How To Choose Head Units

A head unit is also often called a CD receiver.  Some people may even just call it a radio.  In any case, your head unit changes your music from radio waves and media into electrical signals that travel to the speakers which create vibrations to create what we hear as sound.  Higher quality systems also include an amplifier to produce a clearer, cleaner sound.

Choosing a new head unit for your car can be difficult because of the dizzying array of models, features, and abbreviations. But here are a few suggestions to make finding your next head unit a little bit easier.
 

  1. How does it sound?:  The most important feature in any head unit is the way it sounds. Go to a couple of different stores and listen to several different head units.  Narrow your search to units that sound good to you.

  • Features:  What kind of features do you want and need?  Head units today range from simple radio receivers to mobile DVD players.
     
  • Compatibility:  Will it play your music? Does your next head unit need to play only store-bought CDs, or do you want to be able to play CDs that you burned on your computer?  In the past, most CD players only played traditional CDs in WAV format. More recently, CD players have the software to play WAV, MP3, and WMA (Windows Media Audio) files.  What about DVDs?  Do you want your new head unit to be able to power an in-car DVD system?
     
  • Integration: Many head units are designed to be integrated with other audio systems like satellite radio and iPods. Some head units have USB ports to accommodate USB drives with flash memory so that you can put your favorite tunes onto your USB drive, plug it in, and rock out.
     
  • Esthetics: Many head units on the market today have brightly lit, animated displays.  Some people find them interesting, yet others find the animations gaudy and distracting.  Choose what kind of display you want on your head unit. Also consider whether you prefer to have a removable or fold-down face to hide your player from potential thieves.
     
  • Price: Head units range from cheap and bland $30 units to expensive feature-filled units with large displays that can cost over $1000.  Chances are, you're interested in something that costs somewhere in the middle.
  • Installation:  Some stores offer installation for free or at a low price.  If you're not comfortable with taking pieces of your car apart on your own, you'll want to factor installation fees into your price. 
  • Other things to consider: 

    • Size: Will it fit into your dash? DIN is a German acronym that describes the size of the head unit.  Most cars have a 1.5 DIN head unit installed.  You should select a replacement that is the same size or smaller than the factory installed head unit
    • Outputs: Higher quality head units come with RCA cables called pre-outs.  These are useful if you will be connecting your head unit to an amplifier or subwoofer. 
    • Watts: Don't be fooled by a cheap head unit advertising 60 x 4 peak watts.  Peak wattage only represents how much power the head unit can send out for a split second.  Instead, rely on RMS wattage.  RMS wattage gives a better indication of how much power the head unit can send to the speakers for an extended period.

     

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