The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

How is it, that in 2014, the majority of midrange aftermarket audio options still look like props from a bootleg Star Trek movie?

I don't want my dash to mimic a late-80s discotheque. I don't want an overdesigned Michael Bay Transformer orgy of angular silver trim and knobs and buttons. No cars have interiors that match these neon light fire-hoses:

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

Sometimes these kinds of units even seem ok when you're looking at them online or in a storefront, but put them in your car and you get what I feel is a hideous wart on the thoughtfully designed factory dash. Things almost never look right, regardless of vehicle age.

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

So, I attempt to look for units that are an acceptable match for the dash as it is. This is the approximate canvas I have to play with. My car doesn't have the MFSW but is otherwise about the same:

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

Trying to find something that has an even vague OEM-look to it is difficult. Yes, I could upgrade what I have to a better OEM unit, but that is a cost prohibitive exercise. This is in part because VW (and probably some other manufacturers) have a separate Bluetooth module that isn't part of the headunit:

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

These are a few hundred bucks on ebay, depending on which type you want. Some support A2DP profile for streaming music, others only the basic HFP for handsfree calling. The Bluetooth profile wiki page is a staggering list of acronyms worthy of a separate post. This also means if I want the full OEM array of controls and utmost convenience, I would need to add this panel and associated wiring:

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

As well as the steering wheel controls and wiring:

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

And the upgraded headunit that can integrate with all of this. This seems like way too many components to bother with just to be able to stream music and have handsfree phone. Plus, this is well over $1,000 in simple parts, not including the price of labor to install, or my own precious time if I try to do it myself. I am not opposed to pulling all these things from junkyard cars, but I don't know how many MKV-MKVI Jettas or Golfs I'll find in pick-and-pulls around here. I live in a market dominated by domestic pickups and Corollas and Camrys, mostly.

Of course, there is a 3rd Way, but to say it is sketchy would be an understatement. There are a few companies out of China that build very good OEM-looking headunits, and have the added benefit of being feature rich. They are also crazy cheap compared to the approximate OEM product. Like this one, the Eonon 5153, which was designed specifically for a number of MKVI Volkswagens:

The Gaudy, Unbearable World of Aftermarket Car Audio

You can buy these directly from Eonon for under $300. This has nav, Bluetooth, NFC, screen mirroring, plays DVDs and does all kinds of other crap. Waywell is another manufacturer with similar products, and there are unbranded ones on ebay, too. It's great in that it's cheap and looks like it belongs in the car, and a bonus that has tons of features (most of which I don't care about...). But quality is a problem. Not because it's Chinese, but because it's a sub-$300 miracle stereo that does everything under the sun. It's a classic case of "if it sounds too good to be true". People have purchased these and reported all sorts of problems, from buggy firmware, buttons taking dirt naps, and laggy touchscreens, to the things draining car batteries and poor radio reception because the antennas don't work well with US frequencies or are otherwise imperfect. So it's a tempting option, but I'm steering clear.

The essence of those Chinese OEM clone units is what I want. And I'm sure I'm not alone. There are generic-looking stereos that would not feel out of place in a modern interior, but they're either at the highest end or are from a brand I have never heard of or don't have the features I need.

What's a jalop to do?