Best Head Units: Experience a Richer Sound
Our top picks for the best head units for quality sound in your car
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You may have noticed that your car has poor sound quality, even with the best subwoofers, speakers, and amplifiers. Well, the last ingredient to having a crisp, clean sound system in your car is a great head unit—one that incorporates the latest digital audio technology to make your listening experience enjoyable and easy to control. Our review features some of the best head units available today. Read on to learn more.
Pioneer AVH-200EX Multimedia DVD Receiver
BOSS Audio BV9362BI
Has a large 6.2-inch color touchscreen. Relatively inexpensive for the features it includes. Offers a wide range of playback options.
ATOTO A6 Double-DIN Android Stereo
Benefits of a Head Unit
- Better sound quality. An aftermarket car head unit will improve the quality of sound you get, be it the highs or the lows. You will get modern fine-tuning options with advanced equalizer controls. Most head units come with 80- to 100-watt channels and amps to give you a better sound quality even without having to upgrade your factory speakers.
- Multiple connection options. Most head units can connect to other devices via USB cables and AUX cords. With Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, you can play your favorite music from your iPod, iPhone, and other MP3 devices. You could also stream satellite radio with SiriusXM or stream online music from Google Music, iHeartRadio, and Spotify.
- Upgrade your vehicle’s look. A new head unit is a great way to customize the look of your car to suit your taste and preferences. A head unit with a clear display will improve the look of your dashboard and add a personal touch that reflects your personality and sense of style.
- Phone connectivity. Most head units are compatible with iOS and Android devices. You can enjoy hands-free calls or play music from your phone via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Additionally, you can connect the navigation feature in your phone to the head unit for a better view of unfamiliar locations.
Types of Head Units
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Single-DINs typically come in sizes of 7 by 2 inches. The unit typically fits into the dash of most standard vehicle models. These head units are popular because they are inexpensive and have easy-to-use controls.
Simply put, double-DIN head units are twice the size of the single-DIN units. These head units come with more advanced controls and features. Most have touch screens for easier operation, can play videos from auxiliary storage devices and can be used to operate backup cameras.
Pioneer Corporation is a Japanese international corporation headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. The company was established in 1938 by Nozomu Matsumoto as a repair shop for radios and speakers. Over the years, the company has introduced different electronics into the market including speakers, DJ equipment, technical audio devices, and car electronics. The Pioneer AVH-3300NEX is one of the best single-DIN head units that the company makes.
Boss Audio is an international company that manufactures audio devices such as marine audio electronics, car stereos, and Powersports products. BOSS Audio has been in operation for over 30 years and is headquartered in Oxnard, Calif. BOSS products are sold in more than 130 countries worldwide, in storefront retail centers and online shops. The BOSS Audio BV9362BI is one of its most popular and affordable head units.
ATOTO is a car electronics company with a special focus on car multimedia devices, headrests, and OEM equipment. The company was established in 2008 by Jay Yang. The company’s manufacturing base is in Dongguan, China, but its products are sold worldwide through online shops. This company has some apex head units in the market such as the ATOTO A6 Double-DIN Android Stereo.
Kenwood Corporation is a Japanese company that makes and markets a wide range of radio communication devices, Hi-Fi home audio systems, and car audio devices. The company was founded in 1946 under the name Kasuga Radio Co. Ltd, and later changed to Kenwood. It’s headquartered in Tokyo, Japan and has other operating centers in Los Angeles. The Kenwood DDX26BT is a prime example of the company’s best-selling products.
Head Unit Pricing
- Under $100: In this price category, you will mostly find single-DIN multimedia players. These are essentially great for playing music from Bluetooth-enabled devices and digital formats. You might find some double-DIN head units, but they will have more basic features.
- $100 to $300: This price range is full of high-tech single-DIN stereos that are sleek in looks. These units can play CDs and DVDs and offer a wide range of playback options. Also in this category, there are double-DIN head units that have advanced features; most come with high definition touch screens.
- Over $300: This price range is for premium head units that offer a combination of entertainment and navigation features. They play CDs and DVDs and offer a bundle of connectivity options, including wireless calling and Wi-Fi options. With these high-end units, you can seamlessly integrate your smartphone and enjoy a range of iOS and Android features and apps.
In the absence of an amplifier, the car speaker’s power will depend on the stereo’s power output. In this case, you should focus on the deck's RMS rating and watts per channel. The RMS power rating refers to the power the head unit can give at a constant rate. Additionally, higher watts per each channel essentially means that the head unit will produce enough power for the speakers without using an amplifier.
Modern head units typically come with a clear display. Basic single-DIN units have a small display, and a large touchscreen display is common with double-DIN head units. Large displays give you a better view of the music that is playing, the caller ID, and what’s behind the car through the backup camera. You can take the experience to another level with a touchscreen display or a folding screen that’s common on single-DIN units.
Playback options refer to the methods used by the head unit to play music. Some of the common examples include DVD, CD, HD Radio, MP3, Auxiliary ports, Bluetooth, Pandora, and Wi-Fi. Fortunately, most modern units offer a wide range of playback options and connectivity features that will give you access to all of your music and videos.
- Sound Quality: Go for a unit that provides the best sound quality in its price range. It’s also a good idea to choose a unit that allows for the addition of an equalizer, digital sound process, and amplifier for better quality sound.
- Smartphone Compatibility: Most new head units will allow you to integrate your smartphone, and this will give you access to online streaming applications such as Spotify and Pandora. Smartphone integration also allows you to make hands-free phone calls and to use the maps in your phone for navigation.
- Expandability: Look into how far the head unit can stretch when it comes to connecting to external components. These external components may include speakers, rear and front view cameras, microphones, and other video and audio outputs for a better listening experience.
Best Head Unit Reviews & Recommendations 2020
You’ll love how easy this receiver is to work with thanks to its 6.2-inch WVGA display. It has built-in Bluetooth with hands-free calling and audio streaming. You can connect both Android and iPhone smartphones. If you have a backup camera or plan to install one, this receiver is compatible. There is a USB direct control connection option for iPhone. Your new unit will also come with all of the required installation hardware.
What makes this unit stand out is that you can customize the look of the illumination. You can also connect it to your steering wheel controls for full seamless integration into your vehicle. It has a 13 band equalizer for giving you the best quality sound possible.
Unfortunately, getting radio reception with this receiver is a bit challenging. It can also have connectivity issues with the Bluetooth feature.
The BOSS Audio BV9362BI is a double-DIN head unit that has a wide range of features all rolled up into one inexpensive shell. This unit comes with a 6.2-inch LCD display with touch controls for different functions. The device features audio streaming and Bluetooth connection for hands-free calling when paired with smartphones. The wireless music streaming function supports services from Pandora and Spotify.
BOSS Audio BV9362BI supports SD memory and USB flash drives of up to 32 gigabytes. You also get an auxiliary input that supports the connection of audio devices such as smartphones and MP3 players. Its unique feature is the steering wheel control integration, coupled with rear camera input. This feature will automatically switch the screen to the rearview camera as you shift into reverse.
However, the unit has a complicated design that consequently complicates the general operation of the device. You might have to wait sometime before the head unit starts and even longer when loading a song playlist. In addition, you may strain when using the remote; you have to align it directly to the stereo, which beats the purpose of a remote controller.
The ATOTO A6 is a double-DIN android stereo that comes with navigation and entertainment features. This unit runs on the widely used Android Marshmallow operating system. It features quick-booting technology, which allows the user access to the device within two seconds after starting the car. It also features dual Bluetooth chips that work as internet tethering connections as well as hands-free calling units.
It’s one of the best head units when it comes to USB support since it supports devices of up to 256 gigabytes of storage. It also has three USB interfaces for USB drives and one micro SD card slot. This unit comes with backup camera input, auxiliary audio and video input, and an audio and subwoofer output. ATOTO constantly updates the firmware by adding new features and dealing with bugs.
A major drawback of the product is its incompatibility with some steering wheel controls. You would have to buy a special adapter to connect the head unit to the steering wheel controls. Moreover, the stereo automatically turns on every time you turn on your car; that's an annoying feature, especially when you don’t want the noise from a stereo. It also has minimal touch sensitivity around the corners.
Replace your stock stereo unit with this slim single-DIN Kenwood stereo receiver. It has built-in Bluetooth technology for hands-free operation and music streaming. It has a peak power output of 50 watts and four channels. The RMS is 17 watts and four channels. On the front of the unit is a 3.5mm audio auxiliary port and a USB port. It’s also compatible with Apple iPhone 6/6+ and iOS8 software, Spotify, Pandora, and iHeartRadio. When playing CDs or MP3s, the audio information will display as text on the screen.
What’s nice about this unit is that you also get a complete set of 2.5V preamp outputs. This gives you enough for a complete sound system (front and rear speakers and a subwoofer). It’s also theft-deterrent with a detachable faceplate.
Unfortunately, it isn’t compatible with Android phones or Apple Carplay. You’ll only have basic functions that are available through Bluetooth or plugging the phone into the USB port. It also lacks universal compatibility, so check that it will fit your car before purchasing.
This single-DIN media receiver comes with an advanced audio distribution profile. It comes with Bluetooth 3.0 for hands-free operation. It’s compatible with most smartphones on the market. You’ll be able to play MP3, WMA, WAV, and FLAC files via the USB port. It’s also compatible with iHeartRadio, Spotify, and Pandora. The front of the unit has a 3.5mm auxiliary input and a USB plug. There’s also a set of 2.5V preamp outputs on the back.
What’s nice about this unit is that it has a 13 band equalizer, 18 FM and 6 AM presets, and peak watts of 50. This gives you plenty of customization ability and flexibility in how you use your new receiver. The screen will display the audio text for the current audio playing. You can even program it to display in Spanish.
The downside of this receiver is that it struggles to connect. It doesn’t come with a remote control. It also doesn’t have a CD player.
If you’re looking for a single-DIN receiver that’s packed with features, then this is an ideal option. It comes with built-in Bluetooth, a front USB port, and an auxiliary 3.5mm port. You can adjust the display to match the rest of your dashboard with the variable color illumination. It supports Android rapid charging. You have the option of playing MP3, WMA, AAC, and WAV files.
What makes this receiver stand out is that it has a short chassis. This means it is compatible with a broader range of vehicles. It also has a dual phone connection, which lets you seamlessly switch between two simultaneously connected phones.
The downside of this unit is that the Bluetooth will connect and then fail. You then have to go through the entire process of pairing your phone again. The display isn't bright enough to see it in direct bright sunlight.
This single-DIN head unit comes with a display illuminated in bright blue lights. It has an AM/FM tuner and will display RBDS information on the screen. You can also play MP3, WMA, and FLAC audio files through the USB port. Both iPhone and Android are compatible with it. You can play Pandora through your phone with it.
You’ll like this unit because it has a high contrast LCD display and an easy-to-navigate user interface. This makes using the stereo easy. If you don’t like the blue illumination, you can change it thanks to the RGB design.
The downside of this unit is that it doesn’t play CDs. Bluetooth is also hard to set up and initiate. You may also find that it gets easily overpowered if you have a powerful customized sound system in your vehicle.
If you want a simple-to-use receiver, this is a great choice. It has a CD player, AM/FM radio tuner, and ports for auxiliary audio and USB. The stereo is compatible with Apple iPhone 6/6+ and iOS8 software. You can also play Pandora, iHeartRadio, and Spotify through it. It has a peak power output of 50 watts and an RMS of 17 watts. You can also connect your Bluetooth-enabled devices to it.
What makes this unit stand out is the responsive illuminated display. It will react and change in time to the rhythm of the music currently playing. You can also prevent theft by easily detaching the faceplate.
The downside of this unit is that it won’t keep the right time on the clock. When the unit turns off, it loses time, and you have to reset the clock when you turn the receiver back on. It also lacks firmware updates, which results in faulty displays when reading the information for MP3 files.
This single-DIN digital receiver comes with Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming. There are USB and auxiliary input ports on the front of the unit. You can listen to the radio with the built-in AM/FM tuner. It helps deliver quality sound with the built-in amplifiers with 4 x 50W of pure MOSFET power.
What makes this unit stand out is how easy it is to use. Using the control buttons on the front, you can safely search for your chosen playlist, an album, or a particular artist. You can also expand your system for an immersive sound experience by connecting it to a subwoofer, additional amplifier, and rear speakers.
Unfortunately, there’s a noticeable difference when using Bluetooth versus other features. It’s also difficult to read the display in bright, direct sunlight.
- Replace your car factory speakers when you get a head unit. Speakers are often not a priority when vehicle manufacturers are designing cars; most don't have great sound quality. When you get a high-quality head unit, you should pair it with strong speakers that will handle the power output of the stereo.
- Always play high-quality audio and video tracks; you will then enjoy the full potential of the head unit and feel every high and low frequency of the audio.
- Get an amplifier. Amplifiers will make a mediocre head unit better by amplifying the sound and minimizing distortion. It will also give you a better sound range and control over the sound output.
Q: Which type of head unit should I buy for my car?
A: The first things to consider are the size of your factory stereo and the space available on the dashboard. These will determine whether you get a single- or double-DIN head unit. Once you have an idea of what you are looking for in terms of size and features, decide on the price range, buy a head unit, and have a professional help you install it.
Q: Can I upgrade from a single-DIN to a double-DIN head unit?
A: Yes. It is possible to change from a single-DIN unit to a double-DIN unit in some cars as long as there is ample space for the upgrade. Double-DIN devices will require double the size, and that may require a professional to fit it into the dashboard without blocking other controls.
Q: Will I lose some functionality out of my vehicle after installing an aftermarket head unit?
A: If your factory stereo system controls important steering wheel functions like the horn, then you may risk losing the functions. But there is a way around it. You could ask a professional to connect the head unit to the steering wheel controls with a special adapter to preserve the functions.
Our top pick for the best head unit is the Pioneer AVH-200EX Multimedia DVD Receiver due to its number of smartphone connectivity features and back-up camera compatibility.
If you are looking for a head unit that combines affordability with functionality, you might want to check out the BOSS Audio BV9362BI.