Tips for Buying Used Car Audio

A great way to buy car audio on a budget is to buy used equipment. Depending on the type of equipment and the history of the unit it may be a great value or it may complete junk. The most reliable place to get used equipment is from a friend. This way you can inspect the unit, you'll know if it works and you know how it was treated. The least reliable place is over the Internet from a complete stranger. You only have the pictures to go by and their word. It's buyer beware but if you're brave you can really find some great deals like I have.

Good vs. Poor Candidate Equipment

The equipment that is most likely to be in good condition is the equipment that doesn't have any moving parts. Amplifiers, crossovers, equalizers and other signal processors are good examples. Speakers are more prone to failure because they are constantly moving. As a general rule, the larger the speaker is the less likely you are to destroy it. Tweeters are very fragile, midrange and midbass speakers are more durable and subwoofers are the sturdiest. Subwoofers and amplifiers do see more abuse than most units though. Car audio enthusiasts are always trying to squeeze a little more bass or a little more power out which can cause premature failure in these units. CD and cassette players as well as CD changers have a lot of delicate moving parts and are more likely to fail. Whenever possible you should demo the equipment before you hand over your money.


Another thing you need to know is if the unit is compatible with the rest of your stereo system. Some systems require proprietary connections such as DIN plugs. If you have a brand X head unit then you're going to need a brand X CD changer (unless it is an FM modulated unit with an outboard controller). Even if the head unit and changer are from the same manufacturer they may not work together. Ask the manufacturer before you buy.

Looking for Damage

Look for obvious signs of abuse. Basically you know what damage looks like and you should be able to tell if a unit was taken care of. Here's a little checklist of items.

  • Is the unit heavily scratched or beat up looking?
  • Is the case dented?
  • Does it make a strange noise when it operates?
  • Do the knobs and buttons stick?
  • Can you hear parts rattling around inside the unit?
  • Is the speaker's surround or cone damaged?
  • Are there any metal shavings attached to the speaker magnet? If so there is a good chance that they're also inside the speaker's voice coil and are slowly killing the speaker.
  • Do they have the original box and owner's manual? If so this is a good indication that they take care of their equipment. If not it's no big deal.
  • Are the serial numbers intact? If not, walk away. The unit is probably stolen and most manufacturers won't repair it if it is sent in for service.

Internet Auctions

Internet auctions will have the best selections by far. Ebay is the largest and gets the most traffic and so will have the most competition. The same thing that makes eBay a great place to sell equipment makes it a lesser place to buy equipment (in regards to cost). Because there is competition between bidders the prices will typically be higher than at the smaller auction sites. Still the selection is better at eBay and so you're more likely to find exactly what you're looking for. Look for items that close at odd times like midnight on a Tuesday. There will be less bidders at this hour which means less competition (one of my personal favorite bargain tips). You can use various auction "sniping" tools to place bids for you if you don't want to stay up to bid personally. I like Auction Stealer which gives you three free snipes per week.

You can help protect yourself by reading the safety guidelines listed on the auction site. You can also pay using an escrow service or you can use a service such as PayPal that will also afford a certain level of coverage. When using PayPal I'd recommend paying with your credit card if possible. Then if things go really bad you can get your credit card involved. Sellers are now required by eBay to take PayPal. Never pay cash. In any case the transaction will fall under the FTC rules and you can file a complaint with the FTC if necessary.

Here's a few tips that the FTC recommends for Internet auctions:

  • Identify the seller and check the seller's feedback rating.
  • Do your homework. Be sure you understand what you're bidding on, its relative value and all terms and conditions of the sale, including the seller's return policies and who pays for shipping.
  • Establish your top price and stick to it.
  • Evaluate your payment options. If possible, use a credit card. It offers the most protection if there's a problem. Consider using an escrow service if the seller doesn't accept credit cards.

Pawn Shops

Pawn shops often have a decent selection of stereo equipment. However their prices aren't always as good as you'd think. Pawn shops have gotten their act together and now have various "Blue Books" to tell them what the equipment is worth. The warranty you get can also vary between shops. Some offer a 24 hour warranty and some offer no warranty at all. See if you can test the equipment before you buy it. If not then I'd recommend looking elsewhere.

Specialty Shops

Some shops will often have a back room where they keep customer equipment that has been traded in. The shop will likely offer a short warranty on the equipment and they should know if the equipment works or not. These back rooms can be a real gold mine if they're not advertised (sales people don't usually make a commission on used equipment). This of course is a shop specific thing and you'll have to call around and see if your local shops offer it.

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