Sound Systems

By Chandra Orr

January 22, 2010 5 min read

Still rockin' out to that AM/FM cassette player? Time for an upgrade.

The latest aftermarket sound systems outshine even top-notch factory-installed systems, and they do much more than just play music. All-in-one multimedia systems that integrate digital music, navigation, phone, e-mail, Internet and other modern necessities are the way of the future.

"A few years ago, the CD was the way to listen to music in your car. Today digital music playback is king," says Steve Brown, product promotion manager for Alpine Electronics, a leading manufacturer of high-performance mobile electronics. "From iPod and iPhone integration to satellite and HD radio, consumers expect their aftermarket sound systems to play their favorite media."

"Drivers today are looking for convenience -- a way to integrate their life into their vehicle," says Misha Munoz, CEO of Divine One Customs, an auto customization shop specializing in audio, navigation and video systems in Henderson, Nev.

"As much as laptops or cell phones made people's lives a little more multitask-efficient, consumers are now looking for that same convenience in their vehicles," Munoz says. "Although these upgrades are far from inexpensive, they add a certain personal feel to a consumer's vehicle."

So turn up the treble, boost that bass and get connected.

*Start at the Source

It goes by many names -- digital media station, digital receiver, AVN system -- but if you're looking for more options, start with the source unit.

"The building block of any high-performance sound system is the source unit, and the all-in-one audio/video/navigation receiver is the most popular choice," Brown says. "Combining a large touch screen, built-in navigation and support for all digital media sources, these units define the ultimate high-end audio system."

High-end systems with all the bells and whistles can cost $1,000 or more, but more economical drivers can find units with basic MP3 connectivity, hands-free Bluetooth technology and modern GPS systems for just a few hundred dollars.

Most multimedia stations also feature quick and easy options for integrating satellite radio and connecting to the steering wheel's remote control.

*Upgrade A La Carte

Already have a system you love? OEM integration makes a partial upgrade possible.

With an OEM integrated interface, you can add a portable player, Bluetooth, satellite radio or a backup camera to the factory system without the high cost of replacing the entire radio.

"OEM integration is extremely popular today because of the high cost of replacing a factory radio just to add a few options," Munoz says. "Your vehicle may come equipped with navigation, satellite radio and other features you want to keep, but it may not come with a direct-connect plug to play and charge your iPod."

*Bump the Bass

"No top-notch system is complete without high-quality amplifiers and speakers," Brown says. "Upgraded speakers are the single most cost-effective upgrade you can make to your car's sound system, as this is where many factory-installed systems fall short."

The latest amps, speakers and subwoofers get loud and sound great without the heat, size and power consumption of products made just five years ago.

"The basic design of the car audio speaker has not changed in many years, but improvements in engineering, materials and construction have made speakers and subwoofers sound better, last longer and produce lots of output without taking up lots of storage space," Brown explains.

You can snag a set of new speakers for less than $100, upgrade your amp with a head unit power pack for about $150 and find subwoofers starting at $150.

"A powered subwoofer -- the enclosure, a powered amplifier and the woofer itself -- attached to any factory system can completely redefine the way a consumer enjoys music," Munoz says.

"Your vehicle can sound as amazing as a movie theater or concert hall. Whether you enjoy classical or hard rock, rap or jazz, a powered subwoofer will add life to your music."

A complete sound system overhaul can cost $500 or more, but consider it an investment. When combined, all the elements add something special.

"A properly installed, high-quality audio system will add value to a vehicle when it's time to resell," Brown says. "A nice system can make your car sell faster in a sea of similar used models with factory-equipped systems, giving you the seller's advantage."

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