Shopping for your car audio components should be a fun and exciting experience. You've dreamed of putting together your system and scrimped and saved your money to purchase your first round of components. Or maybe you're lucky enough to buy all your gear in one fell swoop. Now it's just a matter of walking into a store or going onto the Internet, picking out your components, getting them installed, and hitting the road.
Well, it's not that easy. But it doesn't have to be difficult either. Finding the right retail experience can make the difference between getting off to a great start or getting frustrated right off the bat in your search for a great car audio system. Every retail route has its advantages and disadvantages and ups and down. It's not that one is better than the other, but one may be better for you for various reasons. And there's no rule stating that you have to do it one way or another. In fact, you may want to blend several different methods to make sure you get the best deal - or at the very least find out what each one is all about and which is best for you.
Car Audio Specialty Stores
Specialty shops are to the car audio what gourmet restaurants are to the dining. Just as a fine restaurant will have high-quality ingredients and expert chefs, a car audio specialty store is where you'll find the best equipment and the most skilled installers. It's where innovation usually springs from and sometimes where enthusiasts gather to show off their systems and to see the latest and greatest ones.
Most likely, the first car audio specialty shop was started by someone who was an enthusiast themselves, as opposed to someone who was just out to make a buck. Unlike electronics stores that sell everything from washing machines to computers, a car audio specialty shop, as the name implies, is in business for only one reason: to help consumers create the sound machines of their dreams.
Unfortunately, the number of car audio specialty shops has dwindled quite drastically in recent years. This is not only because factory audio systems have gotten better, but also because there are many more options for getting car audio equipment, such as on the Internet. Also, as with most consumer electronics, prices for head units in particular have fallen in recent years, and the small mom-and-pop car audio shops have had a harder time competing with mass-market retailers and price-slashing Internet e-commerce sites. But chances are you still have a specialty shop or two in your town, and they are still the place to go if you want the best equipment, the best advice, the best service, and the best installation.
Where the Experts are
A specialty shop is where you'll find the sort of people who have made car audio their life's work. Hence, it's where you'll find the most knowledgeable and passionate people in the car audio biz. Unlike businesses that sell other electronics or even car parts and accessories, a car audio shop succeeds or fails on the equipment it sells and the service it provides, so they better know what they're doing.
Tip: You can look in the Yellow Pages for a list of car audio specialty shops in your area; they're usually listed in the automotive section. But a better way to start your search is to ask a friend or acquaintance who has had a nice system installed for a recommendation. Better yet, attend a local sound-off competition or car show and take a look at the cars there. Many times, a show car will have a sign announcing who installed the system, or the shop may have a representative in attendance.
When you visit the shop, check their attitude. Because you'll likely be working closely with the employees of a specialty shop, it's important to make sure it's a good fit. Unfortunately, sometimes shops can have a bit of a snob or clubby appeal. Make sure they take the time to listen to you and answer your questions. If they are inattentive, rude, or condescending, walk out and find another shop. What the shop provides is a service, after all, and if they can't provide that, find one that will. But also don't waste their time with a million questions if you're not serious about doing business there.
What They can Offer
The salespeople at a good car audio shop should be very knowledgeable about not only the products they sell, but also brands they don't carry. They should be able to tell you why one brand is better than another, or even why products within a certain brand's line differ from one another. And they should be able to explain in detail the products they sell. They shouldn't bad-mouth brands they don't carry, however.
Many car audio shops carry exclusive and high-end lines of equipment that can't be found in other outlets, as well as more mass merchant brands you'll find elsewhere. With the high-end lines, specialty shops often have exclusive-territory arrangements with manufacturers that stipulate that the same products can't be sold in another store in the vicinity. Manufacturers who supply the top gear also typically make sure the salespeople and the installers are well trained so that the products perform at their best.
A car audio specialty retailer can provide you with personalized, one-on-one service that you can't find anywhere else. They will usually take the time to fully understand you, your needs, and your car. Sometimes they'll take a fledgling enthusiast under their wing and may even give you a break on the price of equipment and installation. Or, they may be willing to give you a package-price discount if you buy lots of equipment and have it installed there.
What it Will Cost you
As you can probably guess, the expertise and exclusive product offerings of car audio specialty shops also come at a premium price. Although they can often offer the best equipment, installation, and service, they also usually charge more for it. Plus, because they don't buy equipment in huge volumes the way large retailers do and they have higher overhead costs than Internet sites, they either have to charge more or make less profit. But they will also usually work with a customer on price if, for example, they know he is a potential longtime customer.
Specialty shops also have the highest installation-labor rates because they usually have the best installers. Depending on your location, you can expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $110 per hour for installation at a specialty shop. They may also be able to offer different rates for different levels of work. For example, if you just want to replace your speakers, they may have a junior person work on it at a lower hourly labor rate, whereas custom work will be done by a very experienced installer and will cost more.
A specialty shop can also help you put together a custom system just for your car. Want a subwoofer box that fits in the floorboard of the passenger-side front foot well? No problem. And they'll be there when you're ready to upgrade your system.
One of the downsides of a specialty shop is, being small and independent, there's no guarantee that they'll survive. It's a chance you have to take. But you can usually gauge a shop's longevity by how busy they are and based on their reputation.
From Car Audio for Dummies, copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.