A head unit, also known as a car stereo, is one of the fundamental components of in-car audio. You can think of it as the control center for your vehicle’s audio system.
The basic functionality of a head unit is receiving an audio signal from an input source and sending it to the amplifier. The types of input sources a head unit supports vary between different models but generally includes AM/FM radio, USB drive, CDs/DVDs, smartphone, etc.
Although every vehicle comes with a factory head unit, it lacks many features that are usually common in aftermarket models.
Not only do you get fewer connectivity options, but the output signal is also weaker and puts more burden on the amplifier.
That’s why you should always upgrade your factory stereo unless you have a brand new, high-end vehicle.
You get two types of car stereo in terms of size: single-DIN and double-DIN.
The main difference between these two is that single-DIN stereos are two inches tall, unlike double-DIN stereos which are four inches tall.
This extra height allows manufacturers to pack more features in Double-DIN stereos. But many people still prefer single-DIN units due to cheaper prices, better compatibility, and easier installation process.
Today we’ll talk about the best single DIN head units you can have in 2023.
BOSS Audio Systems 616UAB – Best Cheap Single Din Head Unit 2023
- Next Generation 616UAB - Now includes Dimmable Illumination for Buttons and LCD Display,...
- Bluetooth - Answer/make calls and be hands-free with no distractions. The built-in...
- Media Playback - Play music through your Bluetooth device or use the USB port. Digital...
The first head unit we’ll discuss is the BOSS Audio System’s 616UA – a basic but solid replacement for your factory stereo.
It features a simple design with a small LCD in the middle and control buttons on either side. Yes, this basic LCD feels inferior to the touchscreens found in high-end head units, it puts much less strain on your car battery.
On the left side, there’s a multi-purpose knob located between four buttons. You can use this knob for volume control, EQ presets, and turning the head unit off.
Out of those four, the SRC button is main and located at the bottom right corner. It can be used to select between different inputs as the music source, such as Radio, Bluetooth (only if you’ve already paired your phone), USB (only when a USB is connected), SD card, and AUX.
There’s no option for CDs/DVDs, however.
The right side of the display has an AUX-in jack, USB port, SD card slot, and six other buttons for functions like intro scan, play/pause, repeat, etc.
Lastly, the backside has front and rear output controls, a fuse, and harness connectors.
If you’ve ever tested a factory head unit, you’ll know that you get distortion when you go slightly beyond half of the top volume level. But fortunately, that’s not the case here. I turned the volume knob to three-quarters, and there were still no signs of distortion.
The other features I liked here are hands-free calling and Spotify/pandora wireless streaming.
The same can’t be said about the RCA preamp voltage as I got only 2V at full volume. It means your amp will have to work harder to fully power the speakers. But that’s kind of expected in all budget head units.
The other thing I didn’t like is the very low brightness of the LCD. Even at a ‘High’ level, you only get decent brightness level. And at the ‘Low’ level makes the screen almost blank. It means you’ll have some difficulty using the screen during daylight.
Pioneer SPH10BT – Best Pioneer Single Din Head Unit 2023
- Digital media receiver with AM/FM tuner (does not play CDs)
- Pop-out smartphone cradle for touchscreen control via Pioneer smart sync app
- Built-in Bluetooth for hands-free calls and music streaming
Our next head unit is the Pioneer SPH10BT.
It was released in 2019, and the minimalist design sort of indicates that. Yes, there are three buttons on each side of a small-sized display; but the color scheme and the finishing give it a pretty modern look.
From left to right, these buttons are used to select the music source, Siri/Google Voice, Navigation, messaging, make/receive calls, and application launch.
Like the BOSS 616UAB, the SPH10BT is a digital media receiver and does not play CDs and DVDs. Instead, it relies on Bluetooth, FM, and USB (USB drive + phone connected via USB port) connectivity. One big advantage it has over the 616UAB is the support for lossless file formats like FLAC and WMA.
But the flagship feature of SPH10BT is its smartphone integration. To use this feature, you’ll have to download the Pioneer Smart Sync app first. In the meantime, connect your phone to the pioneer head unit via Bluetooth.
After opening the app and giving it the necessary permissions, press and hold the telephone button on the head unit for a couple of seconds. This will start the integration process.
You can also use a USB connection for this purpose, but there will be some additional steps involved. First, you’ll need to go to the system menu by pressing and holding the ‘home’ button for some seconds.
Now press the arrow to the right until you see ‘SYSTEM’ on the LCD screen. Click on the home button again and continue to press the right arrow until you see ‘APP CTL’ on display. Click the home button again and change its value from ‘BT’ to ‘WIRED’.
One big advantage of a wired connection is the USB charging at 1.5A power you’ll get during that whole time.
Whatever route you took, now remove the front faceplate of the head unit after making the connection. It allows you to pull the ‘cradle’ out and use it as the base for your phone.
The cradle is flexible enough to accommodate phones with different screen sizes, and its clamps hold a phone with enough force to not let it fall off.
That’s it. Now you can use your smartphone screen for things like navigation (it supports Apple Maps, Google maps, and Waze), have the hands-free calling, and reply to messages through your voice.
Other features of this app include a 31-band EQ, Easy sound fit (set up time alignment), and message reading. You can think of a basic version of Carplay or Android Auto.
If we talk about downsides, the biggest ones are the lack of an AUX port and volume knob. Yes, you do get volume control buttons, but they’re annoying and adjusting volume through them is slower when compared to a knob.
JENSEN J1CA9 – Best Single Din Head Unit with Apple Carplay 2023
- 9 INCH TOUCH SCREEN LCD (1,024 x 600) – your extra-large 9-inch LCD high resolution...
- APPLE CARPLAY – CarPlay is the smarter and safer in-vehicle interface to operate your...
- ANDROID AUTO – Android Auto was designed with safety in mind, helping you to minimize...
The head units we have discussed so far belong to the lower/middle tier of the head unit hierarchy.
But what if you have more budget?
Well, in that case, you can check out the Jensen J1CA9.
It’s way more expensive than any other model in this roundup. But considering the extra features and high performance level, this price tag is more or less justified.
The first thing that sets it apart is the 9-inch LCD screen – something you usually get in double-DIN models. This screen has a 1024×600 resolution and adjustable depth for better compatibility with different vehicles. Moreover, you can tilt it up to 12° in the left/right direction and up to 25° upward/downward for better viewing angles.
All of the buttons are located below this screen. On the left, there’s a voice activation button and a source/home button. On the right, there’s a ‘previous’ and a ‘next’ button for soundtracks. In the middle, there’s the volume button that can be ued for muting and turning the head unit on/off too.
The USB port is on the bottom of the left side of the display.
The most important feature of this head unit is the Apple carplay and Android auto compatibility. With these features, you can mirror your iPhone/Android phone’s screen on your car stereo screen and control it via voice commands or touchscreen. The most common features of these two technologies include turn-by-turn directions, hands-free calling, and streaming music/podcasts.
Some other things I liked in this head unit are the steering control inputs, three 4V pre-amp RCA outputs (for the front, rear, and subwoofer), 8-band EQ, time-alignment functionality, and a one-year warranty if things go wrong. You also get backup camera inputs, but the camera itself is sold separately.
The only potential downside I can think of here is the extra screen brightness, even at low levels. It doesn’t matter much during daylight, but it can be distracting if you drive frequently at night.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Head Unit Brand is the Best?
Pioneer, Kenwood, Alpine, Sony, and JVC are some of the most popular head unit brands.
Does a Better Head Unit Affect Sound Quality?
Yes, a high-quality head unit can give you a louder and detailed sound.
How Can I Make my Factory Head Unit Sound Better?
Even if you don’t want to replace your factory radio, there are a few steps you can follow to improve car audio sound. These includes upgrading your factory speakers, adding 3rd-party amp/sub, adding sound-deadening material, etc.
Are All Single DIN Radios the Same?
Not really. Some single-din radios come with a small LCD and a few basic features, while other premium models are equipped with features like touchscreen, map navigation, and CarPlay connectivity.
How Much Does it Cost to Install a Single DIN radio?
It depends on the total time consumed in the installation process and reputation of the mechanic you’ve hired. During my research, I found that the $100-$150 is the average cost these days.
Do I Need an Amp with my Head Unit?
While a 3rd-party amp is essential for a louder car sound, it’s not compulsory when you’re installing a new head unit.
Is it Worth Upgrading Head Unit?
Due to their connectivity options, better preamp voltage, and other high-end features, 3rd-party head units are totally worth it if you’ve already replaced the factory speakers and sub.
What is the Best Sound Setting for a Car Stereo?
It depends on the type of music you consume mostly. If you’ve prefer genres like hip-hop and EDM, you should boost your bass and mids. On the other hand, if you listen to a variety of different genres and some podcasts, a neutral setting would suit you better.
How do I Choose a New Head Unit?
The main factors you should look for in a new head unit are its compatibility with your vehicle, its size, its power consumption, and your budget.