How to successfully replace the AV radio head unit in your Japanese used-import car

By: Colin Kennedy

Buying a used import Japanese vehicle has a lot of advantages, not least that you can get a low mileage, highly spec’d car – including leather, central locking, reversing cameras and security system if you wish – at much lower cost than buying a New Zealand new, but the one drawback is the Japanese AV stereo head unit (deck).

Besides the fact that the display writing is almost all Japanese, the benefit you get is very limited. Instead of GPS, Bluetooth and hands free dialing (at the very least), you’re stuck with a CD player and radio which, due to the necessity of a dealer fitted band expander, doesn’t play great sound.

And Heaven help you if you push the wrong button and get the GPS going because you’ll be cursed by a woman yelling at you in Japanese every five minutes, even over the sound of your radio; and with no conceivable way to switch her off.

At this point, instead of putting up with a useless piece of hardware in your otherwise perfect vehicle, you may be tempted to Google for solutions and that is where things can get really murky.

There are a handful of New Zealand companies that advertise replacing the software in your head unit, to convert it to New Zealand use, and a bunch of others offering to sell replacement head units.

A bit of research, however, reveals that replacing the software might not be such a good idea.

CEO of OEM Audio in Christchurch and a nationwide supplier of AV audio head units, Paul O’Connor, says he has never seen a software replacement that worked. “I’ve heard stories about the software resetting back to Japanese, and I’ve heard stories about pirated or stolen software. I would not recommend it.”

Paul’s own investigations more than six years ago, led him to source quality manufactured head units from China – where he expected to find only a handful of manufacturers. Instead, he discovered hundreds of factories, mostly selling cheap knock-offs that quickly fail.

“It’s definitely a case of buyer beware. Not only is the software issue suspect – we pay licensing fees for our maps – but you will find many replacement units are poor quality. If it seems cheap, there may be a good reason.”

Paul offers these five tips to bear in mind when trying to solve your audio-visual problems with a used Japanese import:

  • Avoid so-called software replacements;
  • Be cautious of audio visual head units that seem too cheap (most reasonably good units start at about $500 excluding installation);
  • Bear in mind that some ‘universal units’ will not fit the vehicle and at times the vehicle’s aperture may need to be made smaller or bigger;
  • You cannot get head replacement units for some vehicles, particularly some Nissans and Hondas and, if you can as in the case of the Honda Odyssey, they may be very expensive;
  • Resist the urge to buy online, even where the facility is provided. Have a chat to the seller about your needs first.

"You will normally find that the replacement units have two operating systems, the WIN CE (which is our preference) or Android. We prefer the WIN CE because it is faster. The Android can take 30 seconds to turn on, by which time the average Kiwi has already switched radio stations three times."

"To my mind, the head unit is there for safety and convenience, not to run games or play videos. You want something that shows your reversing camera, connects to your phone, lets you stream music and provides GPS co-ordinates."

"It’s taken us five years to get this right, so do take your time and proceed with caution. Make sure that whichever unit you buy, it uses New Zealand licensed software, that the seller can point you to a licensed installer and it’s backed by a two-year warranty," says Paul.

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