Top 8 Best Head Units
By | Last updated: March 5, 2020
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.

1. Editor’s Choice: Pioneer AVH-1300NEX 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/Not the cheapest

2. Cheap Tunes: Blaupunkt Toronto AM/FM Media 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

3. JVC KWR930BT 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

4. Kenwood DDX26BT Double DIN

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

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

6. 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

7. SWM 7-Inch 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

8. Speedton 7-inch Double Din Car Stereo

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

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 / Product images provided by the manufacturer.]

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