Best Car Stereo Systems - Radios, Head Units, & In-Dash Receivers
After over a week of research and 14 hours of in-depth testing, the Pioneer AVH-501EX emerged as our pick for the best car audio system. This stereo produces high-fidelity audio and includes a time alignment tool, full lossless compatibility and 13 EQ bands. The AVH-501EX’s interface is very easy to navigate, and its display is the best we've seen. And with a DVD player and video ports for backup and dash cameras, this stereo is far more than just an audio system.
The Pioneer AVH-501EX is our pick for the best car audio system because it received the highest grade in our audio quality tests and is more stylish and versatile than other systems.
The JVC KW-R935BTS is our value pick because it has high-end audio quality and an exceptionally intuitive and stylish display that’s comparable to those on stereos that cost nearly twice as much.
The Pioneer DEH-80PRS is the best single-din stereo we reviewed because it has great audio quality and is easy to use. Plus, its three 5-volt pre-outs make it ideal for expansion.
|Product||Price||Overall Rating||Audio Performance||Ease of Use||Power Handling||Overall Audio Quality||Equalizer Bands||Time Alignment||Full Lossless Compatibility||Interface Navigation||Display Quality||Bluetooth Version||Front USB & AUX Inputs||Max Power Output (watts per speaker)||Continuous Power Output (RMS watts per speaker)||Max Power Output (watts)||RCA Pre-Out Voltage|
|Pioneer AVH501EX||View Deal||5/5||10||10||9.8||A+||13||✓||✓||A-||A+||4.1||-||50||22||200||4|
|JVC KW-R935BTS||View Deal||5/5||9.8||9.8||9.8||A||13||✓||✓||A||B||3||✓||50||22||200||4|
|Pioneer DEH 80PRS 108U||View Deal||4.5/5||9||8.8||10||A||16||✓||No FLAC||A-||A-||3||-||50||22||200||5|
|Alpine CDE W265BT||View Deal||4.5/5||8||10||9||A-||9||✓||No FLAC||A+||B+||2.1+EDR||✓||50||18||200||4|
|Pioneer DEH-X8800BHS||View Deal||4.5/5||8||8.8||9.8||C+||13||✓||✓||B+||B-||3||✓||50||22||200||4|
|Kenwood eXcelon KDC-X998||View Deal||4/5||7||8.3||8.8||A+||13||-||No FLAC||B||B-||2.1+EDR||✓||50||22||200||Not Stated|
|Dual XRM-405BT||View Deal||3/5||4.3||7.8||8.8||B-||4||-||-||B-||B-||Not Stated||✓||60||18||240||1.2|
|Boss Audio BV7260B||View Deal||3/5||4||9.5||6.3||B-||Not Stated||-||-||B+||A||Not Stated||✓||80||Not Stated||320||Not Stated|
The Pioneer AVH-501EX has average power for a car stereo, but its audio quality is superb. It received the highest audio quality grades in our tests, thanks in part to its EQ band filters and time alignment tools.
In addition, it's one of the few stereos in this price range that is compatible with all types of audio formats, even less common lossless formats like FLAC. This is why it's our pick for the best car stereo system.
The AVH-501EX’s 13 EQ bands come with presets that enhance the audio in specific music genres, and you can adjust each band with the stereo’s touchscreen. Most stereos have preset filters, but not many let you customize the EQ bands. You use the touchscreen to move the frequency bands up or down, which emphasizes or deemphasizes specific frequency ranges. Basically, you have total control over how your music sounds in your car.
This is the only double-din stereo we reviewed with a touchscreen. In addition to letting you customize the EQ bands, the screen makes it exceptionally easy to navigate the stereo’s myriad features.
The stereo’s time alignment feature helps you further improve how your audio system sounds. You place a microphone (included) where you want the best sound, such as the driver's seat or the middle console. The stereo then adjusts the timing of the audio signals so the frequencies from each speaker reach that point at the same time. When you combine the stereo’s EQ controls with its time alignment tool, you get high quality audio customized to your car's acoustic landscape.
The JVC KW-R935BTS is your best option if you’re looking for an affordable double-din stereo with high-end audio quality and a stylish, intuitive display. This stereo has 13 EQ bands, a timing alignment tool and full lossless format compatibility.
As a result, it received an A grade for overall audio quality in our tests, which puts it on par with much more expensive systems.
Its display received an A for ease of use and an A- for quality, so it's both easy to use and stylish. The important buttons (pause/play, skip, repeat, volume and phone controls) are all big, clearly labeled and brightly illuminated – this makes them easy to find and use so you aren’t distracted with your music controls while you drive. In addition, the front of the display has ports for USB and AUX inputs, which makes the stereo easy to integrate with your smartphone or portable music player.
The power output is 50 peak watts per channel, which is average. Since the stereo has four channels, it’s total power output is 200 watts. There are more powerful stereos out there, but 200 watts is enough to rattle your windows. The KW-R935BTS reached volumes over 100 dB in our tests, which is more than loud enough to permanently damage your hearing if you’re exposed to it for long. In other words, it may be average, but average is enough.
If you have an external amplifier, it's worth noting that the JVC KW-R935BTS has 4-volt RCA outputs, which is excellent. A high voltage means the audio signal has less noise.
Best Single-Din Car Stereo
The Pioneer DEH-80PRS is one of the newest stereos to hit the market. Its single-din design means it fits almost every type of car installation, but it's the 5-volt pre-outs that set the stereo apart.
This stereo is designed for car audio enthusiasts who want to take the next step and add an external amplifier to their system. With this high voltage rating, the DEH-80PRS sends a cleaner audio signal to your amplifier than other stereos do.
In our tests, the DEH-80PRS received an A grade for audio quality, which makes it one of the best sounding stereos available. This is to be expected though, since it’s also one of the most expensive stereos we reviewed. It features 16 EQ bands and a time alignment tool, so you can optimize it to your car's unique acoustic landscape.
The one downside of this stereo's audio performance is it isn’t FLAC-compatible. However, this is a minor issue unless you're an audiophile and prefer the lossless quality of the FLAC format.
The DEH-80PRS’s display received an A- for ease of use and quality. The controls are very easy to navigate, so they aren’t a distraction while you drive. Its display also has some cool animations, though it didn't receive the best grades overall. In addition, there isn't a USB port on the front, so you have to install a cord from the rear USB port to stream audio from a USB source or to charge your phone.
Best Ease of Use
Car stereo displays are often designed for style over function with over 250,000 color combinations and video displays with animations, videos and album art. The Alpine CDE-W265BT shirks this pattern in favor of function. It was the only car stereo to receive an A+ for ease-of-use for its interface. I tested this by performing a series of functions on each stereo without looking at the interface. If a stereo is too complicated to use without taking your eyes off the road, it's not safe. The W265BT was the only stereo where I was able to complete every function without looking at the interface. The design of the buttons has a simple logic, making it the easiest interface to master.
Unfortunately, this means the display is boring in comparison to other car stereos. There are ways to enhance the style, like adjusting the colors, but you only have 30 colors to choose from. In addition, the digital display has the font of a digital clock, making it difficult to read. That said, the audio performance was excellent. So, if you don't mind a boring display, the Alpine CDE-W265BT is a good option.
At $50, the Boss Audio BV7260B is the most affordable car stereo I reviewed, but it doesn't look like a cheap stereo. The display is a 3.2-inch color monitor capable of showing a wide range of animations, videos and album art. The interface has stylish, illuminated buttons and a backlit dial. In addition, the power output is impressive considering its size and price. At 320 watts and 80 watts per channel, it's one of the most powerful stereos I tested.
However, this stereo is just a multimedia player. The BV7260B plays only MP3s from a USB drive or streams audio from phones or music players via Bluetooth. It doesn't have a CD player and it can't play lossless digital audio formats like FLAC and WAV. It's a great option if your listening habits are limited to streaming audio from Spotify or Pandora, but if you have more discerning and varied musical preferences, it isn’t powerful enough.
Why Trust Us
Top Ten Reviews has reviewed car audio systems since 2010. I started reviewing car stereos in 2013. However, my passion for high-fidelity audio reproduction goes back to the late 1990s when a band I was in entered the recording studio for the first time. In the decades since, I have spent hundreds of hours in recording studios training my ear, studying frequency charts and learning the physics of creating great audio. My bands have recorded five albums in professional studios, and I've personally recorded an additional six albums on my own. I bring more than 20 years of experience to reviewing, evaluating and testing car audio components.
My passion for car audio began in 2002 when I purchased my first car. The car, a 1987 Honda Civic CRX, cost me $1,200 and had over 250,000 miles, but I bought it primarily for the sound system. It featured a high-end amplifier, an 18-inch subwoofer with a custom box and top-of-the-line speakers. The way I see it, I bought a mobile sound system, not a car. That's largely been my perspective on car audio systems since.
How Much Do Car Stereos Cost?
There are four kinds of car stereos to consider when looking at price.
- Multimedia players are the most affordable, costing between $20 and $100. These are designed to play only digital formats and music streaming via Bluetooth.
- Single-din stereos cost between $50 and $300. These are the slimmer types of stereos and feature CD players and a wider range of format options, including Bluetooth.
- Double-din stereos are about twice as big as single-din and feature most of the same features, but typically have more power and far better displays. These typically cost a little more than single-din as a result, but not a lot more. The low-end double-din options start around $80.
- Entertainment and Navigation stereos are the most expensive, ranging between $300 and $800. These stereos double as DVD players and in-dash navigation systems.
How We Tested
The best stereos noticeably upgrade to your car's audio quality. This starts with the quality of the audio signal sent to the speakers, but it also depends on control features like EQ filters and time alignment, which help make up for deficiencies in your car's acoustics.
Only after considering audio performance should you factor in the quality of the stereo’s display. And even then, you should first consider how easy the display is to navigate without looking, since you can’t take your eyes off the road to make changes while you drive. After that, style features, like how many colors the display can reproduce, are fun extras.
Testing audio quality posed a challenge, as I didn't have a car to install these speakers in, and you can't simply plug a car stereo into a standard outlet. To overcome this challenge, I took a crash course in electrical wiring and learned how to use a DC converter to power the car stereos in the Top Ten Reviews Audio/Visual lab.
I tested stereos using our favorite speakers from the car speaker testing I did. I set them up in a front and rear speaker configuration so I could recreate, as best I could, the distances between the speakers in a standard sedan. In this configuration, it was easy to wire each stereo to the speakers.
I played music using all the available input sources – AUX, USB, CD player and Bluetooth. As I listened to a playlist that showcased different music styles and listening preferences, I adjusted the available EQ settings and used the time alignment feature, if the stereo had one.
I also gauged how much I could adjust and control the sound. This is important because every car is different, and a stereo that sounds great in one might sound lifeless in another. However, if you can control the frequency bands, you can optimize the sound to your vehicle.
Car stereos are often very colorful and flashy, but style comes second to ease of use. To evaluate this, I looked at the most-used buttons: pause/play, volume, skip, repeat and phone. You should be able to quickly identify and access these controls so they don’t become a distraction while you drive. In fact, the best stereos make it easy to navigate their controls without looking at them. That way, you don't have to take your eyes off the road when you want to answer a call or skip a track.
After grading ease of use, I looked closely at the quality of the display. With most stereos, you get what you pay for. If you want a display with cool animations and easy-to-read text that isn’t in the digital font, you have to pay for it. But if you're fine with a display that simply changes color and has outdated digital text, then you'll do fine with an affordable stereo.
Car Audio Systems: What to Consider Before You Buy
Every car has different acoustic challenges. Things like the ceiling shape, seat material, dash material, engine sounds and carpet density can affect the overall quality of your music. This is why a system that sounds great in one car can sound terrible in a different car. So, as part of my research, I consulted with experts in the car audio industry to get tips and advice that can help you make the best decision as you upgrade your audio equipment.
I consulted with Steve Stern, president of MECA (Mobile Electronics Competition Association). Based in Nashville, Tennessee, MECA is a car audio association that organizes some of the most popular car audio competitions in the U.S. It is the authority on high-end car audio.
I also consulted with a few professional car audio techs from the Sound Warehouse, a local Utah car audio store. They earn their living selling and installing car audio equipment.
When asked what the most common mistake consumers make is, Stern pointed at the installation. He suggested that you need to "make sure you get the most out of your audio system by doing the best installation possible. A tight install can work to bring out the best in even the most basic, inexpensive equipment."
The audio techs echoed the same sentiments as they gave me a tour of the shop. They showed me the various wire gauges, connectors, fuses and other equipment in the shop, explaining how it's often the little things, like the quality of the wiring, that can affect the quality of an audio system. The techs argued that you shouldn't attempt to install your stereo equipment if you don't have experience with electrical wiring. You'll avoid frustration and mistakes while getting the best signals to your speakers if you let a pro do it.
Another common mistake, according to Stern, is when people fail to get a stereo that is compatible with their speakers. What he's referencing is the power handling specifications.
Both speakers and stereos have specifications for peak power handling, continuous power handling and impedance. The most important of these is impedance. If your car speakers have an impedance rating of 3 ohm, then you need to make sure your stereo is also rated for 3 ohms. Most stereos are rated for an impedance range, such as 2 to 8 ohms, which means you can use any speakers that have an impedance within that range.
Matching incompatible speakers and stereos can result in blowing the speakers or burning out the stereo's amplifier. But mostly, you won't get the best audio performance.
Consider Output Voltage
Most of the car stereos I reviewed have power outputs of about 200 watts overall, or 50 watts per channel. This is plenty of power to reach ear-damaging volumes on four speakers, which I know because I tested the stereos with a decibel meter, and they all reached over 100 dB.
However, you might be interested in expanding your system to additional speakers and a subwoofer, especially if you want to drive high-fidelity speakers. If this is the case, choosing a stereo with a high output voltage is key to getting the best audio. The higher the voltage, the cleaner the signal to the amplifier. This helps minimizes noise in the signal processing through the amp. Typically, this voltage is one of the delineating factors between a high-end stereo (4 volts to 6 volts) and a cheap stereo (1 volt to 2 volts).
When asked whether you should upgrade your stereo or your car speakers first (assuming both are in working order), Stern said that it depends on how old the stereo is. If the audio system is very old, he recommends replacing the stereo before you replace the speakers. But he also says that if the stereo’s electronics are in good shape, then upgrading to high-performance speakers and adding a "specialized multi-channel amp, or the best amplifier you can afford," is your next best option for upgrading your audio experience. Lastly, he recommends upgrading the wires connecting the speakers to the amplifier or stereo.
If you want to take your car audio to the next level, adding a 10-inch subwoofer "in a quality box, with most stable power source you can afford" is a great place to start, according to Stern.
Without a subwoofer, your car speakers are charged with producing the entire frequency range. Depending on the type of speaker, this usually means sacrificing midrange detail for good bass or vice versa. But with a subwoofer, you allow the midrange and high frequencies to be played on the car speakers while the woofer takes over the bass. Overall, the audio quality improves and is more accurate.
In addition, subwoofers allow you to feel the music more because bass is the most percussive frequency range. This also adds to the listening experience, making it sound livelier.
If you add a subwoofer, you need something to power it because your car stereo isn't designed to drive a subwoofer's huge woofers. This means you need to add an amplifier. These devices also allow you to push higher-quality speakers, and they do a better job of separating frequencies.
Every car has its own unique acoustic landscape. Sometimes the interior is excellent for audio – other times, not so much. If you've upgraded every aspect of your car sound system but are still not happy with the audio, you should consider making acoustic modifications. Typically, this means installing sound dampening pads in the doors and hood. This can minimize road and engine noise, as well as keep the interior from getting too much acoustic feedback.
What Is a Factory Sound Processor?
A growing trend in the automotive industry is to build comprehensive in-dash systems, sometimes with large touchscreens resembling a tablet. These systems allow for exceptional functionality through the manufacturer’s system, but it also means it can be very difficult, costly or impossible to replace or upgrade the stereo.
This problem has a lot to do with the way the receiver is tuned by the manufacturer to get the most out of the car’s factory speakers. The tuning shapes the sound to be more dynamic, allowing the cheap speakers to sound pretty good. At first. But eventually the speakers wear out and sound dull. However, if you upgrade the speakers, the audio signal isn’t tuned for the new ones. This often leaves people frustrated after upgrading their speakers only to find the sound quality didn’t improve or got worse.
To fix this issue, you might want to consider a sound processor. Rather than wiring the receiver directly to the speakers, you wire the receiver to the sound processor. It cleans up the signal by removing all the sound-shaping tuning applied by the receiver before sending the signal along to your speakers or amplifier. In this way, it gives you a lot more control over your audio system's sound quality when you’re unable to upgrade the receiver.
However, a sound processor isn't a cheap workaround. Even the affordable ones cost about as much as good aftermarket stereos, ranging from between $150 to $800, depending on quality and features. That said, if you’re a serious car audio enthusiast, the high-end processors provide unparalleled control over tuning and the upgraded components you add to it. For example, the $700 Rockford Fosgate 3Sixty.3 connects to your laptop via a USB port so you can use software to completely shape the audio signal to fit your preferences and your vehicle.