Not so very long ago it was a tradition that when you bought a second-hand car (especially an older one) you’d immediately drive down to a car audio specialist and have them fit a nice new CD head-unit to the dashboard. Upgrading car audio was as essential as a Green Slip. And with dozens of head-units from ten or more manufacturers to choose from, you could have anything from mega-budget to extreme audiophile sound in your ride.

Recently though, things have changed. The change probably started five years ago, but it’s really starting to be felt now. Car audio specialists are discovering that putting out a catalogue with “get MP3 CD in your car for just $99!” isn’t bringing the customers through the doors.

The problem, as one car audio industry insider told us, is that the market is “very mature”. By very mature, we mean that by now, everyone who was ever going to buy an aftermarket head-unit for their car already has one.

It’s worse than that though – if you’re a retailer that is. Now, when you buy a second-hand car, it’s either still got a pretty decent factory unit behind it’s custom centre console fascia, or if it’s a very old car (ie. more than six or seven years) it already has a nice aftermarket head-unit the previous owner put in.

The golden age of aftermarket car audio was nearly ten years ago, with the advent of ‘MP3 CD’. Head-units could read MP3 data files of burned CDs, allowing you to carry four to seven hours of music on a single disc.

Today though, simply offering ‘CD for your car’ isn’t enough to attract buyers. So the face of the car audio market is changing, both at the dealership and at the specialist aftermarket retailer. It’s not just about the music any more. In fact, it’s not even just about entertainment.

New car smell

If you’re the kind of person who takes notice of car commercials, then you might have indeed noticed that the ‘pitch’ has changed somewhat in recent years. Car entertainment was never much of a big thing for the manufacturers themselves – they pushed safety, power, style instead.

Today though, most marques make rather more than a passing mention of the incar entertainment capabilities of the latest models. Whether it’s Subaru’s factory-fitted McIntosh unit (surely the cheapest way to buy a McIntosh sound system – the car is only $45K after all), or both Holden and Ford’s emphasis on centralised entertainment and communications control systems, car makers now recognise that people want a lot out of their car stereo.

You might think this is bad news for aftermarket manufacturers, and while the days of the super-cheap CD head-unit are numbered, you can still get a highly customised entertainment experience right off the lot.
MotorOne has long provided new-car upgrades such as off-spec paint jobs, cruise control, and extra safety systems for a wide range of cars. Now, the company also provides incar entertainment options, thanks to a deal with Pioneer.

While Pioneer itself still uses rather confusing product numbers to identify its latest head-units, MotorOne simplifies this with Pioneer Discover, Performance and Expert packages. This includes a head-unit with satellite navigation, rear-mounted LCD screens, iPhone and iPod control, and Bluetooth for other mobile phone brands.

You don’t need to take your brand new car straight to a car audio specialist to get this system either – you can arrange to have it fitted before you take delivery from the dealer. It has a five-year warranty and you don’t need to find somewhere to shove all those boxes afterwards.

Serious sound?

Of course Pioneer says its AVIC system, despite being a sort of entertainment pocketknife with every possible option, is capable of audiophile quality sound. But the point the industry wants to make now is that car audio is less about the audio and more about offering a full suite of options that go beyond just listening to radio and music.

It makes sense – people increasingly carry their music on an iPod or similar, or even on their phone. And why not? No tempting CD wallet for thieves to break into the car and steal. But unless you’re technically adept, iPod output can’t justify a $3000 amp and speaker combo.

If you’re determined to spend $3000, manufacturers would rather give you a double-DIN head-unit that has GPS built in, as well as a full set of phone, music and movie options.

Big head-units like this can split their output into multiple zones, and also multitask. So your system could be displaying a GPS route on the 7 inch touchscreen display while you talk handsfree via a Bluetooth mobile connection, and the kids (or easily bored adult passengers) watch a movie on the rear screens.

Yes, you can achieve all of this with a stick-on GPS, Bluetooth kit, and separate DVD player, but it means clutter in the cabin, and none of the cheap discrete devices will do as good a job as the big expensive head-unit.

For instance, you can use the GPS system to search for your favourite restaurant via an exhaustive Points-Of-Interest list, then tap the phone icon to call the restaurant and make a booking with your mobile.

And if you’re prepared for a little more outlay, you can have all this integrated into your car’s existing steering wheel controls (subject to the model of your car, of course).

Where’s my DAB+?


Digital radio has been broadcasting in capital cities for a while now, so when can we see DAB+ receivers built in to our head-units? Well, not for a while, at least as far as the major brands are concerned.

The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough Australian drivers who want crystal-clear sound while they commute. The problem is that most units are designed in Japan for global markets.

Australia is a tiny part of the full market, and we’re pretty much the only people using DAB+, though the UK is in the progress of upgrading its digital radio system.

Couple this with the embarrassing failure of satellite radio in the US, and nobody is ready to jump on the DAB+ bandwagon just yet.

The prediction? A year to 18 months, and DAB+ will be standard.

iPod control… sort of


Don’t be fooled when a cheaper audio system boasts of iPod control. Many offer little more than a front-mounted analog audio input, leaving you to control the iPod via its usual buttons.

Awkward! True iPod control connects to your player via Apple’s proprietary connector, whereupon you shove the iPod in the glove box and control it entirely via the head-unit’s buttons. Double-DIN touchscreen units even replicate the iPod’s signature scroll-wheel.

Or you can voice-tag your favourite albums and tracks. That’s real iPod control.

What about Facebook?

The next step, according to industry insiders, is internet connectivity via the 3G network. You can browse the web on your mobile after all, so integrating that functionality into a car entertainment system is just a matter of getting the interface right.

Of course you won’t be using it to read regular web pages, but there’s lots of internet connectivity that would work brilliantly in the car. A Facebook app could update your GPS with the locations of friends converging on a meeting place. You can get reviews of restaurants as you scroll through lists looking for Thai in your area. And traffic reports and updates can be much more detailed and localised delivered via the net instead of the radio-based systems we use today.

So the present and future of incar entertainment is all about maximising functionality. Yes, you can still get music-dedicated systems, but why limit yourself, when you can have pretty much everything?

Three of the best

Here are three systems that offer maximum functionality, with slightly different emphasis. Let’s take a look!

Alpine 5.1 Digital Theatre System

Price: $2799

This is really a package deal offered by Alpine, consisting of a single-DIN head-unit with a pop-out screen, a 5.1 surround amp, subwoofer and speakers (including a nifty single-DIN centre speaker that goes in the dash).

The head-unit does navigation and iPod/iPhone control, including playing movies stored on Apple’s devices. Handy!

Pioneer AVIC-F20BT

Price: $2999

Though Pioneer is set to release a new generation of its AVIC systems soon, the F20BT still represents the core feature-set: GPS navigation, music, movies and phone connectivity in a double-DIN head-unit.

The replacement unit due for release in the US will support internet radio via a connected iPhone with 3G – stay tuned for an Aussie version.

Kenwood DNX7360BTNAV

Price: $1799

Like the other systems, this 7 inch touchscreen navigator/entertainer also handles phone calls via Bluetooth and has an iPod USB connection for proper control of Apple’s ubiquitous music player.

The USB also supports hard drives and thumbdrives. It also has a rear-view camera input, and the navigation is powered by Garmin.