Steering Wheel Audio Controls Versus Aftermarket Car Stereos

The choice of whether to upgrade an older factory car stereo is usually pretty easy, but factors like nonstandard head units and steering wheel controls often complicate matters. In the case of steering wheel audio controls, the fear is that the factory controls won't work with a new head unit, and aftermarket solutions are clunky at best.

Fears about losing steering wheel controls when upgrading a car stereo are largely unfounded, but this type of upgrade is actually more complex than most. While it is possible to implement aftermarket steering wheel audio controls with your original equipment manufacturer (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 also involves 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.

steering wheel audio control upgrade
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If that sounds complicated, it is—and it 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 you have only a handful of options to worry about instead of dozens.

Can You Connect Steering Wheel Audio Controls to an Aftermarket Radio Without an Adapter?

When the subject of upgrading a factory car radio comes up, the first thing most people wonder is whether it's possible to keep their steering wheel audio controls. After that, it's only natural to wonder if it's possible to keep those controls without an adapter.

This subject is a little complicated, but the basic answer is that, no, you can't connect steering wheel audio controls to an aftermarket radio without an adapter. There are some exceptions, which is why it's so important to find out what type of controls your car has, and whether you can find a plug-and-play radio that will work. In most cases, though, an adapter is required.

The main caveat is that, while you do need an adapter, it's actually possible to build an adapter if you have the appropriate levels of knowledge and experience. The issue is that this isn't a DIY project that just anyone can tackle. If you aren't capable of designing and implementing an adapter without any outside help, you're much better off just buying one.

Plan Ahead With Steering Wheel Audio Controls in Mind

As with so many other aspects of upgrading a car stereo, you should form a battle plan before anything else. In the particular case of steering wheel audio controls, planning ahead is important because several moving pieces all need to come together in the right way.

The first step in this process is to check out the different adapters on the market and identify an adapter that will work with your vehicle. Each vehicle conforms to a specific communication protocol, so it's essential to find an adapter kit that works with that protocol.

Next is to check out the different head units that are compatible with the adapter. While this does narrow down your options somewhat, you’ll still have a lot of head units to choose from.

It's also important to note that the adapter and head unit should be installed at the same time to save on labor time. The issue here is that 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 still have to tear everything apart again to install your adapter.

Steering Wheel Control Types and Aftermarket Head Units

There are two main types of steering wheel inputs (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. In most cases, this type of upgrade is literally a plug-and-play operation, especially if you are able to find a wiring harness adapter.

Installing steering wheel audio controls is still a job most DIYers can do at home, but it is 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.