Stock Versus Aftermarket Audio Systems


If you had told me even a few years ago that a high-end stock system could seriously compete with an equivalent aftermarket system in sound quality and features, I would probably have laughed in your face. But automakers' optional premium systems and even some systems available as standard equipment can now rival some aftermarket systems. But make no mistake: Aftermarket systems still offer the ultimate in sound quality, features, and flexibility.

Yet the automakers are quickly closing the gap, particularly with high-end brands such as Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Infiniti, and Acura. For years, the car companies didn't take audio seriously and their systems were added to vehicles almost as an afterthought. But they've learned, especially in the luxury segment, that it's one way to distinguish a vehicles from its competitors. Regardless of whether large numbers of car buyers shelled out extra bucks for the optional systems, having a marquee name on the dash gives the automaker instant audio credibility. Such systems have caught the attention of the general public, however, and the exposure to better sound has raised expectations of how music can sound in a vehicle. And that's a good thing.

In this chapter, you find out everything you need to know to decide whether sticking with stock is right for you.

What Bose Hath Wrought

The revolution in stock system quality all started in 1983 when GM first began offering premium Bose-branded systems in three of its upscale vehicles. Although this change signaled an improvement over the lackluster stock stereo systems of the day, the early Bose systems weren't the ultimate in sound quality and power. Partly because Bose premium systems represented a threat to the nascent aftermarket car audio industry.

Bose was also the first to use proprietary signal processing and electronics in a stock car audio system, which meant, unlike the standard car stereos of the day, Bose systems couldn't easily be taken out of a vehicle or upgraded. The system architecture was such that they caused headaches for installers.

Soon after Bose began to gain traction at car dealers and among consumers, another duo of well-known brands from the home-audio world also entered the stock car audio arena: JBL, in the 1985 Lincoln Continental, and Infinity in the 1986 Dodge Daytona. For years, Bose offered systems in GM vehicles and later branched out into other domestic and import makes. JBL could be found in Ford and later in some import brands (most notably Toyota), and Infinity appeared in Dodge/Chrysler/Plymouth vehicles. These three brands pretty much dominated the U.S. premium stock stereo market into the 1990s.

But it wasn't until Lexus partnered with Mark Levinson, a brand largely known only by high-end home audio enthusiasts (and by then part of Harman International, which also owns JBL and Infinity), that stock car stereo began to seriously compete with the aftermarket in terms of sound quality. And although Mark Levinson wasn't a household name, it's exclusivity immediately set it apart and caught the attention of other luxury carmakers and their discerning customers.

Partly because of the success of the Lexus/Mark Levinson partnership, more high-end home audio brands have since hit the highway, most recently Bang & Olufsen in Audi and B&W in Jaguar. Acura even went to the trouble of creating its own exclusive brand from scratch, ELS Surround, named after and with input from famed music producer Elliot Scheiner. And both BMW and Lincoln have tapped theater-sound specialist THX to create systems for their vehicles.

Playing Both Sides of the Fence

In the intervening years, more and more well-known aftermarket brands have been appearing on stock systems. Rockford Fosgate, for example, is now available on some Nissan and Mitsubishi vehicles. Boston Acoustics systems come in some of Dodge and Chrysler's modern-day muscle cars, such as the Charger and 300C. And Alpine has been associated with Jaguar for a number of years, and now the company's products are also available in some Dodge trucks. Even Kicker, long known for their subwoofers in the aftermarket, have cut a deal with Dodge and Chrysler so that subwoofer systems can be added to vehicles as either a factory- or dealer-installed option.

Truth is, many of the major players in the car audio aftermarket have been supplying components to automakers for years, albeit without prominent branding. Clarion, Pioneer, and Alpine all have major OEM (original equipment manufacturer)divisions that are an important part of each company's overall sales. But it's only in the last few years that many of these manufacturers have blatantly offered branded system on vehicles.

Staying with Stock

Just as it would have been unheard of to compare a high-end stock system to a high-end aftermarket setup just a few years ago, I wholeheartedly feel that it's now no longer blasphemous to recommend a stock system as an alternative for some car audio lovers. In the past, stock systems were usually over-priced for the sound and features they offered, whereas the aftermarket provided better sound and better features for less money and maximum flexibility. But the value proposition of stock systems has improved dramatically and the carmakers are closing the gap on features as well.

Tip: So it sometimes makes sense to go with a stock system rather than installing an aftermarket one. Ask yourself the following questions when trying decide which route to take:

  • Do I planning on leasing or buying the vehicle? If it's a leased vehicle, modifying it could cost you big time at the end of your lease, but if you're buying it you can pretty much do what you want.

  • How long do I plan to keep the vehicle? If you plan to sell it within a couple of years, having an extensive aftermarket system could cost you, because it could detract from the resale value.

  • What features are most important to me? If you value stereo controls on the steering wheel over sound quality, a stock system may be for you.

  • Do I want to take the time to shop for and have an aftermarket system installed? Some people don't want the hassle of shopping for a system or don't want to wait to get it installed, so going with a stock system is instant gratification.

  • Do I want to possibly permanently alter my car? Although an aftermarket system can be installed without permanently altering the car, with a stock system you don't take that chance at all.

  • Do I want to pay for the system all at once or have it spread out over the life of the loan or lease on the car? One convenience of a premium stock system is that the payments can be spread out over the terms of the loan or lease, whereas with an aftermarket system you usually have to pay for it all at once.

If you're only looking for good sound and don't need every format and feature under the sun, a stock system could make sense for you. On the other hand, if you want something unique and customizing your ride is one of your main motivations, don't check off the premium audio option when buying a car. Basically, if you don't want the hassle of bringing your vehicle to a car audio shop, picking out components, waiting for the installation to be completed - and you prefer to have the cost of the system built into your monthly car payments - you're a good candidate for a stock system.

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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