Connectivity is king these days, even while on the road. This is the reason almost every car manufacturer offers models with big screens and infotainment systems inside the cabin, sometimes more than one. Our appetite for big screens, apps, information, and entertainment continues to grow and sometimes even the factory solutions are not good enough for our needs.
Not every manufacturer’s infotainment system is created equal. The car industry was caught off guard when it came to connectivity and most of the infotainment systems in newer cars are either slow and unresponsive or don’t have the features we want or need. Only in the recent years we saw improvements, but we still haven’t seen an experience that is close to that of your smartphone or tablet.
There is a simple solution to this – changing the head unit or “infotainment” system in your car. Almost every car stereo manufacturer already has several models that can fit in your car’s interior and that improve the experience. A third party head unit can even improve on the sound quality, as most of them come with better amplifiers and looks as well – the best head units have much more tasteful graphics.
The most important thing to look for in a head unit is the ability to connect to your smartphone via Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. Some offer the MirrorShare function, but this is an older technology that doesn’t work as well as the other two and simply projects your smartphone screen to the larger one in the center console.
Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are developed by Google and Apple. Thanks to this, the user interface of this embedded software technologies is much easier to use on the go, while the performance is top notch. With them, you can use the navigation, voice recognition commands, music streaming service, send or read SMS, answer calls and even interact with some third-party apps on a user interface that is very easy to use and not distracting while driving.
We recommend choosing a head unit that has both technologies built-in. Sure, right now you may have an iPhone and don’t need the Android Auto functionality, but what if you change your smartphone in the future? You’ll need to change the head unit as well.
Other than improving on the infotainment experience in your new car, a new head unit can inject a new life in your older vehicle. If you only want a new car because it has better connectivity options inside the cabin, we would advise you to buy a high-quality head unit with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, as it will be much, much cheaper than buying a new car.
One thing to note – most of the cars after the turn of the millennium have 2-DIN units, which are bigger and can accommodate a big screen inside. For cars with 1-DIN head units, there are solutions with a pop-out screen. Please check what kind of head unit your car has before buying (we’ll include 1DIN head units in our list as well).
With all that in mind, let’s have a look at the top 10 Head Units you can buy right now:
Table of contents
Editor's Pick: Sony XAV-AX100 6.4" Car Play/Android Auto Media Receiver with Bluetooth
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto? Check. Smooth and fast performance? Check. Easy to navigate user interface? Check. Clean and powerful sound? Check. The Sony XAV-AX100 DIN2 head unit is really the jack of all trades when it comes to car infotainment systems and is easily our top pick of the bunch.
This head unit is equipped with a high-quality 6.4-inch touchscreen. It doesn’t come with built-in satellite navigation, but you don’t really need it because the Google Maps and Apple Maps on your phone will be superior. The software is easy to use while driving and is as fast as almost any modern smartphone. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also a breeze to use – you just need to connect your smartphone via USB cable. You can also connect over Bluetooth, but you’ll lose the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionalities. iPhone users can even use Siri Eyes Free to control various functions on the phone.
The built-in amplifier will provide powerful sound thanks to 4x55W outputs. You can even adjust the soundstage with Dynamic Stage Organizer that adds virtual speakers in the cabin for a better listening experience and while it’s not as good as real speakers, it really does improve on the sound quality. When it comes to sound, we have one (little) issue – the Sony head unit doesn’t support HD Radio and doesn’t have a CD player (although we could live without both).
On the other hand, an additional reason the Sony is at the top of this list is the volume knob. Almost every other head unit comes either with physical or capacitive buttons for adjusting the volume, which is annoying to use while driving. Even some car manufacturers, like Honda, admitted the mistake and returned to the volume knob after experimenting with capacitive buttons. This may sound like nitpicking, but adjusting the volume easily is important to a safe driving experience.
And while the Sony XAV-AX100 is certainly not cheap, for the features and performance it offers, we think it’s a steal.
Kenwood Excelon DNX694S
If you don’t always want to rely on the navigation app from your smartphone (Google Maps or Apple Maps), this head unit will be the best solution for you. It comes with a built-in Garmin sat-nav system, that is one of the best in the world when it comes to guidance. The best thing about it is that it’ll work even without a cellular connection or internet connection, which means that you can use it in areas that don’t have coverage or use it abroad.
As a whole, the Kenwood Excelon DNX694S offers a generally good experience. The software is not as easy to use as our top pick and the performance is only average, but it can show two apps at the same time, like the sat-nav and the music player, which is a great feature to use while driving, especially because the screen is a large 6.8 inches. The unit also very expandable – you can connect additional screens to it for the rear passengers, connect a rear-view camera and charge two smartphones thanks to dual USB inputs.
The Kenwood head unit supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay and works flawlessly with both. It also has HD Radio support and a CD player. While we’re talking about sound, we must say that we like the sound quality of this device – it will almost certainly improve on your built-in car stereo.
The biggest drawback of the Kenwood Excelon DNX694S is its price – it costs almost twice as much as the Sony. Still, this is the one to go if you really need the built-in sat-nav.
Almost all of the older vehicles, manufactured prior to the 2000s, have 1-DIN opening for a stereo, which is smaller than the 2-DIN, because they were not made with big screens in mind. However, manufacturers of head units thought of an ingenious solution – a display that can fold out from the stereo itself. Although it won’t look as nicely integrated as the other products, it’s a good solution for older cars.
In the case of the Pioneer AVH-3300NEX, the screen measures 7 inches, which is actually bigger than most of the 2-DIN head units. We also like that when the screen is out, there are still a lot of hardware buttons under it, which are much easier to use while driving. The built-in software has an easy-to-use user interface and even some apps, while also supporting seamless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration, and Bluetooth connectivity. A big plus is the volume knob.
This head unit even has a built-in CD/DVD player and supports satellite radio. The sound quality is great – it will almost certainly be better than the one that already sits in your car.
We, however, have two gripes with this head unit. The first one is that it may block some other functions in your car while in use – it would’ve been great if the screen could be somehow placed under the stereo as well, to fit every car interior perfectly.
The second one is that when you fold-in the screen, you can’t see any information, not even the radio station. A simple, rudimentary LCD screen, in this case, would’ve been great.
JVC KW-M730BT 6.8"
If you need a head unit that is rich on functions, the JVC KW-M730BT 6.8″ might be the best choice. In most areas, it’s similar to the first one on our list, but it brings a bigger screen to the table (6.8-inch), albeit only slightly. It falls a little short on the user experience to the Sony, but nevertheless, it’s still much better than most of the head units here.
The JVC also supports Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which works great on the big display. What doesn’t work great are the buttons for the volume control, which are comically small. Sure, the bigger screen doesn’t leave space for a volume knob, but even a smaller one would’ve been miles better than this solution. On top of that, there are no other hardware buttons – you must solely rely on the touchscreen display for interaction.
Other than that, we really like the support for High-Definition audio, which has even higher bitrate than a CD audio and also the support for HD Radio and Sirius XM satellite radio. On top of that, the JVC has a powerful amplifier and lots of options to make the most out of the music and the placement of the speakers in your car. What the JVC doesn’t have is a CD player, which for some may be a big drawback.
Even though we suggested that buying a head unit that supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is the best bet if you want a future-proof product, we know that there are millions of Apple fanboys (and fangirls as well!) out there that will always use an iPhone. If you are only into Apple products, we suggest the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX, as it has a lower price than head units with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while also adding a CD player to the mix.
The Pioneer AVH-1300NEX head unit has a smaller 6.2-inch display, but it also has a lot of hardware buttons that make it easier to use while driving. The built-in software is easy to use, especially when connected to your phone via Apple CarPlay, but it can be laggy at times. And while it doesn’t support Android Auto, it does have Bluetooth connectivity and CD/DVD player, on which you can even watch movies (or music videos). The sound quality is also great – we’ve expected nothing less from a Pioneer head unit. The Pioneer also supports Sirius XM satellite radio and works with Pandora and Spotify for music streaming.
If we are nitpicking, the volume is controlled through buttons and not a knob, but at least the buttons are big and easy to hit.
Alpine iLX-F309 HALO9
If you want a Tesla-like screen in the center of your dashboard, then the Alpine iLX-F309 HALO9 might be the one for you. The 9-inch display on this head unit will look great in smaller, compact cars as well as in big SUVs and trucks. The resolution of the screen is somehow low at WVGA though, especially for a screen that big. Interestingly, it is a 1-DIN head unit and it can fit both older and newer cars. The display looks like it’s floating, giving the whole unit a modern look that will certainly brighten your car’s interior. It can also be adjusted at an angle for taller or shorter drivers.
Apart from the gigantic screen, the Alpine is a high-end product in other areas as well. It supports both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, it has an integrated Siri voice controls, sat-nav, apps, Sirius XM satellite radio and even a Bluetooth connectivity. It’s safe to say that the Alpine head unit really has it all when it comes to built-in technologies, except the older, but still viable CD player. We also like that it has hardware buttons for various functions, but a volume knob would’ve elevated the user experience on an even higher level. While we are at the user experience, the software is very easy to use and very fast as well. As expected from Alpine, the sound quality is amazing.
The biggest drawback of the Alpine iLX-F309 HALO9 is the price – it’s too expensive for most buyers and we think that most head units will do the job just as fine at half the price, albeit on a smaller screen.
If you want an adjustable screen in a 2-DIN head unit then the Kenwood DDX9703S is a great choice. Its display can be adjusted with a built-in motor in 7 steps, making it a great choice for cars that are driven by more than one driver – like parents for example. With the angle adjust, everybody can have a great, head-on look on the display. While we’re at it, the screen is one of the biggest here, with 6.95-inch diagonal. It’s also backlit, but that doesn’t help in daylight when the display is not as easy to read thanks to a reflective surface.
Even though the screen is big, there are several hardware buttons for easy access while driving, but there is no volume knob – only small buttons. The user interface is however not at the level of the best out there and the same can be said for the performance. On the upside, this Kenwood head unit does support Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, as well as Siri Voice Control and Bluetooth connectivity.
The audio side is well covered, with a powerful built-in amp, a lot of equalizer presets and a High-Definition audio playback. The Kenwood head unit even has a built-in CD/DVD player, which is not something that can be said for most 2-DIN head units. Kenwood DDX9703S also has two inputs for cameras, front and rear, making it a great choice for safer driving in tight spaces and when driving in reverse.
Recently, Apple made it possible to connect your iPhone and use the CarPlay functionality without the need for a USB to Lightning cable. This head unit from Alpine is the first with a wireless Apple CarPlay built-in, but it comes at a price. It costs much more than almost any other head unit on this list, so you really must hate wires to spend that much money.
The Apple CarPlay experience in this product is definitely flawless, but on the other hand, it doesn’t support Android Auto. And while the performance is top notch, the user interface is not as easy to use as the best on our list. On top of that, the volume is controlled via capacitive buttons, which is never a good solution, especially on the move. The dedicated Siri button is a nice touch though.
On the positive side, the Alpine has a 7-inch display, which is one of the biggest around. The unit can even be controlled via the built-in buttons on the steering wheel of your car – another useful feature. The sound quality on the Alpine ILX-107 is also very good, while it has an input for a rear-view camera as well.
PUMPKIN Android 8.0 Car Stereo
Every other unit so far on this list either had both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, or only Apple CarPlay. Well, this one doesn’t have any. What it does have is a built-in Android Oreo 8.0 operating system. This means that you don’t even need to connect your phone to use a sat-nav. As a matter of fact, on this unit, you can use any app you’d like, like Facebook or YouTube. It’s literally an Android 8.0 tablet built into a 2-DIN stereo.
This is an entirely different concept, but we’ve still put it on this list because we’re sure that there are a lot of people that will like it. Just be sure that you share the cellular connectivity from your smartphone and this tablet will definitely shine. Compared to other head units on this list, it has a higher pixel-density screen (1024×600 pixels, 7-inch one) and very good performance thanks to an 8-core chip, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage. A real powerhouse. It also has hardware buttons instead of on-screen ones, which we especially like, and even a volume knob.
And while this PUMPKIN Android 8.0 head unit certainly beats every other on functions alone, it does have one big drawback – the built-in amp is not nearly as good as the other ones. That’s a shame, because it’s the most multimedia-friendly device on this list, with support for every Android app out there.
Pioneer AppRadio 4 SPH-DA120
The last item on our list is a very good choice for buyers who want Apple CarPlay functionality. As with every Pioneer head unit you can expect a very good audio quality with this one – it’s one of the best when it comes to listening music, giving listeners a lot of options for tinkering of the sound.
Sadly, though, Android users can only stream their music via Bluetooth and not Android Auto. There is a built-in MirrorLink solution though, and you can use some Android apps via AppRadio mode, like Pandora for example.
On the positive side, the Pioneer AppRadio does support Siri Eyes Free, so you can ask it various questions, like for directions. The built-in screen is 6.2-inch big, so it’s best to be fitted in smaller cars. The user interface is easy to use and navigate around, but we would’ve liked a faster response to the touch.
The Pioneer AppRadio 4 SPH-DA120 has buttons outside of the screen, but they are capacitive. This helps the unit to look modern and minimalistic, but hardware buttons are infinitely better to use while driving and that is especially true for the volume buttons.
One of the biggest advantages of this Pioneer head unit is the price – it’s very inexpensive for what it offers.
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