Nowadays automakers are supplying radios that not only play music from a wide array of sources — CDs, DVDs, iPods, USB drives and SD cards — but also integrate navigation, Bluetooth and conveniences such as back-up cameras. With stock radios offering so much, why would anyone want to replace one with an aftermarket head unit?
One reason is to get exactly what you want — or don't want — in a car stereo. Another is to get the latest and greatest in technology and features, since aftermarket manufacturers can update their products and get them to market much faster than automakers.
High-end head units typically represent the very best the aftermarket has to offer. So we picked the flagships from four marquee brands and spent hours on the road testing their capabilities. While they're all great products — and they should be, considering their steep prices — our goal was to find what each one does and does not do well so you can pick the best high-end head unit for your car.
Note that they're all double-DIN size (meaning twice as tall as a normal car radio) and all prices are suggested retail, which does not include installation.
Pros: Lowest price, DVD-Audio capability, multiple navigation options
Cons: Hard buttons are too small, dated interface, difficult to navigate with an iPod playlist
Like all the head units tested here, Alpine's IVA-W505 will play almost any disc format: CD, DVD-Video, all manner of recordable disc, and it's the only one that plays DVD-Audio discs. It's also the only one that comes with a USB iPod connection cable that isn't an extra-cost accessory, but if you want "full speed" iPod access you have to spring for an optional cable. The 505's USB port also accommodates USB drives and other USB-based portable media players or even a second iPod, and the head unit will also play iPod videos.
We swapped the IVA-W505 for the optional radio and navigation system in a 2007 Chevrolet Corvette coupe that also included a seven-speaker Bose premium audio setup. Even with the factory speakers still in place, we found that the 505 greatly improved the sound.
While the IVA-W505's 7-inch screen makes the head unit easy to operate (it also comes with a remote control), the graphic user interface (GUI) looks dated and the 505's "hard" buttons on the bottom are small and difficult to operate. Plus, it's impossible to navigate within an iPod playlist once you've started listening to it; you can only skip forward or backward to the next song.
What makes the IVA-W505 unique is that it can be used with three different Alpine navigation systems: the $500 Blackbird PMD-B200 portable, the $300 NVE-P1 module (both of which docked inside the unit when the screen folds down) or the $450 NVE-M300 outboard nav module. We tested it with the Blackbird portable and NVE-M300 outboard add-on and found that each one has advantages and disadvantages.
The upside of the Blackbird portable is that you can move it from car to car and it has built-in Bluetooth, whereas with the NVE-M300 you have to buy the $180 KCE-400BT module to add Bluetooth. And while the Blackbird's GUI was less elegant than that of the NVE-M300, the portable unit allowed for better access to a phone's address book. For instance, you can search by name and it supports multiple numbers per contact, whereas the outboard unit does not.
But since nav and Bluetooth functions run on the Blackbird's operating system instead of that of the head unit, a phone has to be re-synced each time the car or head unit is switched off, which isn't the case with the outboard module. Finally, although the outboard module offers Text-to-Speech (TTS) capability to read street names on a route, its robotic-sounding voice is less easy to understand than the non-TTS voice on the Blackbird that uses prerecorded but unspecific prompts.
Pros: Easy and quick interface, 3D renderings in navigation mode, ability to add traffic-camera locations and warnings
Cons: No quick-scroll feature for iPods, slow satellite-acquisition time, hard to understand nav voice prompts
The Eclipse AVN726E also replaced a stock Bose system, this time in a 2004 Cadillac CTS-V, and it made a dramatic difference in sound quality, adding clarity and good low end. By adding the AVN726E, the Caddy gained DVD/MP3/WMA playback, Bluetooth for both hands-free phoning and wireless music streaming, and a USB connection. And by adding external modules, the car also gained iPod integration, a back-up camera and XM or Sirius Satellite Radio and HD Radio.
Like the other heads tested, the AVN726E has dual-zone A/V capability and can serve as the basis for a rear-seat entertainment system when monitors and other components are added. And it's also only one of two that plays compressed DivX videos.
While the GUI of the AVN726E's 7-inch touchscreen isn't the most sophisticated, it's easy to use and responds quickly to inputs. (A remote control is also available, although we didn't test it.) But accessing music on a fully loaded, high-capacity iPod is tedious since there's no quick-scroll function, only up/down buttons that have to be pressed repeatedly to get to the tunes you want.
For navigation the Eclipse AVN726E uses flash-based memory, so it routes or reroutes quickly. But it can be slow to acquire satellite connection, taking up to a minute in some instances. The AVN726E map graphics are the best of the bunch and include realistic 3D renderings of buildings and other structures. And if a 3D image blocks a destination, the image dims to reveal it.
The Eclipse AVN726E's nav system is the only one that allows you to add traffic camera locations, and it will also sound an alert when you're approaching one. But one of our main gripes was that the TTS voice prompts were close to indecipherable at times.
Editor's Note: After completion of our testing, Eclipse announced its departure from the U.S. market. While the company's products may still be available — and possibly at bargain prices — this will obviously affect long-term product support.
Kenwood Excelon DNX9140
Pros: Unique reverse-tilt screen reduces glare, great Garmin navigation interface, sends and receives text messages
Cons: Unstable DVD playback, slow USB connectivity, can't add both satellite and HD Radio
As the replacement head unit in a 2008 Honda Odyssey that's an Edmunds.com vanpool vehicle, Kenwood's DNX9140 got ample road test time and use. It has a CD/DVD drive, navigation, Bluetooth and the ability to add everything from an iPod to HD Radio. Its 6.98-inch touchscreen also features an exclusive reverse tilt mechanism that shifts the top forward to reduce glare.
One of the big selling points of the DNX9140 is that it uses Garmin's nav technology, including a user-friendly interface. It's also hard-drive-based for quick routing and rerouting and includes mapping for the entire U.S. (including Alaska and Hawaii) and Canada.
Kenwood also outsources Bluetooth on the DNX9140 to Parrot, and along with features such as auto address book download and music streaming, it has the ability to send and receive text messages. The DNX9140's voice activation is not only used for Bluetooth functions such as dialing a name and number, but also allows you to set a nav destination and control all audio functions.
And so you don't always have to reach for the head unit while driving, a remotely mounted "Push to Talk" button can be used to execute voice commands and the DNX910's screen will even show a list of available commands.
The DNX9140's dual-zone and DivX capabilities were custom-made for our commuter van, but we found DVD playback a little unstable, sometimes requiring a system restart. The head unit also has a USB port that can be used to connect certain iPods using the cable that comes with the device, and it will also play iPod video. With an optional accessory cable, it's compatible with any iPod. It also has a long list of iPod-friendly features, such as alphabet search and album art display, and quick iPod access speeds. But we found that the DNX9140 was slow with other USB-based devices.
Optional accessories that can be used to expand the DNX9140's capabilities include a rearview camera, HD radio and either Sirius or XM Satellite Radio. But unlike the other units we tested, with the DNX9140 you can only add either HD Radio or satellite radio, but not both.
Pros: Customizable "desktop"-style display, excellent voice control, SD card capability
Cons: Pricey with all the accessories added, voice dialing was hit or miss, iPod cable costs extra
Like the Kenwood head unit, Pioneer's AVIC-Z110BT also has voice control, and like the others it has either hard-disk or flash-based navigation, dual-zone A/V capability, an extensive list of media options and impressive sound quality, and allows you to add accessories such as a back-up camera and live traffic/travel info via MSN Direct.
But it differs from the other units in that its 7-inch touchscreen can be customized like a computer desktop so owners can decide which functions to display on the home screen. And Pioneer's exclusive AVIC Feeds computer software allows you to send destinations found on Google Maps to the head unit, back up and manage the nav system's address book, track driving and fuel economy habits and more. There's even a free iPhone app for the AVIC-Z110BT that can send destinations from Google Maps on an iPhone to the nav system.
The AVIC-Z110BT also excels in voice activation and uses conversational speech recognition so you can just say, for example, "Find a Starbucks" instead of a rigid set of voice commands. But we did notice that dialing by voice from a connected Bluetooth device was hit or miss and requires you to say the name exactly as it's listed in a phone's address book.
The AVIC-Z110BT was installed in a 2007 Subaru Impreza with a full-on aftermarket system that includes pairs of Kicker component speakers in the front and rear doors and a trunk-mounted JL Audio Stealthbox subwoofer, all powered by Kicker amplifiers. Thanks to a potent 4-volt preamp output and powerful audio processors, the AVIC-Z110BT provides CD-quality sound for all uncompressed iPod formats, while audio quality from all sources was superb.
As with the other units tested, all sorts of accessories can be added to the AVIC-Z110BT: iPod integration, HD Radio, XM or Sirius Satellite Radio and a back-up camera. But it's the only unit that has a built-in SD card reader for access to even more flash-based digital tunes. When an iPod is connected via an optional cable, you get full access to media stored on the device using simple on-screen menus and the ability to display cover art. The Z110 will also display iPod videos and even H.264/MPEG-4 video files stored on an SD card.
Keep Your Head?
With automakers now offering more features on their radios — and sometimes more bang for the buck — there's less reason to spend more than $1,000 to replace yours with an aftermarket head unit that does a similar if better job. But if your stock head unit lacks the features and performance you want or you must have the latest and greatest gadgets, it's hard to go wrong with one of these high-end head units.