No More Cutouts: Where Do Aftermarket Stereos Go? On the Road Weekly Publication

Getting an aftermarket stereo used to be straightforward. Head down to the electronics store, pick a new unit, yank out your old stereo and install the replacement in a same-size dashboard cavity. Installation professionals could do it in a jiffy — and the resulting unit fit snugly, looked OK and brought you up to speed with the latest technology.

That's hardly the case today. Cars from the Ford Fiesta  to the Honda Accord integrate cutout-free stereos into ever-more seamless dashboards, but audio technology continues to improve faster than car companies update models. Market researcher NPD Group reports nearly a third of people already listen to music in their cars off a smartphone or MP3 player, and upcoming systems boast complete smartphone integration. Today's new-car buyers don't have the easy ability to upgrade their stereos like they once did.

Take away the intricately designed dashboard coverings and many stereos can still be easily removed. Ted Cardenas, marketing director for Pioneer's car electronics group, says connecting an aftermarket stereo — or navigation system, for that matter — to all the associated systems in today's cars is another challenge.

Replacement stereos sit within fitted panels, some elaborately shaped to match the rest of the dash.  When done right, they should function through the steering-wheel audio controls and various vehicle sensors — everything the factory stereo would have done.

Another option is to add a system like Sony’s DigitalLink, which uses a mountable cradle to hold an iPhone or iPod touch, which drivers can use to control the music. These setups can be pricy, however.

The transition to these new devices and new cars equipped with better systems from the factory have scraped away at sales for the aftermarket stereo industry, whose heydays — the mid-1980s, Sony mobile director Mike Kahn estimates — are long behind. Industry consultancy IHS iSuppli projects stereo head-unit sales, which are now valued around $500 million, will fall to $365 million by 2017.

Still, Kahn says the vast majority of cars on the road today "can still be addressed by traditional aftermarket head-[unit] swapping." However, that could change down the road when used cars start to lack stereo cutouts.

-Kelsey Mays.

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