Double DIN Car Stereo Buyer’s Guide
Double DIN car stereos offer consumers all they could hope for, and even haven’t dreamed of, in a car entertainment system. In truth, these headunits offer such a large array of features that finding the best unit for your needs can become a complex decision. Fortunately, it needn’t be a complex process. You shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the possibilities. All car stereo brands have the same standard features on their entry-level models (although some are cheaper than others), and progressively add more cool ones on upper models, each added feature justifying its own price hike (this can be seen clearly on our brand comparison tables). In this guide, we’ll cover all these 2-DIN receiver’s features as well as ways to differentiate between two or more headunits and make your purchase decision.
Reasons for buying an aftermarket 2-DIN car stereo
Double din car stereos typically offer:
Better sound quality: A new 2-DIN car receiver will improve the sound quality over the typical factory-mounted stereo. The superior built-in power and better circuit design mean that an aftermarket car stereo isn't just louder than the typical factory stereo; it also produces cleaner, richer, more detailed sound.
New sources: One of most common reasons to get a new car stereo is to expand your system's music playback and other capabilities. Aftermarket double din receivers offer advanced capabilities, such as:
- MP3/WMA/AAC playback
- iPod support
- Satellite radio
- HD Radio™ reception
- DVD playback
- Bluetooth connectivity
- GPS navigation
- support for Pandora Internet radio
- support Android phones
Advanced features: depending on the stereo models, 2-DIN receivers have attractive features like Bluetooth hands-free calling, Bluetooth audio streaming, Navigation capabilities, DVD playback, iPod/iPhone/Android and App integration, full-color animated displays, and precision sound controls like digital time correction and parametric equalization.
Great style: aftermarket double din head units have a cleaner look and finish than factory-mounted ones, offer high-tech displays and cutting-edge layouts, thus enhancing the appearance of your car’s interior.
Usability: They’re also easier to use thanks to a nice large touch screen, big bright controls, customizable displays and menus, and more.
Expandability: USB connections, auxiliary inputs, SD card slots and audio/video outputs allow you to expand your system by connecting portable music players, flash-memory devices, rear seat TV screens, external amplifiers, and powered subwoofers to your new stereo.
Will a Double DIN car stereo fit in my dash?
As we wrote in our introduction to double din car stereos, the difference between 1 DIN and 2 DIN is the height: 1 DIN is 50mm and 2 DIN is 100mm, which is double the 1 DIN height, hence the term double DIN. The width is the same: 178mm. Therefore, the simplest way to see if your dash cavity is big enough for a 2 DIN receiver is to measure your current car stereo and if the height is around 4” or 100mm, then a 2 DIN head unit will fit.
Sometimes, you’ll want to buy a face plate to suit your particular make of car. A face plate is a special molded piece of plastic that is shaped to match the dash and provide a nice “made to measure” finish to your new installation, so it looks like a factory fitted unit. Face plates can often be bought directly from car spare parts dealers.
Budget vs. Quality
Everyone has different priorities. Some want it all and will not scrimp, while other just want an affordable good-sounding stereo that does just that.
It’s often said that you get what you pay for with electronic goods. For double din car stereos, this is both true in false. True because adding a couple hundred dollars will buy you built-in car navigation and other advanced features, and false because there are a lot of good head units out there that won’t break the bank. But if we’re being honest, you will have to loosen the purse strings a little if you really want to take things to the next level. Car stereo makers have structured their offer to make it that way.
With that in mind, before you start shopping for a car stereo, it’s critical that you ask yourself, “Is quality more important, or is price the deciding factor?”
Why would I buy a higher-priced model?
For many people, a lower-priced car stereo will do everything they need. So why should you spend more? More expensive stereos will offer:
- Better sound: Higher-priced stereos often feature upgraded power supplies, improved processors, and more flexible fine tuning. That means better sounding music for you, especially if you're upgrading the rest of your vehicle's audio system.
- More features: built-in HD Radio and/or Satellite tuners, built-in Navigation, etc.
- Easier to use: Advanced controls make it easier to operate the stereo.
- "Wow" factor: Top-end stereos offer a more striking visual appearance — multicolor displays, customizable graphics and motorized faceplates, for example.
How Do You Use Your Head Unit?
The second thing you must do after deciding on your budget is ask yourself what features you need and want in your new head unit. Consider how you use it: Do you listen to the radio a lot? Would you rather plug in your iPod or play your favorite custom Pandora Internet radio station? (Note that the three are not mutually exclusive, you can do all of them if you want)
1. Do you want to use your head unit for music and radio?
Aftermarket car stereo brands have made music and radio integration their bread and butter. If you want to use your car stereo exclusively for music, you can rarely go wrong with buying a double din receiver. An entry-level Pioneer model will work great for your needs. However, music and radio features are aplenty. Here’s a rundown of some of the key features that you might want your head unit to have:
- HD radio: If you like to listen to the radio, then you’ll certainly enjoy HD Radio, which is a great upgrade over conventional AM/FM radio. HD Radio technology offers better sound quality and more channels, as well as ong, artist and album info for some broadcasters.If you’re all excited by this feature, just make sure you live in an area that has good HD radio coverage, by checking iBiquity’s list of HD radio stations. Another thing to beware of is if the 2-DIN receiver you’re looking at has HD Radio compatibility, in which case you can plug an external HD Radio tuner, or if it has a built-in HD Radio tuner. The latter bring the price tag up of course. HD Radio doesn’t require a subscription, so a tuner is all you need.
- Satellite radio is a viable alternative to traditional radio. With Sat radio, you'll get commercial-free radio stations from across the globe in crystal clear digital-audio that you can pause, rewind and playback. However, it does require a monthly subscription fee. This is a good option if you’re in your car a lot and you regularly find yourself in areas that have spotty radio coverage. With satellite radio, you can drive from one side of the country to another without changing the station. Like HD Radio, you need a tuner, so check out if it’s built in the head unit, or if the receiver is just “Satellite radio compatible”.
- Internet radio is another great option, and it’s especially useful if you love the radio but don’t have any good stations in your area. This feature requires an Internet connection, so it won’t do you much good if you don’t have some type of mobile hotspot. It’s also worth mentioning that you can use your smartphone or tablet to stream Internet radio to some head units via Bluetooth.
- AM/FM radio: If you listen to FM radio on a regular basis, then one of the primary purpose of an aftermarket stereo is to provide exceptional sound. Therefore, you should find a unit that has digital processing built into it. Digital processing clears up analog FM signals and removes the static that is common in these broadcasts.
- CD player: CDs are still a great way to listen to music on the road, so anyone who has a large CD collection should look for this option. Fortunately, most head units include a CD player. If you like to burn your own CDs, then you should look for a head unit that supports the CD-RW format and that can handle files like WMA, MP3 and AAC. Always check as well the signal-to-noise ratio on the units you are considering buying and look for the ones that have a higher decibel rating. This will give the best possible playback of your CDs.
- Auxiliary input: MP3 players are a great way to bring your digital music collection on the road, and are not as burdensome as bringing your entire CD collection on the road. If you have an MP3 player (including a modern smartphone or tablet) then you should look for a head unit that has a front-facing auxiliary input. Some head units also have rear-mounted auxiliary inputs, but those aren’t as easy to use with a component like an MP3 player that you’ll want to unplug and take with you. Bluetooth functionality can also allow you to stream MP3s and other digital music files from your smartphone.
- iPod controls: iPods are MP3 players, so they will work with any head unit has a USB slot or AUX input (or Bluetooth audio streaming if your iPod has Bluetooth). Some head units even have a dedicated iPod connection slot. Double DIN car receivers are ideal for iPod users. They're often designed to make it easy to navigate your iPod's files on the touch screen, so you don’t have to fumble on your small iPod device. A lot of models even display album art as well as song titles. A big majority of double din car stereos offer this feature, so it rarely justifies a price increase in itself.
- USB inputs: USB drives are a great way to store a lot of music. They’ll take some time to load though. The location of the USB slot is also a factor to take into consideration; some people like a read USB input, so they can run a cable through a hole in the glove box and put their iPods there. However, a read USB slot makes it near impossible to plug a USB drive. A front USB slot is more accessible, although it can add more clutter to your dash. It’s all a question of preference.
2. Do You Want to Use Your Head Unit for Anything Other Than Music?
Music is great, but it only scratches the surface of what a double din car receiver can do. If you want to use your head unit for other things than music, then you might want to consider some of the following options:
- Bluetooth: this technology is fast becoming a ubiquitous, must-have feature. If you want to safely make and receive hands-free calls with your smartphone, then you need to have Bluetooth. You’ll be able to see the caller information instantly on the big touch screen of the receiver, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel. Furthermore, Bluetooth lets you stream music from your smartphone to the stereo.
- DVD playback: almost all 2-DIN head units with big screens allow you to play DVD. Only some entry-level models (those with a lot of buttons and little screen space) don’t have DVD playback. But even in these cases, they can power external displays that are mounted elsewhere in your vehicle.
- App control: this cutting edge feature allows you to control your smartphone applications on your receiver’s screen via Bluetooth. One example is the ability to control the Pandora Internet radio app, without actually looking at your phone.
- GPS navigation: this feature may not be a must-have, given that you may already have a separate GPS unit. Also, it’s been reported that the navigation from some brands’ high-end car receivers isn’t perfectly accurate. However, it works fantastically on some other models, making it a very convenient feature, especially when you’re travelling to a lot of different places you don’t know. The added advantage of built-in navigation is that they don’t add clutter to your dash like standalone GPS units. If money isn’t a concern, you might want to look at head units that include a built-in, touchscreen GPS navigation option. This can be a huge upgrade over the GPS on your small phone screen. On the other hand, if you’re on a tight budget, you can use an iPhone app like MotionX-GPS Drive, which works over 3G signals.
- Android™ support: we’ve talked about playing music from your phone, or controlling apps from the screen; that’s all good, but it only works if your phone is compatible with the receiver. While most brands initially only offered compatibility with iPhones, we’re seeing more receivers capable of accessing music and apps on Android phones. If you have an Android device, check the compatibility of the receiver so you don’t get caught by surprise.
Other considerations to take into account
Beside your budget, music/radio features and other functionalities, the final area that you must consider is design and usability:
- Sound quality often takes a hit in budget-priced head units. This is particularly true in terms of power since lower-priced receivers typically lack a high quality built-in amplifier. If you’re working on a budget, and you want to be able to beef up your sound system later on, then make sure to choose a model that includes preamp outputs. That will allow you to add in an amplifier, equalizer, and digital sound processor in the future.
- Sound controls: Are you a "set it and forget it" listener or are you a "tweaker"? Source options (CDs, MP3, etc.) are just one piece of the puzzle. The internal power and preamp sound processing constitute the other pieces of the stereo. Advanced controls let you tailor the music to your car's acoustics. Even if you like to leave things as they are, look for a stereo with at least a 3-band EQ (treble, bass, and midrange controls) — the ability to make even those small adjustments will improve the sound of your music. On the other hand, if you're a "tweaker" who likes to experiment with the sound settings, look for a model with a more sophisticated equalizer (such as a parametric EQ) –some models have a 9-band EQ– with digital signal processing (DSP), or with digital time correction. These types of sound settings give you total control over the effect of the acoustics in your vehicle.
- Ease of use can also suffer in budget-priced car stereos. Sometimes, displays include too many menus, sometimes the icons are too small, and sometimes you need to go through too many steps to get where you want. You don’t want a hard-to-use receiver when you’re driving… On the other hand, higher-priced models often have a very intuitive interface, with customizable options, and a clear user journey through the menus.
- Aesthetics also come into play when you’re shopping on a budget. Entry-level models do not always look good, with a bland display, unattractive icons, and cumbersome buttons. More expensive head units typically look better, although added flashy bells and whistles often don’t warrant extra money.
- Display: One of the main advantages of any big-screen receiver is the ease of going through the menus. Whether you’re looking for a song on your iPod, a favorite radio station, or the EQ settings, a big, colorful touchscreen makes finding functions intuitive and simple. You'll also want a display that shows the song, album, and artist information without a lot of scrolling. Double DIN car stereos’ display size is often around 6.1” or 6.2”, with some going as high as 7” or 8”. The resolution is almost always 800 x 480 (WVGA). Beside the size of the screen, enhanced graphics make it easier to see the display at a glance, and provide you with more information. They also make it easier to control and adjust the stereo, all the more so since most 2-DIN receivers don’t have a big round button to control volume. As the icing on the cake, some displays let you select their color, for a better match to your dash lighting.