Top 8 Best Head Units
By | Last updated: January 21, 2021
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-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

Head Unit FAQs

Can I do this myself?

Maybe, if you’re skilled with electronics. Most of the units on this list are plug and play, especially if the buyer is smart enough to purchase a wiring kit that corresponds to the vehicle into which the radio is being installed. These save the hassle of cut wires, hot solder, and ample cursing.

What the **** is DIN?

DIN is short for Deutsches Institut für Normung, which translates to mean German Institute for Standardization. The goal in the creation of this standard was to develop a radio chassis size that would be common across a wide variety of vehicles. Single-DIN measures roughly 2″ x 8″. #TheMoreYouKnow

Other sage advice?

If you’re unsure about wiring, let a pro handle the installation. Wiring up a head unit is quick work for shops used to installing custom systems. After all, there’s plenty of electricity floating around in a car’s wiring harness, not to mention the myriad of seemingly unrelated systems that could be tied together.


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.]

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


  • avatar
    CKNSLS Sierra SLT

    Unfortunately-the “integrated systems” of today’s vehicle makes switching to a better head unit either very complicated or expensive or both. I would bet that aftermarket infotainment (radio) sales are WAY DOWN.

    • 0 avatar
      SPPPP

      Yes, and this isn’t even a new development. Since the mid-2000s.

    • 0 avatar
      random1

      Yeah, but I think it’s worth it. I have a ’15 GTI, they only added CarPlay/android Auto in ’16(I believe), so for something like $1300 I got an Alpine unit that integrates with VW’s electronics.

      It’s a meaningful proportion of the price of the car, but I tend to keep cars a loooong time, and for, say, 10 years of CarPlay, I decided it was worth it.

  • avatar
    SaulTigh

    Couple years ago the factory radio crapped out in my ’95 Sable. I went to Best Buy and got a $100 Kenwood that qualified for free installation, along with a $15 wiring harness. The guy doing their installs was amazing, and did such a great job. I told him I listened to a lot of AM radio and he put a filter on it so that I no longer got interference from the electrical system like on the old radio. He installed the hands free mike and showed me how to use everything and I have to say that it sounds way better than the factory radio ever did, using the original speakers. Pro installation is the way to go, and lord was it cheap in the end.

  • avatar
    Sobro

    Having recently decided to upgrade the stereo in my 2018 Focus ST, I am amazed the extent automakers have gone to eliminate the market for aftermarket head units.

    There isn’t even a “stereo” behind the buttons and screens any more, just a harness connecting to a box somewhere behind the center stack. Metra and Scosche have gone into the center stack cover modification business just to make OEM dashboards accept an actual head unit sticking out of them.

    Once you buy a new center stack trim cover for $200+/- you have to have a special harness to integrate your steering wheel controls to the new head unit. It’s really crazy. But as with any engineering problem, given enough time and money it can be solved.

    Ah, what about just upgrading the speakers and amp? LOL, the OEMs are way ahead of you. Modern day amps (remember, often just part of that box deep in your dashboard, sometimes a separate component in the trunk, which also contains your Navigation and Sirius receivers) have been pre-tuned by the OEM in order to prevent blowing the cheap speakers they install. For example, bass rolloff is a term meaning they cut the bass level to the speakers if you crank it up to prevent speaker shredding while under warranty.

    In my case, I have the Focus ST1 so it just has “woofer” and tweeter components in the front doors and “woofers” in the rear. No subwoofer nor external amp. But wait, there’s more! The rear channel in the ST1 head unit transmits only low and low-mid frequencies to those doors for “ambient” sound. I did replace the paper cone BS speakers and it sounds better but the original signal is still crap.

    What does the installer do with “bass rolloff” and “ambient” equalization from the head unit? Why he has to buy another large component called a LOC, a line-out converter. Modern ones will analyze the OEM head unit’s speaker signal (the line out from the amp) and adjust it to flatten the OEM equalization and re-boost the bass when the amp decides to “roll off” the signal. Good ones are not inexpensive.

    Then you send the LOC signal to an actual aftermarket amplifier to actual aftermarket speakers that aren’t OEM garbage.

    The car stereo upgrade rabbit hole has become a labyrinth.

  • avatar
    spookiness

    People don’t do this much anymore, and on some cars it is admittedly complicated, but it really can “refresh” an old car. One car ago I had a Mazda Protege. 2 speakers quit, and something went out in the OEM headunit. I got a JVC headunit and 4 Kicker speakers. I spent an afternoon and less than the amount of a car payment on a budget car. The sound was transformed, it felt like a different car, and I gained Bluetooth and handsfree, which was nice on my long commutes at the time. Was well worth it, increased my enjoyment (or tolerance) of the car and kept another 18 mos or so longer than I planned, so it sort of saved me money.

  • avatar
    burgersandbeer

    I once had a head unit with a remote and thought it was great. If the remote is done well and the buttons have different shapes it’s easy to operate without looking.

    I can’t say the same for any aftermarket head unit where even a double din presents small, identical targets spaced too close together. Operating it while your car bounces down the highway is a distraction.

    A remote is a marketing problem because most people only think of them as a tool to avoid getting their lazy ass off the couch, but it’s great for car audio.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    Is there an app to allow Android to use Apple Carplay?

    • 0 avatar
      4onthefloor

      I am almost certain you need to have Android auto to use android, however some manufacturers have offered updates to install android auto from what I’ve heard. May want to research that. I just bought. 2021 Mazda CX-5 signature, and it has both built in. It’s a game changer, but I only hook it up on long trips, because it isn’t wireless CarPlay, which I believe is only offered on the Mazda 6. I have read that there is a new aftermarket head unit that includes wireless CarPlay, so if the up charge isn’t too great, I would look for that if I was in the market.

  • avatar
    brn

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

  • avatar
    nrd515

    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.

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