Best Head Units: Can You Hear Me Now?

Matthew Guy
by Matthew Guy

Top 8 Best Head Units

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.

Table of Contents

1. Editor’s Choice: Pioneer AVH-1400NEX 6.2" Double-DIN

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

  • Getting costly, useless for single-DIN

Bottom Line

  • Great replacement for outdated tech

2. Cheap Tunes: Sony XAV-AX8000 Single-DIN chassis with 8.95” floating screen

Part of the burgeoning category of head units that offer a floating screen, this solution is great for people driving older rigs with a single-DIN space but wish an upgrade to That Screen Lyfe. This setup permits the chassis to live in the dash while broadcasting to the large display.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are on board, along with Bluetooth audio and the capability to haul in SiriusXM satellite radio. It's ready for a rearview camera (sold separately, natch), and a bunch of pre-outs permits the addition of goodies like amplifiers.

Pros

  • User-friendly interface, multitude of mounting options

Cons

  • Yikes that's a lotta money

Bottom Line

  • Your '89 F-150 won't know what hit it

3. JVC KW-X840BTS Double-DIN Car Stereo

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

Bottom Line

  • May score some points at Radwood

4. Kenwood DMX4707S 6.8" Capacitive Touchscreen

From Kenwood (fun fact: there really was a man from London with the name Ken Wood) features a 6.8” touchscreen with capacitive touch controls that can prevent fumbling for controls like a confused teenager on prom night. A backup camera is optional. 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 less than four 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 but it’s tough to tell if these are real issues or simply customers with unrealistic expectations.

Pros

  • Attractive graphics, capacitive touch

Cons

  • Questions exist about its on-screen response time

Bottom Line

  • Does not play CDs

5. 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

Bottom Line

  • Traditional Single-DIN solution

6. Pioneer DMH-WT7600NEX Single-DIN with Floating 9" Display

One of the newest products on this list, the unit you see here from Pioneer is similar in style to the Sony XAV mentioned at the beginning of our post. Pioneer's screen is slicker yet, devoid of physical buttons and bearing a very small bezel. Whether the former is a good thing is totally up to the buyer.

The Pioneer ad is also more blatant about the single-DIN aspect of this puzzle, making it clear one can plug that part of the unit into the radio space in their 1990 Econoline while placing the tablet-style screen somewhere totally different.

Pros

  • Graphics looks good, major versatility

Cons

  • Someone might rip it off your dash

Bottom Line

  • Huge upgrade for sad-sack single-din cars

7. SARCCH Double Din Car Stereo

If all you're after is a quick-and-dirty replacement for a busted double-DIN audio unit, this could be the best option for you. With its seller advertising prices in the $30 range, it's difficult to justify selling a car sans head unit on Craigslist any more.

Reviews are as you'd expect for a $30 unit, with some customers railing against its quality (or lack thereof) and others simply reminding us all one gets what one pays for. Allegedly, a backup camera is included but your author's personal experience with those types of 'free' add-ons is less than positive

Pros

  • Dirt cheap

Cons

  • Quality is sus

Bottom Line

  • It'll at least plug a hole in the dashboard

8. Fyplay Single-DIN Car Stereo

Here's a retro-looking unit that somehow manages to incorporate what looks like fake wood paneling on its faceplate. Round buttons and two dials stand out clearly, along with rectangle outlets ready to accept USB and SD media.

The price is right, and reviews are what one would expect for thirty bucks. A remote is included if you can't be bothered to outstrech your arm to change channels. Its LCD screen is a throwback to the '90s, making this a mash of eras.

Pros

  • Looks funky, very affordable

Cons

  • Not a huge wattage output, unknown name

Bottom Line

  • They must produce these by the boatload very cheaply

FAQs

Do head units improve sound quality?

Yes, they do, as long as the one you’ve installed is of good quality. The reason for this is that the branded head units are more powerful and have built-in amplifiers that boost the audio signals sent to the speakers, thus significantly improving the sound quality and clarity.

In addition, unlike traditional head units that have regular receivers to catch signals from radio stations, the newer and more advanced systems can pick up satellite transmissions, which are stronger and produce clearer audio.

Furthermore, almost all custom head units nowadays support various media types such as MP3, MP4, WAV, WMA, etc., and you can play files merely by plugging a flash drive into the USB port that these devices have.

Built-in GPS navigation system, Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free calling, etc. are some other features that most units have to give you the comfort of a luxury vehicle, even if you own a standard car.

What is a good head unit?

When it comes to selecting a head unit, you must consider the following factors to get the best bang for your buck:

In Terms of Audio

· Power

In context with audio, power in a head unit refers to the audio signals that it sends to the speakers. The more powerful the output is the louder and clearer sound your car speakers will produce. As a result, you will experience minimal distortion when listening to the music at high volumes.

However, the speakers that receive such a powerful output must be strong enough to handle those signals.

· Compatible Media Types

A good head unit can recognize some of the most commonly used media types such as MP3, WMA, WMV, MP4, etc. Therefore, while going for an aftermarket system, make sure to check the supported file formats. This could be easier if you shop online as you can find a complete description there along with genuine reviews from the existing customers.

In Terms of Features

You may want to switch to an aftermarket head unit if it offers the following additional features:

· Theft Protection

· Wi-Fi Connectivity

· Remote Control

· Fully Customizable Illumination

· Steering Wheel Control Compatibility

In Terms of Usability


· Form Factor


Most head units nowadays offer several features like Bluetooth connectivity, GPS navigation, etc., and are controlled through your touches. Therefore, having one with a smaller display won’t do any good to you. That said, you should pick a system with a larger screen to give you ease of usability.


· Appearance


Because the stock head units are manufactured by the same vendor, they are of precise fit, which many custom systems fail to offer unless they are produced by a reputed brand. Due to this reason, many car owners drop the idea of buying an aftermarket unit altogether as it may not blend with the interior of their vehicle.


Therefore, if your stock head unit has all the required features and perfectly aligns with the geometry of your car, there’s no point in switching to a device from a third-party vendor.


Which car stereo brand has the best sound quality?


Depending on your budget, you may or may not want to go for something that is considered ‘The Best’ in the market. Nevertheless, a few brands that manufacture car stereos that produce the best audio quality output include:



Which Pioneer head unit is the best?


Even though everyone has their preferences, the Pioneer head unit that has received a large number of positive reviews is:


· Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX ( Buy here!)


Another model that gives tough competition to the above is:


· Pioneer DMH-W4660NEX ( Buy here!)


Note: The models suggested above are selected based on Amazon reviews and recommendations by the platform. For your part, you are free to explore all the stereo systems and choose the one that you find the best and is within your budget as well.

From time to time, TTAC will highlight automotive products we think may be of interest to our community. Plus, posts like this help to keep the lights on around here. Learn more about how this works.

(Editor’s note: 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.)

[Main photo credit: Alexey Layeroff / ShutterStock.com. Product images provided by the manufacturer.]

Matthew Guy
Matthew Guy

Matthew buys, sells, fixes, & races cars. As a human index of auto & auction knowledge, he is fond of making money and offering loud opinions.

More by Matthew Guy

Comments
Join the conversation
2 of 8 comments
  • Brn Brn on Jan 22, 2021

    Good, sure. Best? No. Nothing high-end.

  • Nrd515 Nrd515 on Jan 23, 2021

    My last new head unit was a bulletproof Panasonic that didn't sound all that great, but at least it didn't have the problems the previous 2 HU's did in my 2003 Ram 1500. The first one was a nice looking Pioneer, and as with every other Pioneer product I've owned, it died soon after the warranty expired. I replaced it with a fantastic sounding JVC HU that sadly had lock up issues from day one. The dealer I bought it from replaced it and the new one continued to lock up and required a hard reset, losing every single setting in it's endless setup menus, to work again. I suggested to the dealer, it was a power surge issue and I was literally laughed at. A friend had the same unit in a Chevy Silverado, with the same issue, and a big cap across the power connections cured it. Too late for me, I had bought the Panasonic by then. That Panasonic is about 17 years old now, and it still works perfectly, but the truck is pretty much eaten up with rust. The guy who bought it in 2007 is still the owner and it's been a great truck all these years.

  • SaulTigh When I was young in the late 80's one of my friends had the "cool dad." You know the guy, first to buy a Betamax and a C-band satellite dish. Couple of stand up arcade games in the den. Bought my friend an Atari 2600 as soon as they came out. He had two of these crap heaps. One that only ran half the time and one for parts in the yard. My middle school brain though he was the most awesome dad ever, buying us pizza and letting us watch R rated movies recorded on free HBO weekend. At the time I though he was much better than my boring father.Now with adult hindsight, I now know he was "dad who should have taken better care of his family" and not had so many toys.
  • Dave Has to be Indy 500. Many more leaders and front passes than NASCAR, and Monaco is unwatchable with the inability to pass on that circuit.
  • Jeff How did the discussion get from an article about a 56 billion dollar pay package for Elon Musk to a proposal to charge a per mile tax on EVs in California or paying increase registration on vehicles to make up for lost gas tax revenue? I thought such a discussion would better fit Matt's Gas Wars series.
  • Master Baiter Both people who bought ID.4s will be interested in this post.
  • Urlik Not a single memorable thing happened in the big three races this weekend IMHO.
Next