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best car radios

The Best Car Radios in 2021

Author: Robert Wilson

Electronics & Peripherals Expert

The car radio not only provides musical variety, but also traffic and congestion notifications. For a list of the best, our experts have looked through various tests on the Internet, which also reveal ratings for Bluetooth, display illumination, performance and more.

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Factory Equipment vs. Retrofit

Simple design, as part of a factory-fitted system or retrofitted, as the central element – so-called head unit of a high-quality sound system, the innovative market of car hi-fi offers the right product for every taste, every demand and every budget. The capabilities go far beyond the radio reception that gives it its name.

An overview of the technology, central equipment features, manufacturers and sources of supply, should enable a sensible purchase decision.

As a rule, new cars of all manufacturers and classes are equipped at the factory with a car radio and a basic set of necessary speakers. Higher-quality systems are usually offered as optional extras or are part of individual vehicle special editions.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was an increasing trend, particularly among young drivers, to replace factory-fitted car radios, which were perceived as inadequate, with more powerful models from the accessories trade. This trend gave rise to a car hi-fi scene that is still active today and that is intensively involved in all areas of what is feasible in the field of sound optimization and knows virtually no limits in terms of volume, as well as in terms of effort and cost.

Furthermore, it became possible to make additional comfort features and functions usable in vehicle classes for which no adequate offer was available from manufacturers.

Car Radio & ISO Standards

The basis for all efforts to independently adapt the sound system of a vehicle to one’s own requirements is the international standardization of basic construction criteria of a commercially available car radio. The ISO 7736 standard from 1984, for example, defines the installation dimensions for car radios. To date, a distinction has been made between two designs:

  • 1 DIN car radio with dimensions of 182 mm x 52 mm and a depth of the installation slot of at least 160 mm.
  • 2 DIN (also double DIN) car radio with double the installation height, i.e. 104 mm.

In addition, standardized connections for loudspeakers and other necessary elements and functions such as loudspeakers, power supply, switching the radio on and off via the vehicle ignition, electrical antennas, etc. were introduced and also certified.

This standardization made it possible to connect car radios from most manufacturers to any vehicle electrical system with little effort and no more than the purchase of an additional plug adapter. In addition, there are standardized sizes for built-in speakers, which make it possible to replace simple speaker systems with high-quality models.

Modern Car Radio Variants - Advantages & Disadvantages

In recent years, vehicle manufacturers have increasingly recognized that a high-quality sound system can have a significant influence on a purchase decision. As a result, strong efforts have been made, tests carried out, to design factory sound systems in such a way that they can convince even demanding music lovers and score points with maximum functionality and ease of use.

This includes the use of high-quality components, such as radios and speaker systems from renowned manufacturers, but usually branded by the vehicle manufacturer. All elements are optimally matched to the conditions of the acoustically demanding vehicle interior and coupled with other vehicle systems.

In the process, car radios are increasingly being integrated into the interior design with a precise fit and only rarely correspond visually to the familiar designs. Even if the installation dimensions generally still comply with the ISO standards mentioned above – most vehicle manufacturers choose radio models in 2 DIN format – the front panels in particular are, however, individually adapted to the vehicle design and operating elements are also occasionally arranged separately or relocated.

Replacing such a factory-fitted car radio with one from the accessories trade is not always straightforward. Even the removal process can involve some effort, as complete trim elements may have to be removed. In addition, these panels are adapted to the factory car radio in such a way that gaps remain after replacement with another model, which must be covered by suitable installation panels from the accessories trade.

If the vehicle interior is colored, additional effort is required here so as not to detract from the overall appearance of the vehicle interior. Particularly in the case of exotic vehicle models, the procurement of such installation panels represents a major challenge.

CAN-Bus System

Modern vehicles rely on the networking of as many components of the vehicle electronics as possible. The Controller Area Network (CAN bus) system developed by Bosch in 1983 is used for this purpose. For car radios, this means that a wide range of additional functions can be realized via a simple additional connection. These functions include:

  • Transmission of RDS information to a display of the vehicle cockpit
  • Control of the car radio via a steering wheel remote control
  • Integration of a PDC (Park Distance Control) system
  • Speed-dependent volume control
  • Use of a radio screen as a vehicle information system (temperature display etc.)

If the factory car radio is replaced by a universal radio, these functions are not necessarily still available. A connection to an existing CAN bus system usually requires additional effort, such as the integration of necessary adapters or so-called CAN bus boxes, causes additional costs and is not possible for all vehicles and radio models.

Car Radio With GPS Navigation & Handsfree System

As the research on the most frequent search queries regarding car radios shows, many are looking for a car radio with navi and hands-free system. Here, there is a wide range of models on the market that combine this. Of course, the new models are always car radios with DAB+ reception.

The manufacturer Pioneer is also very innovative here. In addition to conventional car radios with DAB+ and hands-free system (e.g. car radio Pioneer AVH-Z7100DAB or Pioneer SPH-DA230DAB), there is now the car radio Pioneer SPH 10BT, which has a connection holder for the smartphone. I.e. you plug your smartphone as a monitor in the holder on the car radio and can then get there, for example, maps from the Navi app displayed while listening to the radio or accept a phone call via the hands-free system.

The big advantage here is that this car radio is cheaper than a car radio with navi and handsfree with its own monitor.

With the EOTONE NDX-150 A car radio, you also get a monitor and have 47 countries to choose from in the navigation system. Additionally, there is Google Play to load more navigation providers or apps.

The display also offers the possibility to play movies there. The Tristan Auron BT1D7018 car radio has a 7-inch touchscreen (17.8 cm). However, the display is not directly in the driver’s field of vision in this type of model, but is always located directly above the radio, as in the case of the JUST SOUND RMD574BT car radio.

The operation is possible with many models via the steering wheel and there are also suitable inputs to connect the car radio and the monitor with a rear view camera. This is the case, for example, with the OUTAD car radio.

Those who do not want to play their music via DAB+ or from a USB stick can also choose car radio Hotauto with navigation, hands-free system and CD player.

Regarding the hands-free system, one should always make sure that a microphone is included.

The latest models now use Android 9 as the operating system, for example the PUMPKIN car radio, which also comes with a screen for the navigation system.

Types of Car Radios

As described above, the range of functions available for car radios has grown steadily over the course of their development. The basic functions in particular are a fundamental criterion for differentiating and testing individual radio models. Primarily, the differentiation is based on the type of audio data sources used.

Car radio tests usually compare mainly car radios of one category with each other and name individual strengths and weaknesses here.

Cassette Tuner

With the development of new audio data carriers and formats, such as CD, SD, USB and MP3, the magnetic tape cassette became increasingly less important and is now only a niche product. Nevertheless, radio models with built-in players for such cassettes are still offered by some manufacturers.

On the one hand, they are used by lovers of nostalgic vehicles, which can be kept in their original condition with them, and on the other hand, they represent an inexpensive alternative for all those whose main focus is simple radio reception.

CD Tuner

CD tuner The most common variant to date is the CD tuner. It combines the radio part with a built-in CD player. Depending on the model, these are capable of playing various audio formats and compact disc types:MP3, WMA, CD-R, CD-RW. As an alternative to pure CD tuners, some manufacturers still offer combinations of a radio control unit and a CD changer, which were especially popular in the 1990s.

A distinction is made between devices with an internal changer, where several CDs can be inserted into the car radio, and those with an external changer, which is installed anywhere in the car and usually holds magazines with up to 10 CDs that can be selected and played via the car radio.

DVD Tuner

DVD tuners are basically similar to the aforementioned CD tuners, with the difference that they are additionally capable of reading and playing various DVD types. Since these can be video formats as well as audio, DVD radios usually use the 2 Din format or alternatively an external or fold-out monitor that can be used to view video content.

MP3 Tuner

MP3 tuners do not have an internal drive at all. Without a cassette, CD or DVD player, the installation dimensions (at least the installation depth), the weight, the susceptibility to interference and often also the price are significantly reduced. On the other hand, they usually have various interfaces that can be used to connect external data carriers.

Card readers for SD cards and USB ports for memory sticks or other digital data carriers allow playing various audio formats.

Connection Options & Additional Functions of Car Radios

In addition to the described basic criteria for selecting a suitable car radio, which mainly relate to the data source or a central drive, there are a number of other criteria and features that can significantly influence a purchase decision. These include, above all, the built-in connections or interfaces and useful additional functions.

Some connection variants have proven to be particularly popular, are used by many users and are taken into account by manufacturers accordingly. In many car radio tests, the features of a car radio play an important role in the direct comparison of different models.

Speaker connections

The coupling of a car radio with the necessary loudspeaker system takes place via suitable loudspeaker connections. The easiest way to make this connection is via ISO plug-in connectors, but it can also be realized via conventional cable connections.

The majority of commercially available car radios offer connection options for at least one pair of speakers each for the front and the rear of the vehicle interior, via which the total power of the car radio is transmitted.

USB

Car radios that have the option of playing digital audio or video formats in addition to a conventional drive usually have at least one USB port. Suitable data carriers such as USB sticks or external hard drives can be connected to this port.

SD Card

As an alternative or in addition to the USB port, some car radios have interfaces for SD cards. Furthermore, most radios with navigation systems use separate card readers, usually micro-SD, to provide the necessary software and map material.

AUX-in

An AUX-in connection, usually in the form of a 3.5 mm jack, is used to connect additional audio sources, such as an MP3 player. Some models offer this connection as a front connector, others, for flexible mounting, on the back of the car radio.

Rear view camera connection

Modern vehicles often have a rear-view camera as standard or as an optional extra. This is usually connected to a factory-fitted moniceiver or naviceiver. To enable the retrofitting of such a parking aid, many universal radios in 2 DIN format with a suitable display also have connection options for such camera systems.

Microphone

Simple car radio models with hands-free function are equipped with a built-in microphone. This is usually installed in the front panel of the radio. Depending on the quality and installation position, this variant often only allows poor voice quality.

Models with a separate microphone connection allow the individual installation of a cable microphone at a suitable position in the vehicle interior and thus a significantly better voice quality.

Preamplifier output

Car radios have an internal power amplifier, a power amplifier that amplifies the audio signals and outputs them to the speakers connected to the radio according to the selected volume setting. Alternatively, many models offer a so-called preamplifier output.

The pure, unamplified audio signal is output via this and can be transmitted to an external amplifier. In this case, the audio signals amplified in this way are output to speakers that are connected to the external power amplifier.

In models with an integrated crossover, the preamplifier output is separated by frequency range. Tweeter, midrange and woofer can be amplified separately and adjusted from the radio. Passive frequency separation is no longer necessary.

Subwoofer output

The subwoofer output is basically also a preamplifier output that transmits only the unamplified signal. However, this is explicitly the signal for a bass speaker (subwoofer), which is specifically intended to generate audio signals with low bass frequencies. The subwoofer output can be set separately on the radio for this purpose.

Equalizer (EQ)

In modern car radios, an equalizer is internal software that makes it possible to precisely adjust the frequency response of the individual channels and speakers, thus adapting the sound image to the individual conditions of the vehicle interior and the user’s personal preferences, such as different music styles.

iPhone/iPod/Android Control

Problem-free connection of and error-free communication with modern smartphones is a decisive criterion for many users when selecting a car radio. A voice connection can be established, Internet functionalities can be used and music tracks can be transferred from the phone.

Bluetooth

Many car radio models use the popular and widespread Bluetooth function both for pairing with a smartphone to create an interference-free hands-free function and for transmitting media content.

Hands-free system for smartphones

Despite the relevant regulations of the Road Traffic Act, many drivers do not want to give up making phone calls in the car. The permissible solution is a convenient hands-free system that makes it possible to take and make phone calls without being distracted from road traffic by the necessary hand movements.

A hands-free system is based on a data connection between the telephone and the car radio. This can be established both via a cable connection and via Bluetooth.

Near Field Communication (NFC)

The new technology of Near Field Communication is based on the well-known radio-frequency identification (RFID) and enables wireless data exchange between smartphone and car radio at short distance, for example for the uncomplicated establishment of a Bluetooth connection, in connection with a hands-free system.

Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB)

Digital Audio Broadcasting is the latest standard for the transmission of digital radio signals. Digital radio is characterized above all by its high sound quality. As with digital television, an existing connection always has maximum quality or does not occur – noise known from conventional reception can be excluded.

In addition, more data can be received via digital transmission than with simple RDS, and reception is independent of locally changed frequencies.

Ease of Use of Car Radios

In addition to sober technical key figures, designs and equipment features, the usability of a car radio is of outstanding importance. The large number of functions provided by a modern car radio can quickly result in an unmanageable number of setting options.

Users with little interest in technology are quickly overwhelmed, and complicated operation can be a real traffic hazard. In particular, it must be possible to operate the basic functions, such as selecting an audio source, changing stations or tracks, or adjusting the volume and basic audio settings, at any time, even while driving, without distracting the driver excessively from what is happening on the road.

If the car radio is also to be used as a hands-free system for a cell phone, uncomplicated operation is also indispensable here and a decisive quality feature. This applies both to operation and to the legibility of the radio display. Even though an evaluation here is often subjective and depends heavily on the habits of the respective user, general usability is also included in an evaluation in car radio tests.

Different manufacturers rely on different operating concepts for their models. These are usually a combination of buttons, knobs and rotary controls. The type of menu navigation required must be evaluated in each individual case according to its comprehensibility.

Touchscreen displays, as they are now used in the majority of modern moniceivers and naviceivers, differ just as much in the structure and arrangement of the necessary operating elements as in their basic quality, which is expressed, for example, in touch sensitivity and accuracy.

Modern car radios also offer the possibility of adjusting the necessary illumination of the controls to personal preferences.

Some models also offer the possibility of remotely controlling at least the basic functions of the radio. This can be done either by connecting the radio to an existing steering wheel remote control, usually via a CAN bus connection, or by using an optional remote control.

Most remote controls work with infrared (IR). Since this requires an optical connection between the remote control and the receiver of the car radio, such remote controls, which can be attached to the steering wheel, do not always function without interference – not exactly a plus point in tests.

Car radio and anti-theft device

Car radios have long been considered popular stolen goods. Manufacturers are taking this into account with ever better methods of theft protection. Ultimately, however, there is no such thing as one hundred percent security.

Since there are only a few sensible ways to make it more difficult to remove a car radio, the primary goal of anti-theft protection is to limit the usability of a stolen car radio as much as possible, thus making resale more difficult and making the theft as uninteresting as possible.

Over the years, manufacturers have developed various methods of protection, but only a few of them have been successful in the long term:

Removable control panels

On models with this security system, the complete front panel or at least part of it can be removed. This means that the car radio can no longer be operated and is thus unusable for a thief. To ensure maximum security, the control panel removed in this way should not be stored in the car, which means that this system involves additional expense.

In addition, inexpensive systems in particular are susceptible to wear due to repeated removal and insertion of the control panel.

Numerical Badge

Most car radios are coded at the factory. When shipped, each car radio comes with a “badge” containing a numerical code, usually four digits long. Each time a car radio coded in this way is disconnected from and reconnected to a power supply, this code must be entered in order to put the car radio into operation.

Car Radio Accessories

In addition to the pure car radio, also known as a head unit, radio manufacturers and accessory dealers offer various other components that, in combination with the car radio, turn a simple sound system into high-quality hi-fi equipment.

Speakers

Choosing the right speaker system is at least as important as choosing a car radio. The highest quality of an audio source does not come to fruition if inferior speakers are connected. The matching of the output power of the radio and the performance of the loudspeakers is also of great importance: too much power at too weakly dimensioned loudspeakers can damage or even destroy them in the worst case.

Conversely, oversized loudspeakers cannot develop their potential power and do not deliver satisfactory results.

In the car hi-fi segment, a basic distinction is made between different types of loudspeaker systems:

2-Way Systems
In a 2-way system, a separate tweeter covers the upper frequency range of the audio signals, while the low frequencies are played through a woofer and midrange driver. This variant is the installation method preferred by car manufacturers and the most popular overall.

It requires little installation effort and at the same time, by separating the high frequency range, offers good possibilities for room sound design.

3-Way Systems
In the 3-way system, the low frequency range and the mids are also separated from each other. A 3-way system therefore consists of three individual speakers per channel. The 3-way system allows the best performance over the entire frequency range.

Coax Systems
In the coaxial system, the two separate loudspeakers of a 2-way system are combined in one cabinet. This design significantly reduces the installation effort. In addition, the two components: Tweeter and midrange/woofer are optimally matched to each other by the manufacturer.

Since the installation of speakers in factory installation openings of the vehicle is usually in the lower door area, in the footwell or in the area of the rear shelf, the coaxial system is usually inferior to the classic 2-way system, especially with regard to the high-frequency reproduction.

Triax Systems
The triax system is similar to the described coax system, with the difference that here the three frequency ranges: Treble, midrange and bass are combined separately in one cabinet. The same advantages and limitations of the coaxial system apply here.

Single loudspeakers: Single loudspeakers or pairs of loudspeakers can supplement existing loudspeaker systems and thus enhance an existing sound image with comparatively little resources.

Auxiliary Tweeters
Auxiliary tweeters offered in pairs can be mounted in a suitable location (e.g. in the mirror triangles of the front doors or on the dashboard, near the windshield) and thus complement a simple coaxial system in the vehicle doors or in the rear, for example. Auxiliary tweeters usually have a built-in crossover and can be easily coupled to an existing system.

Subwoofer
In addition to the high frequency range, the low frequencies are of great importance for the overall sound image. For some styles of music, extreme lows are crucial and particularly sought after by car hi-fi enthusiasts. Physically, extreme lows require large diameter speakers.

They also often rely on higher amplifier power. For this reason, subwoofers as single speakers are usually only used in conjunction with an external amplifier. Alternatively, retailers offer active subwoofers: built into different types of enclosures, these are connected to the subwoofer output of a car radio. Alternatively, they have a built-in crossover and can be connected via a simple preamplifier output and adjusted on the cabinet.

Since low frequencies play a significant role in the overall sound of a sound system, but can only be located by the human ear to a limited extent, the installation position for a subwoofer is of secondary importance. This means that bass boxes can be easily installed in the trunk.

However, due to the comparatively large amount of space required, classic subwoofers or bass boxes are not an option for every driver. Alternatively, space-saving variants are offered here, which can either be additionally mounted as individual speakers in door panels or other installation locations or positioned in housings under the seats.

Center Speakers

Already known from the home theater segment, some car hi-fi manufacturers also already work with so-called center speakers. Since these should usually be installed in the center of the dashboard, they are usually part of a factory audio system. The small, high-quality loudspeakers serve to optimize the surround sound and to reproduce speech in particular in an acoustically accentuated manner.

Audio Cable

Particularly in the high-end sector, i.e. with the highest quality – usually associated with significantly high expenditure – in car hi-fi systems, every detail, no matter how small, plays a role when it comes to getting the most out of a sound system.

It is not only important to use high-quality loudspeakers, but also to ensure that they are optimally connected. High-quality cables are used, which are optimally matched to the performance of the radios or connected amplifiers due to their dimensions and whose connections, for example through gold plating, allow minimal power losses or interference.

Power Amplifiers

There are technical limits to the performance of a car radio, which can be tested. Where these are not sufficient to supply all the speakers to be connected with the necessary and desired power, external amplifiers, so-called power amplifiers, are usually used.

These are offered by the trade in all conceivable sizes and performance classes and are often associated with complex additional installation measures, such as optimizing the power supply.

If the connection of an external power amplifier is planned, the car radio should ideally have a preamplifier output.

Crossovers for Speakers

The normal speaker outputs of a car radio transmit audio signals of the entire frequency range. However, individual loudspeakers are designed to reproduce only individual sections of this frequency range. Crossovers are used to split the frequency range.

A distinction is made here between passive crossovers and active crossovers. In passive models, the incoming signal is divided by resistors into predefined frequency ranges: usually treble, midrange and the low frequency range. In addition, a distinction is made between 2-way crossovers, 3-way crossovers and those for single speakers, such as subwoofers or separate tweeters.

Active crossovers offer the possibility to adjust the frequency distribution individually. This allows it to be optimally adapted to the connected speakers.

Final Conclusion: Car Radios

If you love music, you don’t want to do without it in the car either. News and traffic radio make a significant contribution to road safety, as do additional functions of modern car radios, such as a hands-free system for cell phones. When it comes to pure radio reception, most drivers are well served by a factory-fitted car radio.

However, anyone who spends a lot of time in the car and has higher demands in terms of sound quality and range of functions is sure to find the right model to meet their own requirements in the wide range of accessories on offer.

Last product update on 2021-09-24 | Source: Amazon Affiliate