When you see the same conversations about a product dozens of times, it becomes very easy to recognize a pattern. Unfortunately, one topic in the car audio industry that has cemented itself in stone is the quality and reliability of Android and other cheap car radios. Having worked for one of the Japanese head unit manufacturers, I can tell you that developing a radio platform is time-consuming and expensive. So let’s look at the process of creating a premium radio so you understand what might be missing from those with a too-good-to-be-true price tag.
What’s Inside a Car Radio?
A few decades ago, integrated circuit (IC) manufacturers recognized the need for application-specific solutions for the growing car radio market. Several companies created dedicated radio ICs that handle analog and digital inputs from sources like satellite radio, Bluetooth, optical mechanisms (CD or DVD), USB ports and auxiliary inputs. Depending on the generation and complexity of the radio, supporting hardware like a dedicated audio processor for decoding digital audio files was added. These radios include a power supply that filters noise from the 12V power source to drive the amplifier and provides 5.0V and 3.3V power to the support ICs. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of designs for basic car radios, but the building blocks are often similar.
When it comes to multimedia receivers, more horsepower is needed. This type of source unit is often based around ARM processors that run an operating system like Windows CE (for older units) or a version of Linux. Indeed, some of these run an Android operating system. Unfortunately, this is where the problems start. The Android operating system is Free Open-Source Software (FOSS). Anyone developing a product can use it however they want. Unfortunately, this freedom also means that support is limited when things don’t work as intended.
When a new concept for a “radio” is introduced, the essential feature set is discussed with team members from around the globe. Support for DAB in Europe and Australia, HD Radio and SiriusXM in Canada and the U.S. and other considerations are just part of the puzzle. Once all the basic requirements are established, a team will start looking for suitable hardware to be at the heart of the radio. Some inexpensive models have used ICs designed for portable navigation systems, while others use dedicated System on Chip (SoC) solutions with impressive processing power.
The choice of the microcontroller can affect the responsiveness of the system as well as its reliability. Microcontrollers are “sorted” by processing speed and temperature tolerance. Low-cost units may only remain stable from 32 to 203 degrees Fahrenheit (0 to 95 Celsius), while better units can operate from minus 40 to 221 degrees (minus 40 to 105 Celsius). Processing speeds vary but are typically in the range of 233 MHz to 2.3 GHz. Every supporting component will also have a temperature tolerance for reliable operation. In most cases, less expensive parts run slower and aren’t guaranteed to be reliable when very cold or extremely hot.
Once the basic hardware platform for a new radio is established and prototypes have been built, the laborious process of writing the software to operate the radio begins. It’s most likely that the project is 10 to 16 months along before any real-world testing can begin. After that, the testing process can take another year. Testing takes two forms: hardware and software. From reputable brands like Sony, Kenwood, JVC, Alpine or Pioneer, the hardware will undergo electrical noise testing, vibration testing, thermal shock and temperature testing, humidity testing and much more. I’ve seen videos of flip-out screen radios on a shaker jig where parts started flying off the chassis almost immediately. These radios need to handle shocks from static without crashing and low-voltage conditions while engines start without locking up. They also need to remain reliable at high voltages if there’s a vehicle voltage regulator problem.
Proper engineering-based testing includes evaluating how a product reacts when it’s operated out-of-specification or broken. This scenario is called failure mode testing. For example, if a component fails inside the radio, what happens? Does it blow a fuse and remain off, or something more nefarious?
The other half of the testing process is to confirm that all the features work reliably. For example, does the Bluetooth system have the proper settings for noise cancellation? Does the radio recover properly from being restarted during the boot-up process? Do the included audio processing functions work as indicated? An example of this evaluation process is AM and FM testing. The engineering team I worked with had a specific route around Los Angeles that they drove at five particular times during the day under a clear sky and overcast weather conditions to evaluate terrestrial radio tuner performance. They spent months looking for locations that subjected the tuner module to weak signals, multipath interference and much more. An audio recording of the route would be evaluated to ensure that the tuner was working as expected. If any changes were needed, the entire process started again.
A test I performed on several multimedia receivers involved playing all the possible combinations of video and audio compression formats to make sure they were supported as described. Screen geometry had to be maintained for the video, and the audio needed to stay synchronized with the video. I created several test files for each combination of video container formats (Matroska, AVI, QuickTime, MPEG-2 and MP4) and audio formats such as AAC, MP3 or WMA. It took about 20 hours to complete this testing on a single model of a multimedia receiver as it needed to be repeated for USB and optical disc formats.
Accessories and Installation Parts
When you buy a new radio, there’s an expectation that it will include simple accessories like a trim ring. The cost of the injection molding tool for this plastic component is much higher than you’d think. Each part likely only costs a few cents to produce. That said, the tool can cost thousands of dollars. Companies looking to save every penny possible won’t include anything that absolutely isn’t needed.
A key component in the cost of a premium radio is after-sales support. Name-brand companies have teams of technicians available to answer questions about how to use the radio. More importantly, if a problem arises, they can work with the design engineers to devise a solution. This all takes time and money. Serious performance issues might require several technicians to dedicate months to identifying the cause, then weeks to find a solution. After a solution has been proposed, there’s another round of testing to verify that it solves the problem and doesn’t introduce new issues. Consumers and retailers can be frustrated by the process. The flip side is that the companies selling cheap car radios on Amazon or AliExpress typically don’t offer after-sales support. This reduction in manpower saves a company hundreds of thousands of dollars annually and dramatically reduces the cost of producing a radio. If you have a problem, you are alone with no recourse other than to complain about it on social media.
You’d be stunned at the licensing costs involved in producing a legitimate car radio. For example, the manufacturer must pay a Red Book license fee to Phillips and the International Electromechanical Commission Technical Committee to create a radio that can play compact discs. There’s a fee for basic Red Book support and additional fees for CD-Text support and other features. In addition, there are licensing costs for DVDs, downmixing of 5.1 tracks to stereo, support for WMA files and any devices that use Bluetooth.
Smartphone integration technologies such as Apple CarPlay have an intensive development process. Though things have changed, selling a product that is fully endorsed by Apple’s Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad (MFI) requires that Apple test the product to verify that it conforms to its standards. Such elements as icon color and shape, the location of volume overlays, response time and USB communication reliability are all tested. I’ve seen wait times of more than six months for a test to be completed. If the unit fails, the issue must be resolved, and a new sample must be sent for testing, often with another long wait. You don’t get to jump back to the front of the line when things go wrong.
Did you know there’s a license fee associated with “Audio mode adjustment time-out?” If you press a button to access the bass, treble, balance or fader controls, then have it revert to the previous display after a few seconds, that’s a feature licensed to one of the big radio manufacturers. Therefore, developing a radio from a competing brand requires monetary compensation.
Many products on the market are not part of Apple’s MFI program. For example, a manufacturer selling cheap car radios may include the features, but they won’t be tested. Every MFI-certified product has a digital license code. Apple can shut down support at any time for unlicensed solutions.
The Temptation to Buy a Cheap Car Radio
Make no mistake: Buying one of these no-name Android-type radios is tempting based on their price alone. Hoping you can save a few hundred dollars and get all the features you want makes sense. However, the reputation of these cheap car radios isn’t simply anecdotal; there are hundreds of reviews of dead-on-arrival (DOA) units, radios with missing parts, installation and fitment issues, integration issues and a surprisingly high number of radios that have started smoking or caught fire. If you think a company that sells its products on Amazon or AliExpress will reimburse you for damage caused to your vehicle, you are mistaken.
Benjamin Franklin gets credit for saying, “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” If you want a car radio that will sound great, function reliably and is backed by a team of technical support professionals, drop by a local specialty mobile enhancement retailer today and see what they have on their display board.