Car audio upgrades can be costly enough as it is. Adding a professional installation can increase that price by quite a bit. Is it worth it to have your new gear installed by an expert, or should you save your money and do it yourself?
In most situations, it would be far smarter to pay a reputable installer to put your stereo equipment in your car. An experienced installer at a good shop will be better equipped, better informed, and have access to better resources than 90-95% of the average DIYer.
In many cases, they will have been through training by the brands of equipment that you are having them install. If you want your audio equipment installed right and to perform at its best, then I would recommend you take your car to a good shop and pay for a professional install.
Now, let’s break down in more detail as to why a professional is more often than not the best option.
Is it worth it to pay a professional to install your car audio upgrades?
To show how much I believe this to be the case, I plan on taking my daily driver to a professional when I am ready to have a full system installed. What’s so significant about that?
Well, I’ve been in the car audio field for the better part of 25 years. I have owned a shop and installed everything from car starters and alarms up to very high-level competition systems. I have also competed and won at the highest level.
Despite all that, I’m still hiring a pro.
I drive a 2014 Nissan Maxima and I am currently deciding what installer I want to go to. I recently installed the head unit in the car myself and it was a horribly frustrating two-day affair. I have tons of experience with car audio installations but times have changed from when I did it full time. I am also lacking many of the specialty tools I used to own when I was a full-time installer.
I installed an Alpine INE-W960HDMI double din with navigation and Bluetooth, with Sirius satellite radio and steering wheel control. The sheer number of wires that needed to be soldered and run was overwhelming – two USB cables, two separate antennas (one for the Sirius and one for the navigation system), the Bluetooth microphone, the radios antenna adaptor, and the main wiring harness.
All this before even adding any amplifiers which means more wires going to the head unit soon. Now, add in the fact that I had to do all of this in my driveway, and it is easy to see why I would have been better served to seek a pro.
A professional has more experience and more resources than you do
The important thing to remember when thinking about this is that you aren’t just paying for the install but for the piece of mind. Not only is the equipment going to sound good but it will be both safe and reliable. You aren’t just paying for the equipment to be put in but the years of experience and training that installer has gained and the tools they have accumulated over those years.
Something that would only take that installer 30-40 minutes could take the average person with even a decent amount of car audio knowledge hours to do because they don’t know all the tricks and best practices. You should always consider what your time and safety are worth when factoring in whether to go with a pro.
The tools that good shops are using these days are just next level. Things like waterjets and laser cutters with full CAD programs designing and producing custom parts for each specific install in very short periods of time. I’ve seen shops that are also using 3-D printers to quickly prototype parts for very high-end stuff.
All of this is just added to the usual array of table-saws, router table stations, and other assorted woodworking tools that your average person just doesn’t own.
And all of this only gets your equipment installed – when it comes to tuning there are dozens of little specialty gadgets from companies like D’Amore Engineering that allow even an average installer to tune your system in a fraction of the time it used to take. It’ll probably sound better too.
There are shops out there that have upwards of $100,000 in just tools – do you really think your buddy can come close to the same level of install in your driveway? There’s another benefit that a shop has over a cousin or buddy: they will have an insurance policy to protect your vehicle from you ever having to shell out extra money to fix their mistake.
When I had my own shop, I had a $250,000 policy and if you get into a shop that does high-end vehicles and exotics it will be even higher.
I spoke with the guys at Sounds Good Stereo in Tennessee and they added this:
What does a car audio installer charge?
Most audio shops will have 2 different sets of prices – a general labor rate and a set fee for common jobs. You can typically expect to pay a labor rate of $75-$100 per hour. It’s best to visit your shop of choice for an accurate cost estimate to be certain of what the installation will cost you.
Most good shops will have two pricing setups, but both will work out to be roughly the same price. There will be a list of the set install fees for things like head-units, satellite radio, amplifiers, etc.
Then there will be the hourly price for the more complicated systems. This is why getting a proper time estimate really makes a difference. This is also when you want a shop that has all the best tools to make for the most efficient install possible.
Make sure to do a little homework when deciding where to go though. Reviews of shops can often be found online so you know what type of place you are dealing with.
“We provide a set price based on the time we believe it will take to complete the task. Sometimes it’s less but more often than not, the labor price was not enough based on the time we have invested into the vehicle.”– Sounds Good Stereo
How long it should take to install a car stereo?
A head unit installation will usually take between 30 mins to 2 hours. The time required will be different for every vehicle. Some dash designs will require more effort to tear down and put back together. There may also be extra wiring needed for additional features.
The time it takes to upgrade your car’s audio system will vary greatly based on a couple of factors:
- Your car
- The number of components you’re upgrading
- The installer’s level of experience
The first is what car you drive. Many modern cars take much longer for even the most basic install because cars have just gotten much more complicated. Swapping the head-unit in my Maxima will take far longer than installing the exact same head-unit in my 1993 Toyota MR2.
The second factor that will affect the time is how much equipment you are putting into the car. Obviously just upgrading the factory speakers with some JL Audio speakers will take much less time than a full-on system with amplifiers, subwoofers, and all the wires associated.
The third and final factor is the installer. An MECP-certified master installer with decades of experience will be far more efficient than even a good installer with say 3-5 years of experience.
The thing to keep in mind is any good shop should be able to give you a timeframe for your specific installation. Even the salesperson on the showroom floor should have a good understanding of how long the installers they have out in the shop will take. If no one there can give you a rough estimate at the least, then you should consider finding a better shop.
The dangers of DIY car audio upgrades
If you ask anyone who has been installing for a significant amount of time, they will undoubtedly have an array of horror stories involving bad or just downright dangerous installs.
Everyone who has worked at a shop has heard the infamous phrase “my cousin or buddy can do it cheaper”. This often results in that same customer returning later on with issues that they blame on the equipment. It usually ends up being their buddy’s bad install. I have personally seen some very scary things in my days as an installer.
A customer came into my friend’s shop one day complaining that his subwoofers had randomly stopped playing. He had bought a box with two 12-inch subs, a small power amp, and all the wiring but decided the cost of the install was too much. He said that his cousin would do it for a 12-pack (I would consider this a major red flag, especially if they want the beer while installing).
So, we started looking at the car and immediately found that the fuse had blown – no big deal. Then we started looking around at the rest of the install to see what caused the fuse to blow. We quickly found the issue and went to talk with the customer. We asked him if he noticed any other issues since the stereo was installed.
Initially, he said nothing but upon further questioning, he said there was occasionally a weird burning smell but he didn’t think it was from the install because it wasn’t always a problem. Then we showed him the problem with the install, and it all made sense to him.
His cousin apparently couldn’t find a proper spot on the firewall to run the power wire through, so he decided to run it under the car and secured it to the exhaust. The intermittent burning smell was the power wire melting when the exhaust got hot enough. The fuse only blew when enough of the wires’ coating had melted away and the wire shorted out on the metal exhaust.
So now not only did he have to pay for the install to be done properly but he also had to replace the power wire. Trying to save a few bucks ended up costing him way more money in the end.
I have seen a full range of things ruined by terrible installs, ranging from just some wiring needing to be replaced all the way up to a car’s ECU being fried by an amplifier’s power wire shorting out too close to it.
There are horror stories that I see online from time to time of people’s cars catching fire but I have never seen that myself. The real thing to weigh when considering whether the cost is worth it to you is that it is not only about the money but the safety of your car. Do you really want to take any chances with it?
Will upgrading your car audio void your warranty?
A properly done install whether done by a professional or a do-it-yourselfer should never affect your car’s warranty, but a poor install could supersede it. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act states that a dealership must prove that the installation directly caused the issue with your vehicle in some way to void any warranty.
Obviously, worst case scenarios could allow the dealership to not honor the warranty on parts that the poor install affected but that should not void the warranty itself. In a case like this though, a shop will have insurance to pay for any repairs your vehicle needs.
Canadian Gearhead contributor