The term “head unit” refers to the radio that resides in a car, truck or other vehicle, and is primarily used by so-called “inside” folks (professional installers, enthusiasts, manufacturers and soundoff competition participants, amongst others).
To everyone else, the product is known as a radio or receiver, though the functionality remains the same: The central unit that receives radio signals, plays CDs or other types of music files or downloads, amplifies the sound to drive speakers (albeit in traditionally low wattage ratings) and outputs “preamp” signals to feed external power amplifiers.
In the sometimes cutthroat realm of mobile audio, the systems that come with cars from the factory are referred to as “stock head units,” and while there has been a tremendous amount of advancement with regard to the performance of such factory systems over the years – to say nothing of the trend for renowned aftermarket electronics brands to work with auto manufacturers in offering “step-up” premium sound systems a la JBL, Infinity and Mark Levinson – it is still believed by mobile audio experts that nothing beats an aftermarket receiver in control of high-performance aftermarket speakers and amps.
While we’re on the subject of amps, it is important to note that all head units contain built-in amplifiers to power speakers – not subwoofers – in a vehicle, but, as we hinted at above, the power output from these internal components are usually rather low, making them ideal for basic setups in which ear-bleeding volume isn’t a priority. As such, if you’re looking to overpower outside road noise or drive large subwoofers for serious attention-grabbing bass, you’re going to have to invest in external power amps that put out serious current.
All of that being said, let’s now take a look at some of the best car stereo brands out there today.
This name is a legend in the car audio community, representing one of the very first premium choices for a so-called “aftermarket” radio that installers everywhere endorsed and recommended. While Alpine has gone on to manufacture excellent products in other areas such as amplifiers and speakers, the company’s reputation remains attached to its legendary head units – and the current lineup is a testament to that.
Today, Alpine offers the CDE-172BT advanced Bluetooth CD receiver, ILX-107 seven-inch in-dash receiver with wireless Apple CarPlay, CDE-175BT CD/USB receiver with advanced Bluetooth, UTE-73BT advanced Bluetooth digital receiver and a host of others.
Perhaps one of the most historically-rich car stereo brands on this list, JVC (the Japan Victory Company) has been manufacturing electronics of all kinds for generations, and in the world of car audio, its efforts are as impressive as its legacy.
JVC’s current head unit lineup consists of models for both marine and motorsports applications in addition to multimedia and in-dash products, with the more popular variants being the KD-T905BTS CD receiver, KD-R995BTS CD receiver, KD-T9000BTS CD receiver, KW-V950BW multimedia receiver, and KW-V940BW multimedia receiver.
A name as recognizable as Alpine when it comes to quality head units, Kenwood went from manufacturing all manner of high-performance home hi-fi and home theater components to focusing solely on mobile audio products, the company’s head units becoming highly sought-after by serious car audio competitors. Kenwood offers an almost overwhelming number of receivers for a myriad of applications, from network navigation and multimedia to marine, digital media, single DIN and double DIN installs.
Amongst the models popular with serious car audio buffs are those in the flagship eXcelon series, including the much-heralded DMX7705S navigation DVD receiver with Bluetooth and HD radio.
Another car stereo brand offering a nearly infinite amount of options in the area of head units and receivers, Pioneer divides its products into GPS navigation, NEX line, DVD receivers, CD receivers, and digital media receivers groupings, the new line of DVD receivers offering a wide range of entertainment and connectivity options for the drive.
Amongst these new products, Pioneer has been excited about standout models such as the AVH-3500NEX flipout receiver, DEH-S5100BT, AVH-210EX multimedia DVD receiver, and AVH-211EX multimedia DVD receiver.
As one of the more value-oriented car audio companies on the market focused on redefining the phrase “bang for the buck,” Jensen has grown from a manufacturer mainly interested in offering economically-priced subwoofer enclosures and amps to a formidable entity in the aftermarket head unit sector.
Today’s Jensen lineup consists of models like the VX4014 flip option , VX7020 multimedia touchscreen double-DIN receiver, VX7528 double DIN DVD navigation receiver and VX7012 flip-out navigation screen with Sirius tuner package.
Does this car stereo brand even need an introduction? Renowned for its home and mobile audio products as well as its highly-respected televisions, disc players and more, Sony has literally transformed the electronics landscape, offering the serious car audio enthusiast and competitor everything from amplifiers and speakers to hard-hitting subs and serious head units.
Featured products currently marketed by the electronics giant include the WX920BT media receiver with Bluetooth, DSXA415BT receiver, MEX-GS820BT and XAV-AX5000 media receiver with Bluetooth and CarPlay/Android.
BOSS Audio Systems is celebrating more than 30 years of creating excellent products, always offering knowledge, innovation and great customer service to its clients and partners. As a featured item currently making the rounds at mobile audio shows and in retail stores, BOSS’ BVCP9685A multimedia player boasts everything cutting-edge – from Apple CarPlay and Android support to Bluetooth functionality. With 80 watts into four channels max power onboard and a bright 6.75-inch touchscreen, the 9685 is poised to become a favorite amongst mobile electronics techies.