Best new car stereo head units for 2012

Update – Looking for the best car stereo head units for 2014?  Check out my latest review for best single din car stereo head units for 2014 here.

Looking for the best car stereo head units available this year?  Look no further.  The Car Stereo Chick will show you her top 3 picks for single din head units in 2012.  At my store, I carry Alpine, Kenwood and Pioneer.  I feel these are extremely strong brands in car audio and provide consumers with a great mix of features, sound quality and reliability.

Best Single Din Head Unit from Alpine for 2012

By far, the CDE-HD138BT will be my number one selling single din head unit from Alpine this year.

Buy the CDE-HD138BT on sale!

It’s packed with features every consumer will benefit from:

  • 3 preouts, 4 Volt rating
  • 5 or 7 Band Parametric EQ adjustable per source (Media Xpander Pro)
  • Built in crossovers
  • SiriusXM ready
  • Built in Bluetooth
  • Bluetooth Audio Streaming
  • Bluetooth Plus for easier phone pairing, text message alert for select devices, call waiting functionality and Android & Blackberry Pandora control through Bluetooth Audio connection
  • iPhone Pandora control through USB connection
  • Built in HD Radio with iTunes tagging
  • Steering wheel control ready
  • Front USB/Aux
  • Optional passenger iPod control mode

For customers that demand great features, excellent sound quality and ease of use, I always recommend Alpine.  So what is this head unit missing?

  • Multicolor illumination.  Your choice is either blue or blue.
  • Front only USB.  Not everyone has a nice little storage pocket above or below their stereo for their iPod or iPhone.
  • Lacks digital time alignment.

So your only color option is blue and your USB connection is only through the front of the stereo.  What features are more important to you?  Ease of use, price and pretty colors are often determining factors for my customers.  I’ll tell you the same thing I tell my customers: don’t feel bad about being picky on color choice.  Seriously, you’re the one that has to look it every time you drive your car.

Thinking about buying the CDE-HD138BT online?  Buy from an authorized reseller!  Don’t get duped by rock bottom prices.  Alpine has a strict dealer agreement that every authorized reseller has to sign, including dealers like me.  Part of this agreement is we agree not to advertise their products below the minimum advertised price.  Did you find this head unit priced way below that mark?  Guess what.  It’s not legit, which means as far as Alpine is concerned they’ve never heard of you, the retailer or the warranty that you claim you have.  Only authorized resellers can guarantee you’re receiving A-stock product backed by the manufacturer’s warranty.

So what if you want all that and pretty colors?

Check out Kenwood’s Excelon KDC-X996. Not only does the KDC-X996 add variable color illumination, it also adds some pretty advanced audio control features.

The KDC-X996 from Kenwood Excelon is on sale now!

  • 3 preouts, 4 Volt rating
  • 13 Band Parametric EQ adjustable per source
  • Built in crossovers adjustable slope settings 0, 6, 12, 18 or 24 DB per octave adjustable individually for Front, Rear, Sub and Tweeter
  • Digital time alignment for Front, Rear and Sub
  • Cabin selection and speaker size selection for additional audio customization
  • SiriusXM ready
  • Built in Bluetooth
  • Bluetooth Audio Streaming
  • Android & Blackberry Pandora control through Bluetooth connection
  • iPhone Pandora control through USB connection
  • Android Music Control via USB with Kenwood’s Music Control app
  • Built in HD Radio with iTunes tagging
  • Steering wheel control ready
  • Rear USB/Aux
  • Variable Illumination
  • Optional passenger iPod control mode

If you know how to use an iPod Classic you can figure out how to use the KDC-X996

So what’s the catch?  Well, for some people, Kenwood stereos can be difficult to use.  I feel that if you have an iPod and if you’re comfortable using an iPod, then you will be able to figure out the controls on this deck.  They’re set up very similar to an iPod Classic.

You have a center select button.  Your volume knob circles around the selection button and then you have your track up and down buttons to the sides, and your menu button on top and play button below.  Look familiar?

I’ve always been a huge fan of the advanced audio control features that Kenwood Excelon head units have.  Many of these features are not well explained either by the person/website trying to sell you it or by the manufacturer themselves.  Take for example, the wonderful feature of time alignment.  You may be wondering, what the hell is time alignment and why do I need it?

Time alignment is freaking awesome.  Basically, when you’re sitting in your car, typically the left speaker is going to hit your ears first.  Then the next closest speaker, like the rear driver’s side.  Next is usually the front passenger speaker and last is probably the passenger side rear speaker.  You might not have realized it up until this point, but the slight delay in when the sound waves actually reach your ears greatly effects your sound stage and your overall listening experience.

Digital time alignment allows you to digitally delay the closest speakers so that every speaker reaches your ears at the same time. It’s awesome.  When set up properly, you can sit in the driver’s seat, close your eyes (not while driving) and you will NOT be able to pinpoint where the music is coming from.  It will envelop and surround you creating a truly sublime listening experience.

Digital time alignment is freaking awesome. Sound travels slowly.  This is why you need it.

Other awesome audio tuning features include advanced crossover settings.  Sometimes when doing a full audio system with aftermarket amplifiers, I prefer to use the crossover adjustments within the Kenwood over the crossovers on the amp.  They’re that good quality and fully adjustable with 6/12/18/24 DB per octave adjustments separate for Front, Rear, Sub and Tweeter.  And don’t forget the 13 band EQ.  The KDC-X996 has massive amounts of audio tuning capability.  On the flip side, if you have no clue what you are doing you can make it sound really, really, really bad.  So choose wisely.

What about Pioneer?

Pioneer is generally well known for their successful line of AVIC GPS head units, maybe not so much for their single din options, but this year, they’ve stepped up their game.

Meet the DEH-80PRS.  Pioneer calls it Audiophile Grade.  They’re comparing it to their Stage 4 head unit which features a 31 band EQ and copper chassis.  The Stage 4 head unit also sells for around $1200.  At just $349.95, the DEH-P80RS is presumably a bargain.

Pioneer’s new Audiophile Grade Head Unit

Check out some of the great features:

  • 24 Bit Burr Brown DAC
  • A-hem, correction, THREE 24 Bit Burr Brown DAC’s.  One for high, mid and low frequencies.
  • 3 preouts, 5 Volt
  • Built in crossovers adjustable slope settings 0, 6, 12, 18 or 24 DB per octave adjustable individually for Front, Rear, Sub and Tweeter
  • Auto time alignment and Auto EQ
  • Manual time alignment mode
  • 16 band EQ adjustable for left and right channels
  • Front Aux
  • Dual Rear USB
  • Built in Bluetooth
  • Bluetooth audio streaming
  • iPhone Pandora Control
  • Variable color illumination
  • Steering wheel remote ready

When compared to the competition, this head unit leaves me wanting a little bit more for my money.  It’s not satellite radio ready and it does not come with HD Radio.  However, it does have a nice display and a nice heavy volume knob.  At least the prototype I saw at CES had one.  As far as ease of use goes?  Personally I think Pioneer single din head units are often the more difficult of the bunch.  But it does have 3 DAC’s.

Let’s forget features, who has the best sounding single din head unit for 2012?

Based on the specs, I assume the Pioneer will have superior detail and clarity over the Kenwood and Alpine, but the true test will have to wait until all three have shipped and are on display at our store.  Should you believe the Pioneer hype?  I don’t know, we’ll see (or should I say hear) soon!

Update. The verdict is in! Check it out here.

34 comments for “Best new car stereo head units for 2012

  1. Ro
    October 19, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    Hi Annie,
    I’ve been reading your blogs for several months now and just wanted to start by saying thanks for the friendly, insightful reviews and consultations. It’s surprisingly tough finding good car electronics reviews, so kudos.

    Had a quick question regarding the Kenwood and Alpine decks you reviewed. I am considering the Kenwood X696, but what is typically the mic quality, sound quality, and pairing ease with the Bluetooth on these decks? Thanks much.

    • November 5, 2012 at 9:17 pm

      Hi Ro,
      I’m happy you find the blog helpful! Although I’ve been slacking on new posts lately…Anyways, bluetooth sound quality is generally good among Kenwood Excelon decks and they pretty much all have some kind of adjustments as far as handsfree sound quality goes. I think Kenwood uses the same mic for all of their decks actually. At least they look the same and are packaged the same way. Pairing is a cinch nowadays with most decks, Kenwood included and phones and firmware is typically updated once a year as new phones come out.

  2. Bobery
    October 16, 2012 at 7:10 am

    Hi Annie,
    i am currently in the process of putting together a sound system and would require your expertise? 🙂 don’t want to go too cheap but not overly expensive either. just in the middle so it is worth the upgrade and time

    i am looking for the Best 6.5 splits for the front and am wondering what speakers for the rear parcel tray?, i hear 6x9s are useless if using a sub.. also what amp to run the front and rear sets
    Is JL Audio 10w3v3 a good sub? what amps would you recommend to run this sub single? and dual?
    much appreciated 🙂

    • November 5, 2012 at 8:56 pm

      Hi Bobery,
      JL Audio. C2 component speakers are nice option in the middle, but will still be huge difference over stock.
      Rear fill optional and personal preference. I wouldn’t say if you have a sub 6×9’s are useless, they’re hardly playing the same frequency range as a sub!
      Check out XD series for amps. XD400/4 for interiors. XD 600/1 for sub assuming you buy the single voice coil 4 ohm sub. This gives you some flexibility in expanding later on, same amp will power two W3’s (single voice coil 4 ohm).
      Happy system.

  3. stimpy
    October 4, 2012 at 9:07 am

    G’day Annie,
    I have a 5 channel amp that puts out 50 W rms x 4 channels @ 4 ohms and 1 x 200 W @ 4 ohms. what would your reccomendation be for 6″ front splits (must be 6″ not 6 1/2″) and 6 1/2″ 2 or 3 ways for rear, and 1 8″ or 10″ sub for boot? I was looking at getting JL audio speakers and sub. I’m not trying to make a mobile nightclub just chasing clarity when i crank it up a few notches. Mainly listen to rock music.
    Thanks

    • October 7, 2012 at 7:45 pm

      Hi Stimpy,
      JL Audio does offer speakers in 6″. Based on your power ratings, I suggest their C2 series speakers and the 10″ W3 for a sub. Unless you have a tiny little 2 door coupe/hatchback, I think an 8″ is usually too small surface area for most sedans. And if you listen to rock, a 10″ will give you a tighter deeper kick, it will sound better than an 8″. I definitely recommend either buying it with the JL sealed enclosure or having a custom box built to manufacturer spec. Enjoy!

  4. Ruben Saenz
    September 28, 2012 at 1:00 am

    Hello Annie, This is a great site and I really appreciate all of your expertise! I am going to purchase the x996 and was wondering if this would be a good match for my Infinity Kappa perfects. Thanx

    • October 7, 2012 at 6:30 pm

      Hi Ruben,
      The awesome EQ features will allow you to get the best sound possible out of your speakers. Make sure to check out my post on how to use an equalizer, it’ll make the process a lot easier.

  5. Dante
    September 27, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Hi, have you compared the pioneer deh 80prs and kenwood kdc x996 tuned at their best/ optimum with same drivers? Btw, i also love morel speakers, they are so sweet to the ears even on loud volumes. Thanks!

    • October 7, 2012 at 6:07 pm

      Hi Dante,
      I’m glad to hear we share the same taste in speakers! We did our A/B listening comparison with a few different speakers and with and without an amplifier (JL JX 360.4 or deck power) and used the same test tracks from the same iPod. I think I should have really titled the article “Best sounding digital to analog convertor” because the whole idea was really to see which head unit had the most natural and real sound reproduction and really I feel in my experience, the best way to do this is listening with all of your EQ tools and settings off. The best EQ in the world can’t make up for a so-so DAC. You need to start with clean and natural audio reproduction and use the EQ just for correcting for imbalances that occur due to the acoustic environment that the audio is being reproduced in. In terms of tuning tools, the Kenwood and Pioneer are pretty similar except for separate left and right equalization with the Pioneer which is an added level of control.

  6. Dale
    September 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Hi, I just installed the kenwood KDC-400U, and I listen to Pandora thru my I-phone 4, the problem I’m haveing is when I get a incoming call, it rings thru my speakers, but once I answer the phone, I don’t hear the voice thru the speakers , I have to talk thru the phone. How do I get it to work by talking thru the speakers.. Now I am useing the charging plug when listening to pandora that’s connected to the USB port..

    • October 7, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      Hi Dale,
      Sorry buddy but you should just buy one with Bluetooth built in kind of like this one. Or just use the headphone jack instead. it won’t sound as good though because you’re using the internal amplifier for the headphones as well as the Kenwood amplifier when you hook it up this way. And it won’t charge it either. Can you exchange it maybe?

  7. Chase
    September 5, 2012 at 5:26 am

    I own the 80 prs and you have one thing slightly wrong in your points about the dsp. you can choose, by flicking a switch on the bottom of the deck and hitting the reset button, between high/mid/sub and front/rear/sub. it makes this a sweet unit to run full active, i’d recommend it! i’ve never heard or used the other units so i dont really have anything to compare to except my stock subaru radio. incredible improvement.

    • October 7, 2012 at 11:55 pm

      Thanks for the correction Chase!

  8. roy
    September 2, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    to add to my post the 80prs has more than one processor in it thats the one i was leaning towards im not concerned about money just want the best head unit so i dont have to worry about not having the sound quality im used to i always used pioneer units and the sound quality was never an issue but now things are different so if i go with some one else just want to make sure im good thanks again

    • September 24, 2012 at 1:50 pm

      Hi Roy,
      If you’re totally about sound quality, details and subtle nuances and you’re mainly listening to an iphone, ipod or ipad – I’d say none of the above. In my Honda Element I’m running an iStreamer, Audison Bit One, Audison Amps and Morel speakers and it’s pretty freaking sweet. The level of detail is fantastic. If you’re mainly using an apple i-something for your source, the iStreamer and some kind of eq/pre-amp (either Audison Bit One, Audio Control has some cool stuff too), I think the DAC in the iStreamer is superior to any aftermarket head unit that I’ve heard. Other wise, based on sound quality DAC alone, the KDC-X996 performed better than the DEH-80PRS (IMHO).
      Annie

  9. roy
    September 2, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Hello im redoing my system now i had two head units one jvc one pioneer and they both were not good sound quality this time i want the best i can get im getting focal components front and rear also tru technology amps im really interested in sound quality even at higher levels so please let me know which unit is the best that i will be happy with years to come with a really good DAC processor cause no one uses cd any more thanks

  10. August 29, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    I have a question about time alignment – if it makes the sound so awesome for the driver so that the sound seems all encompassing…. what about the passenger or people in the back? Does it get worse for them due to improved time alignment for the driver?

    • September 1, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      In response to Samson’s time alignment question – Who cares?! You’re the one driving! LOL

      That’s my response to customers when they ask me the same thing and it usually prompts quite a few laughs, but that’s a great question and there are ways to center the sound stage for Driver and Passenger. You basically push the speakers REALLY far out digitally so you guys are both sitting in the electronically manipulated center of where the speakers hit. Kind of like concert or arena staging. Some head units or processors give you multiple presets for time alignment and EQ for various listening profiles.

  11. Kevin
    August 24, 2012 at 8:35 am

    Which unit(s) has the best, easy to see display for use in a convertible? All the nice features are pretty worthless, if the display gets totally washed out from the sun. I had a bad experience with a KDC-X993 in my Ford Ranger.

    • September 1, 2012 at 5:29 pm

      Hi Kevin. Yeah, the 993 had a bad display. I’d say either the Alpine CDE-HD136BT or the CDE-HD137BT would be good. Both have a much better display than the Kenwood and Alpine is known for being easy to use.

  12. Allen
    August 23, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    Annie,
    I’m 65, appreciate sound quality over multiple features. I’m not likely to use Bluetooth, would use Pandora – but most importantly CDs. For under $250 what do you suggest – to me detail, clarity,authentic or natural transparent electronics that don’t alter the nature of the original source – this matters. Same question for speakers. Do you mind briefly sharing your thoughts? Thanks.
    Allen

    • September 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm

      Hi Allen,
      I think you may want to consider the Kenwood Excelon KDC-X796. It doesn’t have the same audio processing as their top of the line KDC-X996, but it’s under $250 unlike the KDC-X996. It’s also easier to use, but still has a high quality 24 bit DAC.

      Speakers, I always recommend going with a company that specializes in speakers. I sell a lot of Morel speakers from their entry level Maximo series to the mid level Tempo or Virtus all the way up to their higher end Elate series. The Maximo series are a fantastic value and are in the $130 – $200 range and most of my customers prefer those over Alpine or JL Audio at similar or higher price points.

  13. terry johnson
    August 17, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    I like all your post i am so glad that i found your site.I love Alpine units but i had to upgrade this year and went with the Kenwood 996 great sound,What happen to Alpine there units are getting cheap. Everything is only blue, only one line text and sound is not as good as Kenwood. Now i do like the button push on the Alpine i guess i am getting old. I you heard anything on a upgrade to Alpine units. (thank you).

    • August 19, 2012 at 4:11 pm

      Hi Terry,
      I agree with you. These are all things I’ve brought up to my Alpine rep many times. Alpine is a worldwide company and their headquarters are based in Japan. I doubt much of the constructive criticism by consumers and retailers make it up the chain of command to those involved in design and engineering. Maybe posting on and writing on blogs like these can help raise their awareness. Or ask them on their Twitter page maybe.

      I’m happy to hear you like the Kenwood 996 sound quality. If I ever get a chance to speak with one of their head unit designers or engineers, I will gladly forward your comments and questions and let you know what I find out. Thanks for posting!
      Annie

  14. Steve
    July 19, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Hi Anne,

    Nice writeup on these decks. I just upgraded from an old Alpine 9883 (with bass engine pro – why oh why did they stop making that) to the kenwood X996. I’m currently running all stock otherwise since I’ve had this car for less than a month. As I start putting my amps, subs, and components in from my last car I will need to use the built in crossover for an active 3-way setup (tweeter, midbass, sub). I’ve been playing with the crossover for the last couple days and can’t for the life of me figure out how to set it to 3-way mode so I can high-pass the tweeters around 2khz, and lowpass the midbasses at about the same. The manual and advertisement seems to promise this ability, as did the crutchfield rep I talked to, but I’m afraid I might have to start searching for another deck if this isn’t possible. I have some in-car frequency response plots from my omni-mic RTA of stock deck vs kenwood deck on stock speakers in a 2012 VW golf in you’re interested, major improvement so far.

    • July 29, 2012 at 7:07 pm

      Hi Steve,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I did see that option as well when I was scrolling through the manual one day and was surprised to see tweeter crossover as an option. From what I can see, you first have to set what is considered your “front speakers” and your “rear speakers” in speaker Pro Setup Speaker Settings Menu. See pages 49 and 50 of the owner’s guide. That will allow you to set your front speakers as your tweeters, your rear speakers as your front door speakers and your sub as your sub. Once that is set, you should be able to go back to the X-over menu and select your frequency for tweeter, then front and sub. If that doesn’t work, let me know (I’m just reading the manual at home right now, not at the shop with a working model). It doesn’t appear that you would be able to low pass the mid basses though, just high pass. Maybe that’s what’s throwing you off?

      I would be interested to see the before and after RTA plots. I have yet to get around doing a video post on tuning using an RTA (that was the next post to come), so it could come in handy if I wanted to write a post instead and have something to show readers. You can email it here.

  15. Scott
    June 17, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Hi Annie,

    I am close to purchasing either a Kenwood x996 or a Pioneer 80PRS. Thanks for doing the youtube comparison of these two. I’m wondering if it was fair to compare the two units untuned and flat. The Pioneer has an auto eq with provided microphone. It would be interesting to see a rematch with each deck tuned to it’s optimal sound capability using the eq and time alignment. Maybe it isn’t possible using the sound board at your shop, but if possible, this would be very interesting. I heard a Kenwood BT901 the other day vs the new Alpine 138BT. The Kenwood sounded much clearer and better to my ears. Thanks for providing excellent feedback on the new single din offerings. Regards, Scott

    • June 18, 2012 at 11:10 am

      Hi Scott,
      I agree I should check out the auto EQ feature in a car, but as far as raw sound reproduction comparison, especially in an environment where there’s really nothing to correct or account for (sound board), I find it best to listen flat and just listen for the most accurate, natural, lively sound reproduction. The Pioneer was definitely better than the Alpine, but what I’m listening for is the quality of the DAC and how naturally and lively it reproduces sound without any additional enhancement or correction.

      If you start with the cleanest, most natural sound reproduction at flat, even with fine tuning, you will most likely still have more accurate, natural and lively sound reproduction in the car. Start as clean as possible so your chances of finishing clean and naturally are better. EQ’s are really just for correcting for imperfections in certain frequency levels that occur in the car due to cabin size, speaker location etc. They’re really not for enhancing or adding detail/clarity to what the head unit can reproduce. I think that many people misunderstand what an EQ is actually for and how to properly use it. You’ve inspired me! I think I will write a post on EQ’s and tuning using an RTA app with pink noise.

  16. Erol
    May 9, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Do u have update info about best sounding single din head unit? 80prs or Kennwood?
    Thanks

    • May 15, 2012 at 10:44 pm

      Hi Erol,
      We did get a chance to get the 80prs on display and I have to say I was not overly impressed. I think Kenwood’s basic excelon deck had better sound quality than the 80prs. I did a quick comparison with both eq settings to flat, no bass boost, no crossovers, etc. Basic Morel speakers being powered off the head unit, no sub. The Kenwood just had more detail and clarity. I was listening to a CD when I did the comparison. I will check it against the Alpine 138 next.

  17. Logan
    April 25, 2012 at 5:05 am

    Thanks for the help I have a 6 year old Alpine that is still heads above most single din units that are made today. I’m really liking the adjustments out of the Kenwood will probably go with that one. Plus I think Kenwood makes topnotch Car Audio Equipment. Does the Kenwood have an external mic for bluetooth calls? Can you also dim the screen for driving at night?

    Thank You

    • May 4, 2012 at 11:51 am

      Hi Logan,
      I’m happy I could help! Yes, the Kenwood mentioned here (and most of them) have an external mic for Bluetooth and also have a lot of adjustability when it comes to tweaking the Bluetooth sound quality (mic gain, noise cancellation, echo cancellation adjustments).

      There are a lot of adjustments for the display. There is an auto feature for the dimmer meaning if your car has a dimmer wire, it will dim the lights when your vehicles headlights are turned on. But it doesn’t have a dimmer in the same manner that your vehicle’s dimmer may work like a dial adjustments. There are two manual adjustments for dimmer as well. I think more importantly there are a adjustments for reversing the display illumination which I find helpful. Instead of the text being color on black background you can make the background the color and the text black so it’s easier to see. There are also contrast adjustments as well. Take care and thanks for checking out the blog!
      Annie

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