Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Kenwood DDX5706S

What is the best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019?

When Apple CarPlay first came out in October 2014, we only had two models available to choose from. The Alpine iLX-007 and the Pioneer App Radio 4 SPH-DA120. Having only two models to pick from made the decision process a lot easier. Fast forward to 2019 and there are easily over 50 different Apple CarPlay stereos on the market to choose from. How on earth is the average Joe supposed to know the difference? As a car audio specialist, I have spent quite a bit of time thoroughly learning the subtle differences and nuances from the major brands I carry: Alpine, Kenwood, Pioneer and Sony. This blog post is going to break it all down in order to help you select the best Apple CarPlay stereo 2019 to fit your unique needs, budget and vehicle application. I go over the pro’s, the con’s and the minor differences that only an anal retentive type-A person like myself picks up on. So let’s do this, shall we?

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Where to start?

Apple CarPlay is one of the most highly requested technologies our clients ask for. There are a series of questions I ask my customers to determine the best CarPlay stereo for their needs. Let’s go through them:

  • Do you need a CD player?
  • Are you interested in SiriusXM?
  • Do you care about HD Radio?
  • What is the year, make and model of your vehicle?
  • Is your vehicle equipped with steering wheel controls?
  • Is your vehicle equipped with OEM reverse camera?
  • Is your vehicle equipped with OEM reverse park assist sensors?
  • Is your vehicle equipped with OEM Rear seat entertainment?
  • Is your vehicle equipped with premium sound (JBL, Bose or Harman Kardon depending on vehicle brand)?

I ask all these questions because depending on the vehicle and existing OEM features, sometimes you are better off going with a CarPlay radio that is iDatalink Maestro compatible.

What is the iDatalink Maestro and what does it have to do with the Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019?

Please don’t skip this part, I know it’s long, but it’s worth the read! Understand what the Maestro is and why it matters so you don’t buy the wrong CarPlay stereo for your vehicle. The Maestro flawlessly retains many OEM features in a wide variety of vehicles – GM, Toyota, Subaru, Ford, RAM, Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and VW. In fact, there are many popular vehicles out there which require a Maestro compatible radio in order to retain access to vehicle settings and climate control displays. Examples of popular vehicles that will require the iDatalink Maestro include:

  • 2014-up GM pickups (Sierra, Silverado)
  • 2013-up RAM pickups
  • 2014-up RAM Promaster
  • 2014-up Jeep Cherokee
  • 2015-up Ford F-150
  • 2017-up Ford F-350
  • 2012-up Ford Focus
  • 2010-2014 Ford Mustang

This is not an all inclusive list by the way, just a small sampling. What happens if you buy a non Maestro radio for your Maestro compatible car?

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Ugly Axxess Display
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Ugly Axxess Display

You’ll have to use an inferior Metra Axxess radio replacement interface that probably has some type of ugly aftermarket climate controls integrated into their dash kit or you may have to find a spot to mount an unsightly control module in order to access vehicle settings. Ugh. Who wants that on their dash just so they can change their dash lighting or set their door locks to unlock all doors on one press of the unlock button? These are functions that can be handled through the Maestro when used with a Maestro compatible radio for certain vehicles.

So how do you know if you need to go with a radio that is iDatalink Maestro compatible?

Head over to iDatalink’s demo flash page where you can enter your vehicles year, make and model and select any brand radio and model number from the drop down list. If by chance you have a vehicle that requires the Maestro for installation, you will find that drop down list is limited. Only iDatalink Maestro compatible radios will be listed. This is when you are using what’s called the iDatalink Serial Cable connection.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - iDatalink Maestro Kenwood DDX5706S
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – iDatalink Maestro Kenwood DDX5706S

Although the Maestro is not necessary for installation in every vehicle, you will find there are some vehicles that will have more features and perks available when you install a Maestro and Maestro compatible radio. Additionally, one thing to note – in some vehicles, you can use the iDatalink Maestro with a non Maesto compatible radio via the wired remote input. I did that in my 2014 Wrangler once with a Sony XAV-AX100. It just meant I had less options and features on my radio. The only thing the Maesto did in that install was retain my steering wheel controls. I could have done that with a Pac or Metra steering wheel control adapter too, but the Maestro is pretty easy to flash and set up.

So to recap – some vehicles really need the Maestro in order to retain OEM features such as access to vehicle settings, climate display, reverse camera retention, rear park assist retention and rear seat entertainment retention. In those instances you must use a Maestro compatible radio and the serial data cable connection. In vehicles without all those fancy options to retain, the Maestro can also be used as a steering wheel control module with non Maestro compatible radios. To better understand, take a look at the demo flash below for a non Maestro radio, the Sony XAV-AX1000 (first to be reviewed in the list) and a Maestro compatible vehicle like my 2014 Jeep Wrangler:

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - iDatalink Maestro Sony XAV-AX1000 Jeep Wrangler
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – iDatalink Maestro Sony XAV-AX1000 Jeep Wrangler

Notice in the demo flash above the only thing the Maesto will do with the Sony XAV-AX1000 in my 2014 Jeep Wrangler is retain my steering wheel controls and stock premium amp if equipped. In this example, we are using the Maestro really just a steering wheel control adapter and via the stereo’s wired remote input. However, with my Kenwood DMX7704, I have my Maestro connected via the serial data cable connection and therefore I have a lot more features and options for flashing. Check it out. Same vehicle, same Maestro module, but with a Maestro compatible radio:

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - iDatalink Maestro Kenwood DMX7704s Jeep Wrangler
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – iDatalink Maestro Kenwood DMX7704s Jeep Wrangler

Determining whether or not you have a Maestro compatible vehicle or a vehicle that requires the Maestro is really the first place to start in your best Apple CarPlay stereo 2019 search. Depending on the year, make and model vehicle, you may find that you are limited to a Maestro compatible radio OR, like me, you may prefer the added features gained with a Maestro compatible radio vs a non Maestro compatible radio.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Value CarPlay options that are NOT iDatalink Maestro compatible

I know I probably went overboard on the iDatalink Maestro info, but I felt it necessary to explain as this is a key difference between many models on the market. Most of the great entry level options on the market are not iDatalink Maestro compatible, but they are still very solid contenders. Two extremely popular entry level models I really like are the Sony XAV-AX1000 and Alpine iLX-W650.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Sony XAV-AX1000 CarPlay screen
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Sony XAV-AX1000 CarPlay screen

Sony XAV-AX1000 – Awesome value CarPlay stereo for non iDatalink Maestro vehicles

The Sony XAV-AX1000 is an awesome option for anyone looking for an easy to use, easy to install Apple CarPlay radio. It doesn’t have a ton of bells and whistles, but what it does do, it does very well. Very much like it’s predecessor the XAV-AX100, but with a few key differences. The Sony XAV-AX1000 features:

  • AM/FM Radio – Sony is pretty strong in the tuner section so if reception is important, consider Sony (Kenwood also very good)
  • Bluetooth
  • Front USB
  • Front AUX input
  • SiriusXM ready (SXV300 tuner required)
  • 6.2″ touch screen
  • Reverse camera capable (one camera input)
  • Adjustable park guidance lines (also on/off)
  • 5 different background colors to choose from (cannot upload your own)
  • 10 band EQ
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp output (2 Volt)
  • Built in crossovers
  • Volume knob (kind of rare in this category)

Sony XAV-AX1000 Pro’s

This is a very easy to use radio, yet still has a ton of great features. Since it is a mechless unit (no CD) it can make install a bit easier too since it doesn’t have a full double din chassis behind the screen. There is a single din chassis behind the upper half of the screen and this makes for an easier install if you own an E46 BMW and are looking to convert to a double din. Additionally, the volume knob is a desirable feature for many of my customers and worth pointing out.

Sony XAV-AX1000 Con’s

One thing I always forget about Sony is their subwoofer pre-amp output is mono, so you’ll need a Y adapter if you plan on using it. Probably not a deal breaker, but something to note so you don’t get caught missing installation parts. Additionally, even if you are using this with an iDatalink Maestro, Sony maps out their steering wheel control commands on this model in kind of a funky way. I guess they assume this will be installed in an older vehicle with only a few buttons on the steering wheel like Volume up/down, Track up/down and Source. Sony assumed people would only want to put this in a vehicle that lacks individual Answer, Hang up or Voice buttons. As a result, they have lumped all those commands together. See the mock flash below to better understand the combined commands.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Sony XAV-AX1000 Steering Wheel Control Functions
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Sony XAV-AX1000 Steering Wheel Control Functions

With the Sony XAV-AX1000 – “Source” doubles up as your hang up or reject call button. “Voice” (Siri) also functions as answer and hang up call. For some this is no big deal. For others, you may find this annoying. If you find it annoying, consider the Alpine iLX-W650.

Alpine iLX-W650 – Equally awesome value CarPlay stereo for non iDatalink Maestro vehicles

The Alpine iLX-W650 is a very attractive radio. It features a 7″ glass capacitive touch screen (like the touch screen on your smart phone). It is vibrant and responsive. The icons on this radio are large and the user interface is quite easy to navigate.

Alpine iLX-W650 Review - Home screen pic
Alpine iLX-W650 Review – Home screen pic

Unlike Sony’s XAV-AX1000, the Alpine iLX-W650 does support separate buttons on the steering wheel for mapping Voice, Answer, Hangup/Reject and more.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Alpine iLX-W650 Steering Wheel Control Functions
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Alpine iLX-W650 Steering Wheel Control Functions

The Alpine iLX-W650 is another mechless unit and utilizes a very shallow chassis. This kills me because it would be ideal for the newer GM trucks and RAM trucks that require some major modification in order to accommodate a standard double din, but this model is not Maestro compatible so if used in a vehicle like that you would lose access to modify vehicle settings, climate display, reverse camera, etc. However, it still makes installation in most vehicles easier since there is more room to work with behind the dash and it definitely makes for an easier double din install in BMW E46 body style.

Alpine iLX-W650 Review - Un-boxing Shallow Mount Design
Alpine iLX-W650 Review – Un-boxing Shallow Mount Design

This cute little baby radio has a lot of features packed into its shallow chassis, including, but not limited to:

  • 7″ Glass capacitive touch screen
  • AM/FM Radio (haven’t installed in a car yet, not sure how reception is – will update soon, have two installs already scheduled)
  • SiriusXM Ready (SXV300 tuner required)
  • Rear USB (I like to use PAC Audio’s USB-DMA1 to flush mount)
  • Bluetooth
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp output (4 Volt)
  • Reverse camera capable (2 camera inputs)
  • Adjustable park guidance lines (also on/off)
  • Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible
  • 9 Band parametric EQ
  • Also includes easy 3 band EQ for less tech savvy
  • Digital time alignment
  • Built in crossovers

Alpine iLX-W650 Pro’s

I love the vibrant and responsive touch screen of this radio and easy to navigate menu’s and options. Additionally, this is a great sounding stereo. Very clean, detailed and nuanced. Slightly smoother tonal quality over Sony. The other things I love that Alpine offers is the advanced or simple EQ. If you’re an audiophile, you can take full advantage of the 9 band parametric EQ with Q factor adjustment and digital time alignment. If you need an easy EQ option switch to the simple mode and easily access options for Bass, Midrange, Treble, Balance/Fader and Sub level control. Another very cool feature is Alpine offers an easy add-on power pack 4 channel amp for this radio called the KTA-450. It’s an easy way to tack on a 100 watts x 4 RMS amp and it can actually bolt on to the back of the chassis.

Alpine iLX-W650 Con’s

Although this model does not feature a video player of any kind, there is still a switched parking brake wire that needs to be wired up properly in order to access settings on the radio. I use the PAC Audio TR1 in order to simulate that on our display board. Lastly, there are no display customization options other than the fact that the opening splash screen image can be changed. All in all, if this model was iDatalink Maestro compatible, I doubt Alpine would be able to keep these in stock.That is the one feature I really wish Alpine snuck in as that would make this a no brainer option for many newer GM and Jeep/RAM models. But don’t worry, I have an options for those vehicles in the shallow mount/iDatalink Maestro compatible category towards the end of the post.

Pioneer AVH-1500NEX – Value CarPlay stereo with CD player for non iDatalink Maestro vehicles

The last two models from Alpine and Sony were mechless models in the entry level category, however there are still plenty of consumers out there not ready to give up their CD’s just yet. If you are looking for a nice easy to use CarPlay stereo with a CD player, consider the Pioneer AVH-1500NEX.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Pioneer AVH-1500NEX
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Pioneer AVH-1500NEX

The Pioneer AVH-1500NEX includes features such as:

  • CD/DVD Player
  • Nice alternate Album Art display over drab Apple CarPlay display (scroll down to Pioneer DMH-1500NEX to see Pioneer’s artwork display)
  • AM/FM Radio (Pioneer tends to be the weakest in my experience with FM/AM signal)
  • Bluetooth
  • Rear USB
  • Rear AUX input
  • SiriusXM ready (SXV300 tuner required)
  • 6.2″ touch screen
  • Reverse camera capable (one camera input)
  • Adjustable park guidance lines (also on/off)
  • 5 different background colors to choose from and various background images (can upload your own)
  • Customizable home screen and icon layout (organize most used sources on your home screen)
  • 13 band EQ
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp output (4 Volt)
  • Digital time alignment
  • Built in crossovers

Pioneer AVH-1500NEX Pro’s

The Pioneer AVH-1500NEX packs in a ton of features at a competitive price. The user interface is very attractive and intuitive and highly customizable. There are two different screen layouts to choose from and you can easily organize the sources and icons in order that you will use most often. Not only can the screen colors and themes be customized, but the button color is also customizable so you can get nearly an exact match to your vehicle’s dash illumination. Additionally, Pioneer allows you to view the music playing from your iPhone as an iPod. When you select the iPod/music icon source for USB 1 vs the Apple CarPlay icon, you are met with nice album art icons and an alternate way to search your artists, playlists and podcasts. This feature is standard on all Pioneer models.

Pioneer AVH-1500NEX Con’s

Although Pioneer has all the great sound quality specs on paper, in practice, I find their tonal quality to be a bit tinny/sharp compared to Alpine, Sony and Kenwood. It would be nice if this model was iDatalink Maestro compatible or had a second camera input. If you step up to the limited distribution model, the Pioneer AVH-1550NEX, you will gain those two features.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – iDatalink Maestro Compatible Models

Moving on from the Sony XAV-AX1000, Alpine iLX-W650 and Pioneer AVH-1500NEX we step up into the iDatalink Maestro compatible models that we sell and install at our shop, starting with the Pioneer DMH-1500NEX.

Pioneer DMH-1500NEX – Best value mechless Apple CarPlay stereo with iDatalink Maestro compatibility

The Pioneer DMH-1500NEX features both Apple CarPlay compatibility and Android Auto connectivity. More importantly, this is kind of where it starts for an Apple CarPlay stereo with iDatalink Maestro compatibility.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Pioneer DMH-1500NEX home screen
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Pioneer DMH-1500NEX home screen

Another desirable feature included with the Pioneer DMH-1500NEX (and most Pioneer touch screen models) is its customizable home screen. Not only do you have two different style home screens to choose from, you have various background images to choose from or you can upload your own image. You can even re-arrange the source icons to a configuration that best suits your needs. There are a lot of personalization options for button color and screen color so you can really tweak the appearance to your vehicle interior and personal preferences. Another nice perk about Pioneer CarPlay models is their iPod view mode.

If you get bored with Apple’s plain jane “Now Playing” screen in CarPlay, you can switch to the USB 1 iPod source screen on Pioneer and enjoy Pioneer’s album art display.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Pioneer DMH-1500NEX iPod Screen
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Pioneer DMH-1500NEX iPod Screen

The Pioneer DMH-1500NEX is almost identical to the previous model discussed, the AVH-1500NEX except for three key differences:

  • The Pioneer DMH-1500NEX lacks a CD player
  • Has Android Auto capability
  • Is iDatalink Maestro compatible

Other than that, they are pretty much the same unit. If you are looking for something with better than average AM/FM reception and smoother tonal quality, consider the Kenwood DDX5706s.

Kenwood DDX5706s – Best value Apple CarPlay stereo 2019 with CD player and iDatalink Maestro compatibility

I really like this stereo. It has so many great features at such a great price point, it’s pretty hard to beat it when it comes to bang for your buck.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Kenwood DDX5706S
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Kenwood DDX5706S

The Kenwood DDX5706s might just be the best value Apple CarPlay stereo 2019 with iDatalink Maestro compatibility. Take a look at the long list of attractive features in this awesome head unit:

  • iDatalink Maestro Compatible
  • CD/DVD Player
  • Nice alternate Album Art display on home screen over drab Apple CarPlay display
  • AM/FM Radio (tends to be strong in the reception category)
  • Bluetooth
  • Rear USB
  • Rear AUX input
  • A/V out (3.5MM style – will need an adapter)
  • SiriusXM ready (SXV300 tuner required)
  • 6.2″ Touch screen
  • Reverse camera capable (dual camera inputs with dedicated front camera input which can be triggered automatically when shifting out of reverse for 10, 15 or 20 seconds)
  • Adjustable park guidance lines
  • Various background images and colors to choose from or you can upload your own
  • Customizable home screen layout – various widgets can be displayed and source icons can be re-arranged
  • 13 Band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp outputs (4 Volt)
  • Built in crossovers
  • Volume knob
  • Dual Zone (awesome feature for vehicles with rear seat entertainment)

Kenwood DDX5706S Pro’s

Kenwood was the first company to partner with iDatalink Maestro so they tend to have the most featured retained/integrated. I have a Kenwood in my own vehicle, so I may be partial, but I have also had Sony and Alpine as well (Pioneer is a bit too bright for my ears). One of the things I really love about Kenwood is the audio control features. They have this nice menu where you can make some quick changes and really improve the sound.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Kenwood DDX5706s easy sound menu
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Kenwood DDX5706s easy sound menu

Here are a couple quick tweaks that I do in most cars with Kenwood models to really improve the sound quality:

  • Bass Boost Off
  • Loudness Off
  • Drive EQ On
  • Space Enhancer (depends on the car – sometimes yes – sometimes no)
  • Supreme On
  • Realizer 1
  • Stage EQ (depends on car – sometimes off, sometimes low).

These couple minor changes in the sound effect menu can make a major impact in your total sound quality. Unlike a typical EQ with “Powerful” EQ curve, these changes are smooth, never boomy or distorted and I highly recommend trying it if you go for a Kenwood model like the DDX5706S.

Other awesome sound quality control features are the 13 band EQ, digital time alignment, built in crossovers and memory recall option. I love, love this feature. Although this has always been a Kenwood feature, I should mention, Pioneer is finally offering this too. You can memorize your settings in the special menu and if you ever have your battery disconnected for service, you can easily recall all those stored settings. Sounds simple enough, but believe it or not, that is not a standard feature in most radios. I was happy to see Pioneer recently added this feature to their radios.

Dual Zone – this is an important feature for some – especially in GM vehicles where you are replacing the OEM navigation radio which also acts as the DVD player for the OEM rear seat entertainment system. What this feature means is you can load a DVD in the head unit and output the audio and video to a rear monitor. When dual zone is on, the audio for the rear speakers is cut out. Your kids can listen on headphones and quietly watch their DVD play on the rear monitor (assuming your rear monitor has IR capability). At the same time you can then switch back over to Apple CarPlay and play what you want to listen to on the front speakers. Neat!

Lastly, I like the fact that you can see the album art on the home screen as an alternative view to the very boring and drab Apple CarPlay now playing screen. This is not an option on any Sony model or the Alpine iLX-W650 for example.

Kenwood DDX5706S Con’s

Honestly hard to think of any. No HD radio. Regular resistive touch screen vs glass touch screen which is an option in some other models. Apple CarPlay is a wired feature meaning you have to connect your phone to the USB via an Apple USB to lightning charging cable. This is true for all Kenwood models, however some of them offer wireless Android Auto with the Google Pixel. The Kenwood DDX5706s probably is hands down the best value Apple CarPlay stereo 2019. The combination of features and price point is hard to beat. So what do you get when you step up from this model?

Within the Kenwood line up, we have a few other models to choose from with subtle differences and features added. The next model up from the DDX5706s is the DDX6706s.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Kenwood DDX6706s
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Kenwood DDX6706s

The main difference between the DDX5706s and DDX6706s is the slightly larger screen – 6.8″ vs 6.2″ – and added Android Auto compatibility. However, there is one feature you loose with the DDX6706s: the volume knob. 

Comparatively priced and also worth considering is the Kenwood eXcelon version, the DDX6906s. The eXcelon version adds 2 year warranty and 5 volt pre-amp over its sister model DDX6706s. If you like the idea of having Android Auto compatibility and a volume knob, we can shift over to the Sony XAV-AX210SXM which is the only Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible radio I’m aware of that still includes a good old fashioned knob.

Sony XAV-AX210SXM – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, iDatalink Maestro compatible with a volume knob

The Sony XAV-AX210SXM is a great option for anyone looking for an easy to use, AM/FM CD player with Maestro compatibility, SiriusXM, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and a volume knob. Sony actually bundles the SXV300 tuner with this radio which is an added bonus.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Sony XAV-AX210SXM iDatalink Maestro features
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Sony XAV-AX210SXM iDatalink Maestro features

The Sony XAV-AX210SXM features:

  • iDatalink Maestro Compatible
  • CD/DVD Player
  • AM/FM tuner (Sony is pretty strong in reception)
  • 6.4″ touch screen
  • Bluetooth
  • Rear USB
  • Video output (video only, no audio so this is not the same as Dual zone – you’d have to play the audio over all the speakers in the car if you used this feature)
  • SiriusXM included
  • Reverse camera capable (3 camera inputs)
  • Adjustable park guidance lines
  • Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible
  • Various background images and colors to choose from or you can upload your own
  • 10 Band EQ
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp outputs (4 Volt)
  • Built in crossovers
  • Volume knob

Sony XAV-AX210SXM Pro’s

My less tech savvy customers seem attracted to Sony’s simple, easy to understand icon layout. What you see is what you get. Additionally, they are usually attracted to the volume knob. The included SiriusXM tuner and antenna is a nice touch. The other point I will make is it has a flat matte black finish which works well in a lot of vehicle dashes. Sometimes the shiny gloss black finish typical of an aftermarket radio can stick out and scream aftermarket.

Sony XAV-AX210SXM Con’s

There are a couple things I wish the Sony had such as the ability to rearrange icons on the screen. You can’t, they will always appear in the the order they appear. Secondly, although their entry level XAV-AX1000 has a front AUX input, the XAV-AX210SXM does not have any AUX input at all, front or rear. Sometimes the AUX input is one of those features you want to have *just in case* you ever need it. Two models that have this option are the Alpine iLX-107 and iLX207.

Alpine iLX-207 and Alpine iLX-107 – Similar models numbers, but two very different CarPlay stereos

Both of these models are a slight step up in price compared to the Sony XAV-AX210SXM. They are quite different in layout, appearance and features from Sony and also from each other. Yet, there are four things that these two Alpine units have in common:

  • They both lack a CD player
  • They’re both iDatalink Maestro compatible
  • They both include a GPS antenna for better accuracy using Apple Maps, Waze of Google Maps.
  • Both are made in Japan

That’s probably where the similarities end. Let’s look at the iLX-207 first.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Alpine iLX-207 aka i207-WRA
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Alpine iLX-207 aka i207-WRA

From a sound quality perspective, Alpine is definitely smoother and more refined compared to Sony. I didn’t always feel this way about Alpine. I think it may have something to do with the made in Japan thing (some of their radios are made in China or Thailand, not these two).

The iLX-207 features many of the popular features already covered, but adds a couple key features. Unlike previous models discussed, the Alpine iLX-207 features HD Radio and an HDMI input. Additionally, Alpine does have a nice album artwork display when using an iPod or iPhone in iPod mode rather than CarPlay. It’s similar to what you see in the photo above displaying SiriusXM playing.

Here is a long list of features included on the iLX-207:

  • iDatalink Maestro Compatible
  • HDMI input and HDMI output
  • 7″ touch screen
  • HD AM/FM Radio (although in general, this particular model is not the strongest in reception)
  • SiriusXM Ready (SXV300 tuner required)
  • Rear USB
  • Rear AUX input
  • Bluetooth
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp output (4 Volt)
  • Reverse camera capable (1 camera input unless you use Alpine specific multi-camera kit)
  • Adjustable park guidance lines (also on/off)
  • Both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible
  • 9 Band parametric EQ
  • Also includes easy bass/treble, balance/fader adjustment menu
  • Digital time alignment
  • Built in crossovers
  • Included GPS antenna for better accuracy when using Apple Maps, Waze or Google Maps
  • Compatible with Alpine’s KAC-001 accessory control module

You may be wondering, why do you need an HDMI input on a radio? I wonder that too and try not to even tell customers about it. Seriously, you do not need to be watching YouTube videos and driving at the same time. Please, don’t do it. If you’re sitting in a parking lot with the e-brake engaged watching Cobra Kai waiting for your kid to get out of his/her karate class, then I can see the point, but please folks – be smart with this feature.

Alpine iLX-207 Pro’s

Alpine has a clean, user interface with easy swipe up/swipe down shortcuts to menu’s and audio settings. I love the flexibility of having both the 9 band parametric eq and then an easy bass/treble, balance/fader/subwoofer menu for customers to access. Alpine’s album artwork display is very pleasing to the eyes too. The Alpine iLX-207 is one of the few Apple CarPlay stereos that offers an HDMI input, (not that I think you should use that while you’re driving). Lastly, as far I’m aware, this is one of the only CarPlay radio’s that still includes a GPS antenna for better accuracy when using Apple Maps, Waze or Google Maps through CarPlay (Pioneer and Kenwood used to offer this, but no longer do). A bonus feature is the ability to add Alpine’s KAC-001 accessory control module which adds the ability to control accessories like lighting or a winch.

Alpine iLX-207 Con’s

For the price of this unit, you would think it would include a CD player – yet it does not. Additionally, I think it’s pretty lame that Alpine only provided one camera input and you have to buy their camera kit if you want to do a multi camera set up. Especially when you consider their new entry level iLX-W650 has two camera inputs. Like most Alpine units, there is a parking brake wire that you can’t just ground out to bypass – it needs to be wired up even if you are only trying to access settings.

Alpine iLX-107 – Wireless Apple CarPlay with iDatalink Maestro compatibility

The main selling point of the Alpine iLX-107 is its ability to do Apple CarPlay Wirelessly.

Alpine iLX-107 Apple CarPlay for Porsche 991
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Alpine iLX-107 Apple CarPlay installed in Porsche 991

The Alpine iLX-107 has a very clean, minimalist appearance with only two hard buttons featuring a sleek glass capacitive touch screen. For those seeking a wireless Apple CarPlay interface, the Alpine iLX-107 is definitely up for consideration. When compared to other wireless options on the market (Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX) I feel the sound quality of this unit is superior. Features include:

  • iDatalink Maestro Compatible
  • 7″ glass capacitive touch screen
  • AM/FM Radio (no HD and no SiriusXM capability)
  • Rear USB
  • Rear AUX input
  • Bluetooth
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp output (2 Volt)
  • Reverse camera capable (1 camera input)
  • Adjustable park guidance lines
  • 9 Band parametric EQ
  • Also includes easy bass/treble, balance/fader adjustment menu
  • Digital time alignment
  • Built in crossovers
  • Included GPS antenna for better accuracy when using Apple Maps, Waze or Google Maps
  • Compatible with Alpine’s Tuneit App for easy EQ set up

Alpine iLX-107 Pro’s

The Alpine iLX-107’s clean, minimalist design is reminiscent of Apple design and any diehard Apple enthusiast will appreciate its esthetics. It is one of the few Apple CarPlay models on the market that features wireless Apple CarPlay, and although it has a slightly lower pre-amp voltage, it’s still a great sounding head unit. However, when you consider the price tag, it’s hard to believe it is lacking some key features.

Alpine iLX-107 Con’s

The Alpine iLX-107 leaves out some popular features such as:

  • Multi camera inputs
  • CD/DVD player
  • HD Radio
  • SiriusXM capability
  • higher voltage pre-amp (iLX-107 has three 2 volt pre-amp outputs).

Depending on your needs and tastes, it may be well worth the trade off in order to gain a clean minimalist appearance with wireless Apple CarPlay capability. However, if you want the nice glass capacitive screen, the high voltage pre-amp, the CD player, the HD radio, the multi-camera inputs and SiriusXM compatibility, you may want to consider the Kenwood DDX9705s.

Kenwood DDX9705S – Wired Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto, Capacitive screen, HD Radio and iDatalink Maestro compatible

Okay, so you lose the wireless Apple CarPlay, but if it’s any consolation, this model is wireless Android Auto compatible. Although I’ve only ever seen that feature work with the Google Pixel. I think it’s a hardware issue on Android’s part, but I’m not positive about that so don’t quote me on it. The Kenwood DDX9705s almost has it all. Featuring:

  • Glass capacitive 7″ touch screen
  • iDatalink Maestro compatible
  • CD/DVD Player
  • Nice alternate Album Art display on the home screen over drab Apple CarPlay display
  • HD AM/FM (Kenwood tends to be strong in reception
  • Bluetooth
  • Dual rear USB ports
  • Rear AUX input
  • Dual Zone
  • SiriusXM ready (SXV300 tuner required)
  • Front and Rear camera inputs
  • Adjustable park guidance lines
  • Various background images and colors to choose from or you can upload your own
  • Customizable home screen layout – various widgets can be displayed and source icons can be re-arranged
  • 13 Band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp outputs (4 Volt)
  • Built in crossovers
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Kenwood DDX9705s
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Kenwood DDX9705s

Like most Kenwood models, their is an eXcelon version available, the DDX8905s which adds 2 year warranty and 5 volt pre-amp outputs. However, once you step it up to the DDX9905s, you get into a slightly different level in the Kenwood eXcelon family.

The DDX9905s includes everything the DDX9705s and DDX8905s plus two key features:

  • High resolution display with 2,764,800 pixels compared to 1,152,000 pixels
  • 5 Volt gold plated RCA pre-amp outputs
  • “Sound quality parts” defined by Kenwood as “custom-made and carefully selected parts, such as audio quality power supply capacitors, high quality coupling capacitors and cross-shaped panel structures”

One thing to note about the DDX9705s, DDX8905s and DDX9905s – these are carryover models from 2018 and will most likely be replaced late summer.

Kenwood did have some supply issues (and so did Alpine, Pioneer and Sony, but for some reason Kenwood seemed to be hit hardest by this). One of the key touch screen suppliers in our industry went out of business. Which kind of sort of boggles my mind. If you’re a key supplier for several name brand aftermarket head unit manufacturers, how do you just go out of business? They couldn’t just raise their prices? I guess not, it was probably more complicated than that. Either way, their absence has left some manufacturers scrambling to fill the gap and as a result Kenwood will probably have some late summer releases to replace these models with newer versions. My guess is they will be called the DDX9706s, DDX8906s and DDX9906s and have similar features.

Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX – the Apple CarPlay radio that pretty much has it all

If you are afraid of missing out on features, the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX has almost everything you could possibly want in a CarPlay head unit expect one key feature. It does not have a capacitive touch screen, it’s just a regular resistive touch screen. However, it is the only detachable screen CarPlay stereo on this list which is cool if you’re worried about having some type of anti-theft feature.

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX wireless CarPlay
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX wireless CarPlay

One of the key features of the Pioneer AVH-W4500NEX is that it has both wireless Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto. Additionally this unit is jam packed with all the sought after features:

  • iDatalink Maestro compatible
  • 7″ touch screen
  • CD/DVD Player
  • Nice alternate Album Art display on the home screen over drab Apple CarPlay display
  • HD AM/FM
  • HDMI input
  • SD card input (behind the face)
  • Bluetooth
  • Dual rear USB ports(one for Android and one for Apple devices)
  • Rear AUX input (A/V in)
  • Dual Zone (A/V out)
  • SiriusXM ready (SXV300 tuner required)
  • Front and Rear camera inputs
  • Adjustable park guidance lines
  • Various background images and colors to choose from or you can upload your own
  • Customizable home screen layout – various widgets can be displayed and source icons can be re-arranged
  • 13 Band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp outputs (4 Volt)
  • Detachable face

Unique Apple CarPlay models that are iDatalink compatible and outside of the double din box

If you are in the need of something slightly different, I have two alternate Apple CarPlay stereos to consider. If you want to go big, consider the Alpine Halo 9, iLX-F309.

Alpine iLX-F309 aka Halo 9 – floating 9″ CarPlay stereo with single din chassis

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Alpine iLX-F309 Halo 9
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Alpine iLX-F309 Halo 9

Built on nearly the same platform of features as the iLX-207, the Halo 9 features an oversized 9″ capacitive touch screen with a single din chassis. It’s not for every vehicle, but it does look very nice in certain cars. The screen can be mounted in a variety of positions and angles to suit your specific vehicle and dash.

If you like the idea of the Halo9, but don’t need the iDatalink Maestro compatibility, you could consider the new Halo lite version, the iLX-F259. The iLX-F259 features the same exact look and appearance of the iLX-F309 minus the iDatalink Maestro compatibility, HD Radio and HDMI input along with a slightly more palatable price tag.

Pioneer DMH-C2550NEX – Shallowest mount Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019

If you’ve got one of these newer GM or RAM/Jeep models with a shallow dash, you may want to consider the new modular Pioneer DMH-C2550NEX. The DMH-C2550NEX is comparable in features and functionality to the DMH-1500NEX, but it has a modular installation design. The screen is a separate component from the hide-away brain of the radio. This is very similar in design to what we are seeing in the OEM stereo design of many newer vehicles (which is why there is no room in the dash to easily replace the radio in say a new 2018+ Jeep Wrangler JL/JLU).

Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 - Pioneer DMH-C2550NEX hideaway
Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019 – Pioneer DMH-C2550NEX hideaway

Just keep in mind if you want to utilize the hideaway functionality, you will need to purchase an extension cable and harness for the screen, the Pioneer RD-RGB150A. I do think it’s kind of lame Pioneer didn’t include that with the radio because I think most people who purchase this radio will do so for that feature and require that additional accessory.

So really what is the best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019?

There is no one best model, it really depends on your unique needs, your vehicle and your personal tastes. This is the same kind of process I lead my own customers through, but the only difference is they can check this stuff out in person on a working display model.

However, even with my guidance, sometimes my customers really don’t want to think about it. They get overwhelmed and will ask me “Well, what do you have in your car?”. I have a Kenwood and I love it, but not everyone loves Kenwood, not everyone has the same tastes or preferences as me nor should they.

Each model has it’s own unique user interface. Some are easier than others and some are more customizable than others. Some have more bells and whistles, some have less. If you’re the kind of person that gets overwhelmed with choice, you should probably go with a simpler model that has less to fuss with (any Sony model or the Alpine iLX-W650). If you’re someone that wants to have it all and not leave anything on the table, you should consider one of the higher end Kenwood or Pioneer models. Each radio is unique, just as each consumer is unique. There is no one size fits all, but hopefully this article has helped you narrow in the best option for your vehicle and personal tastes.

Final note

I don’t know how many people will read this entire 6700+ word article, but if you have, I’d like to say two things. Thank you for reading my post and secondly, I want you to know why I write these in depth articles. I get pretty upset when the top search result for “Best Apple CarPlay Stereo 2019” is some crappy website with discontinued out-dated stereo models, no valuable information and is just a poorly slapped together affiliate website competing for your precious click thru dollars. I hate misinformation, honestly, that is my motivation – I genuinely want to provide people with helpful information and I hope I have here. My goal is to educate you, the buyer, so you know what’s out there and can make an informed and confident selection based on the knowledge you’ve gained. If you’ve read this ridiculously long blog post, kindly let me know your thoughts. Please post any comments or questions the comment section below.

Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 – Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony and Alpine Review

Best CarPlay Head Units 2018 - Alpine, Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer

Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review – More models than ever to choose from!

Update – 4-25-2019 – be sure to check out my latest post on the Best CarPlay Head Unit for 2019 here.

Almost a year has passed since my Best CarPlay Head Unit 2017 review and a lot has changed in that short period of time. Major car stereo manufacturers like Alpine, Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer now have over 25 different CarPlay and Android Auto compatible head units available and counting. Keep in mind that I’m excluding models that feature built-in GPS navigation. That’s a lot to choose from!

With so many choices on the market, and with such similar part numbers and appearances, it can be difficult for you, the consumer, to navigate. Rest assured, I will guide you through the overwhelming number of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible heads units so you can easily learn all the features and differences. This in-depth Best CarPlay head unit 2018 review will enable you to decide the best Carplay head unit for your vehicle and unique needs.

I just want CarPlay – start here

When customers first walk into our showroom and inquire about Apple CarPlay head units, this is what I often hear them say, “I just want Apple CarPlay”. Let’s define that because sometimes you actually want more than that and don’t even realize it.

If you just want Apple CarPlay, I take that to mean you don’t need or care about the following features:

  • CD/DVD player
  • Dual zone control (good feature for vehicles with a rear seat entertainment system)
  • SiriusXM
  • HD Radio
  • iPod compatibility
  • Secondary USB port for other devices
  • HDMI input
  • Advanced iDatalink Maestro steering wheel control support (and if you don’t know what this is keep reading to learn because you may want it and not even know about it.)
  • Reverse camera
  • Front camera
  • 4 volt pre-amp outputs
  • Time alignment
  • Variable button color illumination

If you really do fall into the “I just want Apple CarPlay” (maybe with a reverse camera) category, you should consider the Sony XAV-AX100.

Sony XAV-AX100 – featuring a minimalist look, a big ol’ clock and a volume knob

Sony XAV-AX100 - Best Apple CarPlay 2018 Review
Sony XAV-AX100 – Best Apple CarPlay 2018 Review

I’ve done an in depth review on this model previously, but here is the condensed version. The Sony XAV-AX100 is a great option for people that just want Apple CarPlay. Not only is it really easy to use, it’s also a good looking stereo. Although it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, it has an attractive and intuitive layout and functions quite nicely.

Sony XAV-AX100 Home Screen
Sony XAV-AX100 Home Screen

The clearly defined Home button brings you to a cleanly laid out main screen which displays the short cut to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as well as the other sources available which are AM/FM Tuner and Bluetooth Audio.

Sony must have listened to our clock size complaints harking back to previous models and rewarded us with a generously oversized clock. The background on this home screen can be selected from a modest variety of built in options or you can upload your own background image. The other two icons are shortcut for rear camera view and access to settings.

This stereo has a minimalist appearance which many find appealing. It has a matte black finish – rare these days in a world full of glossy black stereo finishes – and (gasp) a volume knob! In fact, at this point in time, Sony is the only manufacturer I’m aware of that has an Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible head unit featuring a volume knob. Call me old fashioned, but sometimes a knob is just easier than steering wheel controls. And although it’s a small knob, it has a solid feel to it – not like a cheap flimsy knob. Push the knob in and hold it to activate Siri or Google Voice. Simply tapping it reveals short cuts to other sources and audio settings.

Sony XAV-AX100 pro’s:

  • Clean user interface – WYSIWYG
  • Large easy to see icons
  • Reverse camera input
  • Volume knob
  • Matte black finish
  • Better than average FM/AM reception (when compared to Alpine and Pioneer)
  • 10 band EQ with built in crossovers
  • 2 Volt Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp
  • Supports basic steering wheel controls*

Sony XAV-AX100 con’s:

  • No CD/DVD
  • Does not support an iPod
  • No SiriusXM
  • No variable button color illumination
  • No digital time alignment
  • Supports basic steering wheel controls*

*As of this publication, Sony’s CarPlay head units work best in vehicles with basic steering wheel control functions like Volume up/down, Track up/down and Source. Sony doesn’t do well with separate buttons for phone functions such as Voice, Answer and End call. This head unit sort of lumps functions together as seen in this programming screen shot using an iDatalink Maestro ADS-MRR module in a Jeep Wrangler. Notice how “Hang up” and “Reject call” are lumped in with the “Source” button:

Sony XAV-AX100 Jeep Wrangler SWC
Sony XAV-AX100 Jeep Wrangler SWC

Some vehicles have separate buttons for these phone functions so in those vehicles, the button reassignment can be a little awkward because it won’t match the OEM functionality. However, Sony is expected to correct this mid 2018 with a hardware production change that will enable full iDatalink Maestro compatibility. Once that happens, this model will have more seamless steering wheel control interfacing and this minor drawback will be eliminated. Please note – this will be a hardware change – NOT a software change.

Well – maybe I want SiriusXM too

If you like the simplistic design of the Sony XAV-AX100, but you’d like SiriusXM or even a CD/DVD player, consider the XAV-AX200.

Sony XAV-AX200 - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review
Sony XAV-AX200 – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

The XAV-AX200 not only adds SiriusXM, it also has a CD/DVD player, two additional camera inputs, a video output and a 4 volt pre-amp. It even comes with the SXV300 SiriusXM tuner which makes it a pretty good value considering that accessory typically must be purchased separately. Also, unlike the XAV-AX100, it does support iPod playback.

Do you like the look and functionality of the Sony XAV-AX200, but don’t need a CD/DVD player yet you still want SiriusXM?

You’re in luck, Sony is coming out with an XAV-AX1000 later this year which is like the XAV-AX100 except it’s SiriusXM compatible (however it’s not Android Auto compatible – guess you can’t have it all unless you pay for it all). Additionally Sony will be releasing the XAV-AX5000 which features a 7″ touch screen (no knob), dual USB ports and SiriusXM compatibility.

Sony XAV-AX5000 - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review
Sony XAV-AX5000 – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

As you can see, just from Sony alone we have four solid 2018 CarPlay head units to choose from, however at the time of this publication, every one of these models is missing iDatalink Maestro compatibility. You may just want Apple CarPlay, but you may have a vehicle that would work best with an iDatalink Maestro RR compatible head unit. Let’s delve a little deeper into what the iDatalink Maestro is and how it can effect your Apple CarPlay upgrade.

Best 2018 CarPlay head unit models with iDatalink Maestro compatibility and why iDatalink Maestro matters

Even if you don’t have steering wheel controls, it may be in your best interest to select a head unit that is iDatalink Maestro compatible. Here’s why. As time and technology progresses, we see more and more vehicle information being piped through stock stereos.

For example, let’s say you own a 2015 Silverado Work Truck and you’re looking to upgrade the stock head unit to an Apple CarPlay model. One thing you have to keep in mind is your stock stereo is not just a stereo. It’s kind of like a computer in a network. It’s also your climate control display and it’s happens to be how you access and change vehicle settings such as:

  • Whether or not you want just the driver’s door to unlock or all doors to unlock when you press unlock button on your key fob.
  • Various park assist settings (if equipped)
  • Climate settings
  • Lighting settings
  • Warning chime settings and more.

If you replace that stock stereo, there goes those functions and features. Unless of course you go with an iDatalink Maestro compatible head unit and use an iDatalink Maestro ADS-MRR and vehicle specific harness. In that case, your climate info will display on the new stereo and you will still have access to personal vehicle settings on the aftermarket head unit. Kind of like what you see in this example below which is a 2012 Ford F-150 which was previously equipped with a broken OEM navigation radio:

DDX9902S with Ford F-150 climate controls integrated using iDatalink Maestro
Example of how the iDatalnk Maestro RR integrates OEM functions such as HVAC controls and display in a 2012 Ford F150 with a Kenwood CarPlay (installed back in 2015).

Depending on the year, make and model vehicle, the iDatalink Maestro RR can retain features such as:

  • Onstar
  • Warning chimes
  • Access and modify vehicle settings
  • Climate display and climate control
  • Reverse camera
  • OEM SiriusXM tuner
  • OEM park assist sensors
  • “Now playing” radio information retained through instrument cluster display
  • Premium amplifier retention with ability to adjust gains
  • Vehicle info screen including tire pressure display, battery voltage, read/reset check engine codes, door open status and warning
  • Selectable performance gauges

To see if your vehicle is iDatalink Maestro compatible and see what functions can be retained with specific radio models, go to maestro.idatalink.com and try their weblink demo tool here. You can try different radios to see how functions may differ from model to model.

Okay – so which CarPlay head units have iDatalink Maestro?

Luckily, most of them. In fact all the remaining models I’ll be reviewing are compatible so if you happen to have a vehicle that would work best with an iDatalink Maestro RR, you’ve got a lot to choose from.

Value packed 2018 CarPlay Models that are iDatalink Compatible

The next series of models we’ll be discussing are what I call the value oriented Pioneer NEX models. They are very similar in appearance, part numbers and features and these Apple CarPlay head units range in price from $300 – $500.

One particular model may tick off specific features you’re looking for, but there isn’t really one model in this series that has everything. They each have their own unique pro’s and con’s and as the model numbers progress there’s some feature swapping – as in – gain one cool feature, lose another one in its place.

So let’s lay the ground work of common features because it will make more sense if we know what ALL of these Pioneer NEX models have in common before getting into the specific differences.

Common features of the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX, AVH-1330NEX, MVH-1400NEX, MVH-2300NEX, AVH-2300NEX and AVH-2330NEX:

  • Apple CarPlay
  • iDatalink Maestro compatible
  • SiriusXM compatible
  • 4 volt front, rear and subwoofer pre-amp outputs
  • 13 band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • Variable color illumination
  • App Radio One mode
  • Reverse camera input
  • Single USB input
  • Rear aux input
  • Rear video input
  • Models starting with AVH feature a CD/DVD player
  • Models starting with MVH lack a CD/DVD player (Think “M” as in Mechless, “AV” as in Audio and Video)
  • A/V output on AVH models only (and you need a 3.5 adapter like this).

Got it? Okay, let’s get into the details starting with the AVH-1300NEX. This Apple CarPlay compatible head unit has a lot going for it. For one thing, it has a very competitive price point. It costs less than the Sony XAV-AX100, yet it has more features.

Attractive features of the AVH-1300NEX

The CD/DVD player and SiriusXM capability, paired with iDatalink Maestro compatibility, are largely what sway my customers from the Sony XAV-AX100 over to the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX. Well, that and the very competitive price point.

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX review home screen
Pioneer AVH-1300NEX home screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review

Pioneer has an easy to understand user interface too. On the home screen you have shortcuts to CarPlay, telephone and your four favorite sources. A quick tap of the A/V button will reveal all available sources. Each source icon can be shuffled around in an order that makes most sense to you.

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX review secondary home screen
Pioneer AVH-1300NEX secondary home screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

Notice the Car Sources and Car Features icons? That is how you would access any features the iDatalink Maestro retains such as OEM SiriusXM or vehicle performance gauges. The Pioneer AVH-1300NEX also offers a wide range of illumination and personalization options to choose from, including the option to upload your own background image.

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX review color display options
Pioneer AVH-1300NEX review color display options

Another common feature of all these value oriented Pioneer NEX models is App Radio One mode. See that neat little icon on the bottom left in the picture below?

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX Waze
Pioneer AVH-1300NEX Waze

You can toggle that phone icon between CarPlay and App radio mode. Looks impressive, right? Do not fall for it. You may see a picture advertised like this somewhere and be fooled. Yes, that is Waze being displayed from my iPhone on the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX using App Radio Mode and App Radio Live.

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX Waze
Pioneer AVH-1300NEX Waze

What you can’t tell from these pictures is how glitchy and impractical it is. First off, you have to have 2 other apps downloaded and opened just to get that screen to pop up and then you have to press okay on the Pioneer screen and on your phone a couple times in order to get Waze to launch. Once it’s launched you can’t press the home button on your phone or close the screen on your phone or the screen on the radio will go black. Additionally, you can’t enter any destination information on the phone – only on the screen. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find it’s easier to enter info on my phone before I actually start my trip because the phone’s touch screen feels more responsive and accurate. On my display model in our showroom I was able to enter a destination using the Pioneer screen, but then immediately thereafter the screen froze on me. Other times when I demonstrate this, it works and doesn’t freeze. Not sure what causes it to lock up, but it does 50% of the time.

App Radio One seems like a total waste of time to me. I show it to customers when they swear they saw something online where someone was using Waze on a Pioneer stereo with an iPhone. Once I show them all the steps and how it works they shake their head and say “forget it, I’m not doing all that – especially not while I’m driving”. Do not buy any of these Pioneer NEX radios and think you will get this launched as easily and flawlessly as Apple CarPlay launches and operates. I think there are just too many software updates too often on the phones, and on the Waze app, for Pioneer to stay on top of how their own app operates with the stereo.

There are a couple notable features missing from the AVH-1300NEX head unit such as:

  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input
  • Android Auto compatibility
  • Dual Zone
  • More than one USB port
  • Front camera input

Confused about part numbers yet? Hang in there with me, this is where it gets confusing. Within Pioneer’s limited distribution line you will find the AVH-1330NEX (soon to be replaced by the AVH-1440NEX). So what’s the difference between the AVH-1300NEX and AVH-1330NEX? The AVH-1330NEX simply adds the missing HD Radio and as well as an additional camera input.

Resistive touch screen quality on the AVH-1300NEX:

I think it’s important to note that the touch screen overall on the AVH-1300NEX leaves me wanting more. It’s a bit sluggish and not as responsive compared to the higher end Pioneer NEX models such as the AVH-4201NEX. In fact, I’d say the Sony models are more accurate and responsive than any of the value oriented Pioneer models – other than the MVH-1400NEX which features a glass capacitive touch screen. However, the price point is hard to beat in this series so you sort of have to pick and choose based on which features are most important to you.

MVH-1400NEX – Capacitive touch screen with an entry level price tag

For a higher quality, capacitive touch screen, that is still in the entry level price point, consider the vibrant and sleek Pioneer MVH-1400NEX.

Pioneer MVH-1400NEX review CarPlay
Pioneer MVH-1400NEX – CarPlay screen

This is a good looking stereo, I gotta tell you. The MVH-1400NEX is very much like the old App Radio 4 in its appearance and functionality. However, it includes a few key features that were missing from the App Radio 4 like SiriusXM compatibility and iDatalink Maestro compatibility.

Key features of the Pioneer MVH-1400NEX include:

  • Capacitive touch screen
  • 4 volt pre-amp outputs with 13 band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility
Pioneer MVH-1400NEX review home screen
Pioneer MVH-1400NEX- home screen

The glass capacitive screen is much more responsive than the resistive touch screens found on the other value oriented Pioneer NEX models. It’s also more vibrant and saturated in color. It has a real tablet appearance to it with a subtle silver trim draping around the edge of the screen. The slightly rounded corners certainly add to the tablet look. True to its tablet appearance, the MVH-1400NEX is a mechless model – no CD/DVD player.

Key features missing from the MVH-1400NEX:

  • CD/DVD player
  • HD radio
  • HDMI
  • Android Auto
  • Front camera input

My family member drives this car too and they use Android – what does both?

For families with both Apple and Android users sharing one vehicle, I can understand why it’s important to go with a head unit that is both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible. Additionally, sometimes it’s nice to just keep your options open. Who knows? You might not always be loyal to Apple.

The MVH-2300NEX features both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto while also being iDatalink Maestro compatible and SiriusXM compatible.

 

Pioneer MVH-2300NEX
Pioneer MVH-2300NEX – Home screen

When stepping up from the MVH-1400NEX to the MVH-2300NEX a key feature is added, however another feature is lost in its place.

MVH-2300NEX adds:

  • 7″ screen that supports Android Auto

MVH-2300NEX loses:

  • Capacitive touch screen found on the MVH-1400NEX

Both of these MVH models are still mechless – no CD/DVD. Want Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and a CD/DVD player? Consider the AVH-2300NEX.

Pioneer AVH-2300NEX 2018 CarPlay Android Auto
Pioneer AVH-2300NEX 2018 CarPlay Android Auto

Popular features of the AVH-2300NEX:

  • CD/DVD Player
  • Android Auto compatibility
  • 4 volt pre-amp outputs with 13 band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility
  • Reverse camera input

Popular features missing from the AVH-2300NEX are:

  • More than one USB port
  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input
  • Dual Zone
  • Front camera input

To add HD Radio and a secondary camera input, consider Pioneer’s Limited Distribution version, the AVH-2330NEX (soon to be replaced by the AVH-2440NEX).

Summary of the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX, AVH-1330NEX, MVH-1400NEX, MVH-2300NEX, AVH-2300NEX and AVH-2330NEX models:

All of these Pioneer models discussed are what I consider value oriented models. They’re giving you a lot of great features at a great price, but remember that old saying, you get what you pay for? Aside from the MVH-1400NEX with the capacitive touch screen, I feel like both the operating system and touch screen are a bit sluggish and less responsive with these particular NEX models compared to other options available from Pioneer, Sony, Alpine and Kenwood. As with most things in life, you give a little, you get a little – Give more ($) and you get more.

Looking for more without compromise?

Pony up the dough, here goes. One of my favorite CarPlay models is the one I currently have in my own vehicle the Kenwood DMX7704s (soon to be replaced by the DMX7705s). Personally, I’m less about the quantity of features a stereo has and much more interested in the quality of features it does have.

Kenwood DMX7704s 2018 CarPlay
Kenwood DMX7704s 2018 CarPlay

What little this stereo does, it does very well and I’m totally cool with that. I’d rather pay more for the features I want if I know they’re going to be executed properly. And I think that is also Kenwood’s attitude towards their various CarPlay compatible stereos. Whereas Pioneer appears more concerned about capturing the broader Apple CarPlay market share and they execute feature swapping and dropping in order to get there.

Sound quality

In terms of sound quality, Kenwood has it. As much as I loved my Sony XAV-AX100, this Kenwood is much smoother and more articulate, it’s fantastic. This isn’t just my opinion, this is something customers have picked up on as well when listening to both models on our display. So if you’re building a higher fidelity audio system in your vehicle with aftermarket speakers and amplifiers, I think you would appreciate the more refined sound quality of the Kenwood CarPlay compatible models opposed to Sony or Pioneer.

The DMX7704s and DMX7705s are mechless models – no CD player or DVD player. They do feature:

  • 7″ touch screen with angle view adjustment (non-motorized screen, but can adjust the viewing angle digitally – neat!)
  • SiriusXM capable
  • HD Radio (only on DMX7704s)
  • Speaking of HD radio – in terms of FM/AM reception, from this model up, Kenwood has every other brand beat
  • iPod compatibility
  • Secondary USB port for other devices
  • iDatalink Maestro compatible
  • Reverse camera input
  • Front camera input
  • 4 volt pre-amp outputs
  • Time alignment with 13 band EQ
  • Variable button color illumination

One particular feature I like about this radio (and so does my husband John) is the album artwork and how it is displayed on the home screen. This is also a feature of Pioneer, but it is not a feature of Sony or Alpine (which is what he has in his Jeep). The other thing I like, and our customers seem receptive to, is the large, easy to see icons. The downside to this is you have multiple pages of source icons.

Kenwood DMX7704s Best CarPlay 2018
Kenwood DMX7704s Best CarPlay 2018

However, the sources can be dragged and dropped into an order that makes most sense so for the most part, you’ll probably just be hitting the home button to pull up your most commonly used seven sources.

Kenwood DMX7704s Best CarPlay 2018
Kenwood DMX7704s Best CarPlay 2018

And unlike previous Kenwood models with two USB ports, both of the Kenwood DMX7704’s USB ports support an iPod. This is a nice thing to have if you travel into areas without cell service. You could leave an iPod loaded up with music connected to USB 2 (like stored away in the center console or glove box) so you always have a back up source for music. Remember, if you lose cell service, and you rely on the cloud for music storage, then that means you lose your music when you lose cell service.

DMX7704s and DMX7705s Cons:

  • No CD/DVD player
  • No HDMI input
  • No HD Radio

The DMX7704s is being replaced by the DMX7705s. The new model is going to add Kenwood’s WebLink feature. I personally don’t carry the more entry level Kenwood models that already offer the WebLink feature, but I can tell you the feedback I’ve received from other Kenwood dealers.

Kenwood’s WebLink is very cool in theory. Download the app to your phone, connect your phone to your stereo via USB charge/sync cable and access certain apps on screen like Waze, Yelp and even YouTube (when parked please!). Waze works, but it’s a little slow. You can even see that for yourself in this Kenwood product demonstration here.

I’ve been told the Yelp feature is neat, you can dial out and call the place from the screen. One of my fellow Kenwood dealers warned me that YouTube playback is glitchy. I’m always hesitant about any stereo app interface like this only because I think it’s hard for stereo manufacturers to keep up on top of phone updates and app updates. These companies make stereos, they don’t make cell phones and they’re not dedicated app developers. I completely understand they’re just attempting to give consumers what they want – which is mainly Apple users want Waze – but when manufacturers fail to make their interface operate as seamlessly and effortlessly as Apple CarPlay, they usually just end up pissing off the customer. If one of my customers really wants Waze on screen, and they’re an iPhone user, I tell them to get an Android and use Android Auto. Or I suggest they use a nice cell phone mount when they do want to use Waze.

I get it. I use Waze too. But when I need to use Waze with my iPhone, I just use my Scosche Magnet Mount damn it. My phone screen size really isn’t that much smaller than my stereo screen size. So for my needs, this mount comes in handy on the occasions where Apple Maps just won’t cut it.

I digress, back to the Kenwood head units. When we step up from the DMX7704s/DMX7705s we have the DDX6704s.

Kenwood DDX6704s - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review
Kenwood DDX6704s – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review

Kenwood DDX6704s key features gained:

  • CD/DVD player,
  • Dual Zone
  • A/V input
  • A/V output

However, we lose a little as well:

  • Screen size goes down to 6.8″ (cue the eye roll -.2″, big deal)
  • We lose our secondary USB port (that might be a bigger deal)

Let’s talk about Dual Zone

Dual zone is a unique feature and something Kenwood has been offering for as long as I can remember and that’s going back 18 years in this industry. It’s great if you have kids and you have a rear seat video monitor with an A/V input. As long as you wire up the A/V output of the Kenwood to a rear seat monitor with an A/V input, you can load the DVD you want to play for your kids up front in the Kenwood radio – meaning you are in control of what’s playing and not trying to reach in the back seat to load a DVD while you’re driving. The audio and video is routed from the Kenwood to the rear monitor. Hopefully that rear monitor has an IR output and you can slap some wireless headphones on the kids and they can be quiet and behaved while you drive. Meanwhile, you can use another source like HD radio or USB on your front speakers. Neat, right? Have two sources playing in two different zones of the vehicle at the same time. The only thing that ticks me off about Kenwood’s A/V input and A/V output is they are 3.5mm style so you will need this type of adapter (not included – sold separately) for either one.

If you like the idea of Dual Zone, but want the full 7″ screen and a secondary USB input, consider the DDX9704s, soon to be replaced the DDX9705s. Both the DDX9704s and DDX9705s feature an attractive glass capacitive touch screen.

Kenwood DDX9704s - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review
Kenwood DDX9704s – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review

The main difference between the DDX9704s and the newer DDX9705s is the DDX9705s will feature wireless Android Auto and Kenwood’s WebLink feature. Wireless Android Auto will be possible in all Kenwood models featuring wifi.

Kenwood vs Kenwood eXcelon

Kenwood has always offered what’s considered a premier version of their products known as Kenwood eXcelon. The eXcelon models typically features a higher voltage pre-amp output and a 2 year warranty when purchased from an authorized eXcelon dealer.

For 2018, Kenwood is offering four different Apple CarPlay compatible models within their eXcelon series:

  • DMX905s – like the DMX7705s, but features a glass capacitive touch screen instead of resistive touch screen and features a 5 volt pre-amp vs 4 volt – rumor is that both are 4.5 volts and this is a marketing thing, but we haven’t tested with a oscilloscope.
  • DDX6904s – like the DDX6704s, but with 2 USB ports vs 1 and a 5 volt pre-out vs 4 volt.
  • DDX9905s – similar to the DDX9704s and DDX9705s, but a whole lot more.

The DDX9905s is where Kenwood eXcelon really starts to shine. This model looks very similar to the DDX9704s and DDX9705s, but uses higher quality components starting with the screen itself.

Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s – quality features that stand out from the rest

The Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s is definitely going to be a hit for high fidelity aficionados, but also for anyone looking for a high quality touch screen. Featuring a high resolution capacitive touch screen, this model boasts 2,764,800 pixels compared to the DDX9705s or DMX7705s which both feature 1,152,000 pixels. Additionally, the DDX9905s is comprised of what Kenwood refers to as “high quality sound parts”. Kek – who came up with that name in the marketing team?

Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s -  Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018
Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

Kenwood describes these components on their website as “custom-made and carefully selected parts, such as audio quality power supply capacitors, high quality coupling capacitors and cross-shaped panel structures”. Basically these higher quality components are designed to produce an even cleaner, more articulate and refined sound than all other models in their line up. This is a feature exclusive to the Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s and the DNX995s (latter includes Garmin GPS navigation by the way).

Kenwood even brought back a throwback feature – Gold plated RCA pre-amp outputs! I haven’t seen gold plated RCA pre-outs listed as a feature since the days of Eclipse car stereos. Despite all these high quality features, there is one feature all of Kenwood’s CarPlay models seem to be missing this year – HDMI input.

Do you need an HDMI input?

Sometimes you’re sitting in your car parked and waiting. Waiting for your kids at karate class or waiting when you’ve arrived early to an appointment or maybe just when you’re sitting and eating your lunch in your car while on a work break. Sometimes you want to mirror what you’re watching/listening to from your phone onto your stereo. To do that, you need an HDMI input and an HDMI adapter for your phone. Oh yeah and a stereo with an HDMI input.

If HDMI input is important to you, consider the Pioneer AVH-4201NEX. The Pioneer AVH-4201NEX uses a different platform and operating system than the value oriented NEX models. This is clearly visible in person seeing a side by side comparison and demonstration.

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Best CarPlay Head Unit Review
Pioneer AVH-4201NEX – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

When you press home on the AVH-4201NEX, the icons load up almost instantly compared to any of the other NEX models discussed. The AVH-4201NEX is definitely the most feature packed Apple CarPlay head unit. In terms of features, it almost has everything:

  • CD/DVD player
  • Anti-glare coating
  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input
  • SD Card inputs
  • Dual Zone
  • Dual USB ports
  • 2 A/V inputs and outputs
  • Detachable face
  • 3 volt pre-amp outputs with 13 band EQ and digital time alignment
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility
  • Free included reverse camera
  • Front camera input

Many customers are attracted to the easy user interface of the Pioneer AVH-4201NEX. You can organize your favorite source icons on the home screen while having access to CarPlay or Android Auto and telephone shortcut.

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Home Screen - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018
Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Home Screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

A simple tap of the A/V button pulls up all available sources. Settings are organized and categorized with easy to understand icons.

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Settings Menu - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018
Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Settings Menu – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

So if the AVH-4201NEX has it all, does that make it the best CarPlay head unit 2018?

Despite appearing to have every feature possible, there is always a catch! Although I have sold and installed a large number of these stereos with high quality amplifiers and speakers, and those car audio systems sounded fantastic – very happy customers in each case – truthfully, each one of those audio systems could have sounded better with one of the Kenwood CarPlay stereos or Alpine’s made in Japan iLX-207. I mention this for the sound quality readers out there. If sound quality and HDMI input is high up on your list of important features, you should consider Alpine’s iLX-207.

High Fidelity Sound Quality with HDMI input – Alpine iLX-207

Alpine iLX-207 WRA - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018
Alpine iLX-207 WRA pictured in our Jeep Wrangler – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

The iLX-207 has a very similar sound quality to Kenwood – it is smooth, detailed and articulate. Although the iLX-207 does not have a CD or DVD player it does have a long list of desirable features:

  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input and HDMI output for RSE
  • Dual Zone (using HDMI input/output)
  • 1 A/V inputs (mini jack style)
  • 9 Band Parametric EQ
  • Capacitive (not glass) touch screen
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility

As with everything else in life there are trade off’s, nothing is perfect and no one model has it all. Couple minor annoyances about this model:

  • No CD/DVD player
  • No album art display option for music playing from your iPhone unless you turn CarPlay off.

Let me explain this a little further. When connected via Apple CarPlay to Kenwood for example, if you select the Home screen – album art is displayed. I often leave my Kenwood on this screen because I like the background picture I uploaded and I like the artwork. Pioneer has this option too – you can have artwork displayed on the home screen or by selecting USB1 as your source instead of the CarPlay shortcut.

With Alpine and Sony, the only artwork displayed is through the Apple CarPlay interface which is just an enlarged, washed out and blurry image in the background. This apparently bothers my husband so much that he turns CarPlay off in his Alpine iLX-207 so he can see the art work display instead.

Anything bigger than a 7″ display?

Well, yes actually. This year at CES, Alpine revealed what they are calling the Halo 9 or iLX-F309. It features a single din chassis with a seemingly hovering 9″ screen. The design of this product reminds of what car manufacturers are doing for their stereos these days in Audi, BMW and Mazda to name a few.

Best CarPlay Head Units 2018 - Alpine, Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer
Best CarPlay Head Units 2018 – Alpine, Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer

The Halo 9 is a great option for anyone looking for an oversized touch screen that won’t break the bank. The clever design of this product utilizes a standard single din chassis and has a screen that is attached post installation. From where the single din chassis sits in the dash, the screen is adjustable in height from its base up to 2.36″ inches and adjustable in angle from a range of -20 degrees to +45 degrees.

The platform of features is very similar to the iLX-207 minus the HDMI output and dual zone capability.

  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input
  • 1 A/V inputs (mini jack style)
  • 9 Band Parametric EQ
  • Capacitive (not glass) touch screen
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility

Is there anything that does wireless CarPlay?

All of the models reviewed here thus far require a connection to USB using a standard Apple USB to lightning cable. There is one option on the market that features Wireless Apple CarPlay, the Alpine iLX-107. This minimalist head unit has a modest set of features such as:

  • AM/FM Radio (no HD)
  • Bluetooth
  • AUX input
  • wifi to enable a wireless Apple CarPlay connection
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility
  • Rear camera input
Alpine iLX-107 Apple CarPlay for Porsche 991
Alpine iLX-107 Apple CarPlay for Porsche 991

That’s pretty much all the iLX-107 does, however. The USB will not support iPod playback, just Apple CarPlay – I guess for when you need to charge your phone this is available for the occasional hardwired connection. For the true minimalist who can’t even stand wires, the iLX-107 may be the best Apple CarPlay head unit for you.

Really – what is the best Apple CarPlay Head Unit 2018?

Let’s recap everything. As I tell my customers at the shop, it really depends on what features are most important to you.

Basic vehicle, basic steering wheel controls and just want Apple CarPlay

If you just need Apple CarPlay and you have an older vehicle that is not even iDatalink Maestro compatible, I like the Sony XAV-AX100. If you need SiriusXM too, step it up to the Sony XAV-AX200.

Best value Apple CarPlay with full iDatalink Maestro compatibility

For someone on a budget that really just wants Apple CarPlay but they have a vehicle that is iDatalink Maestro compatible and it would be in their best interest to use the Maestro RR, consider the Pioneer MVH-1400nex which I feel is the most responsive and attractive model out of all the Pioneer value oriented CarPlay models to choose from.

Best full featured model Apple CarPlay head unit

For someone looking for all the features, the Pioneer AVH-4201NEX really delivers. It has the most features out of all models reviewed and even includes a free reverse camera (which could potentially be used as a front camera if you already have a factory reverse camera). If you don’t want to leave any features on the table, this is the head unit for you.

Best sounding Apple CarPlay head unit

Kenwood and Alpine are definitely in the higher sound quality realm in terms of Apple CarPlay head units. If you’re looking for sound quality and HDMI, an Alpine model such as the iLX-207 would suit you well. If you’re looking for sound quality on a budget, consider the DMX7704s or DMX7705s. However, if we are talking strictly about sound quality and not worrying about budget, then this year the cake goes to the Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s. With gold plated RCA pre-amp outputs, hand selected capacitors and components, this model is taking Kenwood’s smooth and refined sound quality to the next level.

I hope you’ve found this in depth best Apple CarPlay head unit 2018 review helpful in deciding which model to install in your vehicle. I’d love to hear your feedback. What features are most important to you in an Apple CarPlay head unit? Please comment below to let other readers know which one will you be putting in your vehicle and why.

Best CarPlay Head Unit 2017 – Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony and Alpine Review

Alpine iLX-107 - Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

Best CarPlay Head Unit Review 2017 – Sony, Kenwood, Pioneer and Alpine – Where to start?

Update – make sure to check out my Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review here for the latest and greatest.

Shopping for an Apple CarPlay compatible head unit can be super confusing since there are so many models out there to choose from.  If you’re not sure where to start, I’ll simplify and explain all of the current CarPlay compatible models from 4 major brands – Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony and Alpine.  They all have their own unique pro’s and con’s and the best one will vary depending on your unique needs. This CarPlay head unit review will help you break down the features and find the best one for your particular application.

It’s all about the features:

Are you interested in SiriusXM, HD Radio, CD player, HDMI input, iDatalink Maestro?  No?  Then consider the Sony XAV-AX100.  The Sony XAV-AX100 is a great little Apple CarPlay compatible head unit and it’s one of the most reasonably priced out there. That’s largely because it lacks all those other features that some of us refer to as bells and whistles.

Sony CarPlay XAV-AX100
Sony CarPlay XAV-AX100 – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

I plan on putting this in my own Jeep once we get some free time at the shop. Why would I choose this model since I work in this industry and could put any in my car? Well, I hate SiriusXM, I have no desire to listen to regular radio or CD for that matter and I have no need for an HDMI input. I can also live without iDatalink Maestro Car Portal features such as resetting a check engine light or checking vehicle battery voltage on screen. I’m also a little, um, frugal to put it nicely and if you are too, you might want to consider this model as well. Aside from Apple CarPlay, the Sony XAV-AX100 features:

  • 6.4″ touch screen
  • Volume knob (I point this out because the models with a slightly smaller screen have this feature and that is something some people like to have vs one of those little tiny volume rocker bars we see on 7″ models)
  • AM/FM Radio (no HD radio)
  • Bluetooth
  • Reverse camera input
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer preouts (they say rated at 2 volt, but I swear sounds more like 4 volt)
  • 10 band EQ
  • Built in steering wheel control interface – compatible with mostly older Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and Subaru vehicles.

The Sony is simple – what you see is what you get. Because it lacks so many features, it’s really pretty easy to use. The home screen has a few simple icons and the settings menu is easy to navigate. This model has a few options for background display screens or you can upload your own.

Sony XAV-AX100 Home Screen
Sony XAV-AX100 Home Screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

So what’s the catch with the Sony XAV-AX100?

I have two complaints about this model. Number one – you cannot connect an iPod through the USB. The USB port on this stereo is specifically for either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, however – you can have your iPhone connected for CarPlay and also have an iPod connected to Bluetooth at the same time so if you want the option to play an iPod through this stereo, that’s really the only way to do it.  Kenwood on the other hand will allow you to connect an iPod to the USB port, however, you cannot have an iPhone and iPod connected at the same time because they use the same USB port (even on models that feature dual USB ports!). Pioneer by the way, does let you use an iPod on the secondary USB port while having CarPlay connected via USB 1.

Complaint number two – Sony’s steering wheel control mapping is bizarre, it’s just a bit redundant and seems odd how they’ve doubled up functions on buttons. Source doesn’t just change source, it will also allow you to hang up or reject a phone call. My guess is they mapped it this way for the older Japanese vehicles that only have 5 basic functions on the existing steering wheel controls. However, if you have a newer vehicle with dedicated answer/hang up and voice button, it will seem a little odd.  So for example, in my 2014 Wrangler, here is how my steering wheel controls will be mapped out using an iDatalink Maestro RR:

Sony XAV-AX100 Jeep Wrangler SWC
Sony XAV-AX100 Jeep Wrangler SWC

However, if you can get over these quirks and don’t need all the bells and whistles, the Sony XAV-AX100 may be the best CarPlay head unit for you.

So you want SiriusXM? Not ready to give up CD’s?

Consider the Kenwood DDX6703s or DDX6903s. These two models are so similar I’ve lumped them together. The DDX6703s is part of Kenwood’s regular line and the DDX6903s is part of their premier eXcelon line up. The DDX6903s has two USB ports, DDX6703s has one USB port. The DDX6903s has a 5 volt pre-amp output, the DDX6703s has a 4 volt pre-amp output. When purchased from an authorized eXcelon dealer, the DDX6903s comes with a 2 year warranty and the DDX6703s has a 1 year warranty.

Kenwood DDX6703s CarPlay Head Unit
Kenwood DDX6703s – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

So when you step up to either the DDX6703s or DDX6903s you gain a few key features over the Sony XAV-AX100 such as:

  • SiriusXM compatibility (requires SXV300 tuner and I recommend a higher quality satellite radio antenna than the garbage SiriusXM includes with this tuner such as the Mobile Spec MSUNIVSAT)
  • HD Radio on FM/AM
  • CD/DVD player
  • Dual camera input (and it’s real easy to switch to the front camera, when in reverse just tap the screen)
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility with Car Portal features
  • GPS antenna

The iDatalink Maestro Car Portal features are pretty cool and an absolute must for certain vehicles. For example, let’s say you have a brand new Ram pick up with the Uconnect 5.0 radio and you want to upgrade to a CarPlay head unit.

iDatalink CH3 Screen Ram
iDatalink CH3 Screen Ram – Image courtesy of iDatalink

The stock head unit has a vehicle settings menu where you can change settings for the door locks, horn, lights, dimmer, etc. Once you change the radio, you can no longer access those options. Unless of course you go with an iDatalink Maestro compatible head unit with what’s called a serial data port connection. To see what features you would be able to retain and check compatibility, try out this iDatalink Maestro RR weblink demo.

Want a bigger screen too?

Well, why not, we’re already around $550 in price range, what’s a few bucks more? The next step up from the DDX6703s and DDX6903s is the brand new DMX7704s which features a 7″ touch screen (vs 6.2″), BUT you lose the CD/DVD player. And although this model has two USB ports, only one will work for iPhone or an iPod. The secondary USB port is for flash memory and all Kenwood’s that have the dual USB feature are like this.

Let’s think about this – do you really need a CD/DVD player? If not, but you want Apple CarPlay, iDatalink Maestro support and SiriusXM then this may be the best CarPlay head unit for you.  What else do you get when you step up again within the Kenwood line up? The DDX9703s and the eXcelon DDX9903s.

Kenwood DDX9703s Home Screen
Kenwood DDX9703s Home Screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

The DDX9703s and DDX9903s feature an HDMI input

To truly mirror the iPhone, you need a head unit with an HDMI input and you also need an HDMI cable and an Apple Lightning Digital A/V adapter. When I say mirror I mean it mirrors the audio and video of the phone on the screen, you still have to control everything from the phone itself.

HDMI mirroring - Best CarPlay Head Unit Review
HDMI mirroring – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

The only thing I can see safely using this for is if you wanted to have the GPS app Waze on screen, you could launch it from your phone and mirror it into the stereo screen.

The DDX9703s and DDX9903s also feature Dual Zone

What Dual Zone allows you to do is load a DVD into the in dash CarPlay head unit and feed the audio/video out into a rear monitor (ideally one that supports wireless IR headphones) while you can listen to your iPhone, SiriusXM or HD radio on the front two speakers. This is a cool feature if you’re looking to upgrade the family vehicle.

Like the previous eXcelon models, the DDX9903s has a 5 volt pre amp output (vs 4 volt on DDX9703s) and has a 2 year warranty when purchased from an authorized dealer (vs 1 year on the DDX9703s). Additionally, the DDX9903s has dual USB ports, but again, only supports an iPod or iPhone on the main USB port, the secondary USB will read flash memory. The DDX9903s also features a glass capacitive touch screen vs a regular resistive touch screen.

Page one of sources Kenwood DDX9703s
Page one of sources Kenwood DDX9703s

From an operational standpoint, the navigation menu’s on the Kenwood models are pretty easy to use. Icons are large and easy to see. There are 3 easy to swipe through pages that allow you access to all the various sources available.

Page two of sources Kenwood DDX9703s
Page two of sources Kenwood DDX9703s

You can easily drag and drop the icons in the order you prefer putting the ones you use most often on the home page and secondary page. Additionally, there is a clear menu button on every Kenwood radio and to access the settings you simply tap menu, then settings.

Page 3 of sources Kenwood DDX9703s
Page 3 of sources Kenwood DDX9703s

One unique feature Kenwood has that no one else seems to offer is “Memory Recall”

Let’s say you or your installer spent a good amount of time setting up the audio features, perfecting the 13 band EQ settings and digital time alignment and then bam, without warning your battery goes dead and you lose all those settings. Well, if you memorized them in the head unit, all you have to do is recall them. I LOVE this feature and I seriously don’t get why Sony, Alpine and Pioneer don’t copy it (please engineers – take a hint!).

So what are the drawbacks on Kenwood?

Well, there’s a couple. For one, what’s the point of dual USB if you can only play an iPod on the same port that supports CarPlay? Number two – I’ve heard of a few people out there hearing a background hiss sound as soon as they connect their iPhone to the USB port. I’ve talked to Kenwood about it and as long as you purchased it from an authorized dealer, they’ll swap it out no questions asked. That’s in theory, in practice I had a customer buy a refurbished Kenwood model from an authorized online dealer (please stay away from refurbs!) and he experienced this issue. Unfortunately he still had the same issue after installing the replacement unit. It’s kind of like the hiss you hear on a record player and it’s only audible at near zero volume, but still, I can see how annoying it would be. Luckily, I haven’t had any issues with units we’ve sold. And lastly I’m not too keen on the blue splash screen for the Album art section. If you don’t have your iPhone or iPod connected you will see a blue splash screen and there is no way to change that.

If you can get over the Blue album art splash screen and the fact that you can only play an iPod over the main USB port, Kenwood may still be the best option for you. Especially if you want SiriusXM capability, iDatalink Maestro RR capability, HDMI input and Dual Zone. In that case, the DDX9703s or DDX9903s may be the best CarPlay head unit for you.

Want to be able to have CarPlay connected and an iPod at the same time?

This might sound like a silly feature to get hung up on, but here’s why you might want to consider having this option. Let’s say you have your iPhone connected for CarPlay and you’re listening to Pandora or Spotify and you end up driving into an area with spotty cell service. All of a sudden your music starts pausing or cutting in and out. I personally can’t stand when data streaming services get interrupted like that – really who likes listening to music cutting in and out? With the Pioneer AVH-4201NEX you could simply switch your source on the radio to USB 2 to your already connected 80 gig iPod loaded up with tunes for interruption free listening. It saves the hassle of trying to disconnect one device and connect another while you’re driving and if you want a safe and enjoyable listening experience, this is one feature to consider.

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Best CarPlay Head Unit Review
Home Screen on Pioneer AVH-4201NEX – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

The AVH-4201NEX is essentially the same head unit as the last year’s AVH-4200NEX (and the 2015 model AVH-4100NEX), but they added a free reverse camera to the package. There are quite a few things to like about this model, it seems to have everything you could possibly need as far as features are concerned:

  • AM/FM – HD Radio
  • Bluetooth
  • Dual Zone
  • Dual camera inputs
  • SiriusXM ready
  • Dual USB ports and both support iPod’s and iPhone’s – CarPlay only functions on USB 1
  • HDMI input
  • CD/DVD player
  • iDatalink Maestro compatible
  • Detachable Face for security purposes

The menu and user interface is also quite intuitive. From the home screen you have access to your 5 most commonly used sources, telephone shortcut, settings shortcut and CarPlay shortcut. A quick tap of the A/V icon on the bottom right brings up all available sources. Some people prefer this layout over Kenwood’s larger source icons and several pages of sources to swipe through.

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Best CarPlay Head Unit Review
Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Home Screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

Drawbacks on the Pioneer CarPlay models

One feature Pioneer lacks is a GPS antenna, so if you plan on using the Apple Maps often in your vehicle, that is one feature to keep in mind that both Kenwood and Alpine include, but Pioneer and Sony do not.

Speaking about Pioneer – Pioneer has three new CarPlay head units being released this summer including the first ever single din CarPlay head unit.

They’re not out yet, as of this writing, but coming soon and they will be more value oriented. There are two double dins and the first ever single din flip out CarPlay receiver. The two double dins are going to be the 6.2″ touch screen AVH-1300NEX and the 7″ touch screen AVH-2300NEX.  Both will feature:

  • AM/FM Radio (No HD Radio)
  • Bluetooth
  • SiriusXM capability
  • CD/DVD
  • 4 Volt preouts, 13 band EQ, built in crossovers
  • iDatalink Maestro capabaility
  • Single USB port

These models are similar to the Sony, less bells and whistles cuts the price way down. The 6.2″ AVH-1300NEX is expected to sell for $399.95 and the 7″ AVH-2300NEX is expected to sell for $499.95 (the AVH-2300NEX will also be Android Auto compatible).

 

AVH-3300NEX - Best CarPlay Head Unit Review
Single Din CarPlay Head Unit Pioneer AVH-3300NEX – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

For those of you wanting CarPlay, but lack the double din opening, the AVH-3300NEX is the perfect solution. This model will have pretty much everything you could possibly need for a single din CarPlay receiver:

  • 7″ Touch screen
  • SiriusXM Capable
  • Detachable panel
  • Single USB
  • Bluetooth
  • 4 Volt preouts, 13 band EQ, digital time alignment
  • Single Reverse Camera Input

What about Alpine?

Alpine will eventually be shipping the first ever wireless CarPlay receiver which is pretty cool, but you definitely pay for that coolness factor. The iLX-107 will basically be replacing the iLX-007 which was essentially an Apple designed product. The iLX-107 will retain the clean design and user interface that we saw in the iLX-007, but it will add wireless CarPlay control and iDatalink Maestro capability.  This model is expected to sell for $699.95 and it simply features:

  • AM/FM Radio
  • USB (strictly for CarPlay compatible devices)
  • GPS antenna
  • Rear AUX input
  • Reverse Camera input
  • Front, Rear and Subwoofer preouts 2 volt

As I said, coolness comes at a price.

Alpine iLX-107 - Best CarPlay Head Unit Review
Alpine iLX-107 – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

The Alpine iLX-107 is not to be confused with the Alpine iLX-207 – but it’s easy to get them confused because they will be sold at the same price and have very different features.

Alpine iLX-207 - Best CarPlay Head Unit Review
Alpine iLX-207 – Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

When you move over to the Alpine iLX-207 you lose the wireless CarPlay feature and rear aux input, but you gain quite a bit such as:

  • HD Radio
  • USB that is not strictly for CarPlay (also plays iPods and Android Auto)
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • HDMI Input

Still, at this price point, you’re really not getting a fantastic value with Alpine. With Pioneer or Kenwood, you’re getting a lot more features for your money. And there’s one more thing to keep in mind with Alpine – none of their CarPlay models include a CD or DVD player. So if that’s important to you, forget Alpine. If however, wireless CarPlay is a feature that’s important to you, then the Alpine iLX-107 may be the best CarPlay head unit for you.

Confused yet?  Let’s recap.

Sony XAV-AX100 – Good for a nice easy to use basic CarPlay stereo.  No frills.  Features:

  • USB strictly for CarPlay or Android Auto
  • 6.4″ touch screen with small volume knob
  • Bluetooth
  • Reverse camera input

New Pioneer CarPlay Models AVH-1300NEX and AVH-2300NEX add features like:

  • CD/DVD player
  • SiriusXM capability
  • Rear AUX input
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility

Kenwood DDX6703s and DDX6903s add features like:

  • HD Radio
  • GPS antenna
  • Memory Recall
  • Dual camera inputs

The Kenwood DMX7704s adds features like:

  • Larger 7″ screen (however lacks a CD/DVD player)
  • Dual USB ports (but only one for CarPlay and iPod, secondary for flash memory)

The Kenwood DDX9703s and DDX9903s add features like:

  • HDMI input
  • Dual Zone
  • DDX9903s features glass capacitive touch screen
  • Plus you get the CD/DVD player back on these models

The Pioneer AVH-4201NEX adds features like:

  • Detachable face
  • Free reverse camera included
  • Both USB ports support iPod playback
  • However, this model lacks a GPS antenna

The Alpine iLX-107 is the only model to include:

  • Wireless CarPlay
  • However it lacks just about everything else: CD/DVD, USB is strictly for CarPlay, no SiriusXM, no HD Radio, no HDMI input, has just one camera input.

The new Alpine iLX-207 doesn’t really fit well in the middle of the progression of these models because it has a mix of features that is not exactly priced competitively compared to Kenwood and Pioneer models (which is why I don’t plan on carrying this model).  For reference, the key features on this mechless CarPlay head unit are:

  • HD Radio
  • USB that is not strictly for CarPlay (also plays iPods and Android Auto)
  • SiriusXM capability
  • HDMI Input
  • iDatalink Maestro Support

So which model is the best CarPlay head unit for you? Simply focus on the features that are most important to you and you’ll find it a lot easier to select the best CarPlay head unit for your unique application. Enjoy!

 

 

 

Sony XAV-AX100 Review – Best Value for CarPlay and Android Auto

Sony XAV-AX100 Review - Home screen.

Meet the value packed Sony XAV-AX100

I’m so happy Sony finally made an Apple CarPlay and Android Compatible head unit. For at least the last couple of years, Sony has definitely had an edge over its competitors in terms of sound quality and value and this model is no different in that regard. Retailing at only $499*, this is the lowest priced Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible head unit that I’ve carried and based on the features and ease of use, I think it’s a phenomenal value.

*Update 10-8-17 – Sony has lowered the retail price on the XAV-AX100 to $399.95 in anticipation of the XAV-AX200.

Sony XAV-AX100 Review - Home screen.
Sony XAV-AX100 Review – Home screen.

So what do you get for the money?

Ease of use – One thing I love about this unit is how simplistic it is. Because this unit lacks a lot of bells and whistles, the Sony XAV-AX100 is relatively easy to use and has an easy to understand layout. What you see is what you get. Other than Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, this unit features:

  • AM/FM Radio
  • Bluetooth audio streaming and handsfree functionality
  • Reverse camera input
  • Front, rear and subwoofer preamp outputs (Sony says rated at 2 volt, but it sounds slightly higher, I have not measured it)
  • 10 Band EQ, built in crossovers, sub level control
  • 5 wallpaper options, plus option for custom display (uploaded via USB drive)
  • Remote steering wheel control input*
Sony XAV-AX100 Review - backside of the head unit
Sony XAV-AX100 Review – backside of the head unit has a single din chassis

*Sony typically does not support phone functionality through their steering wheel control inputs, however when test flashing either the iDatalink Maestro RR or Maestro SW module I found that this model will support some phone functionality although it’s kind of weird because it gets all lumped in under one button. Phone related flashing options (listed as function per button) look like:

  • Start Voice (Android Auto & Apple CarPlay) & Answer/Hang up call
  • Source & Hang up or Reject Call & Power On
  • Source off & Hang up & Power Off

Perhaps they configure it this way in case you don’t have voice control or phone buttons on your steering wheel.

Sometimes it’s the little things that matter

I’ve had quite a few customers comment on the volume knob. They like it, they find it easy to use. If you appreciate volume knobs you will appreciate the nice rotary volume knob on this head unit. It has a stiffer and more rigid feel to it compared to the volume knobs on other head units and it’s backlit.

Sony XAV-AX100 Review - Display panel options.
Sony XAV-AX100 Review – Display panel options.

Sony XAV-AX100 review – sound quality counts

Aside from the basic features of this model, the sound quality of Sony receivers is something I need to talk about in this Sony XAV-AX100 review. Sony head units, in general just sound great. My customers are always surprised when I play a basic Sony receiver like the MEX-GS610BT or MEX-XB100BT and let them hear that compared to an Alpine CDE-164BT or Pioneer DEH-X6900BT. It is a noticeable difference even for a car audio novice.

Sony XAV-AX100 Review - EQ screen.
Sony XAV-AX100 Review – EQ screen.

Right off the bat, the Sony units just sound smoother, richer and more natural in tone. Once you hear it, it’s hard to buy anything else. Except maybe Kenwood, they’re pretty close. And even though this unit is only rated at 2 volts on the preamp output, I have a feeling if I measured it, I’d find it was slightly higher. It’s definitely punchier than the other 2 volt preamp output models I have on display.

Sony also provides plenty of audio control tools such as a 10 band EQ, built in crossovers and sub level control. Internal amplification on this bad boy is rated at 20 watts x 4 RMS which is slightly higher than your average head unit (most are 18 watts x 4 RMS).

Sony XAV-AX100 review – radio reception

Radio reception in general is a tricky thing because it’s so susceptible to interference coming from every angle – power lines on the road and even power lines in the car itself can cause static and interference. With evolving technology and many consumers turning to streaming services from their mobile devices, most car stereo manufacturers are not dumping a ton of money into their tuners.

Despite that, I have been impressed with the reception of Sony head units, this model included. We recently installed this in an older Subaru with one of those terrible amplified windshield antennas and this thing was definitely pulling in more stations than the customer’s previous Pioneer double din head unit (which was equipped with the Pioneer supertuner).

Sony XAV-AX100 Review - FM radio screen.
Sony XAV-AX100 Review – FM radio screen.

What’s missing from the Sony XAV-AX100?

Although Sony packs a lot of popular features into the XAV-AX100, it is missing a few items some consumers may still be interested in.

Buyer beware, the Sony XAV-AX100 lacks the following popular features:

  • CD/DVD Player**
  • HDMI input
  • AUX input
  • SiriusXM Capability**
  • HD Radio
  • Mounting sleeve and trim ring*

*For most vehicles you will not need a mounting sleeve and trim ring as most installation kits these days support iso mount, however, if you have happened to have a vehicle that does not support iso mount and requires a mounting sleeve and trim ring you can use Pioneer’s ADT-VA133 – that is what I used to mount this in my display board.

**Check out the Sony XAV-AX200 if these features are important to you.

Remember the old saying you get what you pay for? Well, if these features are truly important to you, you’ll have to fork over a bit more money and go for something like either the Kenwood DDX9703s or the Pioneer AVH-4200NEX (soon to be replaced by the 2017 model AVH-4201NEX which I believe is the same as AVH-4200NEX, but is bundled with a reverse camera).

Sony XAV-AX100 review conclusion

Although the Sony XAV-AX100 lacks a couple features, I find for most customers it ticks off all the key boxes. If you are looking for an easy to use, great sounding Apple CarPlay or Android Auto compatible head unit, you should seriously consider the Sony XAV-AX100. This model has that whole less is more approach and won’t overwhelm you with bells and whistles -aka features you don’t need or won’t use.

Sony XAV-AX100 Review - CarPlay display
Sony XAV-AX100 Review – CarPlay display

In conclusion, Sony did a great job with the XAV-AX100 focusing on the key features consumers are interested in:

  • Apple CarPlay and Android Auto
  • Ease of use
  • Bluetooth
  • Reverse camera input
  • Steering wheel control input

Do you really need anything more?