are one integrated unit in the center control stack. The only option for installing an aftermarket stereo would be to sacrifice the large storage compartment in front of the shifter. They remove the door to the compartment, install the aftermarket head unit and leave the 'dead' unit in place also (for the HVAC controls). Luckily, I found him a salvage unit for $150 and all is well...


Get a car that has what you want from the factory. Mine has a 10 inch 400 watt sub and 12 other speakers. Sounds fantastic and doesn't distort. My previous car had an aftermarket 10 inch sub and four speakers and an amp that cost more than the navi\highend package in my new car. And sounded worse.

Steve Calandra

I see the problem with the car companies trying to kill the aftermarket industry.
I currently have 10 old cars from 1958 to 1995 all but one are Chevrolets. I like old stereos so I get mine from garage sales or swap meets. tune them up, then mix and match. The problem is, most new cars have a console & bucket seats. so you can't put an underdash unit anywhere. The other problem is the last 15 years stereos have so many tiny buttons with several functions. The volume & tuning are hard to find while driving. especially my Sony with tuning on the far left then the volume just to the right of that. I like the old 2 knob system with separate bass and treble, so i don't have to look. just grab a knob and adjust to my hearts desire without taking my eyes off the road. The NTSB should steer manufacuturers to have simple large knobs for the main functions.
I'll stick to my 8 track player for now.


I agree with the poster above that they are trying to kill the aftermarket industry. No worries though, I will continue to go aftermarket until THEY improve quality of stock items! Will always have reliable alternatives to go to.

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