In the last few decades, consumer-electronics retailing has become dominated by big box stores. You probably have one near you if you live in an urban area or even in a good-sized town. Car audio equipment is also sold through mass merchants as well as some auto-parts stores. Because they buy in such huge quantities, large retailers usually have the best prices.
The big box stores also usually have a wide selection of equipment and brands.
Another advantage of big box stores is that they usually have a finance program that you can sign up for on the spot. Plus, while some specialty shops also offer financing, most mass merchant retailers also offer interest-free financing for up to a year to sweeten the deal.
But with a big box retailer, you also won't get the personalized and expert service that you can get at a specialty retailer. The emphasis is usually on moving large amounts of products as opposed to customer service.
Some big box stores have an installation department, and they've done a great job of improving their service and reputation over the last few years. But mass merchants usually have a higher turnover of installers than specialty retailers and they don't attract the most talented installers to start with.
If you are going with a simple to moderate system, a big box store can be a good alternative to a specialty retailer. But if you want a truly custom system, a specialty retailer is the only choice.
The Internet has opened up a whole new way to shop for car audio. You can sit at the computer in your underwear while shopping for a subwoofer, for example. Plus, it allows you to compare prices at several sites and locations easily.
As the Internet has become the place that more people shop, the options for buying car audio products online has also increased. Many of the big box retailers have an online sales department, and a few specialty retailers have also added an e-commerce component to their business. Some manufacturers also have direct online sales. Basically, you can get almost anything you want with a click of a mouse.
Although shopping on the Internet is convenient and sometimes saves money, one downside is you may have to pay for shipping, and you don't get that instant gratification on getting the components the same day you pay for them.
Understanding Warranties and Returns
Like any consumer product, car audio equipment usually comes with a manufacturer's warranty. But unlike most consumer products, car audio equipment has to be installed in a vehicle for it to work. And as mentioned earlier, some manufacturers protect themselves from damage caused by improper installation by extending the warranty only if their products are installed by an authorized dealer. That way they can be assured - and you can too - that the products will perform the way they are intended.
A defective or broken car audio component has to be taken out of the vehicle before it can be replaced or sent back to a manufacturer for repair. A potential bummer is that in some cases the customer has to pay to have the equipment taken out and put back into the car by the dealer. Although some specialty shops and big box stores will eat the labor cost and not bill the customer if the product is still under warranty, others will charge their usual rates to take the component and put it back in again. But it's rare for high-quality car audio equipment to break or malfunction.
A few manufacturers offer over-the-counter returns through an authorized dealer. But more commonly, the component will be sent back to the manufacturer or a service center for repair, which could take anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Depending on the retailer you choose, they may decide to replace a busted component with a new one from their stock or wait till the repaired component comes back from the manufacturer.
Shopping for Used Equipment
One way to save some bucks on your car audio components is to buy used gear. People upgrade components in the car audio system or change cars all the time, and when they do, they usually want to get rid of their used car audio components.
There are several sources for buying used car audio equipment. The best place to start is among friends and acquaintances. Another good place to start is with your local classifieds. That way, you can at least inspect the equipment before you buy it to make sure it's in decent shape. And if you install it and have a problem, you can hopefully return it pretty easily. Regardless, ask the seller to give you a short-term warranty, so that you have time to get the component installed and make sure it's in good working order.
Of course, you should check for obvious signs of wear and tear. Even though you can't inspect circuitry inside a component, the outward appearance should give you some indication of whether it was taken care of. Dents, chips, and such should be a red flag. With subwoofers, check for metal shavings attached to the magnet: These could get into the voice coil of the sub and cause past or future damage. With head units, check all of the buttons and knobs to make sure they operate smoothly. Ask the owner for any manuals or accessories that came with the component. Finally, check the serial numbers. If they are missing or scratched off, the unit is likely stolen, and you won't be able to have it repaired.
Compatibility isn't a huge issue with car audio gear, but keep in mind that one manufacturer's head unit often doesn't work with another's CD changer, and sometimes they aren't compatible even it they are made by the same manufacturer. Also make sure to check whether a component needs a proprietary cable or plug.
Many car audio specialty stores have used equipment in their stock room they are usually willing to part with. Ask the salesperson if they have anything that will work well in the system you're planning and chances are they'll give you a good deal on it.
Pawn shops can also be a good source for used car audio equipment, but have an idea of the value of the gear so you know whether you're getting a good deal. Also ask about a warranty.
The Internet is a vast source for used car audio gear and there are several useful sites that have a used car audio gear sections, such as www.sounddomain.com and www.automotix.net. Newsgroups such as www.caraudioforum.com and forum.elitecaraudio.com have hundreds of listings for used car audio gear too. You can search for the specific components you want or post a WTB (Want to Buy) message for something in particular.
eBay and other online auctions sites are also a great place to shop. But you'll first have to familiarize yourself with the going rate for the equipment you're most interested in. A good way to do this is to check auctions that have already closed to get an idea of what similar equipment sold for. Make sure to find out who pays the shipping charges before the auction ends.
With the right research and timing, you could score a killer deal on some great used equipment. Just remember the old saying: If it's too good to be true, it probably is.
From Car Audio for Dummies, copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.