Hands on review, the best single din head unit for 2012

Best Single Din Head Unit 2012

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.

Alpine reveals new head units, amps, speakers, backup cameras and more in their 2012 lineup of car audio

During CES 2012, the Car Stereo Chick had a chance to visit the Alpine booth.  Amazingly, Alpine has redesigned and revamped almost everything they offer in car audio.  Check out the new Alpine products arriving in 2012.

New Alpine head units to be released in 2012

Typically, most brands will redesign and reveal a new line of head units each year and showcase the new models at CES.  Often times the changes are minor over last years model.  Sometimes they only upgrade or change a few models in their line up.  Every 3 years or so, you usually see a speaker and amp redesign.  This year, Alpine has made aggressive changes across the board in their car audio products.  After a few years of dismal head unit offerings, including quirky and disappointing navigation systems, it’s good to see Alpine has taken this year as an opportunity to grow and excel.  Remember the ever annoying adapter upon adapters that were necessary for adding basic features that other manufacturer offered built in?  Thankfully, that is now a thing of the past.  The only add on I found this year for Alpine head units was for adding SiriusXM.  No longer is it necessary to add on a separate Bluetooth module or HD module, just pick the head unit with the features you want built in.

Alpine’s new CDE-134HD includes builtin HD Radio

Take a look at all the choices we have here for single din Alpine head units in 2012.  Starting with the CDE-133BT at $159.95, you will get features like built in bluetooth handsfree and audio streaming along with being steering wheel remote ready.  Next up would be the CDE-135BT at $189.95.  The CDE-135BT will add additional features like Pandora control with iPhone, Blackberry and Android using their Bluetooth Plus technology.  Bluetooth Plus eliminates the need for entering a pass code upon pairing.  It also allows for control over Pandora when paired with devices like Android and Blackberry. For $10 more, the CDE-136BT will give you a little more flexibility with expansion as it includes 3 pre-outs.  Both units have a front USB/Aux with an optional USB mass storage mode.

What about HD radio you ask?  The CDE-HD137BT adds HD radio to the list of features for only $219.95.  If you’re looking for a no frills HD radio, the CDE-134HD for only $179.95 will get the job done.  For those that want all the features in a single din option, you’ll want to check out the CDE-HD138BT.  The CDE-HD138BT includes Bluetooth Plus with Pandora control on iPhone, Android or Blackberry, built in HD Radio, three 4 volt preouts, and it’s SiriusXM ready.

Other offerings in the line up this year include a nice, easy to use, basic, double din head unit.  The CDE-W235BT features large easy to use controls, front USB/Aux and built in bluetooth for only $199.95.

Speaking of double din, Alpine is proud to offer 4 different double din AV units in 2012 starting with the IVE-W530 at $449.95.  The IVE-W530 has a 6.1″ touch screen, 3 band EQ, 3 preouts, rear USB port, built in Bluetooth, along with being steering wheel remote ready and including an optional app mode for iPhone.

Step it up to the IVE-W535 for $699.95 and you’ll add a 4 volt pre-amp section, HD Radio, Bluetooth Plus and you’ll have the option to add SiriusXM.  With the app mode, you’ll have the option of accessing the navigation app from your iPhone.  It’s unclear to me whether or not you’ll have control over the navigation from the screen using the app mode.  The app mode cable feature will not be available until August 2012, even though the compatible double din A/V units are expected the ship in April or May 2012.

The technology to be able to control your phone from your screen is called Mirror Link.  Currently, there aren’t even any phones on the market capable of Mirror Link.  Alpine is testing prototype phones and Sony had their own prototype head unit on display with a prototype Mirror Link cell phone.  When Mirror Link does make it to the market, it will completely change (once again) the way aftermarket car audio manufacturer’s design their head units.  The only downside to this technology is you are still relying on your data plan, which may not be unlimited and you are still relying on your cell service.  Drive through a dead zone and you’ll lose your navigation signal.  For those looking for a more reliable navigation option, Alpine is offering the INE-S920HD.

The INE-S920HD will feature the same 6.1″ touch screen offered in their IVE-W530 and IVE-W535, but it includes an on board navigation system.  Unlike Alpine’s previous navigation systems, the navigation screen on the INE-S920HD has a nice high resolution picture with recognizable graphics and large, easy to use icons.  A clear favorite buttons allows users to customize their home screen with 8 different selections.  Program your favorite source, favorite channel, favorite contacts, favorite addresses and easily access them with the touch of a button.  A nice large volume knob adds to the ease of use on this Alpine navigation system.

As well as being SiriusXM ready, the INE-S920HD also includes HD Radio built in.  For those looking for better control over their audio system, the INE-S920HD features a 9 band parametric EQ along with easy to program digital time alignment.  Access the audio menu and simply select your cabin style, the number of speakers in your cabin, speaker size, speaker location and listener position.  The Alpine double din navigation system will automatically customize, adjust and implement individual speaker delays to create a balanced and centered sound stage.  With an expected release date of March 2012 and a sale price of only $999.95, I expect this to be one of Alpine’s best selling navigation systems of all times.  I know that sounds drastic, but they really haven’t had a competitively priced, full featured, quality navigation system in well over 6 years.

Alpine’s INE-Z928HD features an over sized 8″ touch screen for $1499.95

Even more innovative than the INE-S920HD is the over sized 8″ navigation system, the INE-Z928HD.  The INE-Z928HD does something that Kenwood and Pioneer haven’t even thought of.  It provides a larger than double din, OEM style screen for the newer vehicles on the market that can accommodate larger than double din navigation systems.

Working with Scosche Industries, Alpine will be releasing specialized dash kits just for these over sized 8″ navigation systems along with true plug and play wiring harnesses that will make installation a breeze.  For example, let’s say you have a new Chevy Tahoe, equipped with Onstar and steering controls, and you want to install the INE-Z928HD.  Alpine will not only be offering the dash kit you need, they will also be offering an all inclusive wiring harness.  This true plug and play wire harness will be pre-wired and will include a preprogrammed steering wheel control module as well as your Onstar retention module.

Prototype Double Din Dash made by Alpine and Scosche Industries for the INE-Z928HD on display at CES 2012.

Now that you’ve picked out the right AVN unit for your vehicle, which back up camera would you like to select?  There have been many recent advancements in OEM back up cameras and it looks like Alpine has taken notice.  This year they are offering a competitive aftermarket back up camera with moving object sensing technology.  Take a peak at the HCE-C305R.  With a 180 degree viewing angle, park assist lines, moving object detection and four optional view modes, this back up camera has the most features out of all the back up cameras Alpine has ever offered.  With a retail price of $499.95, this back up camera is expected to ship in May 2012.

The HCE-C305R back up camera from Alpine detects and highlights moving objects on screen.

Moving right along, next up in the Alpine CES booth was the amplifier section.  Last year Alpine came out with the new X power series amps which were a welcome addition to the limited choices of V Power or PDX series amplifiers.  Boasting similar sound quality and the same Class D technology that is used in the PDX series, the X Power series amps provide consumers a more cost effective alternative to the PDX series without the fancy cosmetics.  This years X Power amps have been given a power boost.  Introducing the all new line of X Power amps from Alpine:

The MRX-V70 is the new X power 5 channel amp from Alpine featuring 60 watts x 4 at 4 ohms and 350 x 1 at 2 ohms.  Retail price $399.95

Alpine is including a redesigned 5 channel amp within their X Power amplifier line up.  The MRX-V70 will put out 60 watts RMS x 4 at 4 ohms and 350 watts RMS x 1 at 2 ohms for only $399.95.  Not shown are the new 4 channels including the new MRX-F35 rated at 55 watts x 4 RMS at 4ohms for $299.95 and the more powerful MRX-F65 rated at 110 watts x 4 RMS at 4 ohms for $399.95.


The all new MRX-M55 puts out 550 watts RMS at 2 ohms. What if you need more power than that? Like enough power for the all new Alpine Type R subwoofer? Take a look at the MRX-M110 boasting 1100 watts RMS for only $399.95.

The new Alpine MRX-M110 will put out 1100 watts RMS at 2 ohms.

Maybe you need enough power for two of the new Alpine Type R subs.  Like 2400 watts RMS.

Alpine’s monsterous new Class D X power amp featuring 2400 watts RMS for $699.95

Alpine has quite a few space saving solutions in their amp line up.  One of my favorites is the KTP-445 which is an inline amp, specific to Alpine head units, which provide 45 watts X 4 RMS and is small enough to hide behind a dash,all for $129.95.  Alpine has improved upon this model by offering a universal power pack with RCA connections and more tuning adjustments for only $150.

Alpine’s new KTP-445U is an efficient, space saving, 4 channel amp for only $149.95..

If you need a powerful 5 channel amp, but don’t want to sacrifice sound quality or space, Alpine’s all new PDX-V9 may be the right amp for you.  The PDX-V9 will give you 100 watts x 4 RMS for your interior speakers and 500 watts RMS x 1 for your sub channel.  An incredibly compact, clean sounding and efficient option for only $699.95.  Compared to JL Audio’s HD 900/5 for $1199.95, the PDX-V9 is far easier on the wallet.  Not only that, I personally believe the PDX line of amps from Alpine have superior sound quality over JL Audio’s HD series amplifiers.

Alpine’s new 5 channel PDX-V9 features 100 watts x 4 plus 500 watts x 1 RMS

One of the more drastic changes in the Alpine line up for 2012 is within their revamped subwoofer line up.  For starters, the all new Type E, Type S and Type R were all designed to perform optimally in the same exact enclosure specifications.  So whether you buy a Type E 12″, Type S 12″ or Type R 12″, they will all require the same enclosure size.  Both the Type S and the Type R subs have almost doubled in power handling.  The all new Type S is now rated at 500 watts RMS and the all new Type R is rated at an impressive 1000 watts RMS.

The all new Alpine Type R released in 2012 handles an impressive 1000 watts RMS.

Still relatively new in the line up is the flat Type R Alpine SWR-T12. The flat Type R subs are one of the best sounding flat line subs I have heard.

The one area of Alpine’s lineup that has not changed this year is their interior speaker line up.  Aside from the price of the raw material neodymium skyrocketing and bringing the price of the Type X components up to $1000, there have not been any changes in their already recently redesigned interior speaker line up.

Overall, I was very impressed with the improvements and changes they’ve made with their 2012 line up.  The one question I had for Alpine, and I couldn’t really get a straight answer on this, is why blue?  I wish they would provide consumers a little more flexibility by providing a multicolor illumination feature like so many other manufacturer’s offer.

I hope you enjoyed this review on the hot new products Alpine will be releasing in 2012.  What product do you see yourself purchasing this year from Alpine?  What features would you like to see that were not included in Alpine’s 2012 line up?  I’d love to get your feedback. If you enjoyed this article, please share it! Tweet it, like it, stumble it, whatever as long as you’re spreading the love. Thanks for reading.

Car Stereo Chick gets you a sneak peak at new Alpine products at CES 2012

Alpine’s new oversized double din navigation system

Alpine has unveiled a fantastic new line of head units at CES 2012. Probably the most eye catching and unique of these new products would be the INE-Z928HD. With an oversized 8″ touch screen, this Alpine navigation system is unlike any other aftermarket double din navigation systems. Alpine is supporting this new model by producing and distributing a line of installation kits that will accommodate this head unit in larger stereo dash openings. The image shown here is from a Chevy Tahoe utilizing one of Alpine’s new installation kits.

The other groundbreaking feature, which I did not see from Kenwood or Pioneer is not only does this baby interface with iPhone and Android for Pandora control, but also Blackberry. Users will be able to plug in their smart phone and access their channels on Pandora radio on screen as well as utilize the thumbs up/thumbs down feature and skip tracks. Alpine was the 1st company I’m aware of to interface with Pandora and it seems they have a little bit of an edge on other manufacturers by also offering this great feature for the Blackberry.


New Alpine INE-Z928HD on display at CES 2012

Alpine will also be offering a standard sized double din navigation system with the same technology. Other great features these new double din navigation systems will include are a 9 band EQ, 4 volt preout section and built in HD radio. I’m also happy to report that the quality of their navigation screen has vastly improved with more detail and clarity than was seen with the INA-W910BT. Expected release date on the INE-Z928HD will be May 2012 with an estimated retail price of $1499 and for your standard double din, the INE-Z920HD, expect to see those shipping in March 2012 with an estimated retail price of $999.

Besides innovative navigation systems, Alpine will be offering two other double din head units with app features in the $600 range and a full line of single din head units with some great features. I was pleased to see Alpine is finally offering a single din head unit that includes technology that most consumers want, without having to add additional modules. One to look out for will be the CDE-HD138BT.

New full featured Alpine single Din head unit unveiled at CES 2012
New full featured Alpine single Din head unit unveiled at CES 2012

The CDE-HD138BT will feature Pandora control for iPhone, Android and Blackberry and will come with 3 4 volt preouts, built in crossovers, a USB mass storage mode for external hard drives, built in HD radio (yay no add ons), built in Bluetooth (one less component to install!) and has a steering wheel remote connection.

One thing I haven’t seen yet is multicolor illumination. Does Alpine think that everyone has blue interior dash lights? I guess we can’t always have it all.  I’ll be visiting Alpine’s booth today to interview a product specialist, maybe I can gain some insight to their illumination color choice.  Regardless of color, the 2012 line up from Alpine appears to be a vast improvement over their 2011 offerings. Check back soon for more details.

What should you buy first when you want a good car stereo system?

Start with the head unit. I’ll teach you about what features you need to look for and why you need them.  Read this before you buy an aftermarket stereo for your car!

Estimated read time: 9 minutes 33 seconds.  Want to read later?


Selection of Kenwood car stereo head units
Kenwood car stereo head units, how do you know which one is right for you?

Most consumers would assume that in order to get better sound, you should upgrade your speakers.  This is true to an extent, but speakers are just one piece of the puzzle.  To get truly improved sound quality, you should be upgrading everything: replacing your head unit and or using a processor, upgrading speakers, adding amps and a subwoofer.  A lot of people can’t afford to do it in all one shot, so where do you start?

Start with your source.  If you have a stereo that can be replaced (in other words it is not integrated into the car’s computer, heat/ac controls and someone makes a nice radio installation kit for it), start with the head unit.  You could put the best speakers in your car, but if you are powering them off the stock head unit you aren’t doing yourself any good.  You are limited by the power and the sound quality coming out of that stock stereo, so no matter how good of speakers you put in it, you’re only going to notice a slight improvement.  You would never reach the full sound quality potential of whatever speakers you put in there until you gave them a good clean source along with proper power amplification.

First off, start with your source and not just any source.  If you are going to be building a nice aftermarket system, start with a head unit that will give you a good foundation for building a nice aftermarket system.  You don’t want to cheap out here.  If you see yourself upgrading speakers, possibly adding amplifiers, you will need to purchase something that gives you the options to add these features later on.

Make sure you buy a head unit that has 3 high voltage pre-outs.  Most aftermarket head units with a higher voltage pre-out section are rated around 4 volts.  The other feature to look for, especially if you are building your system in steps, is built in crossovers that are adjustable.  By having crossovers built in, you will be able to filter out certain frequencies to certain speakers.  Some brands offer this adjustment separately for front speakers, rear speakers and even for the subwoofer.

If a head unit simply states built in crossover, ask the salesperson or read the find print and find out if this crossover is adjustable in any way and if they are adjustable separately for front and rear.  The more flexibility you have, the better you will be able to tweak and adjust the sound in your car.

Built in crossovers will allow you to help build your system in steps.  If you start with the head unit, and your current speakers are working, I usually recommend adding an amp and sub next.  The subwoofer will fill in the bottom end and help create a much larger presence in your overall system.  Subwoofers really balance out the entire sound system.  So even if you are powering your stock speakers off the aftermarket head unit, having a subwoofer will vastly improve your overall sound.

The crossover adjustment will allow you to filter the bass out of your speakers that are currently being powered off the head unit, regardless of whether those speakers are stock or aftermarket.

Being able to adjust the crossover point separately for front and rear in different frequency increments is ideal.  For example, if you have a 2002 Chevy Cavalier, your front speakers are usually a smaller 4”x6” speaker compared to the rears which are usually a much larger 6”x9” speaker.  The 6”x9”’s will be capable of playing much more mid bass than the 4”x6” speakers simply due to the larger surface area of the speaker.  If you have a subwoofer in the car, you are going to want to filter out some of that bass to the interior speakers.  Your sub is designed for playing bass, so let’s let it do what it’s designed for and we’ll let the interior speakers do what they’re designed for.

If you owned a 2002 Chevy Cavalier that came equipped with 4″x6″ speakers in the front and 6″x9″ speakers in the rear, ideally, you would filter out 120 hertz and down from your front speakers and around 60 hertz and down on the rears.  Then you would have the crossover on your amp around 80-120 hertz so that the subs would handle those lower frequencies.  This way every component in your system is playing to the best of its abilities the frequencies they’re designed to play.

The other thing to look for in your aftermarket head unit is an EQ or equalizer.  Try to find something with a 5-7 band EQ. The different bands represent different bands of frequencies that you can increase or decrease.  The more bands you have, the more control you have, but also the easier it is to mess up the sound if you don’t know how to tune a system.  For detailed tuning instructions, make sure you buy my soon to be released E-Book, the Car Stereo Bible, and read the chapter on total system tuning.

The Kenwood KDC-X996 has a 13 band EQ, digital time alignment, built in crossovers and more.

Other sound adjustment features to look for are things like time alignment or time correction.  This allows you to center your sound stage around YOU regardless of where you sit in relation to your speakers.  For example, in your average car, if you are the driver, the driver’s side speaker is the 1st speaker that you hear because it sits closest to you.  The driver’s side rear speaker is usually the next speaker you hear, followed by the passenger side front and the passenger side rear.  To test this out, next time you’re in your car and listening to your stereo (with the car in park, you don’t want to drive and do this), close your eyes.  Try to pinpoint where the sound is coming from.  You are going to notice the speaker that is closest to you.

Through a formula described in the tuning section of my soon to be released E-Book ,the Car Stereo Bible, you will learn how to adjust this feature.  If you purchase a stereo that comes with time alignment, there should also be a section in the stereo’s owner guide describing the procedure necessary for setting time alignment. Through the process of delaying the closest speakers by milliseconds, you control what time it takes for each speaker to hit you.  When set up properly, each speaker will hit your ears at the same time.  After setting this up, close your eyes and listen again.  You will not be able to pin point where the sound is coming from.  It will envelop you and the singer’s voice will sound like they’re singing directly in front of you.  It’s very cool stuff, once you have this feature you’ll want to have it in every car stereo system you ever own.

Another really cool feature that certain manufacturers offer (Kenwood in particular) is this thing called Volume Offset.  If you have a vehicle that has an existing premium amplified system and you plan to start by upgrading the head unit and an amp and sub, but plan on keeping the stock speakers (and thus stock amp for now), volume offset will come in handy.

This is true of any vehicle equipped with a Bose amp that will continue to be utilized.  It’s also true of any VW, Audi or BMW with a premium system (most come with it).

Even the KDC-X396 at $129.95 has 4 Volt preouts,

When you replace a factory stereo in these cars, but keep the stock amp and speakers, you are basically creating a double amplification.  You are powering up the stock amp with your aftermarket head unit and you are also using the internal amp in your aftermarket head unit.  So you’re technically amplifying an amplifier.  This can lead to more output, but almost in increments that are too large on the volume knob.  The other issue you may run into is if you then go ahead an add a subwoofer, you have to remember, the subwoofer is only receiving single amplification signal.

At this point, volume off-set will allow you to level match the stock amp with the aftermarket amp, cutting down on the over amplification.  This is just one more feature that will give you more control over the sound in your system leading you to better overall sound quality.

Variety of car stereo head units on display in our store
Various aftermarket car stereo head units to choose from on display in our store.

Now that we’ve covered audio control features for your new aftermarket stereo, let’s talk about general features to look for.  What good will all of these features do if you don’t know how to control the stereo?  If you are not tech savvy and prefer easy to use controls, get in the store and get your hands on the stereos you are considering buying.  Don’t let the salesmen do all the button touching, they should know the product they are selling like the back of their hand.  Ask him or her to run you through the features and simply instruct you on how to access the features you are interested in.  If it feels clumsy or confusing, it will still feel clumsy and confusing when it’s installed in your car.  Make sure you are comfortable and happy with the operating system and user interface, menu’s and all controls and buttons.

How does it look?  Remember, just because the stereo you want may have all the features you are looking for, it still has to be installed in your dash and you’re going to have to look at it almost every day for some period of time.  Does the finish match or compliment your dash?  Are there illumination options to allow you to match or compliment your interior lighting?  Is the display large enough or bright enough for you to see?  These are the kind of things you want to address when considering the overall look and feel of a head unit.

Other important factors to consider when purchasing your new head unit, what kind of reputation does the brand have?  Do they have a long time track record as being a leading car stereo manufacturer?  Has the company changed ownership recently?  What kind of warranty does the manufacturer offer?  What is the warranty process should any part of the aftermarket stereo fail?

Other considerations to make are what kind of cool tech features does the radio have that you desire?  Navigation?  Bluetooth?  A2DP audio streaming?  USB/Aux?  Ask the salesperson what kind of cool technology has come out recently.  Often times that can be your tipping point between picking one model or brand over another.  You don’t want to miss out on something cool that might be unique to one brand and even maybe one model in particular, so ask questions.

Ask the salesperson to demonstrate the features you are interested in.   This way you can be sure that they work properly and in a manner that you can understand.  If you wanted the feature of bluetooth handsfree, try your phone with the stereo on the display. If you try pairing your phone and the stereo keeps dropping the bluetooth connection, then it doesn’t matter if the stereo has bluetooth.  If it doesn’t work with your phone, you probably shouldn’t buy it.  Any very important features should be demonstrated so that you can feel confident they will work in the manner you desire.

With all of this knowledge gathered, your decision is kind of like the decision to buy a house.  You can’t always check every thing off your wish list so you need to decide what factors and features are most important to you and make your purchasing decision is based off that.  It will help to write down the features that are most important to you and have that list with you when you go shopping.  The sales person may spout off the features too fast for you to register them, so it helps to have a list that will allow you to clarify which models have the features on your wish list.

What if you don’t have a good car stereo store in your area?  Do as much research as you can online based on the feature list you came up with.  Have a few different models to choose from and then start reading about them.  You can find detailed reviews of products on websites like Crutchfield.com (also a good, reputable source for buying car stereo online) which has user reviews for almost everything they sell.  There are many places to find reviews online.  Keep in mind, some people only write reviews because they’re unhappy with the product and need an outlet to vent.  So be careful from letting one bad reviewer deter you from the product you want.

I still recommend trying to find a store near you that will allow you to speak with a real salesperson that can demonstrate the product that suits your needs.  I have some customers that drive an hour and half away just to be able to do that.  If you end up going down that road, I recommend calling first to speak with a salesperson.  Feel them out, see if they’re genuinely interested in helping you and make sure they carry and display the products you are interested in possibly purchasing.

Audison Bit One Processor
Can’t change your car stereo? Check out the Audison Bit One or Alpine PXA-H800 Imprint Audio Processor

What if a head unit isn’t an option for you?  Then you need to consider a processor that will allow you to integrate better quality aftermarket equipment with your stock head unit.  Brands to check out would be JL Audio, Audison and Audio Control.  These companies have a known reputation for creating excellent integration processors.  You can read more about these options in my upcoming E-Book, the Car Stereo Bible. Thanks for stopping by and reading this post. Good luck shopping for your new car stereo!