Steering Wheel Audio Controls Versus Aftermarket Units

aftermarket steering wheel audio control
Factory steering wheel controls can be used with aftermarket head units, but there are some hoops you need to jump through first. Jason English / EyeEm / Getty

I’m ready to upgrade the stereo in my car, but I really don’t want to give up my steering wheel controls. Some of my friends have these cheesy little steering wheel controls that came with their aftermarket stereos, and I guess they work wirelessly? I guess that’s better than nothing, but I really like the built-in steering wheel controls that my car came with. Is there any way to keep using my steering wheel controls if I upgrade my stereo?

 

The short answer to your question is yes, it is definitely possible to upgrade your car stereo without giving up the factory steering wheel controls that came with your car. However, it’s a little more complicated than just a basic yes or no question. While it is possible to implement aftermarket steering wheel audio controls with your OEM hardware, it isn’t just a given that any new head unit you buy will work with your steering wheel controls.

In addition to buying a compatible head unit replacement, a typical installation scenario will also involve the purchase and installation of the right type of steering wheel audio control adapter to facilitate communication between your factory controls and your aftermarket head unit.

If that sounds complicated, it kind of is, and it kind of isn't. There's actually more compatibility out there than you might think, with vast swaths of manufacturers using the same set of inter-operable communication protocols, so that there are only a handful of options to worry about instead of dozens.

Plan Ahead with Steering Wheel Audio Controls in Mind

It’s good that you’re already thinking about this feature before you buy or install your new stereo. Not only do you have to make sure that everything is compatible in order to get your existing steering wheel controls to play nice with your new stereo, it’s also a lot easier if you install everything together.

That means that the first step in this process is to check out the different adapters on the market, identify an adapter that will work with your vehicle, and then check out the head units that work with that adapter. While this does narrow down your options somewhat, you’ll still have a lot of head units to choose from.

If you install a new head unit before thinking about steering wheel controls, and you’re lucky enough to have chosen one that supports the feature, you’ll have to tear everything apart again to install your adapter.

See more about: Choosing a head unit

Steering Wheel Control Types and Aftermarket Head Units

There are two main types of steering wheel inputs, or SWI, that the vast majority of systems use: SWI-JS and SWI-JACK. While SWI-JS is used by Jensen and Sony head units, and SWI-JACK is used by JVC, Alpine, Clarion and Kenwood, many other manufacturers also use one of these two common standards.

The key to keeping your OEM steering wheel audio control functionality with an aftermarket head unit is selecting a head unit with the right type of control input, finding the right adapter, and then hooking it all up so that everything plays nicely together.

Know when to Seek Professional Help

Installing a head unit is a relatively straightforward task that just about anyone can accomplish in an afternoon (or less, depending on the vehicle), but steering wheel audio control adapters are a little more complicated.

Unlike many other car audio components, these devices aren’t really designed to be “plug and play.” There are typically vehicle-specific installation procedures, and you usually have to splice into some of the factory wiring.

In some cases, you also have to program each of your steering wheel buttons to correspond to a specific head unit function. That does allow you a great deal of freedom as far as customization is concerned, but it is an additional complication that you need to be aware of before you dig into this type of job. If you’re uncomfortable with wiring and programming your own adapter, a car audio shop should be able to help you out.