Installing Your Audio System Alone


If you buy just about any kind of consumer-electronics product, you take it home, plug it in, maybe run a few wires, and you're good to go. Not so with car audio equipment.

The installation is one of the most important parts of a car audio system. Some would say it's the most important part.

Beyond performance, there are also safety issues involved with the installation of car equipment, especially as cars have become more laden with electronic safety gadgets. And by installing additional electronics in your car, you could be taking the chance of voiding your vehicle's warranty.

Understanding Modern Car Systems

Today's cars are more complex than ever. Used to be that you could easily slide a radio out of the dash and replace it with a like-sized one. But these days the radio is sometimes embedded in the dash in such a way that it's difficult to take out without doing major surgery.

Removing a radio can also sometimes disable or cause problems with other systems in the car. More and more factory car radios control electronics systems such as climate controls, navigation, and others. And even mid- to low-priced cars feature steering-wheel audio controls that you lose if you replace the radio.

Modern cars also have much more sensitive and sophisticated electronics onboard than did older models. When I started in the car audio industry in the late 1980s, no one had to worry about blowing an airbag or causing a fault with the ABS braking system. These days, making a mistake when installing your own car audio system can not only be costly but deadly.

Warranty Issues

When doing it yourself, you also have warranty and lease issues to consider. Although you can install anything you want on your car, if it's under warranty the dealer may - and often will - try to blame the aftermarket car audio parts for the problem. Even if that new subwoofer system you installed, for example, has nothing to do with why your transmission fell out, it will immediately be suspect in the eyes of the service writer at a dealership.

Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act

The good news is that you have the law on your side. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975 was passed to protect consumers from being wrongfully denied warranty coverage by new car dealers for various reasons. Of particular interest to car audio enthusiasts is that, under the act, aftermarket equipment added to your vehicle does not automatically void a vehicle manufacturer's original warranty unless:

  • The warranty clearly states that it does
  • It can be proven that the aftermarket add-ons were the direct cause of the problem

Rules and regulations that govern the interpretation and enforcement of the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act state:

"No warrantor may condition the continued validity of a warranty on the use of only authorized repair service and/or authorized replacement parts for non-warranty service and maintenance."And: "... a warrantor cannot, as a matter of law, avoid liability under a written warranty where a defect is unrelated to the use by a consumer of unauthorized' articles or service. This does not preclude a warrantor from expressly excluding liability for defects or damages caused by such 'unauthorized' articles or service; nor does it preclude the warrantor from denying liability where the warrantor can demonstrate the defect was so caused."

What this means in plain language is that the car dealer must prove that the car audio equipment you added to your vehicle directly caused the need for repairs before denying warranty coverage. If a dealer is trying to weasel out of servicing your vehicle under warranty because you installed, say, a different head unit, speakers, and added an amp, that's one thing. But if you add a high-output alternator to your engine so that you have enough juice for your mega system in your new Hyundai and it causes the engine to catch on fire, the dealer is probably within his rights not to honor the warranty and drop in a new engine.

A dealer can also refuse to service your car if the aftermarket parts you added prevent it from doing so. And they are within their rights to charge you the extra labor required to perform the service because of the addition of aftermarket parts.

SEMA and CEA on Your Side

Besides the Magnuson-Moss Act, you also have the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) to back you up. SEMA is the trade group for the aftermarket auto-parts industry, whereas CEA is the trade group for, you guessed it, the consumer electronics industry. Both lobby Congress on behalf of consumers being able to add car audio equipment to their vehicles.

"Lease" is the Word

If you leased your car, aftermarket installations get sticky because you signed a piece of paper saying you wouldn't permanently modify the vehicle in any way. But fear not. Although you may not be able to install a 10-inch subwoofer in each door, you can probably find a pair of drop-in speakers that fit in without modification. And you can add a prefabricated, amplified sub box to get some decent bass. Some shops will even install a custom system that leaves no trace after the components are taken out, although you'll have to weigh whether going to such an extent is worth it given how long you have the car.

If I haven't intimidated you yet and you still want to install your system yourself, there are some things you need to know.

Know Your Car and Your Limitations

If you're driving a 1971 Chevelle, you probably won't encounter too many problems: Its electrical system is pretty simple and straightforward. But if your car is a 2006 Honda Civic, you'll want to proceed cautiously because the car will have some rather sophisticated electronics.

Besides knowing your car, you should also know yourself and your limitations before starting on a DIY install. Do you love to get your hands dirty and find out how things work? Or do you get easily frustrated and tend to focus on the end result instead of the process? Do you like challenges and learning by trial and error? Or do you prefer to just pay someone else to do the hard work so you can enjoy the benefits?

Where to Get Help

If you do decide to go it alone, you're not really alone. There are people and places you can turn to for help with your DIY installation questions. Sometimes the shop you bought the equipment from will offer some help or advice. A professional installer may be willing to help you out if you get into a jam. The Internet and various magazines can help you out as well.

From Car Audio for Dummies, copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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