Best Single Din Head Unit for 2014 – Sound quality is what it’s all about here
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Kenwood, Pioneer and Alpine are three names that have been in car stereo for more than 20 years (truthfully it’s probably more like 30+ years at this point, but who’s counting really?). They’ve all been around a very long time and have all built very successful brands. Each brand has several different single din head unit models to choose from, but some are more focused on sound quality and performance than others.
In this industry, it’s not uncommon for quality to vary from year to year based on manufacturing decisions, marketing decisions and overall business direction. More and more companies are willing to cut costs and cut corners in order to improve their bottom line. With this in mind, it’s important for me to be aware of who is being consistent and who is slacking off. In this industry, it is necessary to re-evaluate brand quality and performance on a yearly basis within each product category.
Kenwood and Alpine have been fairly consistent over the years and Alpine especially has made some serious effort in getting back to focusing on sound quality and audio control (equalization tools). Yet, they’re still coming up short compared to what Kenwood produces in terms of sound quality and audio control capability. In previous years, Pioneer made a concentrated effort in the sound quality category with their DEH-80PRS. However, in recent years, Pioneer has focused largely on their double din category, app integration and has apparently dropped their focus on sound quality and equalization control in their single din head unit category. As a result, I have omitted Pioneer from this review.
Kenwood eXcelon vs Alpine – the findings
I recently spent some time comparing three top of the line single din head units from Kenwood eXcelon and Alpine: the KDC-X998 the CDE-HD149BT head unit (kind of a carryover from last year) and the CDE-154BT head unit (newest receiver in Alpine’s line up with the latest EQ features Alpine is offering).
I listened to Daft Punk’s “Fragments of Time” utilizing each head units internal amplifier to power various sets of speakers – Morel Maximo’s, Morel Tempo’s, JL Audio C2’s and JL Audio C3’s. For amplifier and subwoofer, I used a JL Audio HD750/1 and JL Audio 10W6V3 in their sealed pro wedge enclosure.
On each single din head unit, I set the EQ’s to flat and made sure to turn things like bass boost and loudness off. The result was that the Kenwood KDC-X998 out performed the Alpine in terms of sound quality. The Kenwood eXcelon head unit was much warmer, more vibrant, had greater detail, clarity and overall richness compared to the Alpine dingle din head unit models. Despite having the same voltage preout (4v), the subwoofer and bass response was much tighter and more pronounced in the Kenwood eXcelon model. All equalization features aside, Kenwood eXcelon produces a better sounding head unit than Alpine.
Kenwood and Alpine are remaining consistent and true to their roots. Alpine has consistently produced what I consider an easier to use product, however they’ve consistently had a sound that emphasizes the upper end frequency range that can come off as almost tinny in comparison to the Kenwood eXcelon product. I believe Kenwood eXcelon has the best sounding single din head unit.
Unfortunately, we can’t have it all. There is a trade off for achieving better sound quality. This head unit comes with the familiar Kenwood eXcelon compromise – it’s not the easiest thing to use. It may even behave a bit quirky at times (get to know where the reset button is), but when it cooperates (which is most of the time), boy does it sound freaking awesome! Well worth any learning curve and occasional quirkiness in my opinion – if sound quality is truly what you’re after.
Sound Quality Audio Control Features
The KDC-X998 head unit is loaded with helpful sound control features, many of which you may find surprisingly beneficial. One such feature I was impressed with is “Channel Level Adjustment” under the Pro set up. This feature allows you to lower output of each individual channel separately. This feature is extremely helpful if you have a vehicle with an awkward or unbalanced speaker set up. Some vehicles, like early model GM’s, have a large size variation between front and rear (example 4×6 in lower front doors, 6×9 in top rear shelf). This kind of control would have been really helpful in balancing out my sound stage in my old car, a 2000 Pontiac Grand Am.
Additional equalization features include:
- 13 Band EQ
- Digital Time Alignment for Front, Rear and Sub OR Tweeter, Mid and Sub (no rears)
- High Pass Filter and Low Pass Filter – extremely adjustable and typically much better quality than what you might find on your outboard 4 channel amplifier (30/40/50/60/70/80/90/100/120/150/180/250 hz with adjustable slope 6/12/18/24 db – when using Tweeter setting crossover choices are 1/1.6/2.5/4/5/6.3/8/10/12.5 khz)
- Awesome DSP Processor allowing for features such as Drive EQ (helps to compensate for road noise frequencies), Supreme (I don’t know from a technical standpoint exactly what Supreme is doing, but whatever it does, it does it right – I would leave this one on), Sound Realizer and Space Elevation (good if your speakers are low in the doors and no separate tweeters)
- Easy preset equalization option for the less tech savvy allowing listeners to simply select Car Type, Listening Position, Speaker Size/Location, even preset Equalization based on genre of music.
- RECALL option – I love this. How many times have you brought your car in for service only to find all of your settings have been erased because the battery was disconnected while your car was being serviced? With this feature you can preset all of your hard work and easily recall your fine tuning efforts.
Aside from sounding awesome, this single din head unit comes with all the standard features you would expect at a very reasonable price.
- Front OR Rear USB
- Front Aux
- Bluetooth for handsfree and audio streaming
- Front, Rear and Subwoofer preouts, 4 Volt
- Multicolor illumination
- Pandora, Aha & iHeart Radio control for iPhone via USB or Android via Bluetooth Audio
- SiriusXM Ready
- HD Radio
- Steering Wheel Control Ready
- Voice Dial – Pressing and holding the phone button prompts the voice control feature of your smart phone so you can easily and safely make phone calls (“Call home…”)
Where are all the buttons?
Okay, so there’s not a lot of buttons on the face of this head unit which definitely creates a clean look, but can make controlling the thing somewhat daunting. Looks can be deceiving, it’s actually not as difficult as it appears. You pretty much control everything through the volume knob.
It’s very much like using an iPod Classic with the volume knob acting as both the spin wheel and center select button. Your back button is the “Search” button located directly to the left of the volume knob. With that in mind, it’s not that intimidating and navigating the various menus and audio options becomes pretty easy.
Disclaimer – If you are admittedly somewhat tech phobic and ease of use is just as important to you as sound quality, this probably isn’t the right Kenwood eXcelon head unit for you. Ease of use lovers out there, don’t despair. Consider the Kenwood eXcelon KDC-X798.
Although this head unit lacks the advanced equalization features of the KDC-X998, the KDC-X798 is still part of the Kenwood eXcelon family and sound quality is still at its core. Equipped with a basic 3 band EQ, the KDC-X798 head unit is able to provide rich, warm and vibrant sound reproduction and maintains that familiar Kenwood eXcelon punch on the subwoofer preout.
I wish Kenwood would produce a top of the line model like the KDC-X998 with the ease of use of the KDC-X798. For whatever reason, their top of the line models have always been a bit more difficult to use than their more entry level options. I don’t know the process Kenwood uses to make their design decisions, but I can tell you what sounds good and it’s the Kenwood eXcelon head units. Please keep in mind, ease of use is a relative term. It’s just like anything else, you just have to try it, learn it and get used to it – especially if sound quality and equalization control is important to you.
So there you have it! Kenwood Excelon once again has the best sounding single din head units for 2014. What do the readers think? Is it worth getting over “ease of use” for sound quality and equalization control?