The Pioneer AVH-501EX is our pick for the best car stereo simply because it does everything it should very well. Its audio performance was the best in our tests, it’s easy to use, and the display is miles ahead of the competition. It's also more versatile than other car stereos, as it features a DVD player and ports for backup cameras. If you want a car entertainment system that's affordable and provides high-end audio at the same time, the Pioneer AVH-501EX is a great option.
When I compared the audio quality of the 10 best stereos, as played on the same speakers, the Pioneer AVH-501EX came out as the best sounding system. For this test, I created a playlist that included songs from a wide variety of genres. It also included music I recorded and mixed, which means I know exactly how it is supposed to sound. Only the Kenwood eXcelon KDC-X998 had comparable audio quality to the AVH-501EX and also received an A+. Other stereos, like the JVC KW-R935BTS and the Pioneer DEH-80PRS, were very good but didn't have nearly the balance and consistency.
The AVH-501EX has 13 EQ bands, and each one is customizable, which allows you to shape the sound to fit your preferences and your car's acoustics. Many stereos come with 13 EQ bands, but most often they are pre-set, and you can't adjust them.
You can also optimize the stereo’s sound using its time alignment tool. To use this feature, you place a microphone (included) where you want the best sound, such as the driver's seat or the middle console. The microphone picks up the frequencies from all your speakers, then the stereo adjusts the signal timing so the frequencies arrive at that spot at the same time. The stereo may adjust timing by fractions of a millisecond, but it helps minimize muddiness and echoing.
The Pioneer AVH-501EX’s display received an A- for ease of use. It's the only car stereo we reviewed that has a touchscreen. In fact, it's almost entirely touchscreen, except the important controls – play/pause, repeat, skip, phone – are physical buttons on the driver's side. This makes them easy to access while you drive, but the touchscreen has a bit of a learning curve.
This display is more readable and stylish than those on other stereos. Much like a tablet or smartphone, you can add your own background images, and it displays album art in high detail. It's basically like having a small tablet for your stereo. While the display is the best we reviewed, I don't recommend trying to navigate through all its features while driving.
The interface’s one downside is its lack of a USB and AUX port on the front. There are other useful ports on the back, including those for backup and dash cams, but AUX cords are a popular way people connect their phones to their car stereos. AUX doesn't require pairing or have compression issues like Bluetooth, and it’s fast. Without these ports in the front, you have to install cords from the back.
Like the majority of car stereos, the AVH-501EX’s power output is 50 peak watts per channel and 200 watts overall, and the continuous power handling rating is 22 RMS watts. And that's fine. This is plenty of power for most people.
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The stereo’s most notable specification is the 4-volt rating on its pre-outs. The higher the voltage, the cleaner the audio signal. Of course, this only matters if you're sending the audio signals to an amplifier.
The Pioneer AVH-501EX is the best car stereo overall. It received the highest grade in our audio performance tests, and it has the best display. This stereo is also easier to use than you might think, though it's not without fault. The lack of USB and AUX ports is disappointing.