Car Audio Hidden Costs

An expensive part of a car stereo that is often overlooked when budgeting for a car stereo system is the installation and the parts necessary for the installation. Not too many people get excited about wire, cable and fuses but they're a vital part of the system. It's also where dealers make a lot of their profit because of the high markup. If you can't get the dealer to come down on the equipment price then you may be able to get them to include some installation parts for free or at a substantial discount. Here's the typical items you will need in an installation:

  • Dash kit - Depending on the size of your factory opening and the size of your new head unit, you may need a dash kit. It will allow easy installation of your new head unit into the non-standard opening of your factory radio. Price varies depending on complexity but will average $10-30.
  • Wiring adapter harness - Used for connecting your new head unit to your factory wiring. It prevents the installer from having to cut your factory harness off and makes reinstalling your factory head unit easier. For most applications the price will be in the $10 neighborhood. The price will jump to the $50 range if you have a premium factory sound system.
  • Speaker plug adapters - Similar to a wiring adapter harness, this adapter allows your aftermarket speakers to use your factory speaker wiring. These are not as common as dash harnesses but may be available. A set will be in the $5-10 range.
Wiring Harness
Speaker Wiring Harness
Dash kit
Dash wiring adapter
Speaker plug adapters
All images courtesy of Metra
  • Speaker adapter plates - Used for putting small speakers into larger speaker holes. For example, you could install a 5 1/4" component set into the opening for a 6x9" speaker. Price varies greatly depending on application. Usually $10-20.
Speaker Adapters
Speaker Adapters
All images courtesy
Parts Express
4"x10" to 6"x9" adapter
Speaker depth adapter ring
  • Power wire - Used for connecting amplifiers and other powered electronics. Size varies greatly depending on application. The size is measured in gauge and ranges from 0/1 gauge for extremely large current draws to 18 gauge for low current devices such as crossovers and remote turn on leads. Moderate sized amplifiers will use 4-8 gauge. Expect to pay $6/ft for 0/1 gauge, $4/ft for 2 gauge, $2/ft for 4 gauge and $1/ft for 8 gauge.
  • Speaker wire - As the name implies, it is used to connect your speakers to your amplifier (or head unit). Typically size is between 12 and 18 gauge. Most applications will be able to use 16 gauge. Price will be $0.25-$1/ft for most wire.
  • RCA (signal) cables - These cables run between electronic components such as head units, crossovers, equalizers and amplifiers and carry the low level music signal. Price and quality varies greatly. Expect to pay about $1/ft for decent cables.
Power Wire
Speaker Wire
RCA Cables
Power wire
Speaker wire
RCA cables
All images courtesy Parts Express
  • Battery terminals - Used to connect the main power wire to your battery. You may require a side post adapter which will run $5-10. Battery terminals run between $10 and $40 depending on how elaborate the design/construction is.
Standard battery clamp
Machined battery clamp
Side post
All images courtesy Parts Express
  • Fuse holders - Used to protect your vehicle from serious damage in the event of a short circuit. Large fuse holders come in different styles to accommodate different styles of fuses. AGU is the barrel style, ANL is the rectangular style also known as a "wafer fuse" and ATC/ATO is the square style (aka "knife fuse") found in most newer car fuse boxes. Typically ATC/ATO fuses for main power wire will be oversized and may be called "Maxi fuses". Fuse holders will run between $5 and $50 depending on how elaborate the design/construction is.
AGC fuse
ATC fuse
ANL fuse
AGU "barrel" fuse
ATC/ATO "knife" fuse
ANL "wafer" fuse
All images courtesy Parts Express
  • Antenna adapter - If you have a non-standard factory antenna you will need an adapter such as this one. Expect to pay about $10.
Antenna Adapter
Antenna Adapter
All images courtesy
Parts Express
Antenna Adapter Motorola to Mini Plug Antenna Adapter  
  • Power distribution block - Used to connect one main wire to many smaller wires. Usually used if you have more than one amplifier. One 4 gauge or larger wire will come into the block and 2 or more wires will exit the block and travel to the various powered components. The distribution block may be fused. Expect to pay between $10 and $50 depending on whether or not the block is fused and how many outputs it has. Build quality is also a major factor in the price.
Unfused Distribution Block
Fused Distribution Block
All images courtesy
Parts Express
Distribution Block Fused Distribution Block  
  • Relays - If you have more than one or two components (amplifiers, crossovers, equalizers) then you will need a relay to protect your head unit. You may also need relays for other custom purposes but that is the most common. Expect to pay about $5 per relay from a dealer. I would insist on getting Bosch or Potter&Brumfield relays rather than generics for increased reliability.
All images courtesy
Parts Express
Bosch type relay
Relay socket
  • Ring terminals and wire connectors - Needed to make proper connections between wires and speakers, amplifiers and other wires. Includes crimp connectors, butt connectors, ring terminals and spade terminal. Cheap steel connectors are fine for small power wires. The gold connectors will be used for the speaker to amplifier connections. The steel connectors will be factored into the installation cost but the gold terminals will be about $1 each.
Ring Terminals
Crimp Connector
Butt Connector
Spade Terminals
Ring terminals
Crimp connector
Butt Connector
Spade terminals
All images courtesy Parts Express

That covers the majority of installation extras you will likely need. You will not likely need all of them but expect to pay for the majority. You will also need to have the equipment installed. If you choose not to do it yourself you will need to pay a shop to do it. Ask around to find out what the going rate for installation is. It varies by region. If you want custom work done then expect to pay $35-60/hr for quality work. Standard jobs will be less per hour. Head unit installation, CD changers, speakers and amplifiers will usually have a flat charge. Here's a range of prices you can expect to typically pay.

  • Head Unit - $35-$65
  • Speakers - $35-$60
  • Amplifier - $35-65
  • Crossover, Equalizer, Signal Processors - $35-65
  • CD changer - $40-100
  • Subwoofer - $65+ depending on materials used and complexity of the installation.
  • Satellite Radio - $100-120

If you're interested in learning how to install your own car stereo system there is an instructional video available. It will teach you how to install your head unit, speakers, amplifier and even how to build your subwoofer enclosure with simple tools. Click here to find out more.

The bottom line is to always budget for the installation. Even if you'll be installing the system yourself you'll still need wire, cables and connectors. If your budget is $2,000 then you won't be able to spend it all on equipment alone. Keep this in mind when you're planning your system.

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