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.