Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 – Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony and Alpine Review

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Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review – More models than ever to choose from!

Almost a year has passed since my Best CarPlay Head Unit 2017 review and a lot has changed in that short period of time. Major car stereo manufacturers like Alpine, Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer now have over 25 different CarPlay and Android Auto compatible head units available and counting. Keep in mind that I’m excluding models that feature built-in GPS navigation. That’s a lot to choose from!

With so many choices on the market, and with such similar part numbers and appearances, it can be difficult for you, the consumer, to navigate. Rest assured, I will guide you through the overwhelming number of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible heads units so you can easily learn all the features and differences. This in-depth Best CarPlay head unit 2018 review will enable you to decide the best Carplay head unit for your vehicle and unique needs.

I just want CarPlay – start here

When customers first walk into our showroom and inquire about Apple CarPlay head units, this is what I often hear them say, “I just want Apple CarPlay”. Let’s define that because sometimes you actually want more than that and don’t even realize it.

If you just want Apple CarPlay, I take that to mean you don’t need or care about the following features:

  • CD/DVD player
  • Dual zone control (good feature for vehicles with a rear seat entertainment system)
  • SiriusXM
  • HD Radio
  • iPod compatibility
  • Secondary USB port for other devices
  • HDMI input
  • Advanced iDatalink Maestro steering wheel control support (and if you don’t know what this is keep reading to learn because you may want it and not even know about it.)
  • Reverse camera
  • Front camera
  • 4 volt pre-amp outputs
  • Time alignment
  • Variable button color illumination

If you really do fall into the “I just want Apple CarPlay” (maybe with a reverse camera) category, you should consider the Sony XAV-AX100.

Sony XAV-AX100 – featuring a minimalist look, a big ol’ clock and a volume knob

Sony XAV-AX100 - Best Apple CarPlay 2018 Review

Sony XAV-AX100 – Best Apple CarPlay 2018 Review

I’ve done an in depth review on this model previously, but here is the condensed version. The Sony XAV-AX100 is a great option for people that just want Apple CarPlay. Not only is it really easy to use, it’s also a good looking stereo. Although it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, it has an attractive and intuitive layout and functions quite nicely.

Sony XAV-AX100 Home Screen

Sony XAV-AX100 Home Screen

The clearly defined Home button brings you to a cleanly laid out main screen which displays the short cut to Apple CarPlay or Android Auto as well as the other sources available which are AM/FM Tuner and Bluetooth Audio.

Sony must have listened to our clock size complaints harking back to previous models and rewarded us with a generously oversized clock. The background on this home screen can be selected from a modest variety of built in options or you can upload your own background image. The other two icons are shortcut for rear camera view and access to settings.

This stereo has a minimalist appearance which many find appealing. It has a matte black finish – rare these days in a world full of glossy black stereo finishes – and (gasp) a volume knob! In fact, at this point in time, Sony is the only manufacturer I’m aware of that has an Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible head unit featuring a volume knob. Call me old fashioned, but sometimes a knob is just easier than steering wheel controls. And although it’s a small knob, it has a solid feel to it – not like a cheap flimsy knob. Push the knob in and hold it to activate Siri or Google Voice. Simply tapping it reveals short cuts to other sources and audio settings.

Sony XAV-AX100 pro’s:

  • Clean user interface – WYSIWYG
  • Large easy to see icons
  • Reverse camera input
  • Volume knob
  • Matte black finish
  • Better than average FM/AM reception (when compared to Alpine and Pioneer)
  • 10 band EQ with built in crossovers
  • 2 Volt Front, Rear and Subwoofer pre-amp
  • Supports basic steering wheel controls*

Sony XAV-AX100 con’s:

  • No CD/DVD
  • Does not support an iPod
  • No SiriusXM
  • No variable button color illumination
  • No digital time alignment
  • Supports basic steering wheel controls*

*As of this publication, Sony’s CarPlay head units work best in vehicles with basic steering wheel control functions like Volume up/down, Track up/down and Source. Sony doesn’t do well with separate buttons for phone functions such as Voice, Answer and End call. This head unit sort of lumps functions together as seen in this programming screen shot using an iDatalink Maestro ADS-MRR module in a Jeep Wrangler. Notice how “Hang up” and “Reject call” are lumped in with the “Source” button:

Sony XAV-AX100 Jeep Wrangler SWC

Sony XAV-AX100 Jeep Wrangler SWC

Some vehicles have separate buttons for these phone functions so in those vehicles, the button reassignment can be a little awkward because it won’t match the OEM functionality. However, Sony is expected to correct this mid 2018 with a hardware production change that will enable full iDatalink Maestro compatibility. Once that happens, this model will have more seamless steering wheel control interfacing and this minor drawback will be eliminated. Please note – this will be a hardware change – NOT a software change.

Well – maybe I want SiriusXM too

If you like the simplistic design of the Sony XAV-AX100, but you’d like SiriusXM or even a CD/DVD player, consider the XAV-AX200.

Sony XAV-AX200 - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

Sony XAV-AX200 – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

The XAV-AX200 not only adds SiriusXM, it also has a CD/DVD player, two additional camera inputs, a video output and a 4 volt pre-amp. It even comes with the SXV300 SiriusXM tuner which makes it a pretty good value considering that accessory typically must be purchased separately. Also, unlike the XAV-AX100, it does support iPod playback.

Do you like the look and functionality of the Sony XAV-AX200, but don’t need a CD/DVD player yet you still want SiriusXM?

You’re in luck, Sony is coming out with an XAV-AX1000 later this year which is like the XAV-AX100 except it’s SiriusXM compatible (however it’s not Android Auto compatible – guess you can’t have it all unless you pay for it all). Additionally Sony will be releasing the XAV-AX5000 which features a 7″ touch screen (no knob), dual USB ports and SiriusXM compatibility.

Sony XAV-AX5000 - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

Sony XAV-AX5000 – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

As you can see, just from Sony alone we have four solid 2018 CarPlay head units to choose from, however at the time of this publication, every one of these models is missing iDatalink Maestro compatibility. You may just want Apple CarPlay, but you may have a vehicle that would work best with an iDatalink Maestro RR compatible head unit. Let’s delve a little deeper into what the iDatalink Maestro is and how it can effect your Apple CarPlay upgrade.

Best 2018 CarPlay head unit models with iDatalink Maestro compatibility and why iDatalink Maestro matters

Even if you don’t have steering wheel controls, it may be in your best interest to select a head unit that is iDatalink Maestro compatible. Here’s why. As time and technology progresses, we see more and more vehicle information being piped through stock stereos.

For example, let’s say you own a 2015 Silverado Work Truck and you’re looking to upgrade the stock head unit to an Apple CarPlay model. One thing you have to keep in mind is your stock stereo is not just a stereo. It’s kind of like a computer in a network. It’s also your climate control display and it’s happens to be how you access and change vehicle settings such as:

  • Whether or not you want just the driver’s door to unlock or all doors to unlock when you press unlock button on your key fob.
  • Various park assist settings (if equipped)
  • Climate settings
  • Lighting settings
  • Warning chime settings and more.

If you replace that stock stereo, there goes those functions and features. Unless of course you go with an iDatalink Maestro compatible head unit and use an iDatalink Maestro ADS-MRR and vehicle specific harness. In that case, your climate info will display on the new stereo and you will still have access to personal vehicle settings on the aftermarket head unit. Kind of like what you see in this example below which is a 2012 Ford F-150 which was previously equipped with a broken OEM navigation radio:

DDX9902S with Ford F-150 climate controls integrated using iDatalink Maestro

Example of how the iDatalnk Maestro RR integrates OEM functions such as HVAC controls and display in a 2012 Ford F150 with a Kenwood CarPlay (installed back in 2015).

Depending on the year, make and model vehicle, the iDatalink Maestro RR can retain features such as:

  • Onstar
  • Warning chimes
  • Access and modify vehicle settings
  • Climate display and climate control
  • Reverse camera
  • OEM SiriusXM tuner
  • OEM park assist sensors
  • “Now playing” radio information retained through instrument cluster display
  • Premium amplifier retention with ability to adjust gains
  • Vehicle info screen including tire pressure display, battery voltage, read/reset check engine codes, door open status and warning
  • Selectable performance gauges

To see if your vehicle is iDatalink Maestro compatible and see what functions can be retained with specific radio models, go to maestro.idatalink.com and try their weblink demo tool here. You can try different radios to see how functions may differ from model to model.

Okay – so which CarPlay head units have iDatalink Maestro?

Luckily, most of them. In fact all the remaining models I’ll be reviewing are compatible so if you happen to have a vehicle that would work best with an iDatalink Maestro RR, you’ve got a lot to choose from.

Value packed 2018 CarPlay Models that are iDatalink Compatible

The next series of models we’ll be discussing are what I call the value oriented Pioneer NEX models. They are very similar in appearance, part numbers and features and these Apple CarPlay head units range in price from $300 – $500.

One particular model may tick off specific features you’re looking for, but there isn’t really one model in this series that has everything. They each have their own unique pro’s and con’s and as the model numbers progress there’s some feature swapping – as in – gain one cool feature, lose another one in its place.

So let’s lay the ground work of common features because it will make more sense if we know what ALL of these Pioneer NEX models have in common before getting into the specific differences.

Common features of the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX, AVH-1330NEX, MVH-1400NEX, MVH-2300NEX, AVH-2300NEX and AVH-2330NEX:

  • Apple CarPlay
  • iDatalink Maestro compatible
  • SiriusXM compatible
  • 4 volt front, rear and subwoofer pre-amp outputs
  • 13 band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • Variable color illumination
  • App Radio One mode
  • Reverse camera input
  • Single USB input
  • Rear aux input
  • Rear video input
  • Models starting with AVH feature a CD/DVD player
  • Models starting with MVH lack a CD/DVD player (Think “M” as in Mechless, “AV” as in Audio and Video)
  • A/V output on AVH models only (and you need a 3.5 adapter like this).

Got it? Okay, let’s get into the details starting with the AVH-1300NEX. This Apple CarPlay compatible head unit has a lot going for it. For one thing, it has a very competitive price point. It costs less than the Sony XAV-AX100, yet it has more features.

Attractive features of the AVH-1300NEX

The CD/DVD player and SiriusXM capability, paired with iDatalink Maestro compatibility, are largely what sway my customers from the Sony XAV-AX100 over to the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX. Well, that and the very competitive price point.

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX review home screen

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX home screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review

Pioneer has an easy to understand user interface too. On the home screen you have shortcuts to CarPlay, telephone and your four favorite sources. A quick tap of the A/V button will reveal all available sources. Each source icon can be shuffled around in an order that makes most sense to you.

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX review secondary home screen

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX secondary home screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

Notice the Car Sources and Car Features icons? That is how you would access any features the iDatalink Maestro retains such as OEM SiriusXM or vehicle performance gauges. The Pioneer AVH-1300NEX also offers a wide range of illumination and personalization options to choose from, including the option to upload your own background image.

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX review color display options

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX review color display options

Another common feature of all these value oriented Pioneer NEX models is App Radio One mode. See that neat little icon on the bottom left in the picture below?

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX Waze

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX Waze

You can toggle that phone icon between CarPlay and App radio mode. Looks impressive, right? Do not fall for it. You may see a picture advertised like this somewhere and be fooled. Yes, that is Waze being displayed from my iPhone on the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX using App Radio Mode and App Radio Live.

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX Waze

Pioneer AVH-1300NEX Waze

What you can’t tell from these pictures is how glitchy and impractical it is. First off, you have to have 2 other apps downloaded and opened just to get that screen to pop up and then you have to press okay on the Pioneer screen and on your phone a couple times in order to get Waze to launch. Once it’s launched you can’t press the home button on your phone or close the screen on your phone or the screen on the radio will go black. Additionally, you can’t enter any destination information on the phone – only on the screen. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find it’s easier to enter info on my phone before I actually start my trip because the phone’s touch screen feels more responsive and accurate. On my display model in our showroom I was able to enter a destination using the Pioneer screen, but then immediately thereafter the screen froze on me. Other times when I demonstrate this, it works and doesn’t freeze. Not sure what causes it to lock up, but it does 50% of the time.

App Radio One seems like a total waste of time to me. I show it to customers when they swear they saw something online where someone was using Waze on a Pioneer stereo with an iPhone. Once I show them all the steps and how it works they shake their head and say “forget it, I’m not doing all that – especially not while I’m driving”. Do not buy any of these Pioneer NEX radios and think you will get this launched as easily and flawlessly as Apple CarPlay launches and operates. I think there are just too many software updates too often on the phones, and on the Waze app, for Pioneer to stay on top of how their own app operates with the stereo.

There are a couple notable features missing from the AVH-1300NEX head unit such as:

  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input
  • Android Auto compatibility
  • Dual Zone
  • More than one USB port
  • Front camera input

Confused about part numbers yet? Hang in there with me, this is where it gets confusing. Within Pioneer’s limited distribution line you will find the AVH-1330NEX (soon to be replaced by the AVH-1440NEX). So what’s the difference between the AVH-1300NEX and AVH-1330NEX? The AVH-1330NEX simply adds the missing HD Radio and as well as an additional camera input.

Resistive touch screen quality on the AVH-1300NEX:

I think it’s important to note that the touch screen overall on the AVH-1300NEX leaves me wanting more. It’s a bit sluggish and not as responsive compared to the higher end Pioneer NEX models such as the AVH-4201NEX. In fact, I’d say the Sony models are more accurate and responsive than any of the value oriented Pioneer models – other than the MVH-1400NEX which features a glass capacitive touch screen. However, the price point is hard to beat in this series so you sort of have to pick and choose based on which features are most important to you.

MVH-1400NEX – Capacitive touch screen with an entry level price tag

For a higher quality, capacitive touch screen, that is still in the entry level price point, consider the vibrant and sleek Pioneer MVH-1400NEX.

Pioneer MVH-1400NEX review CarPlay

Pioneer MVH-1400NEX – CarPlay screen

This is a good looking stereo, I gotta tell you. The MVH-1400NEX is very much like the old App Radio 4 in its appearance and functionality. However, it includes a few key features that were missing from the App Radio 4 like SiriusXM compatibility and iDatalink Maestro compatibility.

Key features of the Pioneer MVH-1400NEX include:

  • Capacitive touch screen
  • 4 volt pre-amp outputs with 13 band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility
Pioneer MVH-1400NEX review home screen

Pioneer MVH-1400NEX- home screen

The glass capacitive screen is much more responsive than the resistive touch screens found on the other value oriented Pioneer NEX models. It’s also more vibrant and saturated in color. It has a real tablet appearance to it with a subtle silver trim draping around the edge of the screen. The slightly rounded corners certainly add to the tablet look. True to its tablet appearance, the MVH-1400NEX is a mechless model – no CD/DVD player.

Key features missing from the MVH-1400NEX:

  • CD/DVD player
  • HD radio
  • HDMI
  • Android Auto
  • Front camera input

My family member drives this car too and they use Android – what does both?

For families with both Apple and Android users sharing one vehicle, I can understand why it’s important to go with a head unit that is both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatible. Additionally, sometimes it’s nice to just keep your options open. Who knows? You might not always be loyal to Apple.

The MVH-2300NEX features both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto while also being iDatalink Maestro compatible and SiriusXM compatible.

 

Pioneer MVH-2300NEX

Pioneer MVH-2300NEX – Home screen

When stepping up from the MVH-1400NEX to the MVH-2300NEX a key feature is added, however another feature is lost in its place.

MVH-2300NEX adds:

  • 7″ screen that supports Android Auto

MVH-2300NEX loses:

  • Capacitive touch screen found on the MVH-1400NEX

Both of these MVH models are still mechless – no CD/DVD. Want Android Auto, Apple CarPlay and a CD/DVD player? Consider the AVH-2300NEX.

Pioneer AVH-2300NEX 2018 CarPlay Android Auto

Pioneer AVH-2300NEX 2018 CarPlay Android Auto

Popular features of the AVH-2300NEX:

  • CD/DVD Player
  • Android Auto compatibility
  • 4 volt pre-amp outputs with 13 band EQ
  • Digital time alignment
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility
  • Reverse camera input

Popular features missing from the AVH-2300NEX are:

  • More than one USB port
  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input
  • Dual Zone
  • Front camera input

To add HD Radio and a secondary camera input, consider Pioneer’s Limited Distribution version, the AVH-2330NEX (soon to be replaced by the AVH-2440NEX).

Summary of the Pioneer AVH-1300NEX, AVH-1330NEX, MVH-1400NEX, MVH-2300NEX, AVH-2300NEX and AVH-2330NEX models:

All of these Pioneer models discussed are what I consider value oriented models. They’re giving you a lot of great features at a great price, but remember that old saying, you get what you pay for? Aside from the MVH-1400NEX with the capacitive touch screen, I feel like both the operating system and touch screen are a bit sluggish and less responsive with these particular NEX models compared to other options available from Pioneer, Sony, Alpine and Kenwood. As with most things in life, you give a little, you get a little – Give more ($) and you get more.

Looking for more without compromise?

Pony up the dough, here goes. One of my favorite CarPlay models is the one I currently have in my own vehicle the Kenwood DMX7704s (soon to be replaced by the DMX7705s). Personally, I’m less about the quantity of features a stereo has and much more interested in the quality of features it does have.

Kenwood DMX7704s 2018 CarPlay

Kenwood DMX7704s 2018 CarPlay

What little this stereo does, it does very well and I’m totally cool with that. I’d rather pay more for the features I want if I know they’re going to be executed properly. And I think that is also Kenwood’s attitude towards their various CarPlay compatible stereos. Whereas Pioneer appears more concerned about capturing the broader Apple CarPlay market share and they execute feature swapping and dropping in order to get there.

Sound quality

In terms of sound quality, Kenwood has it. As much as I loved my Sony XAV-AX100, this Kenwood is much smoother and more articulate, it’s fantastic. This isn’t just my opinion, this is something customers have picked up on as well when listening to both models on our display. So if you’re building a higher fidelity audio system in your vehicle with aftermarket speakers and amplifiers, I think you would appreciate the more refined sound quality of the Kenwood CarPlay compatible models opposed to Sony or Pioneer.

The DMX7704s and DMX7705s are mechless models – no CD player or DVD player. They do feature:

  • 7″ touch screen with angle view adjustment (non-motorized screen, but can adjust the viewing angle digitally – neat!)
  • SiriusXM capable
  • HD Radio
  • Speaking of HD radio – in terms of FM/AM reception, from this model up, Kenwood has every other brand beat
  • iPod compatibility
  • Secondary USB port for other devices
  • iDatalink Maestro compatible
  • Reverse camera input
  • Front camera input
  • 4 volt pre-amp outputs
  • Time alignment with 13 band EQ
  • Variable button color illumination

One particular feature I like about this radio (and so does my husband John) is the album artwork and how it is displayed on the home screen. This is also a feature of Pioneer, but it is not a feature of Sony or Alpine (which is what he has in his Jeep). The other thing I like, and our customers seem receptive to, is the large, easy to see icons. The downside to this is you have multiple pages of source icons.

Kenwood DMX7704s Best CarPlay 2018

Kenwood DMX7704s Best CarPlay 2018

However, the sources can be dragged and dropped into an order that makes most sense so for the most part, you’ll probably just be hitting the home button to pull up your most commonly used seven sources.

Kenwood DMX7704s Best CarPlay 2018

Kenwood DMX7704s Best CarPlay 2018

And unlike previous Kenwood models with two USB ports, both of the Kenwood DMX7704’s USB ports support an iPod. This is a nice thing to have if you travel into areas without cell service. You could leave an iPod loaded up with music connected to USB 2 (like stored away in the center console or glove box) so you always have a back up source for music. Remember, if you lose cell service, and you rely on the cloud for music storage, then that means you lose your music when you lose cell service.

DMX7704s and DMX7705s Cons:

  • No CD/DVD player
  • No HDMI input

The DMX7704s is being replaced by the DMX7705s. The new model is going to add Kenwood’s WebLink feature. I personally don’t carry the more entry level Kenwood models that already offer the WebLink feature, but I can tell you the feedback I’ve received from other Kenwood dealers.

Kenwood’s WebLink is very cool in theory. Download the app to your phone, connect your phone to your stereo via USB charge/sync cable and access certain apps on screen like Waze, Yelp and even YouTube (when parked please!). Waze works, but it’s a little slow. You can even see that for yourself in this Kenwood product demonstration here.

I’ve been told the Yelp feature is neat, you can dial out and call the place from the screen. One of my fellow Kenwood dealers warned me that YouTube playback is glitchy. I’m always hesitant about any stereo app interface like this only because I think it’s hard for stereo manufacturers to keep up on top of phone updates and app updates. These companies make stereos, they don’t make cell phones and they’re not dedicated app developers. I completely understand they’re just attempting to give consumers what they want – which is mainly Apple users want Waze – but when manufacturers fail to make their interface operate as seamlessly and effortlessly as Apple CarPlay, they usually just end up pissing off the customer. If one of my customers really wants Waze on screen, and they’re an iPhone user, I tell them to get an Android and use Android Auto. Or I suggest they use a nice cell phone mount when they do want to use Waze.

I get it. I use Waze too. But when I need to use Waze with my iPhone, I just use my Scosche Magnet Mount damn it. My phone screen size really isn’t that much smaller than my stereo screen size. So for my needs, this mount comes in handy on the occasions where Apple Maps just won’t cut it.

I digress, back to the Kenwood head units. When we step up from the DMX7704s/DMX7705s we have the DDX6704s.

Kenwood DDX6704s - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review

Kenwood DDX6704s – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review

Kenwood DDX6704s key features gained:

  • CD/DVD player,
  • Dual Zone
  • A/V input
  • A/V output

However, we lose a little as well:

  • Screen size goes down to 6.8″ (cue the eye roll -.2″, big deal)
  • We lose our secondary USB port (that might be a bigger deal)

Let’s talk about Dual Zone

Dual zone is a unique feature and something Kenwood has been offering for as long as I can remember and that’s going back 18 years in this industry. It’s great if you have kids and you have a rear seat video monitor with an A/V input. As long as you wire up the A/V output of the Kenwood to a rear seat monitor with an A/V input, you can load the DVD you want to play for your kids up front in the Kenwood radio – meaning you are in control of what’s playing and not trying to reach in the back seat to load a DVD while you’re driving. The audio and video is routed from the Kenwood to the rear monitor. Hopefully that rear monitor has an IR output and you can slap some wireless headphones on the kids and they can be quiet and behaved while you drive. Meanwhile, you can use another source like HD radio or USB on your front speakers. Neat, right? Have two sources playing in two different zones of the vehicle at the same time. The only thing that ticks me off about Kenwood’s A/V input and A/V output is they are 3.5mm style so you will need this type of adapter (not included – sold separately) for either one.

If you like the idea of Dual Zone, but want the full 7″ screen and a secondary USB input, consider the DDX9704s, soon to be replaced the DDX9705s. Both the DDX9704s and DDX9705s feature an attractive glass capacitive touch screen.

Kenwood DDX9704s - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review

Kenwood DDX9704s – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 review

The main difference between the DDX9704s and the newer DDX9705s is the DDX9705s will feature wireless Android Auto and Kenwood’s WebLink feature. Wireless Android Auto will be possible in all Kenwood models featuring wifi.

Kenwood vs Kenwood eXcelon

Kenwood has always offered what’s considered a premier version of their products known as Kenwood eXcelon. The eXcelon models typically features a higher voltage pre-amp output and a 2 year warranty when purchased from an authorized eXcelon dealer.

For 2018, Kenwood is offering four different Apple CarPlay compatible models within their eXcelon series:

  • DMX905s – like the DMX7705s, but features a glass capacitive touch screen instead of resistive touch screen and features a 5 volt pre-amp vs 4 volt – rumor is that both are 4.5 volts and this is a marketing thing, but we haven’t tested with a oscilloscope.
  • DDX6904s – like the DDX6704s, but with 2 USB ports vs 1 and a 5 volt pre-out vs 4 volt.
  • DDX9905s – similar to the DDX9704s and DDX9705s, but a whole lot more.

The DDX9905s is where Kenwood eXcelon really starts to shine. This model looks very similar to the DDX9704s and DDX9705s, but uses higher quality components starting with the screen itself.

Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s – quality features that stand out from the rest

The Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s is definitely going to be a hit for high fidelity aficionados, but also for anyone looking for a high quality touch screen. Featuring a high resolution capacitive touch screen, this model boasts 2,764,800 pixels compared to the DDX9705s or DMX7705s which both feature 1,152,000 pixels. Additionally, the DDX9905s is comprised of what Kenwood refers to as “high quality sound parts”. Kek – who came up with that name in the marketing team?

Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s -  Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

Kenwood describes these components on their website as “custom-made and carefully selected parts, such as audio quality power supply capacitors, high quality coupling capacitors and cross-shaped panel structures”. Basically these higher quality components are designed to produce an even cleaner, more articulate and refined sound than all other models in their line up. This is a feature exclusive to the Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s and the DNX995s (latter includes Garmin GPS navigation by the way).

Kenwood even brought back a throwback feature – Gold plated RCA pre-amp outputs! I haven’t seen gold plated RCA pre-outs listed as a feature since the days of Eclipse car stereos. Despite all these high quality features, there is one feature all of Kenwood’s CarPlay models seem to be missing this year – HDMI input.

Do you need an HDMI input?

Sometimes you’re sitting in your car parked and waiting. Waiting for your kids at karate class or waiting when you’ve arrived early to an appointment or maybe just when you’re sitting and eating your lunch in your car while on a work break. Sometimes you want to mirror what you’re watching/listening to from your phone onto your stereo. To do that, you need an HDMI input and an HDMI adapter for your phone. Oh yeah and a stereo with an HDMI input.

If HDMI input is important to you, consider the Pioneer AVH-4201NEX. The Pioneer AVH-4201NEX uses a different platform and operating system than the value oriented NEX models. This is clearly visible in person seeing a side by side comparison and demonstration.

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Best CarPlay Head Unit Review

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 Review

When you press home on the AVH-4201NEX, the icons load up almost instantly compared to any of the other NEX models discussed. The AVH-4201NEX is definitely the most feature packed Apple CarPlay head unit. In terms of features, it almost has everything:

  • CD/DVD player
  • Anti-glare coating
  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input
  • SD Card inputs
  • Dual Zone
  • Dual USB ports
  • 2 A/V inputs and outputs
  • Detachable face
  • 3 volt pre-amp outputs with 13 band EQ and digital time alignment
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility
  • Free included reverse camera
  • Front camera input

Many customers are attracted to the easy user interface of the Pioneer AVH-4201NEX. You can organize your favorite source icons on the home screen while having access to CarPlay or Android Auto and telephone shortcut.

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Home Screen - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Home Screen – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

A simple tap of the A/V button pulls up all available sources. Settings are organized and categorized with easy to understand icons.

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Settings Menu - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

Pioneer AVH-4201NEX Settings Menu – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

So if the AVH-4201NEX has it all, does that make it the best CarPlay head unit 2018?

Despite appearing to have every feature possible, there is always a catch! Although I have sold and installed a large number of these stereos with high quality amplifiers and speakers, and those car audio systems sounded fantastic – very happy customers in each case – truthfully, each one of those audio systems could have sounded better with one of the Kenwood CarPlay stereos or Alpine’s made in Japan iLX-207. I mention this for the sound quality readers out there. If sound quality and HDMI input is high up on your list of important features, you should consider Alpine’s iLX-207.

High Fidelity Sound Quality with HDMI input – Alpine iLX-207

Alpine iLX-207 WRA - Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

Alpine iLX-207 WRA pictured in our Jeep Wrangler – Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018

The iLX-207 has a very similar sound quality to Kenwood – it is smooth, detailed and articulate. Although the iLX-207 does not have a CD or DVD player it does have a long list of desirable features:

  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input and HDMI output for RSE
  • Dual Zone (using HDMI input/output)
  • 1 A/V inputs (mini jack style)
  • 9 Band Parametric EQ
  • Capacitive (not glass) touch screen
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility

As with everything else in life there are trade off’s, nothing is perfect and no one model has it all. Couple minor annoyances about this model:

  • No CD/DVD player
  • No album art display option for music playing from your iPhone unless you turn CarPlay off.

Let me explain this a little further. When connected via Apple CarPlay to Kenwood for example, if you select the Home screen – album art is displayed. I often leave my Kenwood on this screen because I like the background picture I uploaded and I like the artwork. Pioneer has this option too – you can have artwork displayed on the home screen or by selecting USB1 as your source instead of the CarPlay shortcut.

With Alpine and Sony, the only artwork displayed is through the Apple CarPlay interface which is just an enlarged, washed out and blurry image in the background. This apparently bothers my husband so much that he turns CarPlay off in his Alpine iLX-207 so he can see the art work display instead.

Anything bigger than a 7″ display?

Well, yes actually. This year at CES, Alpine revealed what they are calling the Halo 9 or iLX-F309. It features a single din chassis with a seemingly hovering 9″ screen. The design of this product reminds of what car manufacturers are doing for their stereos these days in Audi, BMW and Mazda to name a few.

Best CarPlay Head Units 2018 - Alpine, Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer

Best CarPlay Head Units 2018 – Alpine, Sony, Kenwood and Pioneer

The Halo 9 is a great option for anyone looking for an oversized touch screen that won’t break the bank. The clever design of this product utilizes a standard single din chassis and has a screen that is attached post installation. From where the single din chassis sits in the dash, the screen is adjustable in height from its base up to 2.36″ inches and adjustable in angle from a range of -20 degrees to +45 degrees.

The platform of features is very similar to the iLX-207 minus the HDMI output and dual zone capability.

  • HD Radio
  • HDMI input
  • 1 A/V inputs (mini jack style)
  • 9 Band Parametric EQ
  • Capacitive (not glass) touch screen
  • SiriusXM Ready
  • Variable color illumination
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility

Is there anything that does wireless CarPlay?

All of the models reviewed here thus far require a connection to USB using a standard Apple USB to lightning cable. There is one option on the market that features Wireless Apple CarPlay, the Alpine iLX-107. This minimalist head unit has a modest set of features such as:

  • AM/FM Radio (no HD)
  • Bluetooth
  • AUX input
  • wifi to enable a wireless Apple CarPlay connection
  • iDatalink Maestro compatibility
  • Rear camera input
Alpine iLX-107 Apple CarPlay for Porsche 991

Alpine iLX-107 Apple CarPlay for Porsche 991

That’s pretty much all the iLX-107 does, however. The USB will not support iPod playback, just Apple CarPlay – I guess for when you need to charge your phone this is available for the occasional hardwired connection. For the true minimalist who can’t even stand wires, the iLX-107 may be the best Apple CarPlay head unit for you.

Really – what is the best Apple CarPlay Head Unit 2018?

Let’s recap everything. As I tell my customers at the shop, it really depends on what features are most important to you.

Basic vehicle, basic steering wheel controls and just want Apple CarPlay

If you just need Apple CarPlay and you have an older vehicle that is not even iDatalink Maestro compatible, I like the Sony XAV-AX100. If you need SiriusXM too, step it up to the Sony XAV-AX200.

Best value Apple CarPlay with full iDatalink Maestro compatibility

For someone on a budget that really just wants Apple CarPlay but they have a vehicle that is iDatalink Maestro compatible and it would be in their best interest to use the Maestro RR, consider the Pioneer MVH-1400nex which I feel is the most responsive and attractive model out of all the Pioneer value oriented CarPlay models to choose from.

Best full featured model Apple CarPlay head unit

For someone looking for all the features, the Pioneer AVH-4201NEX really delivers. It has the most features out of all models reviewed and even includes a free reverse camera (which could potentially be used as a front camera if you already have a factory reverse camera). If you don’t want to leave any features on the table, this is the head unit for you.

Best sounding Apple CarPlay head unit

Kenwood and Alpine are definitely in the higher sound quality realm in terms of Apple CarPlay head units. If you’re looking for sound quality and HDMI, an Alpine model such as the iLX-207 would suit you well. If you’re looking for sound quality on a budget, consider the DMX7704s or DMX7705s. However, if we are talking strictly about sound quality and not worrying about budget, then this year the cake goes to the Kenwood eXcelon DDX9905s. With gold plated RCA pre-amp outputs, hand selected capacitors and components, this model is taking Kenwood’s smooth and refined sound quality to the next level.

I hope you’ve found this in depth best Apple CarPlay head unit 2018 review helpful in deciding which model to install in your vehicle. I’d love to hear your feedback. What features are most important to you in an Apple CarPlay head unit? Please comment below to let other readers know which one will you be putting in your vehicle and why.

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16 comments for “Best CarPlay Head Unit 2018 – Kenwood, Pioneer, Sony and Alpine Review

  1. Kevin
    October 17, 2018 at 2:13 pm

    I bought the DMX7705S only to find out it didn’t have HD radio which is one of the features I wanted and I could’ve sworn I had read that it did so I went looking at the website I bought it from and Kenwood’s site etc. to finally find that I had read it here. DMX7705S does not have HD radio. You said it not only had it but it was better than anyone else’s.

    • October 23, 2018 at 8:57 am

      Not sure if there is a way to turn HD on/off, but I know in some HD models there is (in case you’re in a fringe area where it gets annoying going in between HD and regular). Unless they did a mid model change? You have me really confused now because when you search the model online, it shows up in Kenwood’s website in their google listing for the search result specifically says HD, but when you click through to the page I no longer see is listed. I swear my display model has it (which is going to be an older first run), I’ll have to look into this, that is bizarre.

  2. Marcin
    June 2, 2018 at 4:51 am

    Great article! I find myself stuck on choosing a head unit now though! I have a Pioneer AVH/
    -4200NEX but not entirely sure how happy I am with it. I’ve only owned Pioneer head units but may want to make the switch to Kenwood now, or Alpine.
    For my other car I really want to focus mainly on sound quality- for amplified door speakers (alpine type S door speakers and alpine 4-channel amplifier) and possibly a subwoofer. I only really need Apple CarPlay and possibly android auto, being able to use my factory reverse camera (I also have a USB/Aux in my armrest from factory if there’s any way of retaining that function that’d be awesome), at least one USB and maybe an Aux (but not a deal breaker).
    What would you think my top option(s) would be? Ideally I’d like to keep the price below $500 or so, but would be willing to pay a little more if it’d be really worth it. Seeing as how I’m not entering any sound competitions I don’t think I’d need a $1,000 radio.
    Looking for a combination of excellent sound quality and bang-for-buck. There are too many Kenwood models to choose from and not sure if I should go with one from the eXcelon lineup. Or maybe I’d be fine with something like the Alpine ILX-207.

    Thank you!! :)

    • June 2, 2018 at 10:49 am

      Hi Marcin, I like that the Kenwood models give you two USB’s – you could use the secondary one with your factory USB and the main one for Android Auto. Depending on what kind of car you have, you didn’t say – Metra usually makes adapters to retain OEM USB ports, but the factory USB’s are slower speed and not sufficient for Android Auto and can also be glitchy with Apple CarPlay so you’ll want to flush mount a high speed USB cable. We use the Pac Audio USB-DMA1.

      Kenwood DMX7705s is an awesome value. I am cheap, wanted two USB’s, but wanted good sound quality so I went with that (well actually I have the older one, the DMX7704s). It retails for like $499. My Husband John went with the iLX-207. They’re pretty darn close in sound quality, I honestly haven’t done a side by side, but I’d say they’re pretty equal – although the Alpine is more money and only has one USB port.

      The eXcelon stuff on the other hand, the high resolution screen and gold plated RCA pre-outs on the DDX9905s are worth spending the extra money for I think.

      • Marcin
        June 13, 2018 at 3:44 am

        Sorry for the late response! I have a 2016 Subaru WRX Premium (no navigation/harmon kardon, but with reverse camera). I like the idea of having the gold plated RCA pre-outs (5V vs 4v). I noticed that the excelon DDX6904s was on sale on many sites and more in my price range (saw some for about $450). Would you think that is fine or do you think spending the extra $150 on a DDX9904S would be more worth it? the DDX9905s is just a bit too much for me at this moment (roughly $900; basically double the ddx6904s). Thanks in advance!

  3. john
    May 13, 2018 at 12:32 am

    Fail with the focus on apple. More ppl have Android these days

    • June 2, 2018 at 10:33 am

      That hasn’t been my experience here locally at our shop. The majority of our customers seeking this type of cell phone interface are Apple users. If I had to put a number on it, it’s about 9 out of 10. By the way – the name of the article is Best CarPlay Head Unit, not best Android Auto head unit ;)

  4. Luc
    May 9, 2018 at 10:10 pm

    Thanks for the research and your opinion. I am looking to upgrade the radio in a 2000 Porsche 911 convertible (no iDatalink Maestro compatibility) and mainly looking for CarPlay. In the “Value” category, you seem to put both the Pioneer MVH-1400NEX and the Sony XAV-AX100. I have read in other reviews that the Sony screen is unreadable in sunlight. Would you know if the screen on the Pioneer is better? Any preferences between the two? Thanks.

    • June 2, 2018 at 10:37 am

      For a convertible the glass screen on the MVH-1400NEX can be tough in glare, it’s like trying to look at your smart phone in the sun. I had the Sony in my Jeep with the top off and didn’t have issues with it but the way the radio sits in the dash is quite vertical and if memory serves me correctly so does the stereo in your dash. But if you want to splurge on the best quality screen you may want to consider one of the higher end Kenwood’s with reverse tilt and high resolution screen like the DNX995s. Having the ability to tilt the screen down (rather than up like every other head unit on the market) makes it easier to see in bright sun.

  5. DANIEL
    April 27, 2018 at 2:46 am

    Thank you for your research into this units. It’s helping me make a choice!

  6. James
    April 23, 2018 at 7:12 pm

    Great article! Looking forward to the “Best Andriod Auto Head Unit for 2018!” (Cough cough.. that can plug a Ipod into and work well..cough cough)

    • April 27, 2018 at 9:25 pm

      Hi James – Hint taken ;) Not sure when I’ll have time to write that one so let me give you some tips! If you’d like wired Android Auto (I think you’re going to need it for charging anyways, Android always seems to be more power hungry than Apple in my experience with customers Android phones so I’m not sure how practical the wireless version will be) consider the Pioneer AVH-4201NEX reviewed in this article which has 2 USB’s. USB 1 for Apple CarPlay/iPod or music on thumb drive, USB 2 for Android Auto (or iPod/USB thumb drive). You have a lot more options with Kenwood such as the DMX7704s (being replaced by the now available DMX7705s), DDX9704s (or soon to be released DDX9705s if you want wireless Android Auto) or any of the Kenwood eXcelon options like the DMX905s, DDX6904s or DDX9905s. I hope that helps!

      • James Meagher
        May 27, 2018 at 11:51 am

        Thanks! Pushing towards the 7705s. I havent seen any recent Jeep JKU builds. For a mid-level system, are you still recommending Morel speakers and Alpine amp? I went to a couple local places who were pushing Rockford Fosgate and Kicker (music type – all over thr place. Rock and roll, 80-90’s music, club, etc. Looking for speakers in the $200 range. Also leaning towards the jl audio Stealthbox for space. Trying to keep some sort of budget since a little dynamat and other little stuff creeps up the cost. Another question. Where do you get your music from?

      • June 2, 2018 at 10:44 am

        Hi James – yes for value level speakers you cannot beat the Morel Maximo’s – now called Maximo Ultra – they are really quite impressive and will handle a good amount of power. The PDXV9 is still our go to amp for most of our big system upgrades and still quite a popular choice for our Wranglers. Rockford and Kicker – eh – not a fan, there is better out there for the money for sure. Instead of Dynamat we have been loving the Stinger Roadkill Ultimate. Terrible product name, but it works very well. It’s like Dynamat Xtreme plus Dynaliner all in one material so it’s easier to apply since it’s one layer and also more cost effective, check it out.

      • James M.
        July 28, 2018 at 7:45 pm

        Well..i picked up the Kenwood Dmx7705s And so far I like it. The only thing that got me in the installation is that I use the screw on top of the dashboard for a 67 designs cell phone mount. The radio is a little thicker then the factory so I had to remove that bracket so there’s nothing now to screw the top part into. I also forgot to pick up the extension that will allow me to use the usb in the center console. Metta makes a 3′ adapter. This radio comes with 2 USB’s. Where do you guys mount them? Do you take out the car lighter in the dash? I run my ipod and my android phone all the time. And of course now I want more. Speaker and amp time.

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