Car audio head units with digital output

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UPDATE – 9/4/14 – The new Alpine INE-W957HD model does feature an optical output!  It’s not really obvious as it doesn’t appear to be a feature they are pushing, but it does have it.

I recently received this email from a reader regarding digital output from aftermarket head units for use with digital audio processors.  Joe brings up a great question!

Audison Demo Car at CES 2012 featuring a Full Digital Audio System

There are a number of audio processors promising extensive time alignment and EQ that seem to finally be close to retail availability. Alpine has the H800, Rockford Fosgate the 3sixty.3, and Arc Audio is working on the PS8. It would be ideal to run a digital signal to the processor to avoid unnecessary digital/analog conversions. I know there are a few head units that have digital output, but it’s never mentioned on marketing materials. What current or near-future head units do you know of that have this type of signal output?

Oh how true it is that it’s never mentioned in any marketing materials!  I remember being so stoked when my Alpine rep told me that the INA-W910BT was going to have an optical output.  I was so excited about it that I managed to sell one along with an Audison Bit One based largely on the fact that it could be an optical connection from the head unit to the processor.  You can imagine how disappointed I was when my husband came back from the install bay, stereo in hand and said,

“There’s no optical out.  Where is it?  Can you see it?”

Sure enough, I didn’t see where you could possibly make any optical connection.

“I f***ing hate Alpine; those ***holes do the same sh** to us every year!”

After calling tech support, I found out you need an additional adapter to add an optical output pigtail.  With the KWE-610A, you could run an INA-W910BT to a processor like the Audison Bit One and from there to an Audison Voce amp with digital connection.  Audison calls it their AV bit IN.

I did not have a chance to check out their full digital audio system while at CES 2012.  They were not at the convention center this year; they were off site at some hotel that we never had a chance to make it over to.  But this video from Audison helps to fill us in on the details of what a full digital audio system is and how it will vastly improve both sound quality and ease of installation.  Full digital audio is here now.

Check it out:

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16 comments for “Car audio head units with digital output

  1. Joe
    March 7, 2012 at 2:19 am

    Thanks for the answer!

    • March 7, 2012 at 11:31 pm

      My pleasure, thanks for the great question.

  2. Bryan W Gary
    January 5, 2015 at 9:58 pm

    Any other head units out there with digital out? I’m hoping to see more for CES2015.

    • January 6, 2015 at 5:08 pm

      I’m hoping to see some too, the only current ones I’m aware of are the Alpine INE-W957HD for sure, and pretty sure also for the Alpine X008 and X009. I’ll be there tomorrow and will let you know what I find!

  3. Joe
    April 9, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Annie,

    Did you confirm that the X008 and X009 units have optical. I’m considering building a car stereo system with the 3sixty.3 and would like to go down this route. I am really into headphone audio too, and my current system has an MS-8. I used to have my factory radio as the inputs driving the MS-8, but recently I took my headphone DAC (24-bit audio, audioquest’s dragonfly v1.2) in my car and plugged it to the input of the MS-8, and the audio sounded 1000 times better. I don’t care what anybody says, 24-bit DACs are much clearer, and give the dynamic range. Luckily the 3sixty.3 is a 24 bit DAC, but it doesn’t matter what the input audio is if I’m not providing it with a digital signal or a 24-bit provided DAC signal.

    So that said, if I can’t find a head unit with an optical output for a reasonable cost ($600 or so), I’m going to build my own iPhone/iPad/computer to TOSLINK optical converter with parts. I’d rather it be integrated in a head unit (cleaner), but I get the feeling that my solution is more economical and probably more convienient too. Bluetooth streaming audio doesn’t have enough bandwidth in my personal opinion because I want to play 24 bit sound tracks (FLAC or ALAC), so I’m stuck to optical connections. Plus, it’s just so much more cleaner than RCA cables.

    I guess my real gripe is that it feels like car audio is stuck in the 1990’s with bluetooth being the greatest thing, but for 21st century audiophiles like me who enjoy car audio, we are at the mercy of manufacturers who won’t provide options other than 1990’s stuff, or bluetooth. *sigh* …

    Joe

    • April 10, 2015 at 9:21 pm

      Hi Joe,
      Yeah I’m pretty sure that all the Alpine’s from the INE-W957HD and up have optical, but I can double check and confirm.

      You know what’s interesting? All the new 2015 Pioneer NEX models play FLAC audio files. And most of them have SD card slots too, my Pioneer rep is supposed to stop by one of these days so I can check it out (I don’t have any FLAC files at the moment or really even the time to mess around with it).

      In my Honda Element we have done a similar set up to what you are talking about. We have the Alpine processor PXA-H800 and toslink adapters connected to a Pure i20 for our iPad. But I’m real curious to see how clean the FLAC sounds on SD card on the new NEX models (which also feature 13 Band EQ, digital time alignment, highly adjustable crossovers, etc) but no optical out.

      • James
        November 14, 2015 at 3:29 pm

        I love my Honda Element and currently planning a new audio system for it. What’s in yours?

      • February 5, 2016 at 2:58 pm

        Hi James, I love my Element too! I plan on keeping that car as long as it lasts. The set up I have is a bit fancy at the moment. Eventually I’d like to reconfigure the dash for something like Sony’s new RSXG9 or a CarPlay model, but at the moment I have the Alpine PXAH800 processor, Morel Hybrid component speakers in front, the Morel Hybrid point source speakers in the rear, a couple older Audison amplifiers and a JL Audio 12W6. We’re using an older outboard DAC (I can’t remember which one) for my iPhone or an iPad so I literally just plug my phone in and that’s my head unit. Here is a pic with the ipad in place.
        Honda Element Dash

  4. Phil
    May 24, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Did you confirm that the X008u has an optical output? I would like to run optical to an Arc Audio PS8. The manual for the X008U just says it has an optical out for compatible external processors.

    • May 28, 2015 at 5:06 pm

      Hey Phil – yes, I checked with Alpine. Actually, we just installed one of these yesterday. It’s a standard optical output and it can be used with processors other than Alpine’s PXA-H800 assuming the processor has it’s own separate display/controller. Like Alpine’s got the RUX-C800, Audison has the Bit One DRC Controller, etc. You would need that to control volume at that point.

  5. August 27, 2015 at 9:38 am

    ok I have read all your comments as I have been looking into this myself… Yes the new alpine units have optical out but unless you use it from the DVDs player in them you are not getting pure digital audio. It will still convert analog to digital in the head unit before it goes to the audison gear…. I’m very annoyed at the whole situation also and I am now building my own 2 din head unit myself. I will keep you up to date with the build

    • October 3, 2015 at 12:47 pm

      Hey Matthew. Cool! I think there is a slim market for that. I don’t get too many customers asking me for this feature, but they are out there. We just do the PXA-H800 – it has optical out. I have it connected to my iPhone in my Honda Element, works pretty well!

  6. Rob
    September 9, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Hey Car Stereo Chick. Love the name. I have been digging at this for a while too. I actually spoke to a few of the manufacturers about it and also delved a little deeper into the finer points of digital audio outs specifically as to just how difficult it would be to implement. I have refused to buy a new head unit for a few years now because I am hold out for digital bussing. The real truth is some of the processors like the Helix DSP Pro actually offer way better converters than most head units as well as a host of other features that no head unit could hope to ever achieve. I have tried to talk to both Alpine and Pioneer who would be the obvious players to look to but they both out right REFUSE to consider the very notion. Pioneer specifically clearly knows better regarding why using a digital buss is better but as we see there is just no way they will consider it. Not even as a paid add-on. Kenwood? “There is no market for it”. I am so P##$## off about their attitudes. Anyway, I spoke to Rydeen and they said “it sounds like a great idea, we will consider it on upcoming units”. Why Rydeen? Android! Android 4.4 and later (lolipop) has already got driver support for usb audio. In short, it would basically be a plug and play USB sound card! Turtle makes one for gaming purposes already. It’s a simple name badge change for whoever decides to take up the task. Seriously!
    There is a small issue that needs to be worked out though. Alpine’s digital outputs actually only output the audio stream “pre” the volume attenuation algorithm. In other words you can’t use the volume knob on the head unit in order to adjust your volume. You need to cut a whole in your dash so you can add another that controls your digital processor instead. Yes, it is ridiculous but that is exactly how Alpine roles. Oh, BTW. I completely share your sentiments regarding Alpine and purely for that reason I will never by any of their junk. The truth is there is way better stuff available much cheaper anyway but with their attitude they can choke on it! We need to understand that because controlling output volume is not something that was planned there is probably a slight adjustment needed to be made to the programming of the app running the headunit that the sound card would plug into. That said it can’t be that difficult as the headunits are doing it themselves now as do our phones.
    I am hopeful that Rydeen can stay afloat in this very turbulent market. They don’t seem to have a lot of market share even though their “all android” (the op system of the head unit is android, it doesn’t just interface with android like Pioneer’s gear. It actually is an Android device!) is an awesome unit. The other guys to look at are Audio Pumpkin out of China (everything is made in China anyway, why not a Chinese company? Their head units of comparable quality to the higher end Alpines and Pioneers are less than 1/4 of the price. Pioneer, Kenwood and Alpine are lining their pockets with our cash for stuff that they can clearly bring to market cheaper than we can buy it from the same folks due to volume of sales. So what is the price difference? Their profit margin!!! Audio Pumpkin have taken what I had to say under advisement but I think their concern is sheer numbers. The reality is us folks who care about what it actually sounds like need to speak up. Our silence is what is causing the problem. No, the cart does not have to lead the horse. We can get what we want but clearly not without a fight. It’s our money making the shareholders of Pioneer, Kenwood and Alpine rich is clearly not driving technological advancements in car audio in the least so take it away from them and give it to those who are willing! The “big boys” aka bullies can eat humble pie.

  7. Richard
    January 29, 2016 at 4:43 am

    Hi Annie,
    Glad to have chance on your site.
    I am looking for an android based HU with digital output but found none.
    Any chance that you are aware of such HU.
    Thanks and regards
    Richard
    Singapore

    • February 4, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      Hi Richard – nothing yet! Sony recently came out with a single din hi res audio head unit with optical output (very cool head unit – RSX-GS9 - very minimalistic, but excellent sound quality), but have not seen anything in double din with Android operating system or Android Auto capability.

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