Update – Check out the 2014 review here

Recently my sales staff and I had a chance to do an A, B, C listening comparison between what I thought would be the top three single din head units for 2012. We carefully listened to a few different tracks over and over again between Alpine’s CDE-HD138BT, Kenwood’s KDC-X996 and Pioneer’s DEH-80PRS.

In our opinion, the Kenwood KDC-X996 wins hands down. The top of the line Kenwood Excelon head unit proved to have the best sound quality, best mix of features and best audio control. For the full review, complete with hands on demonstration, watch the video below.

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  1. Hi Annie

    The Kenny website says USA Only for the HD Radio portion. Is there an equivalent that supports european tuning?

    Else can the 996 radio support european tuning via a patch or software update?

    Thanks, Chandru

    • Hi Chandru, not that I’m aware of.

  2. Hi Annie. one more thing. I have been using the Clarion EQS746 7band eq. Would the x996 work with this or would I be able to get rid of the Clarion? Thanx Ruben

    • Hi Ruben,
      I think they do have similar sound quality, but I don’t think it’s the same however (lacks the same processing). If you went with the 996 you could lose the Clarion EQ.

  3. Hey Annie, Nice job on the review! I like the Kenwood too! I was wondering will the x796 have a similar sound to the x996 inspite of it not having as much control over the speakers? Thanx! Ruben

  4. Thanks Annie for your detailed and well defined reply, I have been in the world of audio since 16 years and I even asked this question on different forums but unable to get detailed reply by anyone and the only reply I received is “the best sounding” without being defined in detail and hardly anyone can talk about sonic characteristics of any particular Headunit or overall sound system. I agree with you the element of “ life ” is missing in pioneer which I found in Kenwood and it really inspired me after the demonstration, although in the world of car audio most of the people prefer Alpine or pioneer. Apart from that it also depends upon the person preference of individual and genre which he listens to but after all sound reproduction must be natural, accurate which gives a feeling of listening music in studio.

    Great and honest reviews given by you which I really appreciated. Please also give reviews on some other brands of Head units.



  5. In what terms Kenwood win over Alpine and Pioneer?

    can you please explain in detail?

    • The Kenwood had the most natural and lively sound reproduction of the three. The Kenwood had great detail. I could hear things on the Kenwood, that I just didn’t hear on the Alpine. The Alpine also seemed a lot more top end heavy which made its mid range seem lacking.

      The Pioneer was similar to the Kenwood. It was very warm and detailed and it was much better sounding (I thought) than the Alpine, but it had less life to it than the Kenwood. It just seemed a little flat or dead compared to it. The Kenwood had more vibrancy.

  6. Hello there,

    Nice review i must say, well as you stated that Kenwood Sounds the best so could you please explain what best means, does it mean sonic characteristics of sound? or in terms of clarity??

    I feel like all the three head units are good and clean sounding but own different sonic characteristics like:

    Alpine: crispy and bright sounding overall
    Pioneer: Warm sounding, good response of lows and highs, but lack detail, also highs sounds a bit thin.
    Kenwood: A bit forward sounding when it comes to mid and very detailed when it comes to lows and highs.

    So my question is the label of “best” given to kenwood on the basis of sonic characteristics or certainly it is the most clean sounding head unit out of three???

    Also do you agree the way i have explained sonic characteristics of all three head unit ?



    • Hi Kzaki,
      I do agree with you 100 percent. I experienced the same and noted the same characteristics as you described between the three.

      What do I mean by best? That’s a great question. I’m looking for the most natural, accurate, and lively sound reproduction. Besides a career in car stereo, I’ve been a musician since I was 5 years old. I’ve played numerous instruments in various bands over my years, even getting to make a few recordings in studios, so I’m always listening for what sounds real.. I want to be able to close my eyes and easily feel as though I’m in a room with live musicians and real instruments. That’s always what I’m working towards. Of course a large part of that comes from the quality of speakers and amplifiers, but even the best speakers and amps are only reproducing what the source supplies.

  7. I was wondering what media you used for your sound checks. CD?, MP3?, radio?, etc. The reason is that I have a Kenwood Excelon KDC-X792 HU in my car. All the components (speakers/wires, etc) are all aftermarket high end. My problem is though CD’s and MP3 files sound great- nice and lively, crisp clean sounds, the radio sound awful. It’s muddy and sounds like there are no tweeters at all in my car. Just dull sounding. I even swapped it out for another X792 to see if it was my unit. It wasn’t. Do you know if that’s because the compressed FM quality is THAT bad compared with digital media, or maybe Kenwood’s FM tuner just sucked that bad. Did you find the same thing w/ the X996. Any thoughts would be appreciated. thanks

    • Hi Bob,
      Because of the temperamental nature of FM/AM reception, and the ever growing demand for digital media via smart phones/iPod, I have never really put any time into comparing sound quality among the FM/AM tuner of the brands that we carry. In general, especially in our area (Danbury, CT) reception on both bands just seems to suck (for lack of a better word). FM/AM is definitely limited bandwith compared to CD or say an Apple Lossless MP3 file.

      We never use the radio for sound check other than to make sure the radio works on both FM/AM and gets expected reception. We always use CD and iPod for sound check/tuning and all of our music is imported to iTunes (or downloaded from) using apple lossless encoding which in my experience has been the best sounding compression available.

      You may want to play around with “volume offset” which I believe is a source independent adjustment on the head unit you have (meaning you can turn down the source level of other sources to match the source level of FM/AM so there is not a dramatic change in volume between sources). I think that Kenwood also has source dependent EQ. Meaning you can tweak the sound quality specifically for the tuner independent of your other sources.

      Also check to see if “CRSC” is on or off. That is an adjustment that switches the stereo sound to mono when reception is poor. That may account for the lack of top end. Here’s a link to the manual for the KDC-X792.

  8. First, thanks for sharing your wisdom on the web!

    But I was curious if the automatic adjustments on the Pioneer could help it? Not wanting to manually tune a head unit, so you can see what a normal user would get, is a good thing. But ignoring an automatic feature doesn’t seem fair in that situation.

    I know it would make testing harder. You’d probably need to install it in vehicle. But maybe only testing the Pioneer in this way could help to see if the auto timing adjustment and auto EQ help or not.

    • Hi Joe,
      We have used the auto EQ feature that is an option on Pioneer’s double din head units (like the AVIC-Z130BT) and as far as auto EQ goes, I think it did a pretty good job.

      I have not had a chance to try it in the DEH-80PRS yet.

      As far as auto EQ in general from Pioneer vs Auto EQ on say an Alpine (like the old Imprint processor), I say the Pioneer was way better. In general, I have not been a fan of Auto EQ features. We generally try it a few times (presetting one result and then trying another) until we get it optimal. In a very busy shop, it’s hard to maintain complete silence for the eq period.

      More often than not, we usually end up doing it ourselves manually, however you have a VERY valid point. Not everyone knows how to manually adjust the numerous EQ bands, time alignment, phase, etc. and one may benefit from the Auto EQ feature of the Pioneer.

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