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The demise of the car audio aftermarket

The demise of the car audio aftermarket

Although a browse through Crutchfield reveals hundreds of car stereo head units from dozens of manufacturers, this market faces a dead end. Carmakers increasingly make their dashboards unfriendly to aftermarket stereo installs. You find a screen set in the top of the center stack, buttons inset somewhere below, and controls integrated with the steering wheel. A representative from one car-stereo maker confirmed for me at CES that the traditional car audio aftermarket is going away. But two companies, Kenwood and Alpine, have plans to keep afloat. Both the Kenwood KOS-A200 and Alpine's Vehicle Hub Pro have boxes that install somewhere out of sight and hook up to the car's existing head unit. The boxes have multiple inputs for all sorts of devices, making a car audio system almost infinitely expandable with all sorts of new technology, from HD radio to navigation to video.

The Alpine and Kenwood boxes aren't perfect. Because not all the OEM controls will translate to the new components, Alpine has a controller that will have to be placed somewhere within reach. (Dirty secret: Alpine designed BMW's iDrive system, although a representative insisted the software interface was all BMW.) The Kenwood system actually plugs into the FM antenna jack of the OEM head unit, which is a very inelegant solution. Of course, some cars, such as Scions, make a point of being aftermarket friendly. But will there be enough of these types of cars to save the big car stereo companies?