SilentCar Is Silent.
November 10, 2012 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Used car came with a stereo, but no head unit. What should I do?

Welcome to the ongoing saga of Sara C. purchasing a car.

I did something very stupid when I bought my used car (a '97 Honda Civic hatchback, for the curious). I noticed that it had an aftermarket stereo installed, and during the test drive I noticed that there was no front control panel thingie.

I stupidly assumed they'd give me that piece when they gave me the keys, the title, etc. But I didn't bring it up, because I am apparently an idiot. And also because I had way more important things on my mind, like whether the car actually worked as a car, not as a traveling music box.

When we did the key hand-off, I asked, "Where's the front thing for the stereo?" and the seller said, "I don't have it." No offer to retrieve it from home for me, no profession of "oh, no, I forgot to bring it!" Just "do not have."

So now I own this silent car. What do I do?

Firstly, A) I am paranoid that this means the car is stolen. I mean, if you go to the trouble of installing a sweet stereo in your car, how do you lose the head unit? (I have the title to the car, and a bill of sale, so I think it's OK? But????)

Secondly, B) I really don't want to drive around in silence. What are my options, here? Am I going to have to completely replace the stereo? Just buy a new front panel? Do I have to get one that matches the brand of the stereo, or will any old thing do? I see a lot of cheapy cheapo brand STUFF on Amazon for like $30-50. Will that do? I have no desire to do anything fancy with the audio. Even just a radio would be fine. I don't need to be able to take it out and carry it with me. I really don't care. I just want TUNES, bro.

Thirdly, C) What is the correct name for this piece I'm missing. It's hard to see what to order online when I don't know whether I'm looking for a receiver, a head unit, or what.

I don't have a ton of money for this. Is there a worthwhile way of rigging up my iPhone to play music in the car, until I have the extra cash for frivolous things like car stereo tweaking? It feels weird and wrong to listen to headphones in the car, especially a 15 year old car I just bought.
posted by Sara C. to Technology (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
A) If they knew they'd be selling it soon, and the faceplate was stolen/lost/broken, why bother to replace it? I'd guess that's all it is.
B) You have to find out the EXACT model of stereo, then buy the faceplate for that one. You can probably find it on ebay. It's probably stolen.
C) Faceplate.

Another option is to get a whole new head unit; they're about $100 and a lot of places will install cheap or free.
posted by Doohickie at 6:19 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's incredibly stupid and illegal to listen to headphones in your car. (I'm sure you know that, but just in case . . .) If you really need to listen to music while you're driving, get a small set of ipod speakers and tape them to the passenger seat or something.

You could probably get a replacement for less than $100 at a swapmeet or used electronics place. LA is crawling with 'em.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 6:20 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Weird and wrong and illegal. Cheap car stereos abound. Grab one!
posted by mintcake! at 6:22 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can find one designed to fit your Civic and sort by price using this tool at Crutchfield, actually.
posted by mintcake! at 6:26 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Firstly, A) I am paranoid that this means the car is stolen. I mean, if you go to the trouble of installing a sweet stereo in your car, how do you lose the head unit? (I have the title to the car, and a bill of sale, so I think it's OK? But????)

I'd say there are two scenarios that are more likely:

1) The seller wanted to re-use the head unit on his next car and didn't tell you; or

2) Someone stole the head unit from the car but lacked the time and/or sophistication to remove the other pieces.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:31 PM on November 10, 2012

$55 at Crutchfield. Even has a built-in iPod dock.

Replacing it would probably take a half-hour at the most. If you order from Crutchfield they'll send a thing called "Mastersheet instructions" that will walk you right through it.

Since it's already got a third-party stereo in it, chances are you've got all the wiring and such that you'll need. If you don't, you can get it from Crutchfield for something like $15.
posted by chazlarson at 6:38 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're worried about people breaking into the car, get a working stock head unit on eBay.
posted by twblalock at 7:14 PM on November 10, 2012

Response by poster: Just to clarify, it's only the face plate that I need, not the head unit. I don't need the whole big hefty console unit, just the part people usually take off when they park the car. The place where there would normally be a stock stereo is blank, with a bunch of neat copper-looking pins that I'm guessing is where you plug in your face plate.

Sorry for the confusion -- I don't know anything about this stuff and pulled an incorrect term off of wikipedia, then tried to fix it in Preview but didn't do a great job conveying that I didn't know the name for the piece I wanted. Per the eponysterical Doohickie, I need a face plate, not a head unit.
posted by Sara C. at 7:29 PM on November 10, 2012

I once had a car battered in a softball-sized hail storm. While I was out of town for the entire summer. While I was using the car as a storage unit. I came back to find all my stuff still in my car, except for one flyfishing rod, one slipper, and the faceplate for my stereo missing. Due to the single-slipper theft, I assume some prankster was the culprit. Not having a faceplate was massively inconvenient for exactly the reason you mentioned.

Anyway, I just wanted to chime in because A) a lack of faceplate doesn't necessarily mean the car was stolen. It could be that the car was just broken into once and it was stolen. Perhaps they just weren't terribly forthcoming about that detail since it likely wouldn't exactly hurry the sale. But, it really isn't a big deal--replacing smashed windows is really easy (as I learned).

Also, I was previously led to believe that the faceplace was electronically paired with the head unit via some sort of electronic serial number (which led me to not bother replacing my face and assuming the thief was just being a jerk because it would have no resale value alone). Now that I'm googling about it, apparently you CAN usually replace the face. Just in case, you may want to google your particular stereo model number before shopping (if you don't know it, it's probably a sticker on the side if you partially remove it).
posted by wondercow at 7:43 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

If it's one of those ones where the faceplate is detachable from the head unit, you can't just mix and match the faceplates between different models of head unit. You would have to figure out the brand and model of your head unit and see if you can find a replacement faceplate for that model online somewhere - I think they usually run $30 - $70 depending on the model.

If it's at the upper end of that range, it could actually end up being cheaper just to get a whole new head unit of some generic brand, but of course if you did that you would have to do the installation or pay someone else to, while a replacement faceplate you can just snap on.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 7:46 PM on November 10, 2012

The faceplate is detachable as a security feature. Thieves have no reason to break in and steal a stereo without the faceplate.

So a missing faceplate could just mean the owner misplaced it after removing it from the car.
posted by cwhitfcd at 8:53 PM on November 10, 2012

Best answer: I agree with what's been said upthread, probably easier and possibly cheaper to replace the whole thing than to find a matching faceplate. The operation to swap head units isn't hard. If you are nervous about it, perhaps you have a dork neighbor who has successfully executed said operation a bunch of times...
posted by stephennelson at 9:00 PM on November 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your car isn't stolen. For reasons. I started typing them all out but basically you did all the state required paperwork, you're fine.

The faceplate: probably going to be a bigger hassle to identify the head unit model and buy that part than it would be to just replace the whole thing. If you can't tell what model it is by just looking at the faceless front you'll have to pull it out anyway, and by then you're halfway to installing a cheap new head unit. It'll probably cost less too, since you'll probably have to order it from the manufacturer. They're not just loose items that you'd normally buy, and they're not interchangeable.

It's pretty easy to replace it yourself; at best you just plug it in, at worst you might need to crimp some wires. If this sounds terrible to you, you can just go to a big box store, buy the cheapest one they sell, and they will usually install it for you (as either a free or paid service).

You can get cheap head units for under $50 new. You could probably even call a pick and pull (junkyard) and find the exact radio your car came with for like $10. I wouldn't do this unless you were really strapped for cash and have more time than money. Just get a new one that has all the fancy features and you can plug your ipod into for $40 more.

On the other hand... you sure the speakers work?
posted by danny the boy at 10:43 PM on November 10, 2012

As danny the boy said, you're going to have to remove the whole thing to find the model information anyway. At that point it's going to be as easy to install a complete new unit. Usually they're the same size, and usually all you have to do is unplug a couple of big plastic plugs and attach them to the new unit. Buying a whole new head unit is going to be much less hassle (and probably no more expensive) than finding a new faceplate.
posted by pipeski at 12:44 AM on November 11, 2012

Best answer: Swapping stereo head units is really easy - I've done it twice and I'm not very mechanically inclined. The one thing I was warned about is to disconnect the negative terminal of your car battery before doing anything with the stereo wiring.
posted by mannequito at 1:38 AM on November 11, 2012

Best answer: Got any friends with cars?

Find out the manufacturer of what remains of your radio and see if there is someone in your posse who has a similar unit. Borrow the faceplate for 10 minutes to test and see if your main amplifier piece is working. If not, replace it. If so, seek another face plate from the manufacturer.

The way this works, usually, is that the faceplate replacement will cost about what the whole unit costs AND if you get one, you are stuck with those features and they may not match your tastes.

Browse or call Crutchfield with a budget in mind ($200 is quite liberal) and get a replacement radio. The connectors that are already installed in your current setup make replacing it a breeze, and while you can get someone else to do it, all of the hard stuff has already been done and it's probably well within your skills to figure it out. (It may actually be necessary for you to remove the amp module to determine the manufacturer and model number, anyway, so you'll have practice doing it.)

You aren't stupid. Don't worry. And you have mefi to help. Rock on.
posted by FauxScot at 5:02 AM on November 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

A friend of my girlfriend's takes his faceplate with him everywhere he goes to deter theft. Maybe the previous owner did something similar, and then lost it.
posted by oceanjesse at 12:57 PM on November 11, 2012

Response by poster: Useful update: it turns out there's a little cranny where I can stick my phone and play music on on speaker, and I can somewhat actually hear it. So, that's my stopgap till I have time/funds to do the necessary repairs.
posted by Sara C. at 4:30 PM on November 14, 2012

Yeah btw if you wanted to just bypass the whole stereo issue you could always just get a small portable speaker like this. $20 and rechargeable, can't go wrong. I have something similar for working outdoors, but when I had issues with my stereo drawing heavily on the battery last year I just disconnected it and listened to the speaker in the car. It was good enough in my loud rumbling beater truck, so in a little Civic it should be great.
posted by mannequito at 5:39 PM on November 14, 2012

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