Last updated on April 25th, 2021 at 10:11 am
The Best Car Stereos should reflect the latest in digital audio technology. For example, compatibility with smartphones and the most common internet radio apps. Smartphones are really the single and only medium for listening to music in cars at this point, so a head unit that supports connected devices and comes standard with certain features is a must. This includes:
- USB port to charge and connect your media or smartphone devices.
- Bluetooth technology to stream music and make handsfree calls.
- Integrated music app functionality like Pandora and Spotify.
- + more
The best head units shouldn't just output high quality sound, they really should incorporate the latest trends in digital tech to simplify how you listen to your music, navigate to where you're going and make wireless phone calls. In our list below, you'll find our top pick car stereos that embrace the swift changes in audio and digital technology. We're frequently updating all of our lists, so check back for updates as new products get released and added!
Who Is This Review For?
There's a number of reasons why you could want or need to upgrade your car's head unit. One of the most common is to integrate Bluetooth connectivity to enable wireless calling and music streaming. But you might also:
- Want to enable streaming and easy control of music through Pandora or Spotify on your head unit.
- Need to upgrade your car stereo due to compatibility issues with your smartphone or wireless device.
- Just want a new, fresh look and the latest technology.
- Need to replace a head unit that recently broke or is experiencing issues.
- Want to improve the quality of the music that you listen to.
The list is endless, but regardless of the reason, the head unit you choose should really best fit the combination of your own personal needs.
First Impressions Matter
The head unit itself is beefy, but not as large as what you may expect when installing a double-din stereo. That’s because Sony played a neat little trick and used a single-din case behind the double-din screen. In the old days, a double din screen was followed by a double din casing that housed the electronics. Those days are numbered now and Sony's AX7000 is a great example of a modern double din unit. Anyone familiar with the AX5000 head unit from Sony will immediately note the family resemblance. In fact, it can sometimes be a bit hard to tell them apart.
Obviously, it’s the screen that draws the first attention. At an advertised 6.95”, it has a factory radio look that is understated and truly compelling. The bezel-less design puts all the attention right where it should be, on the screen and creates a modern and sleek look. A row of physical buttons along the bottom of the screen bezel provide quick access to needed features, like volume and tuning control.
Behind the screen it’s all business. The single-din case was an unexpected surprise. Typical double-din units measure in the 6 to 7 inches by 4 to 5 inches and jut into the dash about 6 inches. In almost every installation, this means a compromise, and often requires relocation of factory equipment, climate control assemblies, and serious wiring relocations, all with their own sets of problems. The slim profile of the AX7000 makes tight-space installation easy as pie.
Along the rear of the unit, the connections are mostly familiar with some nice additions. The AX7000 has a pair of 5v pre-outs (Front & Rear) for amplifier connection, but also features a 5v pre-out for directly connecting a subwoofer. Connections for SiriusXM Satellite radio and a rear view camera connection provide for these features if equipped. There are also ports for a wired remote connection and a microphone, which Sony thoughtfully included.
A 15-amp fuse sits next to the standard multi-pin connector. Dual USB leads are also provided and are helpfully labeled. The USB leads differ in their intended purpose. USB 1 is intended to connect to a smartphone or USB device and features high-speed charging. USB 2 is intended solely for USB media devices.
The multi-pin pigtail is minimally labeled, but the detailed wiring instructions make sure there is no confusion. The pigtail includes built-in wiring for rear-view camera hook-ups, powered antenna, illumination, parking brake, and a rem out line.
There are no brackets or other helpful components for installing the stereo in a vehicle however. For most individuals, this will mean you'll need to purchase a dash kit for your vehicle. Others will need to fabricate something to mount the single-din case so that the stereo is stable and theft-proof. The directions include instructions for installing in Japanese cars, but provide directions only for using factory mounting brackets installed in Toyota and Nissan vehicles. A note under installation states that it may not be possible to install this stereo in some Japanese cars.
I was eager to get the AX7000 installed and cranked up. Installation was straight-forward and provided no unusual complications. Wiring connections were simple and resulted in no surprises.
Check out the custom installation that I did in this full writeup.
AX7000 starts as quickly as AX5000, which is 2.5 times faster than previous models, AX100/200. Start-up time measured 17 seconds from powered off to playing music.
A warning screen instructing the driver to avoid using the screen while driving appears first. After several seconds, it will clear on its own. Otherwise a simple tape of the ‘Close’ button brings up the Home screen. From the Home screen, users can select a variety of options. One of the aluminum physical buttons provides instant access to the home screen.
The first thing you'll notice is the simplicity of the layout. A bold bar of icons along the bottom third of the screen provide quick access to the most common applications. The tuner icon, SiriusXM, Bluetooth, and USB 1 connections appear on the first page. Additional applications, including back-up camera, settings menu, and USB 2 are on the second page. A clock dominates the remainder of the screen.
Selecting Tuner brought the FM1 band into play instantly. A few quick selections and most of the radio stations I know where programmed. It's simply a matter of tuning to the station you want and holding the icon. The AX7000 provides numerous preset options.
Volume is something you notice right away with the AX7000. The built-in amplifier really kicks the sound around. The screen is bright and looks good in full sun, but is sometimes difficult to see at extreme angles. The anti-glare film that Sony has used is phenomenal, and no glare at all could be seen, even in bright, direct light.
Setting it Up
Swiping to the second page and selecting Settings brings up numerous customizing options. Sony has programmed four categories in the Settings screen, including General, Sound, Visual, and Bluetooth.
General settings allow adjustment of the date and time, on-or-off beeps, settings for backup camera and steering wheel controls, factory reset options, and firmware version.
Sound options include access to the Extra Bass feature. Extra Bass is intended to provide increased bass to compensate for road noise. The 10-band equalizer is accessed here. The equalizer has presets for common music styles and a custom slider for do-it-yourselfers that like things a particular way. I found that Extra Bass was a little too much bass for my speaker setup, but my tunes sound great when going full-throttle down the road in any of the settings.
Dynamic Stage Organizer is one of the much-lauded features of the AX7000. This feature is intended to make your car stereo sound rich and full, but from ahead of you rather than surrounding you. In my experience, the DSO made music sound tinny when set at high or medium levels. I preferred my music selections with DSO turned to low. This may have been a result of less-than-ideal speakers.
Balance/Fader settings are accessed from this screen. The dual-axis fader is intuitive and works like magic for custom tuning the power to various speakers.
Advanced settings provide options for High and Low Pass Filters, subwoofer controls, speaker impedance (2 or 4 ohm), and a volume limiter.
Visual settings access the wallpapers, which are factory loaded and not customizable. There are five presets available, purple geometric, blue dots, green spots, orange fractals, and black glare. The ability to display a photo would be a nice touch, but it’s not a deal breaker. The green spots happens to look really nice with the interior of the car I installed the AX7000 into.
Bluetooth settings allow on-or-off connections, device info, and a reset button. Pretty standard fare here. I had absolutely zero problems pairing my Samsung Galaxy Note 5.
The AX7000 also has customizable features that can be accessed by pressing the Options button, one of the aluminum, weather-sealed physical buttons along the bottom of the touchscreen bezel. The options button provides quick access to the 10-band equalizer, Extra Bass feature, and allows for the screen to be closed. Users can select from currently available sound sources or turn the playing source off from the Option screen.
The Option button doubles as the attenuator button, while the Home button can be pressed and held to place the AX7000 in standby mode.
A physical Voice button is also present on the face of the unit. This only works when connected to a device that is running Android Auto or Apple CarPlay. For me, this seemed a bit of a redundant button, as simply saying “Ok, Google” gets Google Assistant up when my device is connected.
Volume up and down and tuning left and right physical buttons are also on the bar.
The physical buttons are something that is much appreciated about this stereo. The aluminum buttons feel nice and respond well. Sony claims the buttons are dust and moisture resistant.
Impressions on Listening
This is one loud stereo. The built-in amplifier really cranks the tunes, and it's very easy to annoy your neighbors without even trying. I tried the stereo on a variety of genres of music, from classical and choir to hardcore gangsta rap and everything in between. The AX7000 produced tight, clear, and percussive sound regardless of genre. Using the factory preset options for equalizer was simple and produced life-like sound.
There is no detectable loss of music quality when switching to a bluetooth device. Pandora was clear and easy to navigate using the wireless bluetooth connection. Similarly, the stereo had no trouble playing music I have stored on a USB drive which I connected through the USB 2 cord. AM and FM bands were clear and easy to find.
SiriusXM is an available add-on feature for those who want satellite radio. The AX7000 does not have built-in navigation, but with easy access to maps (as long as wifi exists), this feature is not missed. Simply connect your compatible Apple or Android device and you can access your Google maps, Waze or other navigation directly from the unit.
I really liked the ability to custom tailor the speaker fade. The dual axis adjustment gives nearly limitless opportunity to tweak tunes for the best overall feel. With my particular set up, I found the best sound to be slightly to the front and left, but I am probably compensating for speakers that are not nearly as modern as this stereo.
Here's a few shots of the equalizer and fader feature:
Things Besides Music
Infotainment systems wouldn’t be called such if all they did was play music. The AX7000 allows for much more. Certain iPhone and Android users can connect wirelessly to built-in CarPlay or Auto. In my case, my Android phone is a little long in the tooth, so I had to use the USB 1 connection to get to Android Auto. Android Auto loaded quickly and easily and immediately brought up Google Maps and a list of recent searches, and kept Pandora playing. An icon along the bottom of the Maps page allowed quick access to Pandora.
I was unable to get Apple CarPlay functioning. I am an Android user, but had access to the latest Apple iPad. Unfortunately, Apple does not provide CarPlay support for the iPad. A long list of Apple iPhones are compatible with the Sony AX7000 and Apple CarPlay, however no iPod will work, even when plugged into the USB drive. If you like to use your iPod for music, you will have to find a different solution.
I found Google Maps to be easy to operate either via touchscreen or using voice commands. I love voice commands, but my wife does not, so it is nice that both systems are easy to use.
Waze worked equally well on the AX7000. Colors were bright and crisp. Commands were simple and worked every bit as well as when operating Waze on my smartphone. Having Waze and Google Maps easily accessible directly on the screen is wonderful, and if navigation is important to you, the AX7000 won’t disappoint.
As a former chauffeur, Google Maps and Waze are among the most familiar programs to me, and I found that every feature I love about those two navigation programs worked quickly and easily.
Google Assistant is right there for me and allowed me to check on the hockey score, find out what the top headlines for the day were, and even check the fishing conditions in Morro Bay, Calif. with a simple query. Not that I was going fishing, but one can dream, right?
If you like using Google Assistant, you will love having it accessible through the AX7000. It is a perfect app for productivity while driving. Accessing my note-taking app is a breeze, and I was able to add butter to my shopping list while driving without taking my hands off the wheel or my eyes off the road.
I still find it a bit frustrating having to organize a question correctly, but Google’s AI assistant is getting better every day. I tried to find the cheapest gas prices around, but Google was not having it, instead offering to get directions to gas stations 2,000 miles away. Maybe gas was cheaper there?
Some commands, like “Where is the closest hotel?” resulted in the message “Not sure how to help” then immediately a list of close hotels.
Text messaging was similarly both convenient and frustrating. Often, Google Assistant was unsure of how to do what I asked, but ultimately complied. Using voice commands for emojis is amusing, particularly for the recipient, who gets words instead of characters.
One thing I noticed that can be alarming is that the volume does not automatically reduce when calls or text messages come in. If you are rolling around town bumping Snoop Dogg and suddenly Mom calls, the phone ring can be startlingly loud. Trying to have a phone conversation with the bass booming is a little awkward. Fortunately, Sony provided physical buttons for volume and a press and hold of the Options key will attenuate the volume. The attenuator works flawlessly and fast.
Untested But Available Features
I did not use some of the features in my test. I do not have a backup camera installed in my test vehicle, and was unable to determine how well the backup camera compatibility works. The unit requires the camera to be connected and wiring run to either the reverse lights or the shifter selector switch. The camera can also be accessed from the Home screen.
My vehicle does not have a power antenna. The wiring pigtail includes a lead for a power antenna hook up. This would be an additional bit of wiring.
I don’t have steering wheel controls, so that was another bit of wiring I did not do, but also a feature that I was unable to test.
The list price for the AX7000 is currently selling at $599.99 through Amazon and Crutchfield. This places the Sony unit in competition with the Kenwood Excelon DDX8706 $599.99 with instant $100 savings at Crutchfield) and the Alpine iLX-207 ($594.95 at Crutchfield).
All three head units feature screens near or at seven inches. All three have physical buttons along the bottom. All three have similar connectivity options, with built-in bluetooth, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, and have backup camera plugs.
A key goal of all three head units is the promotion of safe driving habits through reduced distraction. What distracts one person may not bother another. I prefer ease of use over detail, personally.
The Sony AX7000 is simpler and cleaner looking, which gives it an attitude of competency, whereas the Alpine and Kenwood seem very busy. Sony’s decision to use an aluminum bar with physical buttons and simplified fonts and icons made it easy for me to navigate the various options. The Alpine uses similar style and icons, but the Kenwood is very cluttered looking. Organization of features is largely similar across the three units and is mainly a subjective preference. I find the Kenwood to be the most difficult to navigate, with both the Alpine and Sony having very similar processes to access various functions.
All three head units feature physical buttons along the bottom of the bezel. Both the Alpine and Kenwood have buttons directly next to one another, whereas Sony places the buttons a good distance apart from one another. This decision allows users to quickly get accustomed to the location of desired buttons and find them without looking. Both the Kenwood and Alpine are more likely for users to have to look at the head unit to select a quick function button.
Neither the Kenwood or Alpine pack as much power as the Sony unit. The 45 watt RMS power @ 4ohm impedance the Sony provides is more than double the Kenwood and Alpine. Sony’s step-down receiver, the AX5000, features the same power as the Kenwood and Alpine units for $200 less. All that power comes through clearly. Connecting a subwoofer directly through the 5 volt dedicated pre-out brought forth the same thundering bass as when the subwoofer was connected to the amp.
All three units feature capacitive touch screen buttons. The Sony unit buttons work as you would expect from a high-end tablet -which is to say they are responsive and effortless. The Kenwood seems to require more pressure, similar to the Alpine unit.
The major difference between the Kenwood head unit and the other two -Kenwood included a DVD player that is accessed behind the screen.
In most instances, I found the Sony XAV-AX7000 to be easy to use and a real treat for playing music, navigating country roads, and staying productive while driving. The head unit played music from multiple sources flawlessly. I was regularly surprised by how loud this stereo gets. It should be noted that Sony recommends speakers of at least 50 watts RMS capability. For someone who really wants power, speakers with a 2 ohm resistance will be the best choice with the Sony AX7000.
I had no difficulty accessing apps, setting options, or using any feature of the stereo. For my particular set-up, I found features like Dynamic Stage Organizer to be less than useful. I believe that with a more high-powered system that used better speakers in better locations, the DSO feature would be more than a novelty.
The average buyer in my mind is someone looking to upgrade a factory double-DIN stereo, and this is the perfect option for doing just that. It should be expected that installation of this stereo in most modern vehicles is going to require additional parts. Most installations are going to require a custom mounting panel to replace the factory panel. Installations that want to use steering wheel controls will require an adapter.
This particular stereo is also popular with Harley-Davidson riders, and specific installation packages are available to allow installation on a wide variety of H-D bikes.
I highly recommend the Sony XAV-AX7000. The power output is class-leading, and I found the simple interface to be brilliant and predictable. The Sony XAV-AX5000 is already listed as one of our best car DVD & multimedia stereos, and Sony turned up the volume with the AX7000. It provides the high-quality sound dedicated audiophiles want and a range of connectivity options. The XAV-AX7000 from Sony is an ideal infotainment system to replace a factory unit or use in a totally custom installation.