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.

What Are Steering Wheel Audio Controls?

Steering wheel audio controls are designed to make it less dangerous to interact with your car radio when you're driving. The basic idea is that you can use these controls without taking your hands off the steering wheel or taking your eyes off the road.

steering wheel audio controls
Kiyoshi Hijiki / Moment / Getty

Specific controls vary from one vehicle to the next, but they often allow you to adjust the volume, switch from the radio to auxiliary inputs, change channels, skip songs, and more.

When a factory car stereo system includes Buetooth connectivity, the steering wheel audio controls will typically also include a button, or buttons, that you can use to place calls, hang up, and perform other functions with your phone. If the vehicle has any type of voice controls, there will usually also be a button for that.

Since these controls are tremendously useful, and they can increase your safety on the road by making it easier to control the radio without taking your eyes off the road, the idea of losing access to their steering wheel audio controls prevents a lot of people from upgrading their car stereo systems.

Upgrading Your Car Stereo Without Losing Your Steering Wheel Audio Controls

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.

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.

These adapters function by essentially sitting in between your steering wheel controls and your new head unit and interpreting 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 this functionality, and a large chunk of the other aftermarket units out there do as well. You can’t just take it for granted that any given head unit will work with steering wheel controls, but they are out there. The important thing is to do your research and check for compatibility before you buy.

To check whether a head unit is compatible with steering wheel audio controls, check the features list on the box. Head units that are compatible with steering wheel controls typically list something along the lines of wired remote control input or SWI, which stands for steering wheel input) as a feature.

Some head unit feature lists also specify either SWI-JS, SWI-JACK, or SWI-X. These are specific types of steering wheel audio controls that both original equipment and aftermarket car radios use.

  • SWI-JS: Stands for Steering Wheel Input Jensen and Sony. Found in Jensen and Sony head units and other head units that use this standard.
  • SWI-JACK: Stands for Steering Wheel Input JVC, Alpine, Clarion, and Kenwood. Used by these four large manufacturers and some smaller ones as well.
  • SWI-X: This is a universal standard that is found in some aftermarket head units.

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 original equipment 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.