Most people do not know enough about car audio to select good equipment based on performance so they will just buy equipment based on a brand name. In the same way many people do not know if clothing is made with good materials and workmanship so they will buy clothing by a brand name. Well in car CD and MP3 Players there are brands that make great equipment and some brands that have yet to make a piece of equipment that was worth owning. But then there are brands in the middle and those are where you can really come out with great sound for little money. But a common misconception is that because a brand is popular it is a good deal. This guide comes from my 11 years as a professional installer and id designed to help people shop by brand.
High End Name Brands
Pioneer is the most popular name in head units based on the quality equipmet they put out in the late 70s and early 80s. Back then they made some great stuff and really got their name out there. Their name has lived on but the quality in their lower end units has not been very good lately. Now don’t get me wrong if Pioneer does a great job in developing new and exciting technologies which will be showcased in their top of he line units. Pioneer has brought us FIE, Organic El, and the MOSFET chip for decks. So if you want a top of the line player that has something the other guys don’t then Pioneer may be the way to go. But I’m writing this guide for the average Joe who probably doesn’t want a $900 CD player. Also if you can wait one year after the new technology comes out most other brands will have this feature for a lot less money.
The problem with Pioneers lower end stuff is that it is just no worth it. The low end Pioneer CD Players are built with either used or out of tolerance components. In fact, Pioneer has a line called Premier which cost more but they are basically the exact same units available in their regular line only they are built with in spec components. With regular Pioneer you’ll end up with either a unit that will last several years or a unit that will burn out almost instantly because one of the 100 parts was out of spec. The problem is you can’t really tell which is which. I would order a pallet of 80 Pioneer CD players of the exact same model and about 40% of them would be bad. The rest would be fine and the customers who bought them would usually never have a problem with them but I had to return 40% of my stock to the wholesaler which he would replace but out of those replaced 40% of those would be bad. This is the type of quality you would expect from flea market brands. In conclusion Premier is good but costs you an arm and a leg and Pioneer is a brand to buy for a top of the line expensive player but their lower end equipment is a joke.
My final gripes with Pioneer are their preamp output voltages and built in amps. Around six years ago they finally upgraded their units from 0.5 volts (the lowest in the industry) to 2 volts. 2 volts is definitely better but still way below par since most decent units had 4 to 8 volts around this time. Pioneer has a few 4 and 8 volt units but they are in their top end. Pre-amp voltage is very important to sound quality if you plan to run additional amplifiers. So what if you just plan to use the built in amp? Bad idea. The built in amps on their lower end units begin clipping at about half volume even the MOSFET amps. Now a head unit is designed to reach its limit before reaching full volume because this leaves extra room for CDs with a low record volume but most units reach this at about 75% volume. Pioneer is at about 50% volume. So what you end up with is wanting to turn the volume up just a notch and getting a distorted signal as your reward.
They have some good head units with a great CD signal to noise ratio but unless you are going to pipe this through a high powered amplifier system it is a spec of little meaning to you. They are a good buy if you plan to upgrade in a few years. I say this because they perform very well but tend to fail after around 3 years. There are exceptions but more often than not 3 years is the life expectancy. That being said keep in mind that there are plenty of brands in the same price range that fail sooner than that so 3 years isn’t all that bad. Kenwood’s base models tend to be as good quality wise as their higher end models the main difference just being features. This is how it should be. Pay more if you want to do more not pay more just to get quality. And their base model CD Players are really a great buy. They usually have everything most people would want without extra bells and whistles and won’t rip a hole in your pocketbook.
What I’m going to tell you up front may upset you but hang with me a bit. Sony CD Players are made by Recoton who also make Jensen and Audiovox. Jensen and Audiovox make generally low quality head units. But despite coming from the same parents, brother Sony has really good build quality. This happens a lot in car audio. You may be surprised to know that 80% of car speakers and subwoofers come from one company (Eminence). Most Sonys will last and last. They don’t have as many features as many other brands unless you buy into the high-end units. Sony’s pre-amp outputs are usually lower than other brands (except Pioneer) but for a good basic CD player this is the way to go.
Good Quality and Good Features. In general you can’t go wrong with a Clarion. They had a problem with the reading lasers failing about 8 years back that has since been fixed but that’s the only design problem I know of from Clarions. They are a bit more pricey than some brands but worth the extra money in my opinion.
Alpine has stood the test of time and for good reason. Their units are all top notch. I can’t think of any problems I’ve ever had from an Alpine. The few I’ve seen fail have either gotten wet or been in a car wreck. Alpine is more expensive than most brands but if you can afford them you won’t regret it.
If Alpine has a rival it would be Eclipse. Although not as well known as Alpine these are as good or better in sound quality and just as good in quality. Very pricey but worth it if you have the money.
Boss Audio and SoundStorm
If you keep your volume setting at 75% or more you run the risk of frying the built in amp. If you have a good ear you’ll realize the music sounds distorted past 70% (this is normal with most Cd Players) and won’t listen to it past that level but if you want it louder no matter what it sounds like you’ll cook these in no time. I can’t really say this is the deck’s fault since this would be considered as misuse by the user. Honestly you can cook just about any speaker or amp with this philosophy but most of the time the CD player will survive. Just not a Boss or Soundstorm CD player. Keeping the volume at a decent level will give you a few years of problem fee service at a low price.
Jensen, Audiovox, Durabrand, Insignia, Optimus, etc.
These are all made by Recoton and are all low quality and tend to fail quite quickly. Although they have different cosmetic styles these are basically the same units. They are much cheaper than most brands and the last three are generic store brands. Sometimes you luck out and get one of these that will give you several years of performance but more often than not 6 months is the life expectancy. I’d just avoid these brands altogether.
Also made by Recoton but I can’t really group these with Sony or the other budget brands. They tend to be good quality like a Sony but you have to be really careful to test out a model before buying because some models just have weird quirks about them. Some don’t have last song memory so every time you turn off the ignition the CD starts back at the beginning. Some models have volume knobs with a strange feel to them. It’s hard to explain but it can be annoying. This does not mean every model is quirky. Only a few of them are. I just wouldn’t buy an Aiwa on ebay unless I had checked that model out in a store demo or a friend’s car first and made sure it wasn’t weird. The models without quirks are actually great buys because you are getting Sony quality and performance for less money.
Pyramid, Legacy, and Pyle
Same company (Sound Around) same super low quality. Stay away Stay Away Stay Away! Just trust me here.
This is made by Sound Around so you might think I’m going to tell you to stay away but actually this is their flagship line, and quality seems to be quite good. The exception is the VBD400, which tends to fail after a few months. The other models all seem to work really well. The only other problem I’ve ever had with them is if you use more than one unit of theirs together for instance an in dash monitor and a separate DVD Player. The problem is they re-use some of the same remote control frequencies so your press a button on the DVD remote and it will do something on your monitor. Other than that their features seem to be quite good and solidly built and if you want a good player for very little money this is my recommendation out of all the budget brands.