Last Updated on March 8, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
My oldest son and I broke my wife’s car stereo. He put quarters in the CD slot, and I broke it worse trying to get the quarters out. So it was time for a new stereo. So along the way I learned a lot about Audio Express vs Best Buy car radios, and I also found a sleeper option worth considering.
I hadn’t shopped for any kind of car audio since college. I found sales tactics haven’t changed a lot, but it seems pricing has. Or at least I found a pleasant surprise in what I could get for the money these days.
Best Buy car radios
My first stop was Best Buy, the land of the blue shirts. They had one employee working, and one other customer. I had an idea what I was looking for–a car CD player that could play MP3s off a USB input–so when he asked what I was looking for, that was what I said. They had two models, a JVC and–I think–a Kenwood, for around $100 that would do what I wanted. Installation was $55. I asked if I got a quote from another shop, if they’d match the installed price.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “They jack the prices up on their stereos, so you’ll pay more for the stereo in order to get a $1 install.”
But then he hedged a little. I guess the look on my face told him I wasn’t completely buying it. “But you can always bring a quote back here if you want. The worst we can say is no. And if you buy it today, we have slots open so we can install it in about an hour.”
I thanked him for the information, said I’d talk it over with my wife, and I’d possibly be back.
Next stop was Audio Express. They had a comparable Pioneer deck for $119, with $1 for installation. The store was empty. The salesman said if I came back that day, he’d give me about $15 off. So the installed price was well below Best Buy, even before that slow-day discount. Jacked-up prices meant $20.
But I don’t care about the price on the tag in the store. I care about the total price, installed. Audio Express beat Best Buy in that department by about 30 bucks.
The sleeper option
Then I stopped at another store called Custom Sound. They were noticeably busier, which I took as a good sign. Not all the decks had prices marked, which was irritating, but I found a couple of decks that seemed to do what I wanted for $109. Not only that, one was a Kenwood and one was an Alpine. I asked the salesman about those once it was my turn in line, and indeed, they would do what I wanted. I asked about installation. “Free,” he said.
We had a winner. Given a choice between a Pioneer for $105 and an Alpine for $109, I’ll take the Alpine. The last time I shopped for car audio, the price difference between the two brands was a lot more than that.
Now, keep in mind that was a starting price. Free is never free. But since her car already had a Pioneer deck in it, it already had all the adapters it would need, which is the major expense. Labor was free, but I paid $6.50 for parts, which he explained covered stuff like solder and shrink tubing. I probably could have negotiated that number down–they probably didn’t use more than a dollar’s worth of solder and shrink tubing, if they used any at all–but a $6.50 installation isn’t bad. Odds are Audio Express would have hit me up for something similar, and I’d have felt lucky if I’d walked out of Best Buy without some additional charge on top of the $55.
Of course all three places hit me up for an extended warranty, and they all told me why their extended warranty was better than those other guys. I declined. Electronics tend to either be dead right out of the box, fail within their first 24 hours of use, or work indefinitely. If it fails in a few days it’ll be a hassle either way. That extra year of warranty isn’t something I’d be likely to use. I asked if the warranty would cover my son putting a quarter in the CD slot. Negative. I figured as much, but since that’s the most likely thing to go wrong with it, it was worth asking. Extended warranties on computers and tablets cover busted screens, after all. Since it wouldn’t cover that, I declined the warranty.
Installation took about an hour.
The difference over the old radio
I didn’t think it would make any difference listening to FM radio, but we both noticed it sounded noticeably better than the old Pioneer had.
I threw a handful of MP3s onto a 4 GB flash drive to try it out. It worked nicely. Plug in the drive, select the USB input with the mode button, and it plays pretty much like a CD. With the selection buttons you can navigate the folder structure and pick more precisely. Whatever flash drive you can get for $30 will hold a hundreds of CDs, even if I encode at 320 kbps. Maybe it won’t hold every CD we own, but every CD we own that we care about should be doable. I figure being able to carry that much of a CD collection is probably worth more to us than HD radio at the moment.
What about HD radio? HD radio costs more than standard AM/FM, but not by a lot. HD radio is awfully nice. Besides sounding better, you get additional channels at most frequencies. If you’re into Top 40 music you probably won’t care much for the additional channels, but if you want something a bit more offbeat and specialized than the typical radio formats, the secondary HD channels get it for you, and they tend to have fewer commercials. You won’t get as many choices as you would with satellite radio, but it doesn’t have a subscription fee either.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.