Do You Hear What I Hear? Changes in the Car Audio Aftermarket Part I

It’s no surprise that major technological advancements continue to be made in the field of digital car audio. You can’t turn on the TV without seeing an advertisement for some kind of state-of-the-art portable music device, internet-streaming service, or must-have wireless headphone set. But despite this cultural obsession with having a playlist on deck for every conceivable life scenario, why does it feel like the car audio aftermarket is dwindling? If there’s one place we would want pristine sound, it’s on the open road, right?

The days of teenagers comparing CD players and subwoofers in the high school parking lot are gone. Big box stores’ sound installations have plummeted, and many premium audio features come standard now at point-of-sale. But ask any technician or retail associate in the audio aftermarket, and they’ll tell you that while the scene has definitely changed, it certainly hasn’t gone silent.

Economic Woes and Savvy OEMs

In truth, the market has shifted—a few times. What was once an enthusiast’s game became flooded in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s with mostly young men looking to jump on the trend of aftermarket-installed audio upgrades. Replacing in-dash receivers became easy revenue. And the influx of new customers meant more opportunities for add-on sales and budding audiophiles. But as the recession hit, many consumers had less play-money. And both large corporate installers as well as small shops felt the fad ending.

Adding insult to injury, OEMs began aggressively responding to the consumer demand for more integrated systems like Bluetooth streaming and smartphone connectivity. Popular brands like Rockford Fosgate, Infinity, and Pioneer became factory-installed on new vehicles. Manufacturers developed partnerships with satellite radio behemoths like Sirius XM and internet-streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify. They installed USB ports and aux inputs, touch-screen head units with voice-activated commands, and software from tech giants like Apple and Google. In short, they saw a market demand and scrambled to supply it with as much mainstream technology and eye candy as possible.

Weathering the Storm

The Average Joe is probably happy with a six-speaker factory-installed Bose sound system. And many drivers actually think that “hands free” voice projection technology is somehow easier than just raising your human voice. But true music lovers and audio enthusiasts know that for real quality and useful innovation they must turn to the aftermarket. That’s why during these years of market fluctuation, committed audio retailers not only survived…they thrived. Those in the aftermarket who built a strong reputation of good taste and high-quality work, as well as effective marketing strategies to keep a loyal customer base, prevailed over the inexperienced big box stores. They even managed to hold their own against the automakers, whose factory-installed equipment, to them, was mediocre at best.

In fact, the audio aftermarket is continuing to flourish. Even with OEMs rebounding in a post-Recession economy and the drive for autonomy directing new market technologies. An enthusiast-only game was temporarily invaded by trend followers, only to switch back to an enthusiast-dominated customer base. And now? It’s changed entirely, as the market desires shift from sound quality and music appreciation to cloud connectivity and mobile integration.

Back to the Future

Mobile electronics make up an incredibly fast-growing and profitable segment of the automotive industry. As consumers become more reliant on their smartphones, they expect seamless integration of that technology into their vehicles. And while the automakers have responded with enthusiasm, the aftermarket continues to improve upon those systems and offer more choices.

Vehicle-electronics upgrades run the gamut. From back-up cameras and radar detectors, to OBD port tuning and remote starters. But traditional audio enhancements have remained a popular mod. “Radio replacement is still our number-one category,” said Brett Riggs, Vice President of Integration and Infotainment at AAMP Global, in a recent SEMA news article on mobile electronics and technology trends. “Because of the complication of vehicles, it’s more and more difficult … but it’s still a very good market. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay have been big drivers of radio-replacement sales.”

Modern OEM systems are developed to save on cost and space, meaning quality is often sacrificed. Many customers are finding that simple head unit replacements or speaker upgrades can have a remarkable effect on the quality of a vehicle’s sound system. Simply adding some sound-deadening materials, like Dynamat, into door panels, under carpets, or inside the hood can cut down dramatically on engine rumble and road noise. Obsolete dash systems can be updated to offer mobile integration where there was none, extending the life of many older vehicles. In fact, many customers are opting to upgrade not just their daily drivers, but their motorcycles, project cars, and off-road machines as well. It’s becoming clear that audio consumers want infotainment capabilities not just for the work commute or family vacation, but quite literally everywhere they go.

Changing the Game

Everyday mobile connectivity becomes a more significant factor of vehicle entertainment. And that means that sound quality improvements become less of a concern for the ordinary shopper. Because integrating smartphone technology means more than just playing music. It means allowing users to manage all their apps, through the car’s system, in a safe and practical way. Drivers want access to maps, podcasts, messaging services, phone calls, and videos. They want driver-specific tech like safety cameras and sensors, vehicle maintenance alerts, and emergency response contact. And these wants have now become expected conveniences. Branching out into these premium multimedia upgrades is how many many audio installers have excelled in this ever-changing market.

Furthermore, sales data shows that as vehicle prices continue to rise, leasing is skyrocketing in popularity. Edmunds.com reports that nearly 30 percent of all new car sales are leases. Unfortunately, many aftermarket modifications will void the terms of a lease. So consumers are looking for temporary add-ons that can bump up the performance and comfort of stock equipment, without breaking the rules. Many audio retailers offer uninstall/reinstall services for lessees, as well as a multitude of non-invasive stick-on or bolt-on products. So customers who can’t afford to buy new, don’t want to gamble on used, or just want a new vehicle every few years, can still enjoy high-quality entertainment upgrades.

What’s Next?

Technology progresses more every day. And we’ve already seen immense changes occur in this segment. So what’s next for audio? What other changes are in store for the future?

We’ll be continuing this discussion soon. So check back to see what kind of predictions we make for the future of audio. In the meantime, why not put in your two cents in the comments?

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