Best Double Din Head Units of 2015
Its 2015 come on guys; you need the best double din head unit and guess what? We have some of the best head unit reviews, ratings and comparisons. Most new cars nowadays have a double din stereo unit. It does make since, every wants the double din units because they have way more features and most of the time include GPS. If you are looking for reviews on head units check out below some of the top selling and best rated units. We have done our research, read our reviews and did all the hard work already. You just find the one within your budget and you’re good to go!
Top Rated Double Din Head Units of 2015
What features do you want?
When picking a new head unit you need to know the features you want. There are hundreds to choose from and all do different things. For an example, some play DVDs and some don’t, while some have built in GPS whiles others don’t and all these are things you need to looking for before buying a new stereo unit. Most of you’re the units come standard with most of these features which also include; Bluetooth, GPS, iPhone compatible and much more. You just need to read each feature about the special unit you are interested in.
Pick the best head unit brand
Like I have mention in my previous article brands are important in car audio. If you are looking for consistent and reliable performance, having a top of the line car audio brand is a must. It’s always worth to sink the few extra dollars in a quality brand than buying a piece of junk that’s not going to perform to anyone’s standards. Well let’s check out some double din heat unit brands that are worth buying.
These are some of the best brands you can go with. I would high recommend and suggest sticking to these particular brands. However, if you decide to go with another make sure you always read reviews on the brand and model on the stereo unit.
Reviews on the Best Head Units 2015
Pioneer AVHX1600DVD USB DVD Mixtrax WVGA Touchscreen 6.1-Inch Player
This is the ultimate double din car stereo on the market for the price. For under $200 it’s equipped with a touch screen and DVD player. Being one of the best-selling and top rated stereo units ranked on amazon should tell you enough.
This particular Pioneer stereo has a maximum power of 60 per channel and has four channels. In total it has 240 watts built-in. This gives you more than enough to power any factory car speakers. It also comes with a wire remote for road trips and need to be controlled from the back seat. All in all, for the price and features you won’t find a better price.
Kenwood DDX271 Double DIN Receiver
Similar to the one above, also costing the same price just under $200. The Kenwood DDX271 receiver out-performs all in its class. It has the power of 50 watts per channel and has a total of four channels, equaling to a total of 200 watts maximum. It’s a 6.1” touchscreen DVD/MP3/CD with easy and fast on the controls. It already comes with the iPhone app enable and is the perfect unit to have for iPhone lovers. It comes programed with 18 of the most popular and different languages.
In conclusion, after reading several different reviews the only competitor in its class is the pioneer head unit from above. Both costly the same, they have bumping heads for the top receiver for the price.
Pioneer FH-X700BT In-Dash Double DIN
The Pioneer FH x700BT head unit is one of their best. Some of its main features include; CD/MP3/USB Car Stereo Receiver w/ Bluetooth, Pandora Link, MIXTRAX & iPod Support. For the money of this Pioneer unit compared to others you won’t find on cheaper than performs even close to this one. It’s a black and blue unit that has a very sleek and stylish look.
The Bottom Line
Once again, I can’t stress the importance of a good brand. Make sure that is on your check list for when choosing and new car stereo unit. Also, depending on if you have an Android or iPhone they make receivers that are compatible for them. Make sure the one you choose is support by your phone.
Thanks for check out our reviews on best double din head units. If you have any question or concerns please feel free to leave a comment or email us and will do our best to help you out.
Our new top pick is the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX, while the AVIC-W8500NEX and AVH-3500NEX are our new upgrade and single-DIN picks, respectively. They are minor updates to our now-unavailable past picks.
Our new top pick is the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX, while the AVIC-W8500NEX and AVH-3500NEX are our new upgrade and single-DIN picks, respectively. They are minor updates to our now-unavailable past picks.
The Sony XAV-AX100 remains our budget pick, but because it’s also being phased out, we’ll be doing a new round of testing soon.
December 2, 2019
We’re convinced that the easiest and safest way to use your phone while driving is to connect it to a stereo that has Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. And after researching more than 75 models and testing 19, we found that the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX is the best replacement car stereo for drivers who want those features. With wireless connectivity and an intuitive interface, this Pioneer model makes it easier than other stereos to stream music, navigate to a destination, and message by voice through your phone, while keeping distractions to a minimum.
The Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX is one of the few car stereos that let you connect your phone to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto either wirelessly or through a USB cord, which provides a lot more versatility. In addition, its display is more attractive and customizable than those of other models we tested. It offers intuitive physical controls and a suite of extra features, including multiple input/output connections and a CD/DVD drive. And it’s available at a reasonable price. If you want a built-in navigation system (instead of needing to use your phone) or a capacitive multitouch display, though, we recommend our upgrade pick instead.
If you just want Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and don’t mind having to use a wired USB connection to use them, the Sony XAV-AX100 is a good choice. Unlike most double-DIN stereos, this Sony has a handy knob that makes volume adjustments easier. Its 6.4-inch display is clear and responsive, although it’s smaller than most other models’. Compared with our top pick, the XAV-AX100 also lacks a CD/DVD player, satellite-radio capability, and the ability to customize the buttons’ illumination to complement your vehicle’s interior. It also isn’t designed to connect to an iDatalink adapter to work with your car’s steering-wheel controls and other features.
The Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX is nearly the same stereo as our top pick, with the addition of a built-in navigation system and a capacitive screen that allows multitouch, pinch-to-zoom-type control. As with our top pick, you can connect to both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto either wirelessly or with a USB cord. The built-in navigation can be a good alternative to using your phone for directions because it lets you stay on track in areas where poor reception makes phone-based mapping unreliable or inconvenient, or if you want to keep your phone free for other uses or minimize its battery and data consumption. The additional features tack a couple hundred dollars onto the price, so we recommend this model only if you need them.
If your car has only a single-DIN (7-by-2-inch) dash opening for the stereo, the Pioneer AVH-3500NEX, with a clever slide-out touchscreen, is your best option for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It’s easy to use, with a handy volume knob and big buttons on the front for common functions. The motorized 7-inch screen slides out and up for use, effectively giving you the same interface as a double-DIN stereo. And it retracts back into the head unit when you turn off the radio or simply want to hide it while listening to audio. But using CarPlay or Android Auto with the unit requires a wired USB connection, and depending on your car’s dash, the screen might block climate controls or vents (it extends about 4 inches above the stereo).
Everything we recommend
Why you should trust us
Rik Paul, who conducted our latest test, has edited this guide since its beginning, and was previously the automotive editor for Consumer Reports and the senior feature editor for Motor Trend, where he evaluated hundreds of car audio and infotainment systems. He avidly encourages the development of any technology that makes using a phone in the car easier and safer, and has been using Android Auto since it was introduced in 2015.
Eric Evarts, who wrote the original version of this guide, has been reviewing new cars and their entertainment systems for more than 20 years. In addition to Wirecutter, his articles have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Consumer Reports, U.S. News & World Report, AAA, Alternet, the journal Nature Outlook, and Green Car Reports. He has also installed three new stereos in his family’s 11- to 22-year-old vehicles in order to incorporate the latest smartphone connectivity features.
We’ve also spoken to industry experts, including Tony Mercado, the former marketing development manager for the JVCKenwood Corporation; Seth Halstead, the Eastern regional training manager for Kenwood USA; Christopher Mascari, Wirecutter’s director of business operations at the time of our research, who has been installing and using replacement stereo systems for years and whose father owns a car-audio installation shop; and Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing for Pioneer’s Car Electronics division. (Our picks had not been publicly announced at the time of Cardenas’s 2017 interview, and it in no way informed our decision to recommend Pioneer radios this year.)
Who this is for
If you drive an older or less expensive car—from, say, a 1990s Honda Civic to a recent Ford Focus or Toyota Corolla—chances are, you’re not able to get the full advantages of your smartphone through your car stereo. Even if you can stream audio and conduct hands-free calls via Bluetooth, you’re likely having to use your phone’s small screen to navigate, which means, even if you have your phone secured in a car mount, it’s difficult and potentially distracting to interact with if you need to. If you have to increase the volume to hear the directions, you need to fumble with the volume control on your phone, and switching apps or sending or responding to messages just isn’t advisable (and, hopefully, you’re not picking up your phone to send a text).
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto increase the convenience, safety, and enjoyment of driving by basically putting your phone’s controls on your stereo’s display, so you can interact with your device from a simplified driver-friendly interface or by voice control. The integration of voice assistants, especially, makes these systems much easier and safer to use than if you had to pick up the phone itself. Over the past few years, CarPlay and Android Auto have become available in most new cars, and now dozens of replacement stereos also include them.
Apple CarPlay lets you access common smartphone features—such as audio streaming, navigation, and hands-free calling—in a driver-friendly interface on your stereo’s display, as well as through Siri. Photo: Rik Paul
Android Auto displays cards for active functions that you can slide with your finger and easily switch from one to another. It also works with Google Assistant voice commands. Photo: Rik Paul
With both systems, you can conduct hands-free phone calls, stream audio, send text messages by voice, and listen to incoming messages. And you get full access to the phone’s digital assistant—Siri or Google Assistant—which means all of this and more can be done through voice commands.
For many, though, the biggest upgrade with a product like this is a better ability to get driving directions by using your phone’s navigation system—whether Google Maps, Apple Maps, or Waze—to see the map, route, and detailed traffic info on the stereo’s large, in-dash display. Using your phone as a nav system occupies your screen and consumes data, but it can save you a substantial amount of money—a built-in nav system can add thousands to a vehicle’s price, or it can add hundreds to the price of a stereo (plus, you may have to pay for map upgrades down the line).
Just as important as their convenience is the value of these apps in reducing distracted driving. Being able to easily conduct hands-free calls, play music, send texts, or get directions, either by voice or by pressing a button or two on the stereo, means you’re less likely to pick up and use your phone while behind the wheel, which is one of the worst things you can do while driving (PDF). Talking on a handheld phone while driving is against the law in 16 states and the District of Columbia; texting while driving is banned in 47 states and in DC. Moreover, a 2013 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (PDF) includes findings from the often-cited 100-Car Study (conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and NHTSA) that shows that a driver who is reading or dialing a handheld device is about three times more likely to be in a crash or near-crash. By contrast, adjusting a car radio has “little effect on driving performance or crash risk.”
Most stereos with these apps require you to connect your phone with a USB cable. With that setup, you can use any iPhone 5 and later model with iOS 7.1 or higher with Apple CarPlay. Android Auto is compatible with devices running Android 5.0 (Lollipop) and higher (although 6.0—Marshmallow—and later is recommended for best performance).
If you want a wireless connection to Apple CarPlay, you need iOS 9 or higher, and as of this writing, Android Auto Wireless is compatible with Pixel and Nexus 5X and 6P phones using Android 8.0 or higher, as well as with later-generation Samsung Galaxy and Note devices using Android 9.0 or higher.
Will this fit your car, and can you install it?
Most of the stereos in our test group fit in a standard double-DIN (7-by-4-inch) dash opening, which is common to many vehicles. Only a couple of models we’ve tested fit in the smaller single-DIN (7-by-2-inch) opening, found in many older and less-expensive cars. Typically, you can tell which opening your car has by simply measuring the stereo. But that’s not always accurate, as many cars have a single-DIN stereo housed in a larger, double-DIN opening. And some vehicles have the stereo so seamlessly integrated into the car’s dash that it’s hard to tell what size it is. This makes it hard to just pop in a new one and have it look the same.
A good way to see what stereos will fit your car is to go to the Crutchfield website and enter the year, make, and model of your vehicle. In addition to telling you if a specific stereo will fit, the Crutchfield site shows any extra installation gear you’ll need. The site also offers tips on removing the current stereo (and replacing your speakers, if that’s something you’re also considering). Alternatively, you can visit a local car-stereo installer—call around to compare quotes first—or install it yourself. If you do that, download the digital manual, which can be more complete than the included paperwork. Many people have found Crutchfield’s customer service reps to be helpful in this area, as well, especially on more complicated installations that require secondary wiring harnesses for things like steering-wheel controls.
How we picked
Through two rounds of testing, we researched about 70 replacement car stereos, from nine brands, that run Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. We compared the specs, features, and pricing of each, and chose 19 of the most promising models for hands-on testing. All of the models we tested give you Apple CarPlay and/or Android Auto, Bluetooth, a touchscreen with a resolution of 800×480, voice control, and an adequate 50 to 55 watts of power. A few CarPlay and Android Auto stereos are available with larger, 8- or 9-inch screens, but they usually require custom installations and fit in only a few vehicles, so we didn’t include them.
In addition to requiring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, here are other key features we looked for when deciding which models to test and recommend, starting with the most important.
The most important considerations:
- Wireless connectivity: We could seamlessly link to all of the stereos we tested with a USB cord, but being able to connect wirelessly to the CarPlay and Android Auto apps is a huge convenience. Relatively few stereos offer wireless connections to CarPlay or Android Auto, but it’s the area where we’ve seen the most innovation in the last year. (CarPlay and Android Auto can’t run off of Bluetooth, according to Pioneer’s Ted Cardenas, because each require too much data.) So, wireless stereos have a built-in Wi-Fi network that you connect your phone to, and once the two are paired, the phone automatically drops any other Wi-Fi network it’s connected to in favor of the stereo’s.
- Easy-to-use interface: Intuitive controls, large on-screen buttons, and easy-to-read fonts make it easy to get to what you want quickly, minimizing distractions. Most stereos have similar screens: a 6.4- to 7-inch display that’s clear, sharp, and responsive. Where we saw the most difference was in the stereos’ physical buttons, which are located on the faceplate around the screen. The best have a nice tactile feel, which makes them easier to identify by touch. A few models—including three of the stereos we tested—have a knob, which makes volume adjustments much easier, although the compromise can be a slightly smaller display.
- Touchscreen: We preferred a capacitive touchscreen (similar to the one on your smartphone), which allows multitouch gestures that can be particularly handy for pinching to zoom on navigation maps. But those are typically available only on higher-priced stereos. The resistive displays used on most replacement stereos recognize only one touch point at a time, but we’ve found that they’re fine for most uses, such as tapping on-screen buttons and swiping menus. To zoom in or out on a map, you just have to use the + and ‒ buttons on the screen.
The better stereos have hard buttons that are easy to use while driving, without having to take your eyes off the road for longer than necessary. The ones on this Pioneer have a tactile feel that makes them easy to identify by touch. Photo: Rik Paul
This Sony has an easy-to-use volume knob and large buttons on the left side of the faceplate, close to the driver. Photo: Rik Paul
- Adjustable color themes: It’s purely a cosmetic feature, but we prefer the option to change the color theme of the stereo’s display and buttons to better coordinate with a car’s own interior lighting. This lets you reflect the mood you want, adjust between modes you can see better in daylight or at night, or simply provide some variation in how the stereo looks. Peter Logan, an audio specialist at Crutchfield, told us, “A lot of our customers really want their aftermarket head unit to have adjustable screen colors. It sounds silly, but having the stereo match the interior lighting makes it feel much more integrated.”
- Compatibility with steering-wheel controls: Most new vehicles have steering-wheel controls that work with the factory audio system to adjust the volume, change a channel, or do other basic functions. Swapping out the factory stereo risks losing this convenience, but the better models, including most of the ones we tested, can keep it as long as you connect a special wiring harness such as the iDatalink Maestro. If your car has other functions—such as climate controls or vehicle settings—integrated into the infotainment system, you can also usually get a wiring harness that enables those features as well. Check with an installer or the stereo manufacturer to find out what’s best for your specific vehicle.
Other details that are important to some people
- Built-in navigation system: Not everyone needs a built-in navigation system, but deciding whether to get one is a big part of this purchase. If you skip it, you will still be able to use your phone’s apps, like Google Maps, Apple Maps, or Waze, for navigation (through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto). That gives you great traffic info, but it uses your phone’s data and battery, ties up the phone’s screen, and can become a problem if you lose cell coverage. A built-in navigation system—which adds hundreds to the cost of the stereo—doesn’t rely on reception because it has all of the mapping and points-of-interest data stored in the stereo’s memory. It can also provide better visual navigation than some phone map apps, such as clearer lane guidance for highway exits. But unlike with phone-based nav systems, which are typically continuously updated, you often need to pay for map updates for built-in systems. If you’re already sure you want a built-in nav system, start your search with our upgrade pick.
- Satellite radio compatibility: Satellite radio compatibility is important for anyone who has (or wants to buy) a subscription to SiriusXM radio. Only one stereo we tested includes a SiriusXM tuner—and we didn’t require one for our picks, because most of the stereos we looked at can be connected to a separate SiriusXM tuner if you need one.
- CD/DVD player: Having a CD player can be nice, but with so many ways to listen to audio through your phone, we didn’t consider one to be essential. Many lower-priced stereos, called digital media players (DMRs), don’t include a disc player. (The same goes for many new cars.) One benefit to consider: Stereos with disc players also play DVDs, and include video inputs so you can play a DVD for rear-seat passengers on a separate monitor (or in the head unit when the car is parked).
- Video inputs and outputs: All of the stereos we tested have a video input, so this factor didn’t influence our decision. The input lets you connect a backup camera and see its video image on the unit’s screen (whether you’re replacing a stereo in a car that came with a built-in backup camera, or if you’re adding an accessory backup camera). Some higher-priced stereos also have a second or third input, which lets you also connect, say, a second camera in the front or behind a trailer, or provide a larger display for a dash cam.
- HD Radio: Some stereos can receive HD Radio, which is a digital signal that’s broadcast from regular regional radio stations, but we don’t consider it a must-have feature. HD Radio can provide better audio quality, but we’ve had mixed results with HD Radio reception—if you’re out of range of the signal, the stereo defaults to regular radio reception, but it also sometimes produces weird interference and an annoying echo effect.
Higher-priced stereos include more inputs and outputs for connecting external accessories such as backup cameras, dash cams, a GPS receiver, a satellite radio receiver, an external amplifier, or other video devices. Photo: Rik Paul
A stereo’s remote control is most useful when you’re playing music or a video while parked, or for a rear passenger to use while on the road. Photo: Rik Paul
- Remote control: We don’t count a remote as a must-have, although several of the radios we tested come with one. We found them handy for rear-seat passengers watching a DVD on a separate monitor, or if you’re listening to the car stereo at an outdoor get-together, like when tailgating.
- Pre-out outputs: Most car-stereo head units have two or three pre-outs, which are important only if you intend to expand your audio system by adding an external amplifier. Most people don’t do that, so we didn’t prioritize these. If you do intend to add an amp, the power from the pre-outs usually range from a basic 2 volts up to 5 volts in higher-priced stereos. An expert at Model Electronics (in Ramsey, New Jersey) told us that extra voltage produces a cleaner sound, with more punch.
- Power output: Unless you’re a dedicated audiophile, this is something you don’t have to worry about. All of the stereos we tested deliver more than enough power for a typical car-stereo setup, with 50 to 55 peak watts per channel for a four-speaker system. (According to Crutchfield, that usually means about 20 to 25 watts of continuous power.) If you need more power than that, you can always add one or more amplifiers.
How we tested
We bench-tested the stereos by following the installation instructions for each and connecting them to a portable 12-volt power supply, speakers, a microphone, and a GPS antenna, if needed. We focused mainly on each stereo’s features, ease of use, and ergonomics. We didn’t attempt to compare audio quality, as that depends so much on the number and quality of the speakers, how they’re installed, and the design and materials of the vehicle interior they’re used in. With the right speakers and installation, we’re confident that any of the models we tested will deliver audio quality that will satisfy or even impress most drivers.
We connected to each stereo with both an iPhone and a Google Pixel phone, and we put them through their paces in Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, respectively. We checked to see how easily they connected, and if they would automatically reconnect after we turned the stereo off and back on. In our testing, we also found that a Wi-Fi connection drew a little more of the phone’s battery power than using Bluetooth, but the difference wasn’t significant. To check, we twice ran our fully charged Pixel 2 XL test phone for an hour while streaming Pandora, first using Bluetooth and then Wi-Fi. With Bluetooth, the battery’s charge dropped to 98 and 97 percent, respectively, in the two tests. With Wi-Fi, it dropped to 96 and 93 percent.
We also carefully checked each of the unit’s core functions, from operating the radio (changing stations, setting presets, and adjusting the volume) to using the hands-free phone features (checking and dialing contacts and receiving calls).
We switched between functions to see how quickly and easily we could get to what we wanted. We pinched, zoomed, swiped, and recentered every map. We adjusted the volume up and down for each function, because when you’re driving it always seems like you can’t hear what you need to (turn-by-turn nav instructions or a critical moment in an audiobook). We scrolled through the settings menus of every unit, looking for shortcuts to make things easier.
Most important, we were sure to run multiple functions at once on each unit, because one of the reasons for using CarPlay or Android Auto is to make it safer and easier to multitask while driving: For both CarPlay and Android Auto, we made and received phone calls while playing audio and running a navigation system from the phone. We also used the stereo’s native operating system, when we could, to stream music and listen to the radio while navigating. In each case, we did our best to mimic all of the situations we’ve experienced while driving, to see how easy each model made it for us.
Our pick: Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX
If you want the advantages of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto in a replacement car stereo, we’re convinced that there’s no better choice than the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX. The AVH-W4500NEX is one of only a handful of stereos that let you connect to CarPlay or Android Auto wirelessly (all models let you connect through a USB cord). This Pioneer also has a display that’s more attractive and customizable than other stereos, with intuitive physical controls and a suite of features that deliver all of our standard requirements as well as a few nice-to-have extras. It lacks built-in navigation and a capacitive display—features our upgrade pick includes—but omitting them here lowers the price by a couple hundred dollars.
With our Pixel 2 XL and iPhone SE test phones, both CarPlay and Android Auto worked seamlessly whether the AVH-W4500NEX was connected wirelessly or through a cord, letting us stream music from Pandora and Spotify, plot navigation routes, and conduct hands-free phone calls. You can set the app to automatically activate when the stereo is turned on, or do it manually by pressing a couple of on-screen buttons.
Like all of the stereos we tested, the AVH-W4500NEX comes with an external microphone, which makes it easier to use Siri and Google Assistant voice commands in CarPlay and Android Auto. You can position it close to your face by slipping it onto a windshield visor or similar location. As when using the digital assistants on our phones, we could easily stream music and input destinations by using voice commands, and could choose playlists and albums, and even quickly switch between Pandora and Spotify, without touching the screen. (Okay, we didn’t always get the exact playlist we requested—sometimes getting a more general one of a similar genre—but that’s an aspect of the apps themselves, not the stereo.)
The standard 7-by-4-inch double-DIN display is clear and sharp, with easy-to-read fonts and large on-screen buttons. We found navigating the menus quick and intuitive. They show only the functions you’re likely to need from wherever you are, so icons remain large and easy to spot. Switching between AV sources or different functions is usually a matter of pressing a button or two. Similarly, while CarPlay or Android Auto was playing, we could easily access the stereo’s settings and other functions. A nice touch: you can also separately adjust the volumes of the AV source and the navigation app, so one isn’t too loud or soft when using both. You can also quickly mute the sound if desired, and, when connected to a phone, the screen shows the phone’s battery charge, so you know when to plug it into a USB port for charging.
We liked that the display is highly customizable, allowing you to choose different themes, colors, and backgrounds (even using a photo you load), and you can choose which on-screen buttons appear on the home screen for quick access. The screen can be adjusted for day or night modes manually, by setting a timer, or automatically when the car’s headlights are turned on. In addition, you can tilt the display upward in small increments to make it easier to see or to compensate for higher or lower placements in the car’s dash.
The hard buttons, below the display, are relatively small, but they have a nice tactile design, which makes them easier to identify by touch while driving than those on the other stereos we tested. The volume and back/voice buttons are particularly easy to find, as they protrude slightly from the faceplate and have their own distinct feel. You can easily change the hue of the hard-button illumination, choosing from five main colors, having them rotate through the colors, or setting your own customized color.
As with all of the stereos we tested, the AVH-W4500NEX allows you to pair two phones via Bluetooth simultaneously, and switching between them was easy by tapping a button on the home screen.
This Pioneer also includes a disc player for spinning a CD or watching a DVD while the vehicle is parked. You tap the eject button on the far right side and the display tilts down, allowing you to insert the disc. You can also insert an SD memory card the same way.
On its rear side, the AVH-W4500NEX has a number of inputs and outputs that give you a lot of extra functionality. You can connect an array of external devices, such as the supplied GPS antenna or an optional Sirius/XM tuner, backup camera, or rear-seat monitor. Plus, you can expand your car’s audio system with an external amplifier by connecting to the Pioneer’s pre-out connectors, which deliver a healthy 4 volts for better sound at higher volumes. While lower-priced models generally have one USB port in the rear, the AVH-W4500NEX has two, so you can use one phone to operate Apple CarPlay or Android Auto while charging a second phone. You can also connect an optional Pioneer navigation system, or use an optional iDatalink Maestro adapter to integrate the stereo with your car’s steering-wheel controls or other features.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
All of the stereos we tested, including the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX, let you pair two phones via Bluetooth for conducting hands-free calls, streaming music, and the like. But a minor gripe we have with all such systems is that when you begin using one phone for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, the second one no longer routes audio through the stereo, even if a call comes in on the second phone. In addition, you can’t play music from one phone while another is paired for phone calls if either of them is connected to CarPlay or Android Auto. So far, this inconvenience is just something you have to live with when using these systems.
One tip for Android users: Because the Pioneer uses an internal Wi-Fi network for wireless use, before connecting to Android Auto that way, be sure to go into the Android Auto app settings on your phone and make sure the “Turn Wi-Fi off when Android Auto is running” setting is unchecked. Otherwise, as we discovered, the stereo will attempt to connect to your phone, but immediately disconnect. This isn’t mentioned in the stereo’s instructions, so checking in advance will save a bit of head scratching and possibly some foul language.
Last, it’s not a flaw so much as a missing feature we want to make extra sure you’re aware of: This model lacks a built-in navigation system and a capacitive display, two features that set our upgrade pick apart. You’ll have to use your phone as a navigation system with this model, an approach that generally works well but comes with a few trade-offs, as outlined in Who this is for.
Budget pick: Sony XAV-AX100
The Sony XAV-AX100, our previous top pick, can be a good choice if you want Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and are willing to do without the versatility and extra features of our top pick. Both apps worked seamlessly in our testing, but they don’t have the wireless connection that we like in our pick—with the Sony, you have to connect your phone through a USB cord. The 6.4-inch screen is bright, clear, and responsive to touch, but it’s a little smaller than most of the other stereos we tested, which measure between 6.8 and 7 inches. And, compared with the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX, this Sony lacks the extra functionality of a CD/DVD player, satellite-radio capability, and the ability to customize the buttons’ illumination to complement your vehicle’s interior. This Sony model is being phased out, however, so we’ll be doing a new round of testing soon to choose a new budget pick.
A highlight of this model is its handy volume knob, which few other double-DIN stereos share. This makes adjusting the volume quicker and easier than pressing a small button. In addition, pressing the knob brings up a menu of sound-control options, and holding it in activates the voice-command system. Having the buttons on the left side of the display is also convenient, making them very accessible for a driver. Compared with our top pick, though, it has fewer buttons—and therefore fewer options for quickly navigating the menus.
Unlike our top pick, the Sony XAV-AX100 has only one USB connector (housed in a cord on the rear), which an installer will have to run to a convenient location, such as your glove box or console, for you to plug in your smartphone to use CarPlay or Android Auto. If you need to charge a second phone at the same time, we recommend using a USB car charger, which plugs into a car’s 12-volt accessory outlet (aka cigarette lighter).
Like all of the other stereos we tested, the XAV-AX100 includes Bluetooth support, a video input for connecting a backup camera, and preamp outputs for expanding your audio system. Rather than providing a separate GPS antenna, though, it uses your phone’s, so when navigating you have to keep your phone in a location where it can get a clear signal. The XAV-AX100 also isn’t set up for an iDatalink adapter, for using a car’s steering-wheel controls or other functions.
Upgrade pick: Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX
If you want a stereo with a built-in navigation system, we recommend the Pioneer AVIC-W8500NEX, which is a higher-priced sibling of our pick, the AVH-W4500NEX. Like that model, this Pioneer lets you connect to both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto either wirelessly or with a USB cord, which makes it more versatile and convenient than most other models. It also has a capacitive display that, unlike our pick’s resistive screen, lets you use multi-finger gestures, such as pinching to zoom on a map display. Otherwise, the two are virtually identical stereos.
As we explained in How we picked, using the built-in navigation instead of Google or Apple Maps can be especially useful in areas with poor cellular reception, where phone-based mapping is unreliable. It’s also handy for times where you want to keep your phone free for other uses or minimize its battery and data usage, such as on longer trips.
Pioneer’s nav system, which uses Here mapping, shows the speed limit for the road you’re on and helps you navigate freeway interchanges by clearly showing the highway sign to follow and the lane to be in. It alerts you to traffic incidents along your route and shows color-coded traffic flow on surrounding streets, but it doesn’t offer the breadth and detail of Google Maps’s traffic info. With the capacitive display, pinching to zoom worked in both Pioneer’s nav system and in Google Maps. It wasn’t as smooth as we’d like, but it was easier than using the + and – buttons on the screen.
With Pioneer’s integrated nav system, swiping with your finger gets you some other helpful data, such as the vehicle’s speed, altitude, and compass heading. And we liked that while navigating with the map on the screen we could still see our AV source along the bottom of the screen, and vice versa.
If you need a single-DIN stereo: Pioneer AVH-3500NEX
The Pioneer AVH-3500NEX is the best choice for getting Apple CarPlay and Android Auto if you have an older or less-expensive vehicle with a smaller, single-DIN dash opening. It does so by using a motorized 7-inch screen that slides out and pivots up to give you a display the same size as a double-DIN model’s. Unlike with our other Pioneer picks’ wireless connectivity, however, you need to connect your phone to the AVH-3500NEX with a USB cord to use Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The AVH-3500NEX model’s touchscreen is bright, clear, and responsive, and CarPlay and Android Auto work beautifully. The screen automatically retracts when the stereo is turned off. And if you ever don’t want to see the screen, you can retract it into the head unit and continue to listen to whatever audio source is playing. Whether the screen is extended or tucked away, the nice, big volume knob on the front panel is easy to grasp, and the large forward- and back-track buttons are easy to hit. And the CD/DVD-player slot is easy to access whether the screen is deployed or retracted. Other features include variable-color lighting for the buttons, satellite radio compatibility (with a separate receiver), and a partially detachable face for theft deterrence.
The fold-out screen design isn’t ideal for every car, however. It extends up about 4 inches from the stereo, so if your climate controls or other critical buttons are right above the stereo in your dashboard, you won’t be able to access them with the screen extended. It could also block air vents in the dash. And of course the slide-out mechanism adds mechanical complexity—and thus the potential for more things to go wrong down the road.
What to look forward to
Companies have recently introduced several car stereos that, like our top and upgrade picks, offer wireless connectivity to both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. We’ll be doing a new round of testing to evaluate a selection of those models, as well as a number of less-expensive stereos to fill the shoes of our current budget pick, which is being phased out.
Digital media receivers (DMRs)
Also called “mech-less receivers,” DMRs don’t include a disc player, focusing primarily on streaming media.
The Kenwood DMX905S is one of five Kenwood models that feature wireless Android Auto, along with a traditional corded Apple CarPlay app. The Kenwood worked well in our testing, but small usability details separated it from our top pick. It has a capacitive display, although pinching-and-zooming didn’t work in Google Maps. The unit’s hard buttons are large enough to press easily, but they don’t have the nice tactile feel of the Pioneer models’.
The Kenwood DMX7704S is very similar to the DMX905S, above, but lacks its wireless Android Auto capability and capacitive display. It has the same relatively large, but tactile-less buttons along the bottom. And we found the menu structure to be more complicated than the Pioneer or the Sony models’.
Because the Kenwood and JVC brands are owned by the same company—JVCKenwood Corporation—the JVC KW-M845BW is similar to the Kenwood DMX905S, above, with wireless Android Auto and only minor design differences. Its 6.8-inch screen is resistive instead of capacitive; it has only one USB port, instead of two; and you can’t change the buttons’ illumination color. It has also only three small, hard buttons, which offer less versatility and are more difficult to use than the Kenwood’s. Most irksome for us, though, is that we had a difficult time wirelessly connecting to Android Auto with our Pixel 2 XL test phone, and switching between two Bluetooth-connected phones wasn’t as seamless as with the Pioneers.
The JVC KW-M730BT, our previous runner-up, and the newer JVC KW-M740BT are almost identical models. When plugged in with a USB cord, both CarPlay and Android Auto worked well. The Pandora and Spotify apps were also flawless when using a Bluetooth connection. Our main gripes are the three tiny hard buttons across the top, which offer less functionality and aren’t as easy to access on the fly as those on the other models we tested. Also, you can’t customize the buttons’ illumination colors.
The new Sony XAV-AX5000 is very similar to our budget pick, except that it has a larger, 7-inch, bezel-less display and smaller, hard buttons across the bottom, rather than the XAV-AX100 model’s volume knob and left-mounted buttons. We had no problems connecting to CarPlay and Android Auto through a USB cord, and the AX5000 provides dual USB ports and satellite radio capability. It could be another good budget choice, but it’s sparse on features, compared with our other picks. It doesn’t come with a GPS antenna; it uses the one in your phone. The display isn’t as customizable. You can’t vary the buttons’ colors. And you can’t connect this model to an iDatalink adapter for use with a car’s steering-wheel controls and other features.
Our former also-great pick, the Alpine iLX-107, was the first replacement car stereo to offer a wireless connection to Apple CarPlay, although it doesn’t include Android Auto. The iLX-107 model’s interface is relatively easy to use, with responsive capacitive volume buttons below the screen. Its screen can be finicky, though, and we often had to hunt and peck to find what we wanted in the menus. The iLX-107 has a 7-inch screen and a host of extra features, such as satellite radio and HD Radio, multiple color choices for the controls, and the capability to pair with up to five smartphones over Bluetooth, but it tends to be more expensive than our top pick.
The Alpine iLX-207 has the same bright, 7-inch display as its cousin, the iLX-107, along with Android Auto, which the iLX-107 lacks. However, it doesn’t have the iLX-107 model’s wireless CarPlay connectivity or its slick capacitive volume buttons. Instead, it has a thick lip across the bottom of the screen that protrudes about half an inch from the display, and houses several large plastic buttons that provide some tactile feedback. The iLX-207 worked fine overall, and includes satellite radio compatibility, HD Radio, selectable illumination colors and wallpaper, and an HDMI input and output. But as with the iLX-107, we often had to hunt and peck to find what we wanted in the menus.
Although our previous Pioneer picks have been replaced by newer models, there are only minor differences between them and our new picks, and the older versions are still available through some retailers at a discounted price. These include our previous top pick, the Pioneer AVH-W4400NEX, and two of our previous single-DIN picks, the Pioneer AVH-3400NEX and AVH-3300NEX.
The Sony XAV-AX210 is similar to our budget pick, the Sony XAV-AX100, with a 6.4-inch display and volume knob. But it adds a CD/DVD player, satellite radio capability, variable illumination, and the ability to connect to an iDatalink adapter for use with a car’s steering-wheel controls and other features. An SXM version that includes a SiriusXM tuner as part of a package is currently being sold.
Stereos with built-in navigation
Our previous upgrade pick, the Pioneer AVIC-W8400NEX, is very similar to our new one, the AVIC-W8500NEX, and it’s still available at some retailers for a discounted price.
The Pioneer AVIC-8201NEX is very similar to our upgrade pick, but without its wireless capability for CarPlay and Android Auto; you need to plug in with a USB cord. Like the AVIC-W8500NEX, this Pioneer comes with a built-in navigation system, capacitive touchscreen, satellite radio compatibility, HD Radio, and Pioneer’s Dual Zone Entertainment (which gives rear-seat passengers the option to enjoy different content than front-seat passengers).
The Kenwood DNX875S is essentially the same as the DMX905S digital media receiver, above, but with an integrated Garmin navigation system. You can connect to Android Auto either wirelessly or with a USB cord, and to CarPlay with only the cord. But, as with the JVC KW-M845BW, above, we had problems wirelessly connecting to Android Auto with our Pixel 2 XL test phone, and switching between two Bluetooth-paired phones wasn’t as seamless as with the Pioneers. We like the nav system; in our car GPS testing, we’ve found Garmin’s navigation system to be easy to use, with an intuitive interface, reliable and responsive routing, and helpful lane guidance at highway interchanges. As with Pioneer’s Here mapping, Garmin’s traffic data isn’t as comprehensive or accurate as that of Google Maps and Waze, though. The DNX875S is compatible with Kenwood’s DRV-N520 dash cam, and can accept two camera inputs.
Our previous upgrade pick, the Kenwood DNX694S, and the newer Kenwood DNX695S are very similar models. We had no trouble connecting to CarPlay and Android Auto through a USB cord. Both models come with built-in Garmin navigation, a CD/DVD player, HD Radio, satellite radio compatibility, variable color adjustments for customizing the controls’ backlighting, and dual video inputs for connecting multiple cameras. Unlike on the other Kenwoods we tested, the buttons are located on the left side of the screen, where they’re easier for a driver to reach, and the CD/DVD slot is visible above the 6.8-inch display. Both models can connect to the company’s DRV-N520 dash cam, and when a backup camera is connected, the stereo overlays helpful parking-guidance lines onto the camera’s image. According to Kenwood’s Seth Halstead, drivers can also connect other accessories, such as an add-on forward-collision warning system.
Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing, Pioneer, phone interview, November 27, 2017
Tony Mercado, former marketing development manager, JVCKenwood Corporation, phone interview, November 28, 2017
Seth Halstead, Eastern regional training manager, Kenwood USA, phone interview, November 28, 2017
Christopher Mascari, director of business operations, Wirecutter, phone interview, November 21, 2017
About your guides
2015 Cars with the Best Sound Systems
One of the best feelings is driving around Pittsburgh with the windows down and the stereo up. While we’re a few months away from a forecast that will allow such a joyride, it’s never too early to start planning the best car to star in that daydream. And, of course, finding one with a top-notch sound system is a requirement. In fact, our favorite local car dealerships say 70-80 percent of customers inquire about media and entertainment options when looking for a new vehicle! Find the answers to your questions — and a collection of the coolest cars for 2015 — right here.
By Rachel Jones
Lee Laniewski, Bobby Rahal Automotive Group
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA. Photo: Mercedes-Benz.
How important are entertainment features to your customers?
I would say 75 percent of our customers ask about the audio/entertainment packages available in our models. If you enjoy listening to your favorite jam or radio talk show on your drive in to work, then a good audio system is a must. With all of the new technologies available, the sky is the limit on the number and variety of channels you can have at your fingertips.
What are some of the top features Mercedes-Benz offers?
Bluetooth streaming audio makes it easy to enjoy your digital music player. It allows our clients to connect their Bluetooth-equipped iPod or other MP3 player wirelessly to their vehicle’s audio system for convenient, cable-free playback. Another improvement would be the HD Radio receiver, which delivers crisp, clear audio for AM and FM radio. It can also increase the number of stations available to the customer with no subscription or fee.
Take it to the next level:
- Freestanding color screen and intuitive central controller — puts a world of entertainment and information within reach. The 5.8-inch display is standard, but a 7-inch screen is available
- Harman/Kardon LOGIC7® Sound System – features Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound technology
- Multimedia Package — includes an 80 GB hard-drive navigation, in-dash SD card reader, Gracenote® Media Database, and more
Hottest Mercedes-Benz for 2015:
2015 Mercedes-Benz GLA
- Starting price: $33,000
- 24 mpg city, 32 mpg hwy
- 208 horsepower
- 2.0L turbo injection
- 4-cylinder engine
- 7-speed dual clutch auto transmission
- ECO start/stop system
- 4MATIC® All-Wheel Drive
- Most compact Mercedes SUV
:: Bobby Rahal Motorcar Company, 10701 Perry Hwy., Wexford. 724.935.9300. bobbyrahalmotorcars.com.
:: Mercedes-Benz of Pittsburgh, 4709 Baum Blvd., Shadyside. 877.606.5409. mercedesbenzofpittsburgh.com.
Ed Persinger, Lexus of North Hills
2015 Lexus NX 200t. Photo: Lexus.
How important are entertainment features to your customers?
Our prospective customers almost always inquire about the Lexus Premium Audio System and how good it is. The system is composed of Pioneer components, and the sound is top-notch. Many families also choose to go with the Dual Screen Rear Seat Entertainment System for the kids. This system can allow DVD playback along with options to hook up some video-gaming systems.
What are some of the top features Lexus offers?
With HD Radio, you’ll experience CD-quality sound on FM stations and improved, crystal-clear reception on AM stations. Like the song that’s playing but don’t know the artist or name? You can easily tag songs for consideration the next time you connect to iTunes.
Take it to the next level:
- Mark Levinson® Premium Surround Sound Audio System — uses 7.1-channel architecture and pushes more power at less than 0.1% THD (20-20,000 Hz), enveloping the entire cabin in sound quality that was once only reserved for six-figure home audio systems
- App Suite integration — whereby the listener can choose sources like iHeartRadio and Pandora Radio to stream onto their Lexus Premium Audio System from apps equipped via their smartphone
- The Lexus Premium Audio System also features: Bluetooth audio profile, USB connectivity, auxiliary port connectivity, digital signal technology, an Automatic Sound Levelizer, and SiriusXM Satellite Radio availability
Hottest Lexus for 2015:
2015 Lexus NX 200t
- Starting price: $35,880
- 4-cylinder, 2.0L dual turbocharged engine
- 22 mpg city, 28 mpg hwy
- 235 horsepower
- All-wheel drive
- Lexus Premium Audio System
- Iconic Lexus spindle grill
- LED running lights
- Remote Touchpad
2015 Maserati Ghibli. Photo: Maserati.
You want a Maserati?
The 2015 Maserati Ghibli roars in at $69,800 with 345-404 horsepower and 25 mpg hwy. Click here for more information.
:: Lexus of North Hills, 15025 Perry Hwy., Wexford. 724.940.1400. lexusofnorthhills.com.
Gary DeSanzo, Imports By Day
2015 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro. Photo: Audi.
Why do you think a good audio system is important in a car?
Advancements in technology are happening at a rapid pace and a lot of people are trading current vehicles, not because it didn’t run, but because it doesn’t have tech features. For a lot of people, a car is the place they go to unwind from a long day of work or get away from everyday stress. Having the ability to choose your own playlist, rather than settling for what’s on the radio, is liberating and makes the drive enjoyable. People feel safe in their cars, and next to the shower, it may be the only place they belt out lyrics to their favorite tune.
What are some of the top features Audi offers?
One of the best musical features in some Audi models is the 1,200-watt Bang & Olufsen stereo. When you start the vehicle, the tweeter speakers rise up from the dashboard, a la “Star Wars.” The sound is incredibly clear, and even at the highest volume level, it does not leave you deaf. B&O has developed an anti-fatiguing technology that allows you to listen to loud music without the ringing and loss of hearing you expect when you leave a concert.
Take it to the next level:
- Audi Connect — allows up to six devices to connect to 4G LTE WiFi; introduces Google services to the Nav system; and provides updates for available parking spaces, weather, gas prices, social events, flight times, and more
- Upgraded amplifiers, speakers, and wattage — available with BOSE® or Bang & Olufsen stereo
- HUD (Heads Up Display) — provides speed limits, navigation prompts, and warnings
Hottest Audi for 2015:
2015 Audi A3 2.0T Quattro
- Starting Price: $34,645 (well equipped)
- 24 mpg city, 33 mpg hwy
- 2.0L Turbo Charged engine with 220 horsepower
- All-wheel drive
- Panoramic Sunroof Leather interior
- Bi-Xenon Headlights
- Bang & Olufsen Stereo
- 14 speakers
- MMI touch
2015 Corvette Stingray. Photo: Day Automotive.
Ready to Strike
Cruise through the city in the 2015 Corvette Stingray, which starts at $54,995. Powered by a 6.2L LT1 V8 engine, this ride flies with 7-speed manual transmission, Active Rev Matching, and launch control.
:: Imports by Day, 1580 Golden Mile Hwy., Monroeville. 724.327.4900. importsbyday.com.
:: Day Chevrolet, 1600 Golden Mile Hwy., Monroeville. 724.327.0900. daychevrolet.net.
Brandee Stratigos, #1 Cochran Volkswagen
2015 Golf TDI ® SE. Photo: Volkswagen.
Why do you think a good audio system is important in a car?
It makes the time in the car more enjoyable, and most consumers like having their music while they are driving. People want to be able to integrate their cell phone and media to remain connected. It will also aid with resale value down the road.
What are some of the top features Volkswagen offers?
Touch screen interfaces are pretty much the norm at this point, and customers seem to enjoy having the ability to access their music from their phone through the car’s interface. The standard equipment on the new VWs allows customers to access their music in multiple ways. There is Bluetooth streaming, an SD memory card slot, CD player, Satellite radio, HD radio (for those that enjoy local stations but want a better quality), and the Fender premium audio system gives you a concert feel right in your car.
Take it to the next level:
- XM-Sirius Satellite radio — available for a 90-day free trial in most vehicles
- The option of pairing a mobile device via the customer’s cell phone — gives the driver the ability to stream their audio wirelessly, whether it be from a third party app like Pandora or their personal music they have loaded onto the device
- CarNet — allows the consumer to check on various vehicle statuses remotely. There is an option to lock the doors remotely, put the windows up, and use location assist. Parents can even monitor speed and boundary alerts with young drivers. The CarNet service also has a concierge service to dispatch out roadside assistance, emergency help, or to remotely send directions to a consumer’s navigation unit
Hottest VW for 2015:
2015 Golf TDI ® SE
- Starting price: $26,595
- 2.0L TDI ® Diesel, 4-cylinder engine
- 31 mpg city, 43 mpg hwy
- Vervotronic® speed-variable electro-mechanical power steering
- 5.8-inch touchscreen
- AM/FM/CD with MP3 playback
- Fender Premium Audio System 8 speakers and subwoofer
- Named North American Car of the Year!
To Infiniti, and beyond!
Check out the 2015 Q50 AWD Premium, boasting the 14-speaker BOSE® sound system that’s anchored by three, 10-inch wheel-woofers for a clearer sound. Starting at $41,800, this “studio on wheels” also offers a 3.7L V6 engine, 328 horsepower, and a combined 22 mpg.
2015 Q50 AWD Premium. Photo: Infiniti.
:: #1 Cochran Volkswagen, South Hills, 2755 W. Liberty Ave., Dormont. 877.262.4726. cochranvw.com.
:: #1 Cochran Volkswagen, North Hills, 11750 Rt. 19, Wexford. 724.940.1000. cochranvwnorth.com.
:: #1 Cochran Infiniti Gallery, North Hills, 11740 Rt. 19, Wexford. 724.933.2222. cochraninfiniti.com.
:: #1 Cochran Infiniti Gallery, South Hills, 3220 W. Liberty Ave., Dormont. 412.245.3636. cochraninfinitiofsouthhills.com.
Best In-Car Audio Systems From The Factory
The car is a great place to listen to music. Whether you're into Brahms or Motorhead, Spice Girls or Migos, listen to a single genre or love everything from baroque to psytrance, then a decent sound system in the car is important. The fact of the matter is most cars just come with a "good enough" system, which is fine for those that just like to have something on when they drive. But, where do you look if you want a sound system with some real quality?
Most companies have a "premium" sound option but often they are to be found lacking. Hyundai, for example, uses Infinity for its upgrades, and although they are a marked improvement for someone that likes their music loud, it won't satisfy an audiophile. However, Hyundai is also now offering a Krell system and that changes the game.
These are the best in-car audio systems you can find short of going to specialists and spending huge money having one custom built for your car.
Car 2015 best stereo systems
Sonic Booms: Putting 8 of the Best Car Audio Systems to the Test
The best options for audiophiles
From eight-trackplayers to Bluetooth, 10 watts to 1,000 or more, tinny tweeters to Kevlar-wound speakers, and ACDelco to Bowers & Wilkins, automakers' audio offerings have evolved impressively throughout the years. Your music library is now a just tap away in the cloud, ready to stream through digitally enhanced, amazing sound systems developed in conjunction with leading audio specialists.
For luxury brands especially, how you kick out your jams has become an ever bigger selling point. Cadillac partnered with Bose to create a system called Panaray, which is set to make its debut in the new CT6. Lincoln is rolling out its new Revel system, as is Acura with its Krell setup. And, of course, the Bentleys and Benzes of the world have been in the high-end audio game for some time.
It's easy to be dazzled by gleaming speaker covers, massive wattage numbers, and other shiny details, but which sound systems really bring the noise? To help with our evaluation of eight of the premier offerings in the luxury segment, we enlisted Rob Sabin, editor-in-chief of sister publication Sound & Vision. With more than 25 years of experience in the audiovisual field, Sabin has a highly tuned ear and lots of sophisticated sound-measuring gear.
We began each test parked in a garage with a real-time analyzer (RTA) iPad app and a calibrated microphone to measure how consistently each sound system reproduced various frequencies when we played a "pink noise" test track; generally the better the system, the flatter its response curve. A bass-test sweep tone allowed us to check how well the subwoofer managed low-end frequencies. Next, we played a variety of tracks from CDs (see sidebar below) and listened for clarity across the full range of frequencies, natural reproduction of vocals and instruments, deep and impactful bass response, and the transient attack and "decay" of instrumental notes. Finally, we drove each car briefly to see how sound quality changed while on the move.
The best systems create an immersive audio experience. A quality system should produce a cohesive soundstage, meaning vocals and instruments are spread before the listener and positioned relative to one another. The system should avoid localizing sounds to individual speakers.
We ranked each system based on the evaluated criteria and our subjective observations. While the most expensive systems in the most expensive cars scored predictably well, there were some surprising sonic results.
8. 2016 Ford Explorer Platinum
Ford is Sony's only automotive partner; the system in the Explorer Platinum is its showcase setup. Designed with components used in its high-end home devices, the setup includes Clear Phase and Live Acoustics digital signal processing (DSP) software designed to clean up low-quality digital audio files and create the sensation of listening in a concert hall or studio.
Unfortunately, there's no way to turn off the spatial processing, and it results in unintended positioning of instruments and voices and adds artificial echo, especially with surround sound enabled. You also notice immediately from the front passenger seat that vocals localize to the right A-pillar speaker, distracting during songs with a strong lead vocal. From every seat, the system lacks definition at the far ends of the frequency range. Worse yet, the front door panels rattle when major bass is present.
Sabin says: "While an uninitiated listener might find this system palatable and engaging, it was surprisingly flawed, lacking deep bass reach and dynamic impact. Add to this the poor soundstaging for front passengers, the veiled, muddled sound for the back-seat passengers, and an obvious and loud panel resonance at 60 hertz, and you're not left with a lot
System: Sony premium audio system, 500 watts, 12 speakers
Price: Standard on Platinum trim
Pros: Smooth, unexaggerated sound in middle and high frequencies
Cons: Can't disable spatial processing; poor passenger sound experience
7. 2015 Infiniti QX80
While not Bose's highest-end setup, the 13-speaker arrangement offered as standard equipment for the QX80 is a step above its garden-variety systems and offers a wide and lifelike soundstage. In the garage, the sound noticeably trailed off toward the high frequencies, requiring some help from the treble control to try to restore some of the missing sparkle.
The Bose Centerpoint surround feature seems to have a greater effect on the amount of reverb present and less on the physical location of sounds; it's overpowering in the intro to Pink Floyd's "Time" and makes Michael Ruff sound like he's "in an echo chamber," says Sabin. While this mode had no other glaring faults, it didn't
Sabin says: "The system's overall character was darker, more veiled, and less open than the best systems. This was the only system where I immediately had to reach for the treble control in an attempt to get it to sound 'right,' and our RTA measurements did seem to show that the highs trailed off."
System: Bose Premium Audio, watts N/A*, 13 speakers
Pros: Wide soundstage
Cons: Less detailed and veiled sonic signature
*Company would not divulge.
6. 2015 Mercedes-Benz S550
Benz's Burmester sound system is impressive, with a healthy amount of power and ornate stainless-steel speaker covers. But sitting in the garage with eyes closed, we immediately notice a narrow, abridged soundstage for each front passenger. Vocals and centered instruments sound as though they're directly in front of each seat and relatively low in the car, and although accurately reproduced, tight vocals on tracks such as "Stand Me Up" seem a little unnaturally positioned. Still, the midrange is clean and detailed.
Highs and lows are a mixed bag. In "The Firebird Suite," there's a lack of decay and precision on a ringing triangle, and none of the boom on big bass hits we heard in some other cars. The bass test reveals response drops off below 45 Hz, which partly explains why it lacks the low end impact. Moving the surround sound to "rear" mode dramatically improves the experience for back-seat passengers—important in a chauffeur-ready car such as the S-Class—and produces an almost cocoonlike wraparound sound field for the power-reclining rear seats.
Sabin says: "A mostly neutral tonal balance and a nice level of detail. But the unusual handling of the soundstage, with its in-your-face presentation of vocals and its lower height that rarely lifted the soundstage above the top of the dashboard left me frustrated."
System: Burmester Surround Sound, 590 watts, 13 speakers
Pros: Flat frequency response; "cocoonlike" back-seat experience
Cons: Limited bass response; narrow soundstage
5. 2015 Acura RLX Hybrid
Krell Industries' optional system for the 2014 RLX marked the first time the audio specialist entered the automotive space. Krell says it was able to duplicate its home-theater performance in the RLX, with high-end parts such as lightweight magnesium-cone tweeters, Zylon "super-fiber"—a material used on race cars—for the six mid-bass speakers, and an amplifier with a claimed third less distortion than competitors.
Initial impressions were strong, with crisp sound reproduction and excellent high-frequency response. Turning on the DTS Neural surround-sound setting tends to offset a bit of high-end harshness evident on some brighter tracks, but it's not well-suited to vocals. From either front seat, the system localized sound to the doors worse than any car we tested. And in the back seat with rear-seat mode enabled, the parcel-shelf speakers create a soundstage behind the passengers, as if you were facing away from the performance at a concert.
Sabin says: "One of the better systems we tried, with its primary flaw being the tendency for highs to localize distractingly to the door tweeters. That aside, it delivered deep and impactful bass down below 35 Hz and had superb and engaging timbre, clarity, and detail on instruments and voices."
System: Krell Premium Audio, watts N/A*, 14 speakers
Price: Standard on Advance trim
Pros: Car is extremely quiet in electric mode; accurate, open reproduction; deep, tight bass
Cons: Easily localized tweeters; can sound strident on bright recordings
*Company would not divulge.
4. 2016 Volvo XC90
The XC90 features the latest and greatest sound system from British company Bowers & Wilkins. Among the highlights: A dash-mounted center tweeter that aims sound directly at passengers to avoid windshield reflections, Kevlar midrange speakers, an open-air subwoofer mounted directly to the body for deeper bass, and a DSP sound mode that simulates a famous concert hall in Volvo's Swedish home. This XC90 came without a CD player, so we played music through the aux input via a high-end digital-audio converter plugged into the USB port of Sabin's laptop.
Though a cool party trick, Concert Hall mode just adds unnatural reverb. But in either surround-sound mode or the regular stereo setting, the Bowers & Wilkins system is excellent. The vocals, piano, and snare drum of "Stand Me Up" sound as if they're floating above the dashboard, and the system delivers intense, realistic hits on heavy percussion tracks. For the complex "Welcome to the Machine," it separates the many sounds and effects without any harshness or edginess.
Sabin says: "Tonally neutral, good power reserves and dynamics, delivered a lot of fine detail in the music, and played loud without strain. With its nine-band equalization controls, it offered the highest degree of user tuning of any system—not that you'd really need it."
System: Bowers & Wilkins Premium Sound System, 1,400 watts, 19 speakers
Pros: Nine-channel equalization; defined, strong bass
Cons: Echoing Concert Hall mode; no CD player
3. 2015 Bentley Mulsanne Speed
The most expensive car predictably has the most expensive system. Developed by British company Naim, it tacks a whopping $8,030 onto the Mulsanne's price. Because the Mulsanne will often be used for chauffeuring, we paid extra attention to the back-seat experience; one of the many DSP modes improves sound for rear passengers.
In the front seat, switching among the Audiophile, Balanced, or Driver DSP modes does more to relocate the sound sources than change the tone. There's an expansive soundstage on "Take the 'A' Train," with cleanly replicated instruments. Bass response isn't the deepest of the group, but it still delivers powerful and impactful percussive hits." Detailed midrange performance makes vocals natural, clear, and pure. Overall, it's a warm and lifelike musical experience.
The biggest problem is triggered by running a bass test tone, which made the parcel shelf resonate and rattle loudly from 100 down to 50 Hz, and this proves doubly annoying while listening to bass-heavy music. We attribute the flaw to the poor fit-and-finish of the trim piece, a letdown for an otherwise impressive system.
Sabin says: "A truly outstanding audiophile experience, with an awesome soundstage presentation, great transient impact, solid bass response, and mids and highs that were exceptionally open and clean."
System: Naim for Bentley, 2,200 watts, 20 speakers
Pros: Great rear-seat mode performance; clean, realistic sound
Cons: Bass depth a bit short of the best; resonance from parcel shelf
2. 2016 Lincoln MKX Black Label
Lincoln is committed to use Revel audio systems for the next 10 years, with the first application in the MKX crossover. The top-spec, 19-speaker Ultima version is bundled as part of a $4,400 Luxury package.
The Revel's soundstage is high and forward, right on the windshield, giving you a sense of sitting in front of the performers. The most telling track was the Jim Keltner drum solo. It was intense, as though you were in the same room as the drum kit. On jazz recordings, each instrument is defined clearly, with incredible levels of detail. There is no harshness or edginess, and precise, detailed bass is easy to follow, even at highway speeds. Though we detected a few small panel resonances when running the bass test, nothing was noticeable when playing music. No matter what you play on the Revel Ultima, it sounds rich and immersive.
Sabin says: "It produced a huge and open soundstage above the dashboard, delivered percussion and drum thwacks with a solid leading edge and natural decay, and offered a very natural and neutral sonic balance with gobs of detail. It made everything sound great and revealed all the musical detail in a recording."
System: Revel Ultima, watts N/A*, 19 speakers
Price: $4,400 (part of Luxury package); standard on Black Label
Pros: Clear and accurate highs; lifelike bass and drum impacts
Cons: Slow-responding MyLincoln Touch interface; back-seat sound muffled
*Company would not divulge.
1. 2016 Land Rover Range Rover Sport
It takes just one song to become smitten with the Range Rover Sport's Meridian sound system. From Michael Ruff's guttural vocals to the cacophony of Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine," the Meridian impresses on nearly every track, its 23 speakers creating an enormous soundstage to envelope the listener fully. Its 3-D DSP mode attempts to add a sensation of greater height to a recording, but it sounds best set to Meridian 2-D mode.
At highway speeds, the Meridian held up against road noise better than any other system, with clear and well-defined bass still distinguishable at 75 mph, and the audio experience for back-seat passengers was among the best of any car tested, with a pleasant and accurate soundstage. Overall, the Revel was an extremely close second, but the Meridian was the system we wanted to listen to all day long.
Sabin says: "I was just so impressed with how natural it sounded all the time with seemingly all kinds of music, and it delivered everything in a wide, up-front, and very precise soundstage. We should all be so lucky to have a system in our home that sounds this good, never mind in a car."
System: Meridian Signature Audio, 1,700 watts, 23 speakers
Pros: Highly engaging with any music; powerful, deep bass below 30 Hz; great back-seat sound
Cons: Low frequency panel resonance around 40 Hz; cumbersome touchscreen interface
Top of the Pops
To ensure we had the highest quality possible, we used original audio CDs in every car but the Volvo (which didn't have a CD player). Test tracks included the following:
Bill Berry and his Ellington All-Stars --
"Take the 'A' Train"
Howard Hanson --
"Symphony No. 2 Op. 30 'Romantic': 3rd Movement"
Michael Ruff --
"The Sheffield Track & Drum Record" --
Track 6: Jim Keltner
Amanda Marshall --
Micah Sheveloff --
"Stand Me Up"
Pink Floyd --
"Time," "Money," "Welcome to the Machine," "Wish You Were Here"
Jason Weaver --
"I Can't Stand the Pain"
Jennifer Warnes --
"First We Take Manhattan"
Minnesota Orchestra --
Igor Stravinsky's "The Firebird Suite, VII. Finale"
Pink noise test track --
An audio file that plays every frequency between 20 and 20,000 hertz equally, allowing audio engineers to measure frequency reproduction
Frequency sweep --
1,000 to 20 hertz; a bass test tone that sweeps toward the lowest limit of human hearing to check subwoofer performance and panel resonance
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