Photo of Rob Hephner

Rob Hephner

Professional Auto Sound Expert

Best Car Stereos & Best Car Audio

Featured On:

  • Car Sound Performance
The head unit category is the one that literally heads it all up - if you want to add sizzle to your system, this is the place to do it. From user selectable colors to multiple media options, head units are packed full of features, so many in fact that they are the single most confusing category to shop or even sell. I picked the top five based upon both the company’s ability to package the features but also for their ease of use.

The real secret to shopping for a head unit comes down to just a few things. First of all, if you can stop at a store and physically play with the controls, you’ll be able to narrow your choice by brand since most companies have a similar design from the bottom of their line to the top. Nothing is more important in buying a head unit then determining if the buttons are easy for you to use and if their operations are logical to you. Forget what anybody tells you and see if you can easily use volume up and down, mute, and if songs can be skipped easily.

The second thing you need to consider is how the design fits into the vehicle in which you’ll be getting the head unit installed. You can either go for the total bling approach where the unit stands out or you can go for more of the integrated look. Don’t forget if you go for bling that you will want to consider something that has added security features like a removable face.

The final consideration is price and here is where the real secret lies. Head unit companies don’t really need to have 6 different units in their line, in fact the only reason they have a unit below their top of the line is so they can hit a price point. So, once you find the interface you like and the style, all you need to do is determine what features you want and buy based upon the features, in almost all cases there is not sound difference from the bottom of the line to top unit.

With the best car stereos, you'll be jammin' out in your car in no time. These car radio and CD player recommendations offer a variety of styles to fit your needs for the perfect designs.

Best Head Units by Rob Hephner

The Best You Can Get

  • Alpine DVA-9965

    Rob says: DVD/CD/MP3/WMA Tuner

    Forget the pun, Alpine is the top of the top, really. If any of your friends know anything about car audio, they’ll tell you that Alpine is the best and it is a reputation that has been well earned. From the lanes of competitive car audio to the likes of the bling-bling crowd, Alpine stands above all and the DVA-9965 is their flagship model. It really doesn’t matter what your media choice is - from DVD to MP3, the DVA-9965 will handle it.

    This is a real deal head unit and, as such, you’ll want to check out the amplifier section to determine how much power you will pump out to your speakers - with multiple outputs, this unit will let you control exactly where the power goes, including the level of the bass for those serious jam out moments.

    General features include:
    Remote control
    Detachable face plate
    Glide touch bar
    iPersonalize: data download
    Control type: rotary encoder knob
    Vivid color Biolite display - 256 colors possible
    CD changer control
    Built-in high-pass/low-pass crossover

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    DVD/DVD Audio/DVD Video/DVD-R/DVD-RW/DVD+R/DVD+RW/VCD/CD/CD-R/CD-RW
    MP3/WMA Playback
    HD Radio

    Optional:
    Sirius or XM Satellite ready
    Ready for iPod Connection: iPhone, 4th/5th generation iPod Video/Photo, iPod mini and iPod nano
    Bluetooth ready
    Steering wheel control ready
    Versatile-link ready



    • Remote control
    • Detachable face plate
    • Glide touch bar
    • iPersonalize: data download
    • Vivid color Biolite display - 256 colors possible
  • Eclipse CD7200mkII

    Rob says: Eclipse built their name on sound quality and the CD7200mkII delivers on that heritage. With a reputation forged in the car audio competition lanes, it might not be as well known as some of these other brands but rest assured, it delivers and for that reason, it is my number two choice. The real beauty of this unit is that it is all self-contained. In the past, more features meant little boxes or completely separate control and sound modules but thanks to advances in electronics, Eclipse delivers both a compact package and larger than life sound.

    Once again, like the Alpine unit, this is a head unit that will need amplifiers attached and for that reason, it has plenty of outputs and controls to allow you to get the sound you want from a serene classical moments to heart-pounding club mixes, whatever your heart desires.

    General features include:
    Built-in Bluetooth
    OEL display
    Eclipse Area Shot – pseudo navigation
    Twin security - ESN and detachable face
    Six pattern multicolor illumination
    E-iSERV connectivity
    Wireless remote
    SRS-Circle-Surround II
    Configurable crossover system
    11-band/7-band parametric EQ
    Digital time alignment

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    CD
    MP3/WMA
    USB input
    Aux-In

    Optional:
    HD radio ready
    Satellite radio ready
    iPod ready


    • Built-in Bluetooth
    • Eclipse Area Shot - pseudo navigation
    • Twin Security - ESN and detachable face
    • 6 Pattern multicolor illumination
    • SRS-Circle-Surround II
  • Pioneer DEH-P980BT

    Rob says: CD/MP3/WMA/WAV/iTunes AAC receiver with Bluetooth wireless technology

    If having the coolest visual display on your dash without going with a full sized video screen is your thing, the DEH-P980BT is going to be your ticket to fame. With customizable screens and animations, this unit will pimp your ride to the max. Pioneer even offers a website for owners of this unit that allows download of custom created screens.

    Don’t let the pretty face fool you, the DEH-P980BT is feature packed with what a lot of lesser units have as optional. You’ll have full control of your music and even if you don’t want to spend the time sculpting your own sound, you can use the included Auto Equalizer to make things just right. Just a spin of the rotary commander and you’ll be the master of your music, from simple CDs to the more complex file structure of your digital music collection.

    General features include:
    50 watt x 4 power
    Bluetooth
    Full-Color Organic EL (OEL) - detachable face security
    Customizable screensavers update by CD-R
    Background animations
    Background pictures
    16-band Graphic EQ
    Auto-EQ (with mic included)
    Auto-Time alignment
    Listening position selector
    BBE Digital
    High-pass crossover
    Subwoofer crossover
    Remote control
    Wired remote input

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    CD
    MP3, WMA, WAV, iTunes AAC
    Auxiliary Input

    Optional:
    XM Radio ready
    Sirius Radio ready
    Bluetooth ready
    iPod control capability
    IP-Bus system control
    CD changer control
    External DVD control
    Display output


    • CD/MP3/WMA/WAV/iTunes AAC receiver with Bluetooth wireless technology
    • Full-Color Organic EL (OEL) - detachable face security
    • Customizable screensavers update by CD-R
    • Background pictures and animations
    • Remote control
  • Clarion DXZ585USB

    Rob says: CD/USB/MP3/WMA/AAC Receiver with CeNET Control

    Clarion is well known for its reliable and flexible units. While they may not have the prettiest units, they do perform at the top of the heap. I place the DXZ585USB fourth on my top picks because of its rich feature set.

    Like others in my top five, this unit does have built in power, but you’ll want to use the configurable outputs to maximize your musical impact by adding amplifiers and supercharging your overall sound experience.

    The DXZ585USB doesn’t forget about what century we are in and gives not only an easy to use front mounted USB connector but the needed ability to handle your music files.

    General features include:
    Subwoofer volume control
    Front USB slot
    Digital Z-enhancer sound customization
    Three-band parametric equalizer
    Built-in LPF/HPF
    53 watt x 4 built-in MOS-FET amplifier
    Flip-down control panel
    High visibility two-line display with screensavers
    "SLIDETRAK" for dynamic operation
    Detachable control panel
    Remote included

    Audio Sources:
    CD/CD-R/CD-RW
    MP3, WMA and iTunes AAC compatible
    USB digital media streaming capability
    USB audio for iPod
    RCA auxiliary input with level control

    Optional:
    Satellite radio
    DVD changer
    CD changer
    Optional third party OEM steering wheel remote ready
    Bluetooth


    • USB audio for iPod
    • Subwoofer volume control
    • High visibility 2-line display with screensavers
    • Detachable control panel
    • Remote control
  • Kenwood KDC-MP735U

    Rob says: USB/AAC/WMA/MP3/WAV CD Receiver with External Media Control

    Kenwood has spent the last several years positioning their head unit as a media interface maven and because of their work options abound with the KDC-MP735U. From iPod control of not only music but video to your music files ripped to a USB jump drive this is one happening unit. I personally like the flexibility of this unit and find the overall unit good to use.

    Kenwood has been around for quite a few years. It is the head unit of choice on the street, because of its reliability and strong suite of included features. This unit has built in power, but for the real deal you’ll hook up amplifiers to rock out.

    If you’re looking to save a little and shop around you’ll certainly find and deal and you’ll be just about as tricked out as anyone on your block.

    General features include:
    50 watt X 4 power
    Multi-control wheel
    G-analyzer
    Dual zone control
    Selectable low pass filter for subwoofer output

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    CD
    AAC/MP3/WMA/WAV
    USB Direct Control
    Auxiliary input

    Optional:
    Satellite radio
    HD radio
    Bluetooth


    • Multi-control wheel
    • Dual zone control
    • 50 watt x 4 power
    • AAC/MP3/WMA/WAV
    • USB direct control

You will be happy with any of these

  • Jensen HD5212

    Rob says: CD receiver with built-in HD radio

    Jensen's HD5212 CD receiver is at the top of my best buy list for a couple reasons. First is the fact this is a clean looking fold-down face unit that will add a distinctive look to your dashboard. Secondly, because it includes what a lot of other units leave as options.

    Let’s face it, we live in the day and age of digital music and, for a lot of people, life without an iPod is not possible. Most other companies make you chase down cables that are sometimes hard to find or not stocked by the place where you are buying them. With the Jensen HD5212, not only is the unit able to handle taking over the functions of your iPod while it is tucked away nicely in your vehicle, it also includes the cable you need in the box. Even if you are not an avid iPod user, this unit kicks digital butt with both USB and SD card reader capability, right on the front.

    And if that is not enough features for you, when you fire up the radio, you will find that an HD Radio tuner is included as well, making this by far the best buy in my book.

    General features include:
    40 watt x 4 power
    Pre-amp outputs
    Fold-down, detachable face
    Remote control

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    CD/CD-R/CD-RW
    MP3/WMA
    iPod control (adapter included)
    HD radio
    USB input
    SD card slot
    Auxiliary input

    Optional:
    Satellite radio


    • iPod control (adapter included)
    • HD radio
    • Fold-down, detachable face
    • USB and SD card reader capability
    • MP3/WMA/CD/CD-R/CD-RW
  • JVC KD-BT11J Bluetooth CD Receiver

    Rob says: If you are looking for a platform in which to deliver your music and animations and color options are not high on your list, the JVC KD-BT11J should be high on your list. At this price point, you’ll find that there are a lot of options, so having Bluetooth included helps to push this unit into my best buy list.

    The KD-BT11J does include an auxiliary input on its front face so at the very least out of the box you have some input options. This one has plenty of optional interface choices to accommodate all new musical media.

    While this is a best buy unit, the styling that JVC brings to the table is that of the rock and roll crowd so its chiseled looks and cool colors will get noticed in your dash, all for a lot less mula.

    General features include:
    50 watt x 4 power
    3-band parametric iEQ
    Bluetooth

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    CD
    MP3/WMA
    Auxiliary input

    Optional:
    iPod ready
    CD changer
    HD radio ready
    Satellite radio ready


    • Bluetooth
    • MP3/WMA/CD
    • 50 watt x 4 power
    • iPod ready
    • 3-band parametric iEQ
  • Sony MEX-BT5100

    Rob says: CD Receiver with Bluetooth connectivity and Phone Book support

    The Sony Xplod series has been around for quite a while now. The MEX-BT5100 is a unit that is readily available and has the features that most are looking for, including Bluetooth built-in so that you don’t have to bother digging around in your vehicle to find your phone to answer it.

    The MEX-BT5100 makes my best buy list because of the fact that it does include Bluetooth and has options to expand depending upon what musical media options you want. Additionally, the unit includes the BBE processor which further enhances sound.

    General features include:
    52 watt x 4 power
    Flip-down face with multi-line display
    Bluetooth
    BBE
    Parametric EQ
    Low pass filter
    Wireless card remote

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    CD

    Optional:
    Satellite radio ready
    HD radio ready
    iPod control ready


    • Bluetooth
    • 52 watt x 4 power
    • Flip-down face with multi-line display
    • iPod control ready
    • Wireless card remote
  • Dual XDMR7710

    Rob says: OK, I’ll admit that the DMR7710 might not be the most feature packed unit, but if you are looking for a radio that screams check me out, this is it. Style is the strongest feature of the DMR7710 and it even has the ability to upgrade like models three times its price.

    One look at the motorized fold-down detachable face and you will know that this radio is for the young and fresh crowd. With a large center mounted rotary control, the DMR7710 offer a true hands on musical experience. Unlike other motorized face units, the DMR7710 allows you to still use the face while in the down position, making it a true style piece for the vehicle.

    Dual offers the most popular music media options and even does so at a affordable price. So even though it is number four on my best buy list, I believe this is a one serious bang for the buck for the right person.

    General features include:
    55 watt x 4 power
    Motorized detachable face
    Programmable turn-on volume
    Multi-button power on
    Keyless CD eject
    Black/white dot matrix type display
    Infrared remote control
    Five selectable EQ curves - pop, jazz, classic, beat, rock

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    CD/CD-R/CD-RW
    MP3/WMA
    Auxiliary input

    Optional:
    iPlug interface cable
    XM ready



    • Motorized detachable face
    • Programmable turn-on volume
    • 55 watt x 4 power
    • 5 selectable EQ curves - pop, jazz, classic, beat, rock
    • Infrared remote control
  • Blaupunkt Laguna CD36

    Rob says: Blaupunkt has a long heritage of fine mobile electronics and while not the flashiest of units, the Laguna CD36 is a solid performing unit that fills out my best buy list by being a relatively inexpensive unit.

    Don’t let the very minimalist look fool you, the Laguna CD36 has some hidden talents including a display that has over 4000 color possibilities, so you’ll be able to make this unit pop from the dash or blend in like factory.

    Options are important and just like every other one of my picks, the Laguna CD36 has plenty to fulfill the needs of just about any music freak. Heck, with the right module, this unit even has a navigation option - all for less money than a visit to any upscale club. Why go out when you can party in your ride?

    General features include:
    Variocolour display features 4,096 customizable colors
    Programmable bass, treble, and xbass EQs

    Audio Sources:
    AM/FM
    CD
    MP3
    AUX input

    Optional:
    Satellite radio
    Bluetooth


    • Variocolour display features 4,096 customizable colors
    • Programmable bass, treble, and xbass EQs
    • MP3/CD
    • Optional satellite radio
    • Optional Bluetooth

Related Articles

Learn the best car stereos with help from our experts who recommend the latest high tech car audio systems. These car radio and CD player recommendations lay out three simple criteria: ease of use, best design for your car and the best price. With our help for the best auto radio, you'll be jammin' to your favorite tunes in no time.