factory radio improvement?
Life with a Factory Stereo
How to upgrade your vehicle's stock system
You buy a car, you drive it for a couple of months, and you decide that the sound system just isn't cutting it. In the old days, you'd buy a new stereo and some speakers and life would be good. But it's not that simple anymore. Many car makers use unusual dash configurations, and others use "premium" systems that use amps and speakers with unusual impedance ratings and proprietary connections.
|Many new vehicles won't accept this traditional car stereo and speakers combo.|
The biggest dealbreaker? Instead of the old in-dash CD player/radio combo, many new vehicles feature all-in-one consoles that incorporate climate controls, OnStar®, GPS, vehicle warning systems, and other unique features, housed right along with your sound system. Replace your stereo and you lose many, if not all, of these important factory functions.
Options for the 21st century
What are your choices if you've purchased a vehicle like this? Are you stuck with the limitations of the factory sound system? Is the local dealership your only option for adding to your system? Will you have to suffer with second-rate sound quality and limited entertainment choices for the next 100,000 miles? Cheer up. There's more and more good news headed your way.
Car stereo manufacturers have begun to adjust, moving away from the traditional stereo and speaker offerings toward developing products that enhance factory systems. Solutions range from adding a simple powered subwoofer, to using a sophisticated sound processor to expand your system, and from adapters that connect an iPod® to your factory stereo, to kits that integrate your cell phone into your factory system. Let's talk about some of your options.
Dysfunctional dashboards and other problems
Lots of cars — the 2006-up Honda Civic or 2003-up Mazda 6, for example include heating and air conditioning controls in the console along with the factory stereo, making it difficult to install a new stereo. Owners of these cars can rejoice, because dash adapters are available that allow you to install an aftermarket stereo while retaining your heating and cooling controls.
|The climate controls in this Toyota Avalon are joined to the factory radio, making it a little more complicated to install a new stereo.|
Many other vehicles (General Motors SUVs in particular) incorporate audible safety warnings, door chimes, OnStar voice prompts, and other features into the factory radio. Replace the factory radio and you lose major functions. But you can now find a variety of adapters that allow you to install a new stereo and still maintain these factory systems.
Getting the Sound Right
Most complaints about factory sound systems cite poor sound quality, and even expensive "premium systems" can suffer from boomy bass and poor imaging caused by inexpensive drivers and too little power. To compound the problem, most factory stereos don't offer the equalization controls you need to get the sound right. Here are a few easy fixes that can improve your daily commute.
The Achilles heel of many factory systems is bass. A powered subwoofer can improve the sound in your car dramatically, even if your vehicle has a "premium" system. Why? When you turn up the bass on your car stereo, you lower the effective power of its amplifier because it takes more juice to produce bass. With a powered sub, you can leave the bass set to "0" on your factory stereo, and let the sub bear the brunt of producing the low-frequency response you want to hear. You'll get a much cleaner overall sound.
|This powered subwoofer houses a speaker and amplifier in a remarkably small enclosure.|
Any powered sub worth its salt will offer "speaker-level" inputs, so you can connect to the factory system by tapping into the speaker wires. Powered subs range in size from small enclosures designed to fit under a seat, to larger units that install in your trunk or rear cargo area. For many vehicles, you can use a "custom-fit" sub, a molded plastic enclosure complete with speaker, that installs in the rear side panel or under a seat. Powered versions include an amplifier for an all-in-one bass package that doesn't take up any space.
Improving clarity with tweeters
Check out the way you've set the tone controls on your factory stereo. If you see that the treble control is all the way up, consider buying a set of tweeters, small high-frequency speakers that you can install in your doors or dash. You can wire them together with your door or dash speakers, and you'll be amazed at how they'll bring your system to life. Even if you already have factory tweeters, installing a set of high-quality tweeters in their place can improve the clarity of your system dramatically.
Adding amps and subs to your factory system
You're a hard-core car stereo fanatic who likes it loud. The factory system in your new car sounds great, but it dies when you turn it up to eleven. And you just found out that the sophisticated wiring that connects the head unit to the amplified speaker system in your car makes it next to impossible to add an amplifier and subs.
Products like the Alpine PXA-H800 and others allow you to build and tune a sophisticated audio system around your factory stereo.
Alpine made the PXA-H800 processor for you. This magic box can tap into virtually any factory system, giving you extensive equalization capabilities and allowing you to add amplifiers and subwoofers. In addition, many factory systems use a preset EQ curve that makes the factory speakers sound good, but creates a horrible sonic mess when you try to add an amplifier and/or new speakers. The PXA-H800 flattens out this factory curve, so you can install an amplified system and enjoy superb sound quality. Many other processors are available as well.
Born for bad sound
Some cars are doomed to poor sound by virtue of their design. The Jeep Wrangler, for example, can ford mighty rivers and climb tall mountains, but its combination of small speakers and a noisy environment makes for a less than ideal listening experience. Now, you can buy heavy-duty plastic speaker pods that install in various spots in the Wrangler interior, housing a set of your favorite speakers or a small sub.
|These Quad-Pod enclosures allow you to mount two 8" subs and two 6-1/2" speakers in a Jeep Wrangler.|
Sub-compact vehicles or small sports cars are also notorious for bad stereo setups, with tiny speakers stuck in the doors or dash as an afterthought. Replacing your stereo only goes so far when the music's broadcast through a set of 4" speakers. The solution? A compact powered sub, like the Sound Ordnance™ B-8PT can fit in your trunk or under a seat without too much trouble, adding serious impact and punch to your system.
More entertainment options
In the past, car manufacturers have avoided giving you any way to plug an auxiliary device into the factory stereo, figuring correctly that they'd make more money by selling you the factory option at the dealership. But the overwhelming popularity of the iPod® has forced this issue, and some carmakers are equipping their new vehicles with iPod interfaces. But what are your options if you're not one of the lucky ones with a car like this?
|This iPod interface lets you listen to, control, and charge your iPod with a Honda factory radio.|
MP3 on the road
Fortunately, a healthy little industry has developed in the last ten years whose sole object is to get you connected to your factory stereo. Want to hook up your iPod? You'll find iPod adapters that'll connect you to factory radios from nearly every major car manufacturer. These adapters allow you to:
- play your iPod through your factory sound system;
- choose between using your factory radio's controls or the iPod's controls to run your iPod;
- access all your iPod playlists;
- charge your iPod's battery while you drive.
If you own a non-Apple MP3 player, you can find an auxiliary input adapter for most factory stereos. Pull your factory stereo out of the dash, plug one of these adapters into its rear CD changer plug, reinstall the stereo, and you're done. You can plug in and listen to your portable MP3 player — or any other outboard audio source — through your factory stereo. Sweet.
But what happens when you plug in your MP3 player and start driving? You can't just hide it away, because you might want to get to the controls. So where do you put the thing? Solution: get an iPod grip and attach it to the vehicle-specific mount designed for your car. These mounts install easily — just remove a section of your dash, screw the mount in place, and replace the dash. You've created a permanent home in your car for an iPod or MP3 portable without any cutting or modification.
Stations in the sky
Everyone knows the pain of finding a great radio station on a long car trip, only to have it fade away as you leave the area. But satellite radio allows you to listen to just about any genre of music under the sun, and satellite radio channels won't fade away no matter how far you drive. Imagine listening to old school reggae all the way from Boston to San Francisco, or 50's jazz from New York to Miami. That's why so many long-distance truckers and salespeople have flocked to satellite radio.
|The SC-C1 universal tuner lets you hook up satellite radio to a variety of factory and aftermarket stereos.|
Did you know that you can buy satellite radio packages for your factory stereo, and at a much lower price than your dealer would charge for that option? These packages include a tuner box, and adapter cable, and a roof-mount antenna, and installation is relatively simple. Or, if you like to take it with you, you can connect a Dock & Play satellite radio to your factory radio with one of the auxiliary input adapters mentioned previously.
Some people like to keep it simple, preferring the simple entertainment solution of a multi-disc CD changer. Dealers can ask an outrageous price to add a changer to your factory system, but you can buy a CD changer that works with your factory radio for a lot less. You may have to do a little work — these changers come in one standard size so they may not fit directly into your factory changer location. Also, many of these CD changers connect to the factory changer cable already in your vehicle, but some include a cable that must be connected to the back of your factory radio. But it's worth the effort if you want to save a lot of cash.
Cell phone safety
With each passing day, more and more locales are outlawing cell phone use on the road, trying to eliminate the hazard caused by distracted drivers holding a cell phone in one hand and driving with the other. But cell phones have become an integral part of modern life, particularly in the world of business. How do you stay in touch and drive safely?
|This Parrot kit works with a plug-in adapter so you can make and receive hands-free cell phone calls through your factory radio.|
If you own a Bluetooth® enabled cell phone, you can install a hands-free cell phone kit that plugs into the factory stereo in many vehicles with the help of a handy vehicle-specific wiring harness. This combo ties your cell phone into your factory stereo, muting the stereo when you receive a phone call. You hear the conversation over your car speakers, and your side of the conversation is picked up by a small microphone that's included with the cell phone kit. Once you get in your car, the phone and kit sync up automatically, ready to accept or send calls. Your phone stays in your purse or coat pocket, and your eyes stay on the road.
More options on the way
In short, life with a factory stereo can be good. As car stereo manufacturers continue to adjust to the changing market, you'll find more and more products available that'll add functionality and performance to your factory system. Stuck with a factory stereo and haven't found what you want in this article? We have two words for you — contact us. We'll help you find your options.