What Happened To Aftermarket Car Audio?

With automotive OEMs pulling ‘premium audio’ in house, the aftermarket car stereo market has dwindled. Or has it?

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With the myriad changes afoot in automotive today, it’s interesting to note that there is significant technology development in the area of audio. Who knew? Considering that we are interacting more with our vehicles today in the form of hands-free technologies, it’s actually not surprising in the least.

With all of the features being added to the automobile that add complexity, there is a belief that the aftermarket audio space — think the big, booming subwoofers of the past — has flattened out. Once, stores like Car Toys and Circuit City were doing a lot of business stripping out standard equipment, and installing aftermarket amplifiers, higher end 8-tracks, then cassette players, then CD players, now USB drives, Bluetooth gadgetry, back-up cameras, remote starters, vehicle alarm systems, and soon to be autonomous driving kits, amongst endless other options. And now as more OEMs move audio from analog to digital, the aftermarket providers may take a hit.

It is true that automotive OEMs now recognize the importance of designing subsystems in from the system level, and are working to move towards this. At the same time, all of this new technology is an investment that, frankly, takes away from the bottom line. As a result, they are re-examining everything – including audio. As part of that, they are starting to place more importance on the default audio system, maybe partly because they want to keep that piece of the pie, but also because customers have demanded it.

“Now they are thinking about it from the beginning, looking at it like a system because they want connectivity to the phone, Bluetooth streaming — so now it’s all in there, it’s not something that you pay extra to go get,” observed Anil Khanna, senior manager for the automotive audio business line in the automotive business unit at Mentor, a Siemens business.

I’m sure this is true from the OEM’s point of view, but I’m not convinced it’s hurting the aftermarket audio guys. A quick Internet search revealed two dozen car stereo installers in Louisville, Kentucky alone, which is the closest ‘big’ city to where I live. Sure, Car Toys and Circuit City have been replaced by Best Buy, Sound Factory and Dad’s Custom Car Audio, but this still seems to be a healthy number of suppliers.

I think the bottom line is that there will always be a segment of the population that want their premium audio from the factory augmented and/or bumped up, which in itself demands a more skilled technician given the complexity of vehicles today versus 20 years ago. So if anything, it would seem reasonable that the dollars may merely be shifting for the true premium audio — from the automotive OEM to the aftermarket car stereo store, as has been true for many decades now.

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