No More Aftermarket Stereos for You

  • February 6, 2024

One of the things that wasn’t so great about cars made until just the past five years or so was that the factory stereo systems often weren’t very good. Especially if you went back about ten or fifteen (or twenty) years – and were driving a run-of-the-mill model such as my ’02 Nissan Frontier.

It came with a very mediocre stereo.

But the great thing about vehicles made before the advent of LCD touchscreens popping out of the dashboard like Pop Tarts was that the factory stereo was just the factory stereo. It was not integrated into an LCD touchscreen, as is now the case in every 2024 model, irrespective of make. You cannot avoid the touchscreen in a new vehicle anymore.

And you cannot do something else.

Easily swap out the factory stereo for a better aftermarket unit. That could be easily done before the advent of LCD displays popping out of the dashboard like Pop Tarts because the stereo head unit was a discrete unit. It wasn’t part of anything else. More finely, it could be removed (and replaced) without affecting anything else – such as the car’s AC and heater controls, for instance. Or the GPS. Or whatever else is controlled via the LCD touchscreen interface, in addition to the stereo.

it is no longer a simple matter of removing the old head unit and plugging in an aftermarket unit (made very simple via universal-style plugs that enable an aftermarket stereo to literally be plugged into the existing factory wiring without cutting/splicing wiring). The new/aftermarket head unit was also sized to fit the hole and so when installed it looked as if it had come with the vehicle, from the factory.

The standardization of the LCD touchscreen has changed all that. It is no longer possible to just swap out the factory stereo for an aftermarket unit. You’d have to swap out the LCD screen – and you can’t do that because there are no aftermarket replacements for them. Whatever the car came with is what you’re stuck with, in other words.

This isn’t to say you cannot add a touchscreen to your vehicle, if it didn’t come with one originally. A number of aftermarket head units do feature an LCD touchscreen. But replacing an existing touchscreen – the one that came with the car – is something else.

It’s the latest example of what we’ve lost as a result of things in cars that were once discrete having been integrated into an indivisible whole that is what it is and that’s all there is to it.

For example, it was once relatively easily to swap engines. Maybe you couldn’t afford a Trans-Am like my Great Pumpkin when it was new, back in 1976. But if you could afford a Firebird, you could replace the six cylinder engine that it came with from the factory with a 400 or 455 V8 from a Trans-Am in the salvage yard. And if you had a Trans-Am with an automatic but wanted a manual, replacing the factory automatic with a manual was just a matter of getting the necessary parts and bolting them together. Once installed – if the installation was done competently – everything would work as if it had been installed at the factory.

You can’t replace – let alone swap out – the headlights on some new vehicles without connecting the vehicle to a computer to “ok” the work – and replacing the factory installed engine (or transmission) with one that differs from what was installed at the factory is a de facto impossibility, because the computer won’t accept the changes. And the computer is tied into and controls essentially everything.

New vehicles use computers (body control modules) to control accessories such as power windows and door locks. And they are specific to that particular vehicle.

It’s the same with the LCD touchscreens that are popping up like Pop Tarts in literally every new vehicle, irrespective of make or model. One of the reasons for this is that (apparently) lots of buyers like their vehicles to look like their phones – and work like them, too. Another reason is that bundling most of the vehicle’s secondary controls for accessories such as AC/heat as well as the stereo’s controls into a single LCD touchscreen interface reduces interior clutter (fewer physical buttons, knobs and switches) and eases (read – cheapens) assembly complexity as the vehicle moves down the production line.

Put bluntly, it increases profits by lowering the cost of parts and putting them into the car – which is then sold for more, in part because the LCD touchscreens look expensive to people who don’t know that electronics are cheap.

It also increases profits by pressuring buyers to buy the best factory stereo system they can afford because whatever they end up buying is what they’ll be having. In the past, it was no deterrent to the audiophile that a car he was looking at was abase trim with the not-so-great base stereo. He knew he could install a premium stereo without paying a premium for the vehicle.

Also, if the factory stereo croaked, it was inexpensive to replace it (and only it) with something better.

That’s one more thing that’s receding in the rearview, along with V6 engines in family-priced cars and V8 engines in luxury cars.

. . .

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