Car Stereo Head Units and Digital Audio Ultimate Buying Guide

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Car Stereo Head Units and Digital Audio Ultimate Buying Guide

The stereo head unit marks the core of a car's entertainment system, and the modern car stereo is becoming so much more than it used to be. Today, the digital unit may also be a multimedia centre and GPS system. As well as CD and satellite radio capability, many head units can play MP3s that can be accessed via Bluetooth from an external device. With relatively recent technological advancement, some head units now incorporate an LCD monitor with a built-in vehicular functionality control to inform drivers of their car's performance, such as odometer readings amongst other data.

Despite such high end head units now flooding the market, there is, however, no shortage of more elementary versions available, such as audio-only devices that perform exactly what they were originally designed to: the playback of CD and radio. Whichever type of stereo head unit a customer is searching for, eBay lists many varieties at very affordable prices. When shopping for a stereo head unit for the car, a customer's selection criteria should be safety focused with considerations for aesthetics, convenience, ergonomics, and functionality.

A World of Digital Sound

Irrespective of the type of head unit sought, modern units, being mostly digital, all facilitate great potential in audio and video from a wide range of media. Of course, the final audio quality can only be as satisfying as the speaker system and its configuration allows, but nevertheless, the foundation is laid with a quality head unit.

A car stereo head unit and speaker system may be akin to that of a home sound system and is the car's most upgradeable component. The stereo head can also accommodate add-ons that may later fit into the existing rig.

Purchasing Considerations

When a customer chooses a stereo head unit for their car, there are some important considerations that should be taken into account in order to fully utilise the audio benefits a new stereo head unit may offer in terms of sound quality, clarity, and power. Conversely, a stereo buyer may also want to ask themselves if the power capabilities of their preferred unit are necessary, remembering the small space inside a car means a stereo's audio output may well exceed safe decibel outputs for confined spaces, and potentially present a serious distraction to the driver. On a more typical note, however, the following outlines some considerations that are common priorities among stereo head unit consumers.


The number one consideration is the compatibility of their preferred stereo head with the dashboard in their car. This is determined by the size of the receptacle in the dash, i.e., whether it is a single or double DIN, which is a German acronym that in English means German Institute for Standardisation and refers to the two standard sized facilities for car stereos. If the car's existing stereo head is no more than about 5.1 centimetres in height, the new stereo head unit must conform to the single DIN standard. A stereo unit that is approximately 10.2 centimetres in height can facilitate a double DIN stereo head.

Car Stereo Head Unit Power and Connections

Another primary concern for many buyers is the degree of power they can generate from their head unit. In this case, a customer may want to know the root mean square (RMS) value. This indicates the wattage the unit's internal amplifier is capable of generating as sound output. Knowing and understanding the RMS value is of far greater importance to the customer than knowing what the "peak power" or "music power" is purported to be. Such meaningless terms as these are used by manufacturers as marketing tools to trick buyers into believing they are offering a superior system.

Furthermore, other points a customer may wish to check is whether their designated unit includes preamp outputs, the type of inputs they may have, such as TRS or RCA, and any other relevant connection types.

Ease of Use

Other considerations are the functionality of the stereo head, convenience and ease of use, as well as value for money. Ease of use in particular, should be a leading priority in choosing a head unit. The less a driver has to fiddle with controls when driving, the better.

A slick and stylish design does not necessarily equal an easy interface to operate, so a potential buyer should try out the functionality of various models before settling on one. Many late model cars now incorporate stereo functionality in the steering column to overcome the problem of drivers operating their stereo units whilst driving.

Radio Functionality

High-end car stereo head units are capable of delivering unsurpassed choice in radio transmission. The traditional analogue AM and FM bands may be used in conjunction with high definition digital radio. This means the choice of radio stations that can be clearly received is enormous. Additionally, some units also include satellite radio receivers, increasing the listening options much further again. In this event, a customer requires the appropriate antenna installed inside their car, and a paid subscription to a satellite radio provider.

Media Adaptability

Not only is the cassette player long gone, its successor the CD player,, is now also on its way out of factory manufacturing standards although still being produced in many aftermarket stereo head units. Newer digital media, such as MP3, WMA and AAC, are increasingly being incorporated into modern systems, with Bluetooth especially revolutionising car audio entertainment. The addition of Bluetooth capabilities opens up many playback opportunities from external devices and increases the interactive potential.

Brand Names and Reliability

It is always worthwhile choosing any stereo unit according to a trusted brand, and car stereo head units are no different. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, and the below list is steeped in generalisations, it is helpful in that it recommends some of the most dependable brands in car audio equipment.


Having lived up to its namesake for many years, Pioneer is still one of the industry leaders. The stereo head units that Pioneer manufactures are some of the most aesthetically pleasing and well laid out units. The majority of mid- and high-end range models also feature an electroluminescent display called an organic light-emitting diode (OLED). OLED is an LED display that offers superior graphics almost akin to 3D. This is a bonus feature on top of the already exemplary sound quality.


Although perhaps not as aesthetically appealing as Pioneer units, Alpine is another manufacturer that has consistently remained on top, thanks to their reputation for producing audio equipment with exceptional sound quality. The interface of Alpine stereo head units are designed for intuitive handling, and overall, offers some of the best value for money in car audio equipment.


Kenwood is a classic brand with a low and perhaps understated profile. The company produces some of the most enduring audio equipment around, and the Exelon line is said to be among the best in the car stereo manufacturing business.


JVC car head stereo units range enormously in quality. The lower end produces only average quality whilst the high-end sector of the company's products are set to a very high standard indeed and are comparable to the best in the industry.


As with JVC, the Panasonic range also varies somewhat in quality between the lower and upper ends. The Panasonic Premier line was the first to popularise 3D graphics and is famous for OLED displays. The main selling feature of the Panasonic stereo head units is design with superb interface styling making operational handling simple.

How to Buy Car Stereo Head Units on eBay

Before heading to eBay and after reading several user reviews, researching different performance capabilities, and interface controls and functionality, it is a good idea to physically check the items you have in mind. If possible, go to a car audio dealer and handle the head unit to get a feel for it. It is important that you feel confident that you are able to familiarise yourself easily and quickly with the unit you have in mind.

On eBay, enter the particular head unit specifications according to the type you are looking for, such as Alpine car stereo, or alternatively, search for the generic term to see the whole available range. Once you have found some listings that interest you, read through the listed information, terms of sale and returns policies carefully, and make comparisons between the seller's claims and the information you have gathered independently. This is where autonomous research benefits you the most, as you are then in a position to make a properly informed choice.

Before settling on your purchase, you need to be sure you can trust your designated seller. Check your seller's reputation with previous buyers by referring to their positive feedback score. You can even check individual responses from past customers.


With the online marketplace expanding rapidly and competition fierce, comparing prices between retailers well in advance of a purchase gives a customer a good indication of what they can expect for their money. eBay's range of car head stereo units covers a wide range of units based on price, functionality, size, and brand name. If a buyer understands the type of unit they need for their car and stays with a brand they know to be reliable, they are unlikely to experience any serious problems.

The car stereo continues to evolve and is becoming increasingly multimedia. Many car stereo head units today have all the functionality found in conventional home stereo units. Before succumbing to the glitzy seduction of high-end units, however, a customer ought to assess their priorities, such as normal use patterns, various media requirements, and especially, road safety issues that stereo head units can present. A simple, intuitive interface with steering column functionality solves many potential hazardous that once plagued car stereos. If a driver puts safety concerns first, they are less likely to be distracted or be a menace on the road.

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