Letting a Pro Install Your Audio

It's my opinion that professional installation is the way to go for beginners. Heck, these days, I think it's the way to go for all but the hardcore and experienced do-it-yourselfers. I've spent considerable time scrunched underneath dashes swapping out radios and curled up in trunks installing speakers, and even I now leave installation to the pros.

Modern vehicles are too complex to poke around in if you don't know what you're doing. You could easily end up ruining your car audio components as well as your car. If you drive an older car and aren't concerned with this, you may want to go the DIY route. If you do plan to have your system professionally installed, it will add to your overall budget and cash outlay, of course, but it will probably be worth it in the long run.

Here are some advantages of going pro:

  • The system will be installed more quickly.
  • The installation will likely come with a warranty.
  • Your equipment warranty may be extended.
  • There's less chance you'll void your car's warranty.

A professional installer also has better access to information, such as product updates and technical support from equipment manufacturers. Plus, they have all of the tools to make the job go smoother and faster. Finally, they usually know tricks to make a system sound better and can tweak and tune a system for optimum performance.

Most people have their equipment installed at the same place they buy the equipment, but that's not always the case. Whereas some shops install only what they sell, others charge a standard labor rate to install just about whatever equipment you bring in. Make sure you check first.

Typically, a specialty shop can offer the best installation - and the best installers - whereas big box stores generally handle only the most basic installations, such as installing a new head unit or speakers. So if it's a complex system you're after, go to a specialty store. But if you just want new speakers, that's something a mass merchant's installers can do.

MECP Certification

Because cars have gotten so complex, car owners want to be assured that the person installing audio and video equipment has some experience and credentials. And as car audio equipment has gotten more sophisticated, car audio manufacturers want to be assured that their equipment gets installed correctly so that the customer is happy with their purchase.

Because of this, car audio manufacturers and installers got together in the early 1990s to create a way to test and certify installers. The Mobile Electronics Certification Program is administered by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which tests and certifies installers on installation techniques and knowledge.

Certification levels include:

  • Basic Installation Technician
  • Advanced Installation Technician
  • Master Installation Technician

Installers are required to pass a written exam and meet experience criteria, and they are recertified every two to four years depending on their level.

If you plan to have your system professionally installed, one of the first things you should look for in a car audio shop is the MECP logo.

But there are other things you should look for, including:

  • A clean and well-equipped showroom and installation area
  • Examples of the shop's work, either in the form of a photo album or computer slideshow
  • Letters of recommendation from previous customers that may be framed and hung on the wall
  • Plaques or stickers showing that the shop is an authorized dealer for the brands it carries
  • Business license or tax certificates
  • A demo vehicle that lets you see the shop's work and listen to one of its systems

Questions to Ask

Remember that you are interviewing the shop and its personnel to determine whether you want to work with them and give them your money. Here are some of the questions you'll want to ask:

  • Are your installers MECP certified?
  • What kind of training do your installers have, and how long have they worked here and as an installer?
  • Can you provide references or names of previous customers I can call?
  • Are you insured so that I'm covered if something happens to my vehicle?
  • Will you be driving my vehicle and, if so, why?
  • What are your installation rates?
  • Do you provide a warranty on your installations? If so, for how long?
  • Do you guarantee a noise-free installation, so that it doesn't create alternator whine or other types of interference?
  • What's your service policy if a component breaks?
  • Will you give my factory stereo or my old aftermarket car audio components back to me when you're done?
  • Do you use wiring harness adapters so that I can re-install my factory stereo if I choose? And how much modification will you do to my car?
  • Do you make wire connections using T taps, solder, or crimp connectors? (Avoid an installer that uses T taps: They're unsafe because they don't provide a secure connection. They can loosen and therefore cause a short circuit and possibly damage your components and vehicle. Crimps are okay if done properly, but solder is the best method.)
  • How do you determine what factory wires to tap into? A good shop uses a computer program to tell which wires to use for an install, and they'll verify the wires using a digital meter.

If an salesperson or installer seems evasive or even arrogant, you should head for the exit right away. Even if a shop does great work but treats you poorly from the beginning, the relationship will only go downhill from there. They should be there to help you, or they may not be in business long, which is another reason to go elsewhere.

On the other hand, if they take the time to answer your questions thoroughly and courteously, you've probably found the right shop. You should also ask to see the installation bay. If it looks neat and organized, that's a good sign. And if they are working on nice cars, that's another positive sign.

There's certainly no shame in having someone else do your dirty work when it comes to car audio.

Manufacturers' Warranties

All manufacturers offer a warranty on their products, although some significantly shorten it if the products are not installed by an authorized dealer. If you buy low-end to mid-fi equipment, this may not be a big deal because the warranty on these products is often the same no matter who installs them. But if you invest in high-end gear, the stakes are much higher because the manufacturer will only warranty the product for a very short time, if at all. In that case, it usually pays to pay for professional installation. In any case, make sure to check the warranty on the products you buy, and read the fine print!

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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