Aftermarket Head Unit Buying Guide - by

Buying an aftermarket head unit? Here's what you need to know before investing.

You're looking for a new head unit. Maybe you want an integrated backup camera, satellite radio capability, a larger touchscreen or an Apple CarPlay® or Android Auto® ready unit.

Of course there's also the desire for better sound quality.

You should select a new head unit carefully. Installing aftermarket equipment in any vehicle, can affect existing infotainment system functionality, your vehicle's warranty and in extreme cases cause your vehicle to not start.

And that dash mounted screen looks cool, until you realize the driver's cabin has been engineered ergonomically to avoid distracting you while driving.

There's a reason the manufacturers put that screen in the middle of the console—at a level that can be seen when needed, but not obstructing your view when it's not.

How do you avoid these issues? Ask the following questions, and look for these cues in the answers:

Will the New Head Unit Come Pre-Programmed for Your Specific Vehicle?

Infotainment Aftermarket Head Unit Buying Guide - Is the new head unit pre-programmed for your vehicle

To know the correct answer to this question, you need to first understand the role of your vehicle's computer system. If you don't, read our blog post, Understanding the Role of Your Vehicle's Computer.

For now, just understand that your vehicle's computer, orchestrates and manages all of your systems; transmission, engine performance, steering and handling, safety, etc.

Simply put, adding new equipment to your vehicle can cause existing equipment to function improperly. Unless of course, you inform the computer there's a new team member that needs to be properly integrated into the group.

If your head unit doesn't come pre-programmed for your specific vehicle, you can probably expect issues such as loss of steering wheel button functionality, system error messages, loss of backup camera functionality or something even more important.

This would be a good time to note the words "Your Specific Vehicle" in the question.

Programming the radio for a Jeep Wrangler doesn't mean it's programmed for your specific Jeep Wrangler.

Pre-Programming your vehicle should be based upon the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN).

If whoever programs your radio doesn't have access to your vehicle's VIN, you can't have much confidence in the head unit being properly pre-programmed.

Plug-And-Play Installation or Wire Cutting/Splicing?

Infotainment Aftermarket Head Unit Buying Guide - Is the new vehicle head unit plug-and-play installation or do you have to cut wires

Look for Plug-And-Play installation.

Plug-And-Play installation for a head unit means no cutting and splicing wires. Your unit should come with all the adapter harnesses that allow you to simply plug connectors together to join wires.

Cutting and splicing wires in the majority of instances will put your vehicle's manufacturer's warranty at risk.

If you go the professional route for installation, the risks to your warranty still exist. Even if your installer provides a warranty for their service, it won't protect your manufacturer's vehicle warranty.

Surprisingly enough, we've found that many professional installation shops—including dealerships—don't know how to properly install certain head units.

Bottom line, if your installation requires cutting and splicing wires, move on.

Will You Have Access to Installation Support and For How Long?

Infotainment Aftermarket Head Unit Buying Guide - Does the new head unit come with in-person installation support

Whether you perform a DIY install or have an expert do it for you, you'll still want access to technical installation support for a period following your install.

Here at, we get calls from car audio shops, dealerships and customers from other companies with installation questions constantly.

We're fortunate, we have some of the most knowledgeable engineers and technicians in the industry. That won't be the case in your situation—unless you purchased the equipment from us.

If you can, find a vendor that provides live technical support.

This is a must if you have little knowledge and/or experience with vehicle wiring. Even professional installers will most likely have a few questions, unless they have extensive experience with your particular make and model.

Does the Head Unit Come With a Compatibility Guarantee?

Infotainment Aftermarket Head Unit Buying Guide - Does the new head unit come with a guarantee it will work in your vehicle

Before you ever attempt to install your new head unit, it would be great to know it will work.

Does the head unit come with a guarantee it will work in YOUR specific vehicle? If it doesn't, make sure you understand what your options are in this situation.

Can you return the equipment for your money back? If you can't return the unit, will they at least let you exchange it for something else?

With any head unit, try to find something that provides at least 30 days for returns or exchanges. This will allow you time to install the new equipment and verify it works with little risk.

Does All the Required Equipment for Installation Come With Your Purchase?

Infotainment Aftermarket Head Unit Buying Guide - Does the new head unit come with all the necessary parts for a complete installation

What if you bought your new head unit, installed it, then discovered your dash bezel no longer fits correctly? Or maybe your realize you need a different harness for proper installation.

Now you have to drive around looking like a victim of a smash and grab, with wires hanging out of your console, at least until you find the missing parts.

If your new head unit features a larger touchscreen, you'll most likely need a new bezel.

Apple CarPlay® or Android Auto® compatible head units may require a compatible USB port in order to work. Without the special USB hub, you won't get the CarPlay or Auto integration that may have motivated your original purchase.

Make sure you understand everything required for your head unit to work properly in your specific vehicle.

Hey Wait! You Didn't Mention Anything About Sound Quality.

Infotainment Aftermarket Head Unit Buying Guide - How much sound improvement can you get from an aftermarket head unit

When you read this post's title, your probably expected lots of talk about decibel levels, amps and sound quality.

Now that we're close to concluding, you might realize we have no intention of addressing audio quality.

Why? For the detailed answer, read this post. For the short answer keep going.

The truth, a head unit will have very little if any impact on your sound quality—unless you're still using CDs, cassettes or 8-track.

If sound quality drives your desire for a new head unit, start from the speakers and work your way back to the head unit. You'll quickly discover that the speakers, amp and wiring makes the most difference in modern vehicles.

If your head unit can play digital files and works properly, save the money on a new one. Invest that money on higher quality audio components instead.