While more vehicles are coming with support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay built-in, you don’t have to buy a new car to get these excellent in-dash systems. There are some great aftermarket units available—these are some of the best.
Important Features of an Aftermarket Car Stereo
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have revolutionized car stereos in recent years. When auto manufacturers build a new car, the car stereo features are generally set in stone. But Apple CarPlay and Android Auto open up support for new and updated applications at any time. For example, with iOS 13, Apple added a new split-screen layout that dramatically improves usability. Every car stereo with Apple CarPlay got this change for free!
Several car makers now include support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. But if yours does not, you can get this technology by replacing your factory stereo with an aftermarket stereo. But before you pick out that new head unit, take a look at these important features:
- Wireless support: Apple CarPlay and Android Auto were initially a wired affair, but the wireless variant of these two technologies is becoming the new standard. Combined with in-vehicle wireless charging pads, connecting to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto can be as easy as entering the vehicle and plopping your phone down!
- Speaker Amplification Power: Most aftermarket stereos have far more amplification power than your factory head unit. If you want a decent volume from your speakers, you will want at least 20 watts (RMS). Unless you are planning to add a speaker amplifier like a Kicker Key 180.4 or an Alpine KTP-445U to your rig, you need to pay attention to available amplifier power.
- HD Radio / Sirius XM Support: These days, most aftermarket stereos support Sirius XM. HD Radio is a little rarer. That’s unfortunate because HD Radio is a great way to get high definition digital music for free over the airwaves.
- Capacitive Touchscreen: Older and less advanced receivers use resistive touchscreens requiring you to push long and hard on the screen to make something happen. Capacitive touchscreens (like the one on your phone) are far superior to resistive touchscreens, making this a non-optional requirement for a good car stereo these days.
- Backup Camera / Dashcam Support: Support for front, side, rear, or dash cameras is growing in the car stereo segment. Most aftermarket receivers now support two or even three camera inputs. If your existing car stereo shows you a backup camera when you go into reverse, this is the minimum required functionality for your replacement unit.
- Comprehensive Equalizer / Crossover Support: The ability to dial in sound frequencies to achieve what you like to hear can’t be overstated. It’s not good enough to just have bass and treble adjustment. Also, fine-tuning crossover frequencies for each set of speakers (front, rear, and subwoofer) will result in an overall cleaner sound and also extend the life of your speakers by directing each speaker to play the frequencies it is designed for.
- Line-Out Pre-amp Connections: Three pairs (6 channels) of pre-amp line outs (front, rear, and subwoofer) is also a basic requirement these days. All of the good receivers have them. You should question the purchase if the receiver you are evaluating doesn’t—or, you know, just avoid it altogether.
- Steering-wheel Mounted Controls Support: Most modern cars come with steering-wheel-mounted controls these days. You’ll lose convenience if your aftermarket receiver doesn’t have a way to allow these controls to manage the stereo’s functions. The most common interface solution includes the iDatalink Maestro device. You will be looking for iDatalink support in any receiver that might replace your factory head unit.
- Bluetooth Dual-Phone Pairing: Virtually every modern car stereo can pair with a cell phone via Bluetooth. Some of the better stereos can pair with two cell phones simultaneously, allowing for either phone to make or receive a phone call while the stereo seamlessly switches between the two phones.
Best Overall: Kenwood Excelon DMX906S
The Kenwood Excelon series of car stereos is known for high-end features such as stronger amplification, better quality preamp line outs, and an extensive list of modern features. The DMX906 delivers on this paradigm with standout features like wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a customizable widget-based user interface, comprehensive 13-band EQ and 3-way crossover controls, HD Radio, and dual phone Bluetooth support.
The Kenwood provides standard features like SiriusXM radio support and three pairs of preamp line outs. It also has extended support for iDatalink Maestro that includes the ability to display additional vehicle diagnostics such as engine RPM and tire pressures. The DMX906S has a 6.95-inch capacitive touchscreen and provides 22 watts (RMS) x 4 channels, which is enough to drive just about any set of front and rear door speakers without additional amplification.
Kenwood DMX906S 6.95″ Digital Media Touchscreen Receiver
The Kenwood DMX906S boasts an incredible list of features including wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, customizable user interface, and dual phone Bluetooth support to nail down our pick for Best Overall car stereo receiver.
The Budget Pick: Alpine ILX-W650
The Alpine ILX-W650 boasts a capacitive 7-inch touchscreen and support for wired-only Apple CarPlay and Android Auto in a package that is less than three inches deep and for an extremely low price! This is the go-to unit for replacing extremely shallow factory head units. The ILX-W650 also provides a standard feature list that includes support for iDatalink Maestro, 6-channel preamp outputs, support for SiriusXM radio, as well as custom EQ control.
If you aren’t replacing a shallow mount factory unit, the ILX-W650 practically begs you to bolt an Alpine KTA-450 mini-amplifier onto the back (a supported configuration) for a total depth of less than 5-inches while pushing 50 watts (RMS) per channel x 4 channels. In fact, the KTA-450 actually comes with the bracket you need to make this happen. Better yet, if this is your desired configuration, you can buy an ILX-W650/KTA-450 combo that will save you a few bucks.
Best DVD Receiver: Pioneer AVH-2550NEX
If you need the ability to pop in a DVD and send video to the kids in the back seat, then look no further than the Pioneer AVH-2550NEX. This unit shows off with a very responsive 6.8-inch capacitive touchscreen, a customizable display and button colors, and external remote control.
While DVD playback is the standout feature on this unit, the AVH-2550NEX also impresses with Apple Carpay, Android Auto, HD Radio, SiriusXM support, enhanced iDatalink Maestro support that includes vehicle diagnostics, a 13-band graphic equalizer, high and low-pass filter support, and 6-channel preamp outputs. However, this unit only pushes 14 watts RMS x 4 channels, so you may need an additional amplifier to drive the front and rear speakers if you are also trying to improve volume or reduce distortion.
Best Single DIN / 9-inch Screen Receiver: Alpine Halo9 ILX-F309
We are starting to experience a paradigm shift to larger displays on premium vehicles. If you are looking for something larger than a standard Double-DIN touchscreen, the Alpine Halo9 ILX-F309 is for you! The receiver chassis consumes just a single-DIN space but has a large 9-inch capacitive touch screen that appears to hover just in front of your dash. The screen is permanently mounted to the receiver but does feature flexible up, down, and tilt positioning options.
In addition to the beautiful touchscreen, the Halo9 ILX-F309 supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, HD Radio, and has support for SiriusXM. It also boasts a 9-band parametric EQ, high and low-pass filters, 6-channel preamp line outs, and support for enhanced iDatalink Maestro that includes vehicle diagnostics. This unit has an additional stand-out feature in that it is compatible with an optional accessory controller that manages up to eight additional devices such as winches, LED lights, suspension kits, and powered bed covers. Amplification is a little light at 18 watts (RMS) x 4 channels, so an additional amplifier may be helpful if you need a bit more sound.
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