Best sounding single din car stereo head unit 2014 KDC-X998
Best sounding single din car stereo head unit 2014 KDC-X998

Best Single Din Head Unit for 2014 – Sound quality is what it’s all about here

Estimated read time: 6 minutes 7 seconds.  Want to read later?

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).

Not the Best Single Din Head Unit for 2014
Not the Best Single Din Head Unit for 2014

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.

KDC-X998 - Best Single Din Head Unit 2014
KDC-X998 – Best Single Din Head Unit 2014

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.


Best Sounding Single Din Car Stereo Head Unit 2014
Best Sounding Single Din Car Stereo Head Unit 2014

Standard Features

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?

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

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.

Best Single Din Head Unit Option 2
Best Single Din Head Unit Alternative – Ease of use and sound quality are at the heart of the KDC-X798

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?

Ready to buy?  Shop Amazon for the best deals.

Recommended Posts


  1. Hi Annie,
    I’m also looking for a good single din head unit and considering Kenwood x998. But your blog has brought forth Sony GS610 as well. My first question to you is were you able to do a distortion test on the Sony? How did it fare and how is Time Alignment performance by the it.

    My second question is regarding the new launch by Pioneer, the DEH-X8800BHS. It is also the current single din flagship by Pioneer which is on a limited distribution. This one seems to be comparable to the Kenwood in terms of specs. Were you able to test this particular model by Pioneer?


    • Hi Sukhjinder,
      I still think Sony all the way. We haven’t tested the distortion on the MESGS610BT, but we did test it with a scope on the XAV-712HD which has the same amp/processor and found it didn’t start clipping until volume 42 (out of 50). The time alignment has basic settings built into the head unit, but if you use the app remote you can do custom time correction settings. I have not seen/heard the DEH-X8800BHS. The last time I tried to order a head unit that was listed as “Limited distribution” on the Pioneer website, I found out it was not available to me – I think it’s a deal that Pioneer may have worked out with some key large retailers like Crutchfield to help them have a competitive edge. I started a post that I still need to finish writing on the Sony decks, I wanted to cover the high end RSX-GS9, the MEX-GS610BT and the MEX-XB100BT. Hopefully will be done in the next two weeks!

      • Hi Annie,
        I cant make up my mind. Will you please do it for me? I have a 02 325Ci BMW with the Bavsound upgrade kit 1 which I am not happy with but i think putting a new head unit will help alot. I am thinking about getting the MEX-GS610BT or the MEX-XB100BT. Just pick one and I will order it right away. Thanks Annie!

      • Hi Eric, sorry for the late response, in this case I would say go with the higher powered unit, the MEX-XB100BT.

  2. Hi Anne,
    Thanks for the wonderful post. I’m also looking for a head unit with time alignment, good EQ, easy to use and support for more than 255 files in a USB folder. My old Kenwood U449 supports only 255 files at most in a folder.
    How about sharing with all of us your choice(s) of Head Unit this year. I’m confused between Kenwood 998 and Alpine (62BT, 164BT) and Clarion 703. I have not seen much info on US websites regarding Clarion 703, it seems it is not released in US.

    Wishing you the very best!


    • Hi Sukhjinder,
      I think I may have responded to your question somewhere else, but one thing I don’t know about the Sony I like (MEXGS-610BT or MEX-XB100BT) is how many folders it can read. I do like the Sony products better than the Kenwood Excelon KDC-X998 for sound quality and reliability. Clarion is weird, they just are no longer selling through dealers or distributors in the US so I don’t know what that means for them as a company. I will say they were never high on our list throughout the 16 years I’ve been doing this. I’m sure they’ve had some good stuff along the way that I probably missed, but I don’t trust any company that removes all line of support to its end use consumers – eliminating US dealers and distributors makes me think they are getting ready to get out the 12 volt industry.

  3. I have the Sony MEX-GS610BT and I do not know if I am imagining things but I find MP3s and CDs sound really good but the FM radio seems poor. The high end is dull and uninspiring.

    • That is typically true of any aftermarket head unit, CD or iPod will usually always sound fuller. A CD (like bought from the record store, not necessarily an MP3 CD) is 1411 kpps and depending on what type of MP3 format you are using the sound quality may be lossless format and much like CD. Studies have shown from a listening perspective, FM is comparable to 300 kpps, so it sounds more hollow/compressed.

  4. I see you recommend the Sony MEX-GS610BT. So how does the Sony MEX-GS600BT compare to it?

    • It’s basically the previous year version – also great sounding!

  5. Hi Annie,
    I’m considering the MEXBT4100P for my regular cab pickup since my 10 year old sony deck has some issues. Not concerned with all the tech features I just want good quality affordable sound. Pioneer 6x9s in the doors and 5 1/4 behind the seat.
    Would you recommend this deck or should I go for the MEX-XB100BT?

    • Hey Dave, you’ve probably already purchased something, but I do like the MEX-XB100BT. The extra power just makes it much cleaner, even at lower volumes.

      • I ended up buying a CDX-GT57UP deck because it was so cheap, on sale for $50. Can’t believe how great this cheap deck sounds in the truck. Sony has come a long way in car stereos.
        It makes me wonder how much better the MEX decks would sound.

      • Thanks for the feedback Dave, I’m glad you are enjoying the Sony deck. I think because they’re such a huge company and make so much more than just car stereo, they can probably source the parts at a much lower cost, but yeah, it’s impressive!

  6. Hello Annie,

    I have read a couple of your reviews and I reckon they are pretty well correct…this is audio after all so it is totally objective!

    However I simply cannot believe that anyone would recommend Sony…for anything. I’ll make it simple I guess!

    I live in Australia if that makes any difference but seriously…Sony are the laughing stock of car audio. They are sold at the cheapest of cheap retailers. No half a**ed retailer over here would stock Sony, let alone the few good ones you have.

    Getting more specific though…sound is great; I notice you emphasise that with your setup the Kenwood sounds ‘warmer and more dynamic’ and all those horribly subjective words that really don’t quantify anything (not trying to have a go at you! I apologise but I am just being as ‘unoffensively’ pragmatic!).

    What does interest me MASSIVELY is the Alpine units to essentially step in as an active crossover for a 2.1 system. Time Alignment, Crossover (that is band pass on both full range pre-outs), obviously separate channel level but I think I neglected a 10 band Parametric EQ! With the ability to shift frequency adjustment point but also Q (shape, whatever) factor and of course level.

    I will grant that the Sony unit has an extra voltage on the pre out…plenty of documented tests that show a 2V is unlikely to hit a little more than 1V output, a 4V will maybe get into the 3V range barely…you can see where I am heading. From 2V – 4V…do not get me wrong; it is completely necessary and pretty much the norm now anyway. 4V – 5V…cool.

    I did not read enough on the Sony unit to ascertain if it had similar specs with active crossover ability etc. so I will not comment further on that particular unit or any other Sony HU.

    However the moral of my anecdote is that what you may find ‘warm, tinny, dynamic, flat, vibrant….’…I love those words! They mean absolutely nothing when you have a parametric EQ and essentially a full active crossover on board. You think it is flat , couple buttons later you will feel that it is warm and give it props….

    I just think a little more focus on the real nitty gritty of the unit would help people a little more.

    I seriously have to even ask the question of whether you are sponsored by Sony. If I came into ANY SINGLE INSTALLER (even the rubbish ones) with the JL/Morel setup you mentioned (Morel are EXCEPTIONAL. JL are VERY GOOD as well but at the price range you are talking about with that setup I would go elsewhere than JL – I have gone elsewhere – but that is nit picking)…on top of that fantastic gear I had a Sony HU…I would be laughed out of every single place. Some of the more questionable ones would beat me unconscious and take the Morel and JL gear and leave the Sony HU just perfectly in place in the dash!

    Allow me some hyperbole but that also raises another query…not many people with full Morel and JL set-ups are running lowish type decks with it! They will also have a separate DSP on board as an absolute certainty and will be running active. So that makes this review really, really…useless.

    I mean absolutely no personal offence to you whatsoever! I apologise if any has come across because it has been intended purely as an objective assessment! 🙂

    However for me – and this is me personally, others may and are entitled to feel different – but;
    1. Sony have a name that is in the mud. Kenwood is not very far behind. Comparing them to Alpine is comparing a nice fresh apple to one that is a month old and been left in the sun and kicked a few times. Any Alpine or Pioneer deck that I have installed or worked with has been fine. No problems. I haven’t installed a Sony or Kenwood and don’t intend to get my hands filthy like that!
    2a. At this end of the spectrum the emphasis on ‘how it sounds’ (especially coupled with high end equipment) is going to be purely subjective…I will go as far as to say it is irrelevant.
    2b. I say this because the emphasis should be drawn towards the ability to equalise, crossover and time align…how it sounds means nothing compared to that. If you don’t like the sound of that crash cymbal then bing-bang-boom and its fixed. Now it sounds ‘warm’ 😉
    3. Useability…? You did touch on the Kenwood being difficult so I grant that but there is a fair bit of knowledge behind what I have just written down…if you don’t know what a crossover or HPF is then you are going to have hell dealing with that and a deck that is cumbersome. Good luck! Either a journey of learning about sound awaits or an insane Frisbee of the head unit out the window….
    4. We come full circle 🙂 as you can see I have painted this into a corner! If you think the Sony is cool then by all means install it…if you have no idea what a parametric EQ is then you had better like the factory settings. These units are geared towards low endish installs…so your review probably suits them well. They are going to have no idea what a pre-out is let alone if it is 2, 4 or 5 volt and what that means then for the rest of the system…don’t even mention a ‘parametricon..? is that a new Transformer?’ 🙂
    5. I have spent about half an hour coming to this final statement. If you want something that sounds good then you have a long journey ahead of you in terms of electrical engineering, acoustic properties and effects, car audio terminology and a hell of a lot more.

    If you want a gosh darn stereo in ya wheels then go with the one that looks nicest….for me those Kenwoods look like a DOS prompt. Alpine takes it for looking nicer. Personally it takes it for a hell of a lot of very tangible reasons but we will leave those out.

    OBJECTIVITY and OBJECTIVITY next time Cable Chick 😛 great work on your reviews and helpful advice to people as well! I truly mean that…you answer some questions in a very polite and kind way where I would be telling the 14 year old that he is 14.5 years late for daddies rusty coathanger.

    That was excessive but best wishes anyway 🙂

    • Hi JW,
      I did take offense at one of your other comments, but I see know from this one was probably not intended. Let me be brief as possible as I don’t have a ton of time, but I do want to respond to your concerns:

      1. Yeah I said the same thing about Sony until I tried it. We had carried Sony a long time ago like in early 2000 and hated it, it was garbage and we hadn’t seen anything we liked from Sony since they used to have a Mobile ES line and the CDXC90. The Sony has more detail and separation. This is something my customer’s have noticed just doing listening auditions on my display board. I can sell anything I want. That’s the beauty of owning your own shop and I choose to sell Sony because it sounds better than anything else (look for the GS line). This is car audio however and every year this stuff changes so ask me again next year and if they (or Alpine or Kenwood or Pioneer) changed manufacturing/components I may tell you differently.

      2. Having a good clean source to BEGIN with is important whenever building an audio system. That is the heart, the SOURCE of where the audio reproduction begins. Start with a poor source and end up with less than stellar results. Start with the cleanest most detailed and accurate source and build from there.

      3. Usability – I still think Pioneer/Alpine units are easier to use, but I still find the Sony easier to navigate than Kenwood and so do my customers.

      4. EQ – the sony has basic preset EQ’s like so many decks these days but it does have a parametric 10 Band EQ/Crossovers for those that know how to use these and will benefit from them. Voltage – again assuming you care about sound quality then you’re probably going to be using an aftermarket amp – obviously a higher voltage output is more desirable in this case.

      5. I always tell my customers you have to balance what’s most important to you and in most cases there is a sacrifice for some features to gain others. Always figure out what your most important features are and make your selection based on those key points.

      Maybe you should start a blog in Australia. In the US people like to change their head units and generally don’t have the cash for things like Alpine’s PXAH800 processor or Audison’s Bit One. They’re looking for a great stereo with a great value and I show them what their best options are based on their car, their needs AND their budget.


  7. Hi Annie .
    I found your review recently !
    I’m very confused to buy a good headunit !
    I used to have and old pioneer 5850mph that only support cds . it sound not too good and not bad . a bit harsh in high range .
    so I get and kenwood x400 , (search kenwood austriala , I don’t know which model this is in us) .
    it was good , the natural of sound was good but the deatail is not .
    so I go for alpine units and I buy an alpine 145e (search alpine austrlia again 😀 ) ,
    it has many future and its like 149hd but it sound articialy ! the high range is so crisp and midrange is clear but its not sound natural ! I don’t know how to describe , but I don’t like the sound of that .
    in any case I only got one pair of soundstream sc-6t without amplifire , but I want to go for a audison voce k6 + granzero 12sq or a better setup , but I stiil lack in the headunit .
    the highest model of kenwood here is kenwood 8019bt (austrlia) or BT92SD in Europe .
    do u know how dis kenwood sounds ?
    does it good as the 988 ?!
    and the other one is kenwood 7056bt in (austrila again) .
    I don’t know to buy which or what to do .
    I think my taste in music is more likely to you .
    a warm and natural and clean and good detailed sound ! everything together 😀
    I want sq .
    so some of my options is
    pioneer 80prs
    kenwood 8019 or 7056
    clarion dxz 586 or dxz 766 .

    I heard to many about clarions unit sounds , but I don’t like to depend/waste more money to test headunits .

    so what u will advise to me to doo ?

    thanks u a lot .

    • Do they have Sony over there? I really like the Sony GS series. We do a lot with their MEX-GS610BT, MEX-XB100BT and XAV-712HD.

  8. Hey there! I’m trying to decide between the Pioneer DEHX9600BHS and Sony GSMEX610BT. I already have a Pioneer DEHX6600BT I feel I should say, because I am upgrading solely for higher voltage preouts and a better EQ. I am installing a SQL system in a 2004 E46 Bmw, no harmon kardon. I have a 4 channel kicker zx350.4 and a cx1200.1 not yet installed, also going to sound deaden trunk and front doors. Have JBL PS662 for the front and JBL GTO638 for rear. And am going to purchase a JBL GTIMkii 12″ for bass, I have a vented 2.00cu ft enclosure tuned to 33hz for it. So I plan to install this and then decide whether I should upgrade my head unit again but I feel like I will end up doing so. Which is better do you think?

    • Easy – Sony all the way baby. It will blow you away the night and day sound quality difference between your DEHX6600BT and the Sony. It’s so much more detailed, warmer, vibrant and 5 Volt preout. I have a Sony in my Jeep. The Pioneer’s don’t really get into high SQ until you get into the double din range like App Radio 4 and all the NEX models. They just don’t put high SQ processors in their single din stuff. But I do love the DEH6600bt/DEHX6700BT for people that need a new stereo for straight up bluetooth and USB/Aux. I sell a ton of those at our shop. For an entry level bluetooth radio, it’s pretty awesome. For anything more than that go with Sony GS MEX-GS610BT. PLUS the matte finish looks great in the BMW dash vs the glossy black Pioneer uses.

      • Kenwood better then sony for car audio……………………………………

      • Not in my most RECENT experience. I need to do a post for 2015, Kenwood’s not as good as they used to be and I think that has a lot to do with their merger with JVC. The Sony MEX-GS610BT seriously sounds better than the KDC-X998 or any Alpine head unit. Just more vibrant, natural, warmer, detailed, more clarity. It’s not just me, I demo it to customers and they pick that up too and will choose the Sony based on the demo because it’s really not what you usually think of first when it comes to an SQ head unit.

      • Hello Annie, You’re the best car stereo expert, everytime I do a search, your articles are always the best ones so I wanted to ask about how should I set the Parametric Equalizer on my Kenwood KDC-U453. I would like clarity for bass guitar (low range), keyboard melody (mid range) and hi-hats (treble range). I like “bright” sounds, not “warm” sounds.

        >> Bass: I have the choice of selecting between 60Hz and 200Hz and the available Q values are between 1 and 2

        >>> Mid: Frequencies are between 1000 Hz and 2500 Hz, Q values between 1 and 2.

        >>>> Treble: Frequencies are between 12500 Hz and17500 Hz, no Q values obviously.

        >>>>> The power adjust levels are beween -8 and +8 for all three settings.

        My car is a hatchback, so instead of the metal trunk lid as a resonator for the subwoofer, it’s just a layer of carpeted plastic LOL

      • Hi David,
        Unfortunately it’s kind of impossible for me to tell you the best way to set everything without hearing it myself. If you haven’t check it out already, I have a post on how to set the EQ. You’ll want to play pink noise through the stereo and use an RTA to analyze the frequency levels, then use the photo I have in the post labeled Plotted ideal RTA curve and you want to adjust the EQ on the radio so that the response you get from your RTA analyzer matches as close as possible to the ideal curve. I hope that helps!

  9. […] The KDC-X998 features advanced equalization control, however it may be a bit more difficult to use for some consumers than the KDC-X798.  For an in depth review on both, check out my post here. […]

  10. […] The KDC-X998 features advanced equalization control, however it may be a bit more difficult to use for some consumers than the KDC-X798.  For an in depth review on both, check out my post here. […]

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *