Steering Wheel Audio Control Adapters Explained

Retaining Factory Steering Wheel Audio Control Functionality

smiling steering wheel controls
Steering wheel control adapters make your new head unit play nice with your factory audio controls, so everyone can be happy. MorePixels / E+ / Getty

Steering wheel audio control adapters aren't as well known or understood as flashier car audio system components, but they're becoming increasingly important as more and more cars come from the factory with some type of steering wheel audio controls with each every new model year.

The proliferation of steering wheel audio controls has created a situation where something that was once a rare luxury is quickly turning into a real headache for anyone with a late model car and a desire to upgrade their head unit.

The easy solution is to just ditch the steering wheel controls altogether in favor of simply building a premium sound system, but it really doesn't have to be that way, and why should it? Not only are steering wheel audio controls a nice convenience to have, they also make it a little safer to change radio stations, adjust your volume, or switch audio inputs, since you never have to take your eyes off the road.

Fortunately, there are ways to upgrade virtually any factory head unit without losing essential features, and steering wheel audio controls are no exception. In this case, the key to tying factory steering wheel controls into a new head unit is a component known as a steering wheel audio control adapter, which essentially sits in between your steering wheel controls and your new head unit and interprets the commands that the one sends to the other.

Steering Wheel Audio Control Head Unit Adapter Compatibility

Aftermarket head units aren’t universally compatible with steering wheel controls, but the major manufacturers offer pretty good coverage.

Most high-end nav head units include the functionality, and a large chunk of the other aftermarket units out there do as well. Of course, you can’t just take it for granted that any given head unit will work with steering wheel controls, which is why you need to check for compatibility before you buy.

Head units that are compatible with steering wheel controls typically list something along the lines of “wired remote control input” or “SWI” (steering wheel input) as a feature. Some head units will also specify either SWI-JS, SWI-JACK, or SWI-X. JS stands for Jensen and Sony, and JACK stands for JVC, Alpine, Clarion, and Kenwood, although a number of other manufacturers also use those two standards. If a head unit lists any of these, you should be able to use it with your existing steering wheel audio controls—with the right adapter.

Learn more about: Choosing a head unit

Choosing a Steering Wheel Audio Control Adapter

Although there are a lot of aftermarket head units that are wired to accept remote inputs, they don’t know how to interpret the commands from all of the different OEM steering wheel audio control setups out there. In order to allow a head unit to understand those control inputs, you need an adapter to act as a middleman.

There are a couple of companies that make these adapters, and each one takes a slightly different approach. These manufacturers offer pretty good coverage, though, so you should be able to find a compatible adapter for basically any car that has steering wheel controls.

Some steering wheel audio control adapters are designed to work with a specific subset of head units, which is where SWI-JS, SWI-JACK, and SWI-X come into play. Some audio control adapters are specifically designed to work with either SWI-JS or SWI-JACK head units, so you can choose the correct adapter by looking at that information. In some cases, you may also need a separate CAN adapter that sits in between the steering wheel controls and the adapter.

On the other hand, some steering wheel audio control adapters are universal in nature, which means they can be used with virtually any head unit that accepts remote inputs, regardless of which type of SWI it is.

The key is to figure out the type of SWI you're dealing with so that you make sure to get your hands on a compatible steering wheel audio control adapter.