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Car audio systems add sound choices to go

There are far more listening options now than just AM and FM

Published: January 2011

Whether an aftermarket car audio system or a factory system that comes with the vehicle, virtually all car radios now come with AM and FM radio and a CD player. But that's now only the beginning of the car audio experience.

In recent years, more sophisticated systems have brought a home-theater-like listening experience to music lovers on the move. Now digital music is changing the way we listen to audio in our cars. An increasing variety of models are being offered with features such as satellite radio; digital HD Radio from conventional stations; six-disc, in-dash CD changers; built-in hard drives for downloading music and photos; and connections for MP3 players, including iPod docks that power the device and let you control and play it through your car's audio system. Many systems also provide information in their display screens, including artist and song title.

Audio systems are also being integrated with other mobile electronics devices, such as GPS navigators and DVD entertainment systems. And at the pace that new features are being introduced, you'll need a scorecard to keep track of your options.


How to choose

Factory or aftermarket?

For some music lovers, it used to be a given that when you bought a new car, your first step once you got it home was to rip out the factory audio system and install aftermarket components. That's no longer the case. Automaker systems, in general, have improved in quality and now offer an array of audio-system choices, ranging from basic to premium. Some offer branded systems from Bose, Harman-Kardon, Infinity, and other aftermarket companies that are tailored to a vehicle's interior. Today, even music lovers can be quite happy with factory systems.

Automaker systems also provide an integrated look, with lighting and controls matching the rest of the dashboard. Knobs and dials are often larger and easier to use, and many systems include controls on the steering wheel that add extra convenience. And they can be covered by your new-car warranty, which can make service easier if problems arise.

But expect to pay a premium for a high-end factory system. And many don't allow you to easily upgrade with new features or technology, or to replace the radio with a more up-to-date one.

Generally, you will get more features for your buck with an aftermarket system. And you may be able to equip your car with advanced features that just weren't available for the model you bought.

Of course, buying aftermarket requires more effort to shop for the right system for your needs and for one that fits your car. You can take the time to choose the individual components yourself and then take them to an installer, or consult with an installer for a complete system.

Before buying, check your car's warranty to be sure that nothing you're planning to do will void it.

The bottom line? For most people, the factory radio that comes standard in your car will probably be fine. If you're looking for optimum audio quality or more features, compare what you get with an automaker's optional premium system with what you can get with an aftermarket system. If they're similar and the factory system isn't that much more expensive, that's probably the way to go, given that it will save you installation hassles, will probably be better integrated into the vehicle, and will be cheaper in relation to the total price of the vehicle.

But you might find that you can get a better system for the same or even less money by going aftermarket.

Satellite or HD Radio?

If you want better audio quality but don't want to commit to a monthly subscription fee for satellite radio, you might want to give HD Radio a try. The digital signal makes AM content sound closer to FM and FM content sound more like a CD. You can also explore the diverse subchannels that stations are beginning to broadcast. But you may want to wait before investing in HD-Radio equipment, especially as more and cheaper gear arrives and more stations add HD Radio capability. And you should check the station list at to find out which stations in your area are broadcasting HD signals to see if the investment is worthwhile.

On the other hand, if you want a much wider selection of music, news, sports, and other content than you can get through local stations, satellite radio is the way to go. It's especially appealing if you travel out of your region a lot and don't want to be limited to the local radio fare. Sirius and XM—now under the same corporate umbrella—provide similar musical choices and various packages enable subscribers to pick and choose from both, but if you're interested in sports or celebrity DJs, check out their channel selections carefully before you sign up.

If you want to choose your own music on the road but don't want to tote around a load of CDs, look for a system that includes a USB port, hard drive, or iPod/MP3-player integration. With a hard drive, you don't have to worry about carrying around and plugging in a separate device. And it can store and let you quickly sort through a tremendous amount of data, whether audio or photo files. But the content stays with the car; you can't take it with you unless you download it to another device. And if you already have an MP3 player or iPod, adding a hard-drive collection and setting up new playlists could consume lots of time to load.

A system that lets you plug in an iPod or MP3 player might be a good choice if you already carry your player with you most of the time and don't feel the need to recopy your music collection. If you buy a system or aftermarket adapter with a built-in dock, you can charge the unit while you drive. And some systems let you control the device with radio/and or steering-wheel-mounted controls.

You can also retrofit an existing system to accept an iPod, albeit in a less elegant way than using an iPod dock. A relatively inexpensive solution is to have an audio shop install an input cable that plugs into the iPod's headphone jack.

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