The five features and specs I look for in a car head unit
Todd Cabell is the Senior Director of E-Commerce at Crutchfield. He drives a 2000 Ford F-150 with an Alpine stereo in the dash, Polk/MOMO speakers, a Rockford Fosgate amplifier, and an MTX Thunderform under the rear seat. He hopes to one day outfit his 1962 Mercury Comet with a worthy sound system as well. He received a B.A. in English from Davidson College, an M.A. in English from the University of Virginia, and a Cambridge/RSA CELTA Certification for ESL Teaching from Cambridge University.
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These days, aftermarket car stereos come with so many bells, whistles, and proprietary technologies that trying to pick one can be bewildering. Over the past couple of weeks, I've been trying to help a coworker pick a head unit for his new (used) Jeep, and it's actually been kind of tough - and we both write about electronics for a living! Sometimes our on-the-job knowledge can make settling on a single piece of gear a very involved process.
Even at the relatively low price point my buddy was trying to hit, there are a huge array of features to sort through. The whole process got me thinking about what features and specs I'll look for when the time comes to upgrade my car stereo. Here's what I arrived at:
1. Power - Yep, this is the most important one for me. Nothin' fancy here: in my experience, the more power you have, the better the sound, especially when you're powering a component speaker system like the Polk/MOMO setup I have. I do like to crank the volume on occasion, but even at normal driving volume, a solid internal amp will make your music crisper and clearer. But, there is a wrinkle. Unless the stereo's power rating is CEA-2006 compliant, you can't be sure that the power specs provided by the manufacturer were measured at the industry standard. You'd be surprised how many big-name car stereo manufacturers still don't rate their amps using CEA-2006 specs.
2. Dedicated Sub Output with Low-pass Filter and Level Control - I'm really not much of a "bass head." I'm not a fan of the boomy, bone-rattling low end that shakes nearby cars at stoplights. But regular car speakers just don't kick out enough lows for my taste, so a head unit with a dedicated subwoofer output is a must-have. Many head units with a sub output also include a subwoofer level control, which lets you bring the bass volume up or down, depending on the song or type of music playing. This is incredibly convenient. And a dedicated sub output with a low-pass filter gives you even greater control over the range of frequencies you send to the sub, so you can really fine tune the bass from the driver's seat.
3. Sound Shaping Controls - I like to have as much control over the sound as possible. At the least, then, I look for stereos with an EQ that offers at least 3 bands for adjustment, though I really prefer a parametric EQ for the greater flexibility in fine tuning the entire range of frequency output.
4. Display - This is the biggest gripe I have with my current head unit (an Alpine CDA-7894): the display washes out in sunlight. The next stereo I buy is going to have a high-contrast display. Currently, I'm a big fan of Alpine's white-on-black BioLite® display.
5. Cosmetics and Ergonomics - Goes without saying that I have to like the looks of a head unit before I fork over the cash. I don't want a lot of buttons cluttering up the faceplate. And I much prefer a rotary knob for volume control versus push buttons. Finally, I don't need a catchy, multicolor display with moving graphics and light shows. I don't plan on watching any movies in the parking lot on my stereo. I'd prefer to pay for audio performance over looks. Customer reviews can be a good indication of potential problems with the layout of the controls on a stereo.
So that's my subjective list. What features do you think are important to have on a head unit?