By on August 9, 2019

best head units

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Several lifetimes ago, your author was the first person in his small town to install a good set of subwoofers, plunking them in the hatchback area of a rusting Ford. Aftermarket stereos had been around for ages, of course, but banging woofers? Not so much. All hands quickly followed suit, one-upping each other and generally infuriating the community’s rapidly aging populace.

Back then, it was easy to source an aftermarket head unit because all cars had either a DIN or Double DIN sized hole in the dash. Today’s interior styling choices have put a knee in the groin of this accessory segment but there are still a few machines into which one can swap a good receiver.

Popping the extra bit of cheddar for an installation kit is always a good idea, as it precludes the need for hacking into your car’s factory wiring with the élan of Edward Scissorhands by turning the affair into essentially a plug-n-play situation. Your author speaks from personal experience in this regard. Before the presence of such kits in the stores of his home province, many a wiring harness met with particularly graphic deaths by bludgeoning.

And, for the love of all that’s holy, use good wiring practices if you’re doing this install yourself. Simply stripping the ends, twisting stuff together, and shoving it all back into the dash isn’t good enough. Familiarize yourself with the wonders of heat-activated shrink wrap or, even better, improve your soldering skills.

Now, crank it up and annoy the neighbors.

(Editor’s note: As noted above, this post is meant to both help you be an informed shopper for automotive products but also to pay for our ‘90s sedan shopping habits operating expenses. Some of you don’t find these posts fun, but they help pay for Junkyard Finds, Rare Rides, Piston Slaps, and whatever else. Thanks for reading.)

The Best Head Units

1. Editor’s Choice: Pioneer AVH-1300NEX 6.2″ Double DIN

pioneer avh-1300nex double din dvd receiver

Most new vehicles on the lot today come standard with Apple CarPlay, so why would you install an aftermarket head unit without that feature? That said, it’s easy to see why this makes our list of the best head units.

This receiver from Pioneer measures double DIN size, meaning it has plenty of room for the bright day-glo graphics of Apple’s in car infotainment solution. This thing works with Spotify and Pandora, too. It also comes ready to link with SiriusXM satellite radio.

Real world feedback claims the unit is responsive to inputs, a feature which actually puts it ahead of most factory units if we’re being honest. Customers report installing it in everything from a Yaris to a Wrangler. It can play physical media if you still live in the 1990s.

Pros: Pioneer brand name, Apple CarPlay, good looks

Cons: Not the cheapest

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2. Cheap Tunes: Blaupunkt Toronto AM/FM Media Receiver

blaupunkt toronto receiver

If $20 head units from Amazon existed back in your author’s high school days, he would have bought a gross and sold them behind the stadium instead of cigarettes. This receiver from Blaupunkt is Bluetooth enabled, comes with a remote, and can allegedly be controlled with a smartphone once the owner has downloaded the appropriate app.

All of the basics are covered, including space of an SD card and the prerequisite RCA line outs in case you’re installing something more. It’s a single DIN unit that weighs less than a pound and costs less than your last meal at Five Guys. Really; for twenty bucks, how can you go wrong?

Pros: Cheap as dirt, Bluetooth enabled, does all the basics quite well

Cons: Scattered report of units not working out of the box

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3. JVC KWR930BT Double DIN Car Stereo

jvc kwr930bt car stereo double din

This one is a slight retro throwback, though I’m sure JVC would not agree. Why? Its display is of the old-school LCD variety, the same type in which you used to spell BOOBIES upside-down on your calculator in grade school. It is a big display, though, one whose colors can be mixed up or customized to match whatever illumination is being hove off by your car’s stock gauge set.

Bluetooth tech allows you to answer calls with the “push of a button” and permits hands-free calling so the gendarmes have no reason to give you a roadside lecture. It plays all manner of music from physical media to AUX inputs. For a real throwback, it’ll even pick up MP3s, so be sure to fire up that old copy of Napster and download the latest Sum 41 album.

Pros: Big screen, jazzy colors, apparently compatible with some steering wheel controls

Cons: Dated graphics

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4. Kenwood DDX26BT Double DIN

kenwood ddx26bt double din car stereo receiver

From Kenwood (fun fact: there really was a man from London with the name Ken Wood) features a standard-size 6.2” touchscreen with built in controls for the likes of tablets and such from Apple. This is one of the units on our list of best head units that comes with a backup camera. Should you choose to install the thing, it’ll display a picture of what’s going on astern, complete with helpful parking guidelines.

The works of it weighs about five pounds and, thanks to Amazon Prime, is readily available with free shipping. If your whip has a standard Double DIN hole carved in its dash for a radio, this thing will fit. Reports exist of a laggy touchscreen and janky Bluetooth connections but it’s tough to tell if these are real issues or simply customers with unrealistic expectations.

Pros: Priced well, attractive graphics, backup cam included

Cons: Questions exist about its on-screen response time

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5. Sony DSXA415BT Digital Media Receiver

sony dsxa415bt digital media receiver

In addition to handling all the duties one would expect of a sub-$80 head unit, this receiver from Sony can be controlled with a series of voice commands. Speak at this thing to get directions, messages, or music from your Android device. Those running Apple in their pockets can bring Siri along on their road trip as well.

Just like that blonde you met downtown, this Sony is willing to hook up with two at once. Wirelessly connect your first phone to play music, get directions, and communicate with contacts. Then, it is possible to add a second phone from which one can make hands-free calls only.

Pros: Accepts voice commands, NFC tap-to-connect technology

Cons: Single DIN size only, most features work best with Android

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6. Pioneer MVH-S600BS Double DIN Digital Media Receiver

pioneer mvh-s600bs double din digital media receiver

This unit from Pioneer likes big buttons and it cannot lie. With a jumbo rotary selector placed front and center, even the most ham-fisted mouth breather will be able to jack up the volume. Its display resides on the top half of this Double DIN unit, primarily populated with a dot-matrix style text that’ll bring you rockin’ back to the ‘90s.

Bluetooth, Pandora, and Spotify control have their feet firmly planted in the present. Customer feedback shows the unit being installed in various models from the Nissan Altima to Toyota Sienna. Many speak of avoiding “network mode” during setup, a feature which apparently scuppers the sound.

Pros: Easy to use selector, all manner of wireless tech

Cons: Throwback dot-matrix text

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7. SWM 7-Inch Double DIN Car Stereo

swm 7" double din car stereo

We’re unsure as to what the name SWM refers – Swim? Southwest Mountains? Sisters With Motors? Whatever the acronym stands for, it would appear it at least stands for a cheap way to get a big screen Double DIN head unit in your car. And for that reason it’s here on our list of the best head units.

Reviews are largely positive, even if the English-as-a-fourth-language ad copy makes for headache inducing reading. It also doesn’t play DVDs, despite the seller showing a flashy red BMW on the unit’s screen and advertising it as a 1080P unit. A rearview camera is included.

Pros: Very affordable Double DIN unit

Cons: Totally unknown off-brand name, doesn’t play DVDs

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8. Speedton 7-inch Double Din Car Stereo

speedton car stereo double din

Also playing in the cheap end of the Double DIN pool is this off-brand ‘Speedton’ which retails for about the price of a good steak. Fingers the size and shape of swizzle sticks will be handy when trying to use the strip of buttons on the unit’s left hand side. A port for USB items takes up much of that real estate.

The seller says it is compatible with Android devices except Samsung, which seems like a big omission. Bluetooth and all other gear is on board, plus a claimed 1080p display capability on its capacitive touchscreen. Reviews are generally good, even if they are of the “better than expected” variety.

Pros: Capacitive touchscreen, clean looks, 1080p display

Cons: Dodgy brand name isn’t a byword for quality

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[Images provided by the manufacturer, lead image: Alexey Layeroff/Shutterstock]

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29 Comments on “Can You Hear Me Now? Best Head Units...”

  • avatar

    Can I still use my steering wheel controls? Does it have a backup camera? Without those two items, along with Android Auto then I’m not interested.

    • 0 avatar

      Its not uncommon for a lot of models to do all of that now. Not the $20 Blaupunkt of course. I know I looked at one (Pioneer) that did all of that and still worked with Ford Sync.

      A few years ago I spent about only $225 on a new JVC headunit and 4 speakers for a Mazda Protege. Impressive features for a single-din unit. Made a long boring commute in an old car more tolerable, and the bluetooth connection and phone integration was excellent. I justified the expense since it held off my itch to buy another car for another year.

    • 0 avatar

      All modern mid- to high-end units allow a backup camera (which can be stock or aftermarket) to be connected. You can get a module for most cars that will allow you to use the steering-wheel controls. Whether a new haad unit is a full replacement depends on what other features are in your OEM head unit. For instance, in most newer Toyota hybrids, the head unit also has the energy mon9itor function for the hybrid system, and if you replace the head unit you lose that function.

  • avatar

    I can’t speak to these modern double-DIN heads as my two previous pickups (in which I replaced the previous heads for multiple reasons) received a single-DIN Kenwood head that was more than sufficient for the need (along with speaker replacements.) The ’97 Ranger even had a hands-free bluetooth phone connection, allowing me all the real convenience of the newer factory heads with far less distraction factor.

    I do highly recommend a head unit with Apple Car Play or Android Auto aboard. The factory systems don’t otherwise play well with bluetooth phones when trying to make a call hands-free.

  • avatar

    If it doesn’t have a Volume AND tuning knob then I will not buy it.

  • avatar

    “Today’s interior styling choices have put a knee in the groin of this accessory segment”

    Understatement of the year. There may be more choices in aftermarket decks with tons of cool and downright amazing features but the cars to put them in are disappearing at an alarming rate.

    I installed stereo systems and even entered car audio competitions back in the late 80s/early 90s. Good times. But today its all about finding which OEM interface module you need to tap into the infotainment system and get a usable audio signal.

    • 0 avatar

      There is really zero need to replace the head unit in a modern car. You lose more than you gain since all but the most dire cars have all the functionality you would ever want. Better to spend the money on decent speakers and some additional amplification perhaps. The market for this stuff is still older cars. I replaced the original tape deck in my ’91 Volvo last year with a cheap Blaupunkt and it is fine, and the ancient Nakamichi CD player in my Disco I gave up the ghost this summer and got replaced by a JVC.

      Astounding how cheap these things are – that JVC was pretty far up their line, with every whistle and bell known to man, and it was still $120 from Crutchfield. For a few bucks more they sent me all the install gear including a box to make the dash binnacle volume and forward/back buttons work. I think back on the THOUSANDS I spent on headunits 20-30 years ago across various cars and it just amazes me.

      • 0 avatar

        I suppose one could argue that a subwoofer is not a need. But if you want one, and you want it to play all the lowest frequencies, you do often need an aftermarket deck to do so.

  • avatar

    I can’t listen to my Quarterflash or Alannah Myles cassettes on any of these.

  • avatar

    My daughter’s Marine boyfriend received one of the Pioneer units like the first one above (installed, even) as a Christmas present last year, for his 2012 Challenger. I thought it was a decent unit, although I would miss not having volume and tuning knobs like the factory touchscreen radio in my ’13 Tacoma. The CarPlay is very cool though.

  • avatar

    Wonder how long before these go the way of the dinosaurs.

    No stereo is good enough to lose the ability to adjust your climate control or whatever else has been bundled in.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      The unit I put in my truck at one point had that available.

      Still, with respect to most aftermarket headunits I’ve used in the smartphone era have made me realize how much the OEM’s spend on interface design and materials

  • avatar

    As usual, Crutchfield seems to be THE place to research if installation of one of those in your ride is even possible. (Including backup-camera integration, steering-wheel controls, etc.!)

    Regarding subwoofers: WTF are the young folks listening to these days?! It seems like it’s all optimized for subwoofers, all the better if they’re powerful enough to level skyscrapers from three blocks away, or at least crack drywall and screw with dental fillings at the same distance!

  • avatar

    Last time I installed 3rd party head unit in my car was in 1996. Since then it did not make any sense to bother. Yes it is 20th century technology. May they still do that in Europe.

  • avatar

    For my wife’s car I installed that double-din JVC at number 3. It sounds good and I like being able to tune and customize the colors.

    I also wanted one for my Saab 9-7x. My daughter told me no, it looks too much like an alarm clock and would ruin the nice interior.

    I ended up installing a Sony 2din with a touch screen, very minimalist in appearance, not shiny, only a home button. It looks fantastic and sounds great. Apparently Sony is still something a little bit special.

  • avatar

    Radio crapped out in my ’95 Sable last fall. Went to Best Buy and was told any head unit over $100 comes with free installation. I pick out a $99.95 Kenwood and was told yep, it counts. Added a wiring harness and tax and I’m in for $125. Had to wait a week for the install, but the guy was fabulous. He even installed the hands free mic and showed me how to use all functions. I told him I mostly listened to AM radio and that the factory unit got really noisy when the fan was on high or the windshield wipers were on. He told me no promises, but he’d try to optimize everything based on my habits, and boost AM reception. I have to say, the guy was magic because it works and sounds better than the factory unit ever did, and previously hard to get stations come in nicely.

    Too many small buttons, but it’s nice to have a working radio.

    It even had multiple color options, and I was able to get reasonably close to the factory gauge color. I kinda feel like it’s rare that you get such good value for the money these days.

    • 0 avatar

      You’ve made a perfectly valid point. As cars get older, when the stock head unit dies it becomes almost impossible to replace with a new one (and junkyard units will be of questionable longevity.) Quite often, replacing the stock with a modern aftermarket unit can bring the vehicle to better than new quality (especially with speaker replacements) and maybe even get you to keep the car a few years longer if you really enjoy it.

      • 0 avatar

        I did spend a couple hours scouring a U Pull It trying to get a replacement for it…what a waste of time. First of all, there were only three Tauruses of my car’s vintage, and all were missing their radios. No Sables. Most radios in other models were missing, and the couple I found in crashed Rangers that looked like they would work crumbled to pieces when I tried to take them out of the dash. I don’t think pulling junkyard parts is for me. I was frankly appalled at the condition of some of the vehicle interiors.

        Saw quite a few people cussing and tearing out parts though, and it seemed to be a thriving business.

  • avatar

    For relatively modern vehicles, the OEM head unit is not the weak point.

    First replace the speakers. Even the premium OEM speakers are worth $20 each. They just put in more of them. Choose quality over quantity.

    Second, replace the amplifiers. OEM class “D” amplification is surprisingly decent, but if you really want to take advantage of your new speakers, get a good amp.

    Third, look at a sub. Lots of opinions here. I’m not going to start a war.

    Finally, if you’re doing all of the above and doing some customization, take a look at the head unit. Today, they’re really more about features than sound quality. I’d caution you that your OEM head unit has likely tuned the DSP settings to match your car’s interior. You’ll have to do some work to bring your new head unit up to the same level.

    Older cars are another story. In my ’92 Probe, the Clarion head unit made a world of difference (along with new speakers and budget amps).

    • 0 avatar

      I think the biggest reason people are replacing head units today is to get CarPlay or Android Auto, with replacing small screens on low-trim-level cars in second place. Sound quality isn’t a driver anymore for the most part.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, features is the real reason to replace your head unit.

        Personally, I’m bitter against CarPlay and Android Auto. Before either existed, I purposed [to the internet] the right way to do it. Let the mobile device treat the car as an input device and and output device. Make it an open standard. Much like XWindows did decades ago. Instead Google and Apple put too many proprietary controls over it. Ruined a perfectly good idea.

  • avatar

    In my opinion the best single DIN unit at the moment is the VDO/Continental radio. It looks like a clean OEM unit, unlike all the other units that look like they were designed by a teenager. USB/Bluetooth AM/FM with orange back lighting, perfect to swap into an older BMW, Mercedes or Porsche. There is even a version with a CD slot for those who still want that.

    • 0 avatar
      Art Vandelay

      Would be perfect if it had the adjustable backlight/button colors most modern ones have. Not sure if you can do that though with that style screen (black numerals on a lit background) versus the reverse that most offer. Still I prefer this look.

  • avatar

    I worked in the aftermarket industry for many, many years, and during that time was never a fan of how any of these headunits looked when installed into a modern vehicle with a non standard sized dash opening.

    By the time you buy the head unit, the dash kit, the wiring harness and then a good quality interface module to make the steering wheel controls work, it’s gets pricey, fast…

    Up until even a couple of years ago, the factory styled aftermarket ones were all mostly garbage, but fast forward to today and it’s unbelievable what’s available.

    My partner had an android based unit in his 2011 golf (which was about the only reliable component of said vehicle) and it was great. SIM card slot fot data, and any app you want via the play store. Also had an adapter to give us Apple car play and android auto, and a can-bus adapter for steering wheel controls.

    We installed the same style system in our Tucson, looks identical to the factory installed unit and works flawlessly. Completely plug and play, steering wheel controls included and works via data with the factory backup camera.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    I have put new headunits in both my 2015 F150 and my old 2013 Frontier. I took it out of the F150 and went back to stick because the module caused a battery drain. Other than that, they all worked well except for one thing…on the cheaper units the screen often washes out in bright light. That annoys me.

    Also the newer stuff coming out is moving away from the single or double din form factor. The mounting is still that but more and more it holds a much larger screen. I am hopeful this tech will yield the room to bring back knobs along the bottom.

    Also, I want a manufacturer to move back to the minimalist 90s aesthetic on some lines for those of us upgrading worn components in classics. My friend had the Nakimichi system on his SC300 die and he went with a touch screen just because it looked the least gaudy in the dash. Still out of place though and IMHO, the 90s was the high water mark for car audio and that Nakamich system was one of my favorite factory systems.

    Also from that era I remember Blaupinkt as high end. Guess times change.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Incidentally the best mod to the sound system on my Fiesta ST has been to delete the “sound symposer” and install an intake that llet me hear the turbo work.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Also, for all of those clinging to their Third Gen Camaros or any other GM from the 80’s into the 2000’s that had that crazy 1.5 din opening that like 4 models of radio would fit (I had a Pioneer), RetroSound makes a unit that looks like the stock GM style but has USB, AUX, and Bluetooth. I almost got one of these for a stillborn project I was going to do before work picked up. Sound quality is nothing special (I was going to run a seperate amp anyway), but you can change the backlight and colors so it looks right in anything from a Caprice to a Vette…be it a Corvette or Chevette.

  • avatar

    Things change. For many years, OE would be painfully cheap for sound. When I was a kid, the hot setup was to toss the door speakers for six inch coax speakers, and the rears for 6×9. If you had 50 clean watts, not too high a bar, you’d have excellent sound for a car. Current cars are nowhere near as good absent obscene upcharge.

    Today you get the car maker only. You can’t replace an OE set easily, so you end up “upgrading” to the OE for 4x the value gained.

    I wish you could still have radios in DIN sizes, but then again, I wish the whole world would run H4 lights, too.

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