UPDATE – 9/4/14 – The new Alpine INE-W957HD model does feature an optical output!  It’s not really obvious as it doesn’t appear to be a feature they are pushing, but it does have it.

I recently received this email from a reader regarding digital output from aftermarket head units for use with digital audio processors.  Joe brings up a great question!

Audison Demo Car at CES 2012 featuring a Full Digital Audio System

There are a number of audio processors promising extensive time alignment and EQ that seem to finally be close to retail availability. Alpine has the H800, Rockford Fosgate the 3sixty.3, and Arc Audio is working on the PS8. It would be ideal to run a digital signal to the processor to avoid unnecessary digital/analog conversions. I know there are a few head units that have digital output, but it’s never mentioned on marketing materials. What current or near-future head units do you know of that have this type of signal output?

Oh how true it is that it’s never mentioned in any marketing materials!  I remember being so stoked when my Alpine rep told me that the INA-W910BT was going to have an optical output.  I was so excited about it that I managed to sell one along with an Audison Bit One based largely on the fact that it could be an optical connection from the head unit to the processor.  You can imagine how disappointed I was when my husband came back from the install bay, stereo in hand and said,

“There’s no optical out.  Where is it?  Can you see it?”

Sure enough, I didn’t see where you could possibly make any optical connection.

“I f***ing hate Alpine; those ***holes do the same sh** to us every year!”

After calling tech support, I found out you need an additional adapter to add an optical output pigtail.  With the KWE-610A, you could run an INA-W910BT to a processor like the Audison Bit One and from there to an Audison Voce amp with digital connection.  Audison calls it their AV bit IN.

I did not have a chance to check out their full digital audio system while at CES 2012.  They were not at the convention center this year; they were off site at some hotel that we never had a chance to make it over to.  But this video from Audison helps to fill us in on the details of what a full digital audio system is and how it will vastly improve both sound quality and ease of installation.  Full digital audio is here now.

Check it out:

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  1. 2023 and car stereo companies suck, and are stuck in the 1990’s and for the most point can kiss my butt. The cost compared to sound quality is a total joke. The ONLY way to have TRUE 5.1 surround sound is a 24 bit digital fiber optic signal. Period. There are some higher end car brands like BMW that inlcude a sytem with total fiber optic connectivity. As for aftermarket, the only 3 companies I know arer Audison, JL Audio, and Audiocontrol. But guess what I have yet found a company offering an in dash head unit with digital out. Even computers and the majority of flat screens have digital output and quality Analog to Digital converters – which is now one single computer chip. Another issue with car audio, is everything being “A la Carte”, you have to buy every connector, wire speaker etc. individually. Nobody has full package deals so as to rip off the customer. Add that 95% of car audio is produced is crappy China, and as I said, 99% of car audio companies can Kiss My Butt. I refuse to be ripped off, and that’s all that is happening from car audio brands. Stupidity and greed over technology and high tech offerings for consumers when the technology IS avaialable today. Period. 08/23 and it might as well be 1990 in the car audio industry. Peace everybody!

    • Hey Johann, I hear your frustration!! I will say, this is a pretty old post and I can tell you that digital is finally making some traction. More so when we’re interfacing with factory electronics in those cars where fiber or MOST is being used. It’s great, we can use a digital pre-amp adapter to keep it digital and go into some high quality DSP/amps like your mention – Audison, JL Audio and in our case we’re a fan of the Helix DSP amps. We have the Stinger HEIGH10 (which is Chinese, not the fanciest GUI or display) BUT it at least has optical out which sounds amazing with our Helix V Eight DSP, Morel speakers and JL subs. You are right that the difference between analog and digital is huge.

      As far as the costs go, I think what you’re feeling is much more broad. We have seen costs on parts skyrocket, but a lot of that has to do with the economics of the past couple years, supply chain issues and then the sheer cost of engineering labor that goes into a company like ADS iDatalink for example. The cars have gotten more complex. iDatalink is just one example of a company that has been able to figure out solutions for our industry so that a client with a 2016 F-150 who just wants to replace their radio that’s crapped out, has the ability to do so without losing any of the OEM features like climate display, vehicle settings, back up camera, etc. There are hard undeniable labor and production costs that go into employing a team that can figure that out so Mr. or Mrs. Consumer isn’t stuck paying the dealership $1800 for the same POS radio that came with their 2016 F-150. It has to be an a la carte industry. Because every single consumer out there has different needs. Some want to simply replace what is broken without paying an arm and a leg at the dealer. Some want to do a full audio system upgrade and they have a plethora of choices when it comes to head units, speakers, amps, DSP, etc. Choice is good, it creates competition in a free and fair market.

      As far as package solutions, we’re actually seeing more and more companies come up with packages for vehicles like BMW from Audison, BimmerTech, Focal, Morel, Helix, Match etc. which makes upgrading easier/less modification required. That feeling of being ripped off? It is real. The costs of upgrading a car stereo has gone up, but guess what – so has everything else in this world, right? I blame a lot of that on inflation and shrinkflation. We are seeing SO MANY CLIENTS gobsmacked when they go to pick up their new car after just trading in their 3 or 5 year old vehicle that was fully loaded and they realize the car is costing them thousands more than their last vehicle and that it’s missing a lot of standard features that can cost thousands more for us to add aftermarket. Countless BMW clients sorely disappointed after realizing their new vehicle doesn’t have the premium Harman Kardon system due to supply chain issues and realize the insulting $800 credit the dealer gave them will barely even buy 1/2 of the most basic DSP amp they will need to improve the audio. Honda clients realizing their new vehicle didn’t come equipped with blind spot and cross traffic detection and spending $1k+ to add it to their brand new car. Ford clients realizing their new vehicle doesn’t come with SiriusXM and spending hundreds to add it. I could go on and on.

      When I 1st started in this business in 2000 – a lot of car audio products were made in America. And if not America, Japan – right? Like old Alpine and Nakamichi. And I think the biggest reason everything got shifted overseas is politics. NAFTA was a big part of it. American companies could no longer compete because it was no longer a level playing field. In order to stay in business, they shifted manufacturing overseas. Now we are reliant on everything being sourced from overseas! I think it would be great if we as a country could get back to manufacturing at home, but I think in order for prices to come down and more innovative products to become available the playing field needs to be level in terms of tariffs and trade.

      Until then? I like driving my old paid for 2014 Jeep Wrangler and when that goes I will replace it with a similarly older less sophisticated car that makes it cheap and easy to repair and cheaper and easier to upgrade. Try not get ripped off out there. There are still plenty of great values and deals to be had on quality car equipment. Just keep in mind your money definitely goes further if you drive a less complex vehicle. Typically the newer it is, the more costly it is on the parts side.

  2. Hi Annie,
    Glad to have chance on your site.
    I am looking for an android based HU with digital output but found none.
    Any chance that you are aware of such HU.
    Thanks and regards

    • Hi Richard – nothing yet! Sony recently came out with a single din hi res audio head unit with optical output (very cool head unit – RSX-GS9 – very minimalistic, but excellent sound quality), but have not seen anything in double din with Android operating system or Android Auto capability.

  3. Hey Car Stereo Chick. Love the name. I have been digging at this for a while too. I actually spoke to a few of the manufacturers about it and also delved a little deeper into the finer points of digital audio outs specifically as to just how difficult it would be to implement. I have refused to buy a new head unit for a few years now because I am hold out for digital bussing. The real truth is some of the processors like the Helix DSP Pro actually offer way better converters than most head units as well as a host of other features that no head unit could hope to ever achieve. I have tried to talk to both Alpine and Pioneer who would be the obvious players to look to but they both out right REFUSE to consider the very notion. Pioneer specifically clearly knows better regarding why using a digital buss is better but as we see there is just no way they will consider it. Not even as a paid add-on. Kenwood? “There is no market for it”. I am so P##$## off about their attitudes. Anyway, I spoke to Rydeen and they said “it sounds like a great idea, we will consider it on upcoming units”. Why Rydeen? Android! Android 4.4 and later (lolipop) has already got driver support for usb audio. In short, it would basically be a plug and play USB sound card! Turtle makes one for gaming purposes already. It’s a simple name badge change for whoever decides to take up the task. Seriously!
    There is a small issue that needs to be worked out though. Alpine’s digital outputs actually only output the audio stream “pre” the volume attenuation algorithm. In other words you can’t use the volume knob on the head unit in order to adjust your volume. You need to cut a whole in your dash so you can add another that controls your digital processor instead. Yes, it is ridiculous but that is exactly how Alpine roles. Oh, BTW. I completely share your sentiments regarding Alpine and purely for that reason I will never by any of their junk. The truth is there is way better stuff available much cheaper anyway but with their attitude they can choke on it! We need to understand that because controlling output volume is not something that was planned there is probably a slight adjustment needed to be made to the programming of the app running the headunit that the sound card would plug into. That said it can’t be that difficult as the headunits are doing it themselves now as do our phones.
    I am hopeful that Rydeen can stay afloat in this very turbulent market. They don’t seem to have a lot of market share even though their “all android” (the op system of the head unit is android, it doesn’t just interface with android like Pioneer’s gear. It actually is an Android device!) is an awesome unit. The other guys to look at are Audio Pumpkin out of China (everything is made in China anyway, why not a Chinese company? Their head units of comparable quality to the higher end Alpines and Pioneers are less than 1/4 of the price. Pioneer, Kenwood and Alpine are lining their pockets with our cash for stuff that they can clearly bring to market cheaper than we can buy it from the same folks due to volume of sales. So what is the price difference? Their profit margin!!! Audio Pumpkin have taken what I had to say under advisement but I think their concern is sheer numbers. The reality is us folks who care about what it actually sounds like need to speak up. Our silence is what is causing the problem. No, the cart does not have to lead the horse. We can get what we want but clearly not without a fight. It’s our money making the shareholders of Pioneer, Kenwood and Alpine rich is clearly not driving technological advancements in car audio in the least so take it away from them and give it to those who are willing! The “big boys” aka bullies can eat humble pie.

  4. ok I have read all your comments as I have been looking into this myself… Yes the new alpine units have optical out but unless you use it from the DVDs player in them you are not getting pure digital audio. It will still convert analog to digital in the head unit before it goes to the audison gear…. I’m very annoyed at the whole situation also and I am now building my own 2 din head unit myself. I will keep you up to date with the build

    • Hey Matthew. Cool! I think there is a slim market for that. I don’t get too many customers asking me for this feature, but they are out there. We just do the PXA-H800 – it has optical out. I have it connected to my iPhone in my Honda Element, works pretty well!

  5. Did you confirm that the X008u has an optical output? I would like to run optical to an Arc Audio PS8. The manual for the X008U just says it has an optical out for compatible external processors.

    • Hey Phil – yes, I checked with Alpine. Actually, we just installed one of these yesterday. It’s a standard optical output and it can be used with processors other than Alpine’s PXA-H800 assuming the processor has it’s own separate display/controller. Like Alpine’s got the RUX-C800, Audison has the Bit One DRC Controller, etc. You would need that to control volume at that point.

  6. Annie,

    Did you confirm that the X008 and X009 units have optical. I’m considering building a car stereo system with the 3sixty.3 and would like to go down this route. I am really into headphone audio too, and my current system has an MS-8. I used to have my factory radio as the inputs driving the MS-8, but recently I took my headphone DAC (24-bit audio, audioquest’s dragonfly v1.2) in my car and plugged it to the input of the MS-8, and the audio sounded 1000 times better. I don’t care what anybody says, 24-bit DACs are much clearer, and give the dynamic range. Luckily the 3sixty.3 is a 24 bit DAC, but it doesn’t matter what the input audio is if I’m not providing it with a digital signal or a 24-bit provided DAC signal.

    So that said, if I can’t find a head unit with an optical output for a reasonable cost ($600 or so), I’m going to build my own iPhone/iPad/computer to TOSLINK optical converter with parts. I’d rather it be integrated in a head unit (cleaner), but I get the feeling that my solution is more economical and probably more convienient too. Bluetooth streaming audio doesn’t have enough bandwidth in my personal opinion because I want to play 24 bit sound tracks (FLAC or ALAC), so I’m stuck to optical connections. Plus, it’s just so much more cleaner than RCA cables.

    I guess my real gripe is that it feels like car audio is stuck in the 1990’s with bluetooth being the greatest thing, but for 21st century audiophiles like me who enjoy car audio, we are at the mercy of manufacturers who won’t provide options other than 1990’s stuff, or bluetooth. *sigh* …


    • Hi Joe,
      Yeah I’m pretty sure that all the Alpine’s from the INE-W957HD and up have optical, but I can double check and confirm.

      You know what’s interesting? All the new 2015 Pioneer NEX models play FLAC audio files. And most of them have SD card slots too, my Pioneer rep is supposed to stop by one of these days so I can check it out (I don’t have any FLAC files at the moment or really even the time to mess around with it).

      In my Honda Element we have done a similar set up to what you are talking about. We have the Alpine processor PXA-H800 and toslink adapters connected to a Pure i20 for our iPad. But I’m real curious to see how clean the FLAC sounds on SD card on the new NEX models (which also feature 13 Band EQ, digital time alignment, highly adjustable crossovers, etc) but no optical out.

      • I love my Honda Element and currently planning a new audio system for it. What’s in yours?

      • Hi James, I love my Element too! I plan on keeping that car as long as it lasts. The set up I have is a bit fancy at the moment. Eventually I’d like to reconfigure the dash for something like Sony’s new RSXG9 or a CarPlay model, but at the moment I have the Alpine PXAH800 processor, Morel Hybrid component speakers in front, the Morel Hybrid point source speakers in the rear, a couple older Audison amplifiers and a JL Audio 12W6. We’re using an older outboard DAC (I can’t remember which one) for my iPhone or an iPad so I literally just plug my phone in and that’s my head unit. Here is a pic with the ipad in place.
        Honda Element Dash

  7. Any other head units out there with digital out? I’m hoping to see more for CES2015.

    • I’m hoping to see some too, the only current ones I’m aware of are the Alpine INE-W957HD for sure, and pretty sure also for the Alpine X008 and X009. I’ll be there tomorrow and will let you know what I find!

  8. Thanks for the answer!

    • My pleasure, thanks for the great question.

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