Last updated on March 17th, 2021 at 10:05 pm
How Cheap Stereos Stack Up Against the Big Brand-Names
Android-based head units are becoming more common these days. To their credit, many look like high-dollar touchscreen units made by some of the world’s most famous car audio companies. But one has to wonder; am I paying several hundred dollars for a logo? How much worse, or even better, might a cheap, Android double-DIN touchscreen stereo work?
We've personally installed a few already in cars and wanted to answer some of the questions that we had going into purchasing and installing one of these cheap head units that you'll find on Amazon or eBay. And we've assembled a list of few examples of the budget Android options to show you what makes these $50 head units so inexpensive and compared them to some of our favorite, brand name head units priced between $300 and $400. Some of the results surprised us.
Android Units – What's the Hype?
You've seen them on Amazon starting as low as $30 for a double din touch screen head unit. But why? First, let's take a look at an example of one, what it looks like, its features to give you an idea of what you may see on Amazon or eBay. To start, we selected some well-reviewed 7” double-DIN touchscreen, Android head units. Each was similarly priced at around $50 (except for Pumpkin). One of the first thing that'll jump out at you when you're looking at these types of units is the brand (or lack thereof). Many of these head units are “unbranded” in that they are sold as a generic unit, not a unit made by a particular company. Some of them have brand logos, but identifying the origin of those brands is next to impossible.
All of these units have pretty similar features with slightly different appearances. The listings online are similar, and feature similar poorly-translated sentences. When details could be found, we included them but many of the specs we look for when shopping double-DIN touchscreen car audio tech simply are not in the product description.
We chose one of these to feature here. This particular unit is the newest on the market and was released in March, 2020. This Android unit has all of the features included with the other models we examined and provided the most detailed specs and data.
- 7” Touchscreen
- 25w x 4 channels (RMS)/ 50w x 4 channels (Peak)
- 800×480 Resolution/ 1080P Video
- Mirror Link
- Aux IN
- Front USB
- 4-Channel preouts
- Camera Input
- 4-LED Rear Camera Included
- Built-in Bluetooth
This is one of the few head units we looked at that is easy to find manufacturer information for. The head unit is sold by Shenzhen ShunXinDa Trading Company, Ltd. The company was established in 2013 and is based in Guangdong, China. They are a manufacturer and distributor of car electronics. Their product lines include cameras, head units, and other car electronics. If you're familiar with knock-off or unbranded Chinese products you're probably already familiar with ‘Shenzhen' or ‘Guangzhou' in the manufacturer's name. These are locations within China where the products are typically manufactured and it's a pretty tell-tale sign of a knock-off brand.
This Podofo head-unit is listed as a 7” double-DIN touchscreen. It’s actual measurements are 7.05” (178mm) wide by 4.06” (103mm) tall. This unit appears in pictures to be a very shallow design, but depth is not listed.
Notably lacking features:
- No subwoofer pre out.
- Does not support all phones. Users of Android 9 or newer and Apple X or newer will not be able to use their phone with this head unit.
- Does not have built-in compatibility with Android Auto or Apple CarPlay.
Overall, the head unit looks like a good quality piece of equipment. The presence of a physical multi-function knob on the face is a feature many buyers desire. The display screen icons are blocky and simple. Information is minimal and simplistic. The unit cannot display information about the song, artwork, or other digital features many mainstream head units provide. There is no integration of major hands-free programs, so users will have to make do with less reliable connections through mirroring and Bluetooth. This requires a direct connection via USB, which is inconvenient for many drivers.
We don’t know about any of the hardware used to make this head unit, so it’s hard to say if it’s very robust. Details like the type of touchscreen, frequency response characteristics, and performance-related data is absent. The lack of a subwoofer pre out is a big minus.
This is a pretty common example of some of the lower-end Android units. But despite the lack of features, the price sells. Now, there are more expensive and higher quality units (but still relatively cheap) that have the Android platform. Take the Pumpkin unit that's linked below. This unit had all the features a normal head unit has, was clearly a Chinese make of a Double Din, but was a pretty well-made unit. It was also over $200 bucks though.
Other Android Head Units
The following links are for the other low-cost head units we examined while writing this article. They are all similar in design and function to the unit described above.
Pumpkin Auto (click to read our in-car review of this android head unit)
Traditional Units – The Norm
Brand-name double-DIN car stereos can get expensive in a hurry. These are the units you'll find at your local Best Buy, WalMart or audio shop. Some of the units we have reviewed in the last year cost over $1,000. And although these may be some spectacular units, they're simply a lot of money. Many people want a high-quality head unit at a reasonable price. The big-name brands provide numerous lower cost options -even lower than some of the units we are going to look at next.
These units all have a few things in common. They represent the midpoint model for the brand, have a 7” screen, and cost between $300 and $380. If you're interested in these types of units, you can check out our full list of recommended touch screen head units, Apple CarPlay & Android head units, or Multimedia/DVD head units. But here's a few recent ones to chew on to give you an idea of their features and how they stack up agains the Android Head Units.
- 6.95” TFT Active Matrix Touchscreen
- 800×480 Resolution
- 17” Wide x 3.21” Tall
- Shallow, Single-DIN Chassis
- Android Auto/ Apple CarPlay Compatible
- Dual Rear USB
- 55 watts x 4 channels (Peak)
- Built-in Bluetooth
- Dual Preouts (Front & Rear Speakers)/ Subwoofer Pre Out
- Dual Rear USB
- Single Camera Input
- 7” capacitive touchscreen
- 800×480 Resolution
- 18 watt x 4 channel RMS/ 50 watt x 4 channel peak
- Compatible with Android Auto & Apple CarPlay
- 7” wide x 3.5” tall x 1.25” deep
- Compatible with Alpine KTA-450 PowerPack (400 watt amplifier)
- Built-in Bluetooth
- Dual Pre Outs (Front & Rear) and Subwoofer Pre Out
- Rear USB
- Dual Camera Input
The iLX-W650 is a well-respected head unit that has been on the market since February, 2019. It’s gained an average rating of 4.1 of 5 stars and over 200 reviews. It's also featured in our list of best touch screen head units.
How The Android Unit Fares
Just looking at the basic details provided by the various manufacturers, the tech specs of the Android unit seem to be inline with the brand-name units. In fact, the advertised RMS power of the $50 unit is higher than any of the mainstream units listed here. The obvious features missing from the $50 head units are the dedicated compatibility with apps we commonly use. Sure, screen mirroring can place Google Maps on your screen, but it’s also a frustrating experience. The cheap head units feature two-way control of some Android phones, but only one way control with Apple phones. Only older phones are supported by the Android unit, while the name-brand stereos support even the newest devices.
Little things, like the version of Bluetooth the head unit is compatible with, make a big difference in the performance of the stereo. All of the mainstream units provide buyers with current information about compatibility. Most are even capable of updates. The Android unit, unfortunately, is vague about the type of technology used in its head unit. Voice control, for example, may or may not work correctly because of the mirror connection Bluetooth compatibility. The Android unit requires both connections to work, which kind of defeats the purpose of Bluetooth. You’ll still have to plug in your phone to access most features.
Android OS – The Big Difference
Probably the most remarkably different thing the cheap head units allow is unadulterated versions of Android OS. The newest head units are running Marshmallow 4.0, while the mainstream head units use various, in-house versions. Mainstream units typical on the US market restrict certain types of playback. For example, you can’t play Call of Duty Mobile on any of the mainstream units listed here. It simply won’t work, and that’s by design. Manufacturers do not want to be on the hook for providing products that lead to fatal distracted driving accidents.
The low-cost Android systems are not similarly restricted. Think about it like having a tablet on your dash instead of a head unit. These units have full access to Google Play Store where you can install any app imaginable. This can be wonderful for accessing apps you need, but also allows these head units to function as entertainment systems. You can watch movies and stream TV stations, play video games, and do all of the things you would do sitting on your couch in front of your tablet, all from behind the wheel. Scary? Yes, but it’s also kind of cool. The ability to use the full suite of apps on your touchscreen might be particularly attractive to ride-share drivers who often spend hours sitting in their car waiting for a pick-up. Install Netflix and stream away! (Please don’t watch movies or TV while driving.)
This same open access to apps allows these head units to be much more customizable. Most of them offer the ability to change the boot-up screen to display vehicle manufacturer logos, custom pictures, and other tricked out visuals. Customizability is the biggest drawback to the mainstream units using closed-source OS. The big-name brand head units give you only limited customizability, and in some cases, none at all. On the up side, generally the mainstream units closed-source OS is more reliable than open source.
Double-DIN isn’t Always Double-DIN
If you look at the mainstream head units listed here, you will see they all have similar measurements to fit a standard double-DIN space. All of them have chassis measurements under 7” except the Pioneer, which isn’t listed by the manufacturer. The Android head units will vary in size, with many being over 7” wide. The irregular sizes can make installation much more challenging, and can even prevent the head unit from fitting. The minor difference in size makes a big difference in tight spaces. Many mainstream double-DIN head units can use modified brackets and bezels to fit 1.5-DIN opening, for example, but an oversized Android unit simply will never fit. Before buying an Android unit, check the actual size of the opening in your car and make sure the unit will fit. A number of buyers ended up returning Android units due to the variance in size.
Android Long-term Durability
A nice-looking touchscreen that works well, even if it is basic, is only as good as long as it lasts. The major difference between Android units and name-brand equipment is the quality of components. Reviewers of the inexpensive Android units comment on the poor quality of connectors. Many buyers had to order two units to get a working one. Professional installers report failures of various internal components due to low quality parts and shoddy construction. Numerous reviewers report total failures within one year. Other people also had problems with volume, fade, and equalizer settings that randomly change or won’t stay set once the stereo is turned off.
Some of these things are minor issues, and it certainly could be argued that simply buying a new stereo every year or two at $50, it would take several years before spending as much as a name-brand head unit. Then again, who wants to tear up the interior of their car every year or so.
Negative reviews of the name-brand head units typically focus on minor issues, such as the layout of icons, lack of customizability, and the locations of features. The units we examined for this article have a reputation for robustness, but sometimes things do go wrong, even with an expensive head unit. That’s where a warranty comes in.
Sony, Kenwood, Pioneer, and Alpine all provide warranties for parts and labor. Alpine and Kenwood provide a 90-day warranty for manufacturing defects, while Pioneer and Sony both offer a one-year warranty. Warranty claims are handled by authorized retailers in the United States.
The Android unit provides no warranty, and any claims must go through the seller. Many users report that requests for warranty service are often unanswered by sellers. The experience can be particularly frustrating for buyers because often, the only solution is to buy another head unit.
The cheap Android units available today are a fair option for buyers on a shoestring budget. Saving money on the head unit may allow for better quality speakers or other components. Performance from the Android units is acceptable for most listeners, but an audiophile will instantly know the difference between a name-brand head unit and an Android-based one. The sound reproduction quality is lacking with Android units. The absence of a subwoofer pre out on the Android stereo prevents expansion of the system significantly.
Most buyers are going to be happier in the long run spending a little more money and buying a high-quality name-brand stereo. The initial costs may be higher, but will provide many years of listening enjoyment. All of the units here include subwoofer pre outs, making hooking up amplifiers easier. The graphics, fonts, and available on-screen information with a name-brand head unit are all better than the Android. Numerous features, like built-in compatibility with Pandora, make listening to the music you want easier. The Android units have varying ability to take advantage of apps like Pandora or Sirius XM. Some people may find the lack of ease of app use to be a deal breaker, while others may be fine running Pandora through screen mirroring.
A big deal any buyer must be aware of with the Android units is the lack of compatibility with many of the most modern and popular phones. For owners who have a newer Samsung or iPhone, they may be forced to use the USB or TF slots to play music. However, the Android units are capable of displaying video easily, while the name-brand units make it impossible or nearly impossible to play video on the screen for safety reasons. If playing videos is important to you, an Android unit might be the best option.