We spent over 100 hours researching more than 80 models, surveying hundreds of Wirecutter readers, and bench-testing a half-dozen front-runners to see which Bluetooth-equipped single-DIN car stereo receivers offered the most bang for the buck. In the end, we’re convinced that the great value and ease of use of the Pioneer MVH-X380BT make it the best choice for most people who are primarily interested in streaming their music. It offers the best Bluetooth smartphone support, easy setup, and the simplest interface of any of the models we’ve looked at, some of which cost over twice as much.
As a veteran auto journalist, I’ve played with just about every car entertainment system worth looking at. Yet at the end of all our testing, I found myself wanting to replace the stock stereo in my Mercedes with one of these Pioneer units. (Alas, that’s impossible due to the proprietary nature of some high-end car designs.)
The MVH-X380BT is an upgraded version of our previous top pick, the Pioneer MVH-X370BT (which is now discontinued, though you can still find it in stock at many online outlets). The MVH-X380BT delivers the same features and quality we liked so much about our original pick, as well as a few new twists such as an improved button layout, a larger display, enhanced control for Android phones (letting you control playback via buttons on the receiver), and the ability to decide whether the receiver accesses a USB-connected device for music or simply charges it. After learning about these enhancements—and checking out the latest competitors—we feel 100 percent comfortable passing the crown to the MVH-X380BT. Like its predecessor, the X380BT doesn’t include a CD player, high-end radio options such as SiriusXM or HD Radio, or customizable fonts, which we consider less important features for most people.
I’ve spent the past 10 years driving hundreds of new cars as an automotive journalist for Gear Patrol, Men’s Health, Popular Science, Wired, and other outlets. Along the way I’ve tried factory-installed, Bluetooth-ready receivers aplenty, with whatever portable device I was using at the time. (This includes all the Apple and Android devices I’ve both reviewed and used personally.) Even though some installed units I tried were themselves buggy and unreliable with the Bluetooth pairing, most are at the level where the pairing and operation could be considered automatic and effortless. So that’s my standard: automatic and effortless. It’s the 21st century—people shouldn’t have to struggle to hear music every time they get in their cars.
But beyond being a car guy, I’m also a technology generalist, having been an editor at Popular Science magazine for five years and at Men’s Health for seven years, where I also handled the magazine’s consumer-technology coverage.
For this deep dive, I spoke with industry experts, front-line installers, and engineers at the various manufacturers. This group included Peter Logan, a veteran audio specialist at online retailer Crutchfield; Ted Cardenas, vice president of marketing for the Car Electronics Division at Pioneer; installation crews at Best Buy, A&S Installation in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Proline Car Stereo and Brooklyn Car Audio, both in Brooklyn, New York; and teams of experts and product managers at Apple, Android, Kenwood/JVC, and Sony.
If your current car-audio system lacks Bluetooth capability, upgrading to a Bluetooth receiver gives you a lot more versatility when you’re using your smartphone in the car. With such a receiver, it’s easier to stream music wirelessly from your phone, whether from your personal music collection or through an app such as Pandora or Spotify, so you can listen through your car’s speakers. A receiver also lets you do hands-free calling without a Bluetooth headset or the need for an add-on Bluetooth kit.
One of the first questions you’ll likely encounter when you consider upgrading your car audio system is whether you even can. If your car is older than, say, 10 years (the approximate point when manufacturers began adding command screens that controlled multiple systems, not just audio) or contains a fairly straightforward audio setup, you’re probably okay—the only question is whether your car has a single-DIN or double-DIN design. Those terms refer to the measurements of the “hole” your car stereo sits in. A single-DIN slot measures 2⅛ inches high by 7⅛ inches wide. A double-DIN mount is twice as tall; most cars with LCD screens are double-DIN. If you have a double-DIN slot, you can still use a single-DIN radio (an adapter kit that you purchase for your specific vehicle simply creates open storage in the unused space), but a single-DIN slot cannot accept a double-DIN upgrade.
Another factor that will determine your ability to upgrade is whether other vehicle functions are integrated into your car’s audio system. For example, LCD screens that also include climate controls and the settings for other systems can’t be incorporated into a replacement stereo. But even if that isn’t the case in your vehicle, your car may have a complex, nonstandard dash setup that precludes such upgrades.
Some cars—the Ford Taurus of the late 1990s comes to mind—have oddly shaped panels around the stereo systems, or they use contoured surfaces that dispense with the “box cutout” configuration that persisted for decades. Carmakers do this kind of thing for design and functionality reasons, to increase button sizes and smooth out the dash appearance. In both cases, however, you might find adapters that will allow you to replace the unit even if the factory setup has funky dashwork going on.
Other vehicles, including my wife’s mid-2000s Mercedes, may be able to accommodate an upgraded unit, but they might require custom work on the dash to make it look right, something that’s beyond the scope of traditional plastic dash adapters. That’s the kind of job only a pro can do, and it will require extra time and money.
The process can be frustrating, but you can usually get a sense of what your car can or cannot accept by going to a good car-audio site such as Crutchfield and seeing what the online selection tool says about your vehicle’s upgradability. In addition, the better sellers usually offer installation instructions custom-made for your specific vehicle when you order the receiver, and will include any necessary parts and adapters to make the piece fit.
If you find that your car can’t deal with an upgrade, you have other options, such as Bluetooth kits that will allow you to stream music and place calls through a device that either plugs into your stereo’s aux-in jack or transmits to the stereo via an FM tuner. (For more details on the various pros and cons of these setups, check out our full guide to the best Bluetooth kits.) The trouble with kits, however, is the addition of still more cables and electronics to your car—stuff that can easily snag and tangle as you and your passenger come and go. Also, FM-tuner quality tends to be abysmal. A kit is cheaper, but if you can afford to upgrade the whole stereo, you’ll be rewarded with superior sound quality and ease of use.
If you already have a Bluetooth-capable stereo, you might still consider upgrading. Some older Bluetooth stereos, or those in less-expensive cars, might only accept phone calls and not support music. And the latest systems may have some inviting features—dedicated music apps, voice control, an adjustable display, or dual-phone capability—that didn’t come with your original car-audio system. Beyond that, you’ll also get a more modern, streamlined interface without the functional clutter of previous-generation head units.
As you shop for a replacement car stereo, you’ll have to decide which features are most important to you. And one of the first questions you’ll have to ask is whether you really need a CD player. In our survey of more than 400 Wirecutter readers, the vast majority of respondents—more than 80 percent—said they didn’t. That’s why digital media receivers, which come without a CD player, are the latest trend in replacement car stereos. The absence of a CD player often means a lower price, more user-friendly controls, a smaller chassis (which makes the unit easier to install), and fewer mechanical parts (which means fewer components that can break later on). Even so, car-stereo manufacturers say that a lot of buyers still want the option of playing a CD, so you have a lot of CD-capable receivers from which to choose.
A feature we think is worth considering is Siri Eyes Free, which, when paired with an iPhone, boosts your safety and convenience on the road by offering voice control of your receiver. A lot of models include SiriusXM satellite radio and/or HD Radio capability, though we think those services are less important if you typically stream your music. Speaking of streaming, you’ll want to check for Pandora and Spotify support, which lets you control those apps directly from the receiver. And of course, you’ll want easy pairing of your smartphone, which is something most manufacturers are starting to master, plus a USB-input option to charge your phone or ease the integration of a guest’s device. Unfortunately, the popular Apple CarPlay and Android Auto systems, which provide much of the functionality of a compatible iPhone or Android phone with a more driver-friendly interface, aren’t available in single-DIN stereos because they need a larger display.
Some models come with a handheld remote. That may sound silly—a handheld remote for a device that’s 9 inches from you—but on a long drive it’s more comfortable to flip tracks with your hand in your lap than to be constantly reaching for the head unit. (You can also hand over control to rear-seat passengers, if you dare.) Smartphone apps that control the receiver as a handheld remote does are increasingly available, too—though the results vary widely. Some are barely functional while others, like the Pioneer ARC app, are nearly seamless facsimiles of conventional smartphone music controls.
Relatively minor but handy features you’ll encounter include tunable colors, which let you coordinate your stereo with the lighting in your car’s interior, and multi-line LCD screens that provide more data.
First I read reviews—both professional reviews from sites such as CNET and CarAudioNow, and customer reviews from Amazon and Best Buy. I also scanned car-audio forums to see what hot-button issues had come up lately. Then I talked to car-audio experts, bounced questions off manufacturers, and tinkered with systems at retailers.
I quickly found a few key criteria that would anchor our search. “The audio quality of the Bluetooth streaming will be comparable from model to model,” said audio specialist Peter Logan of Crutchfield. “They differentiate themselves by how well they minimize distraction while you’re using them, and how well they transition between functions—whether it’s switching from audio streaming to telephone calls, or simply getting in and out of your vehicle.”
I also got up to speed on the latest smartphone integrations meant to address distracted driving, including Siri Eyes Free. Such features are important advances not just for convenience but also for safety—it’s well-documented that driver distraction contributes to accident rates, and messing with your phone ranks high on the list of distractions these days.
The only real Bluetooth distinction you need to worry about is what version the head unit has. The latest Bluetooth, version 3.0, produces higher-quality voice calls thanks to the greater bandwidth it allots for those. (Most of the units we considered had 3.0, though some still had one of the version 2 variants.)
We polled hundreds of Wirecutter readers, too. Respondents told us they weren’t interested in built-in navigation, didn’t really need a CD player or satellite radio, preferred steering-wheel-mounted controls, wouldn’t pay more for a touchscreen, wanted to pay under $200, and were happy to at least take a crack at installing the new stereo themselves. Survey participants also said they wanted the device to be affordable, but they were primarily focused—just as I am—on seamless connectivity and instant responsiveness to whatever their smartphone commands might be, whether in audio selection or call placement. People want their receiver to just work. I took these results as our marching orders.
Hundreds of receivers exist, but we looked only at those that are Bluetooth-ready and match our general criteria. I eliminated the cheapest units, usually those from lower-tier brands and with the worst Bluetooth reception as reported by reviewers and owners. I also dismissed the most expensive models—basically anything over $300—since affordability is key. I then winnowed our list further based on how well each receiver stacked up against our list of preferred features, dropping units that didn’t allow multiple phone pairings, didn’t offer the possibility of steering-wheel controls, and so on.
We also looked at convenience and aesthetic features that seem insignificant but can affect your everyday experience. “A lot of our customers really want their aftermarket head unit to have adjustable screen colors. It sounds silly, but having the stereo match the interior lighting makes it feel much more integrated,” Crutchfield’s Logan said. “Also, can it accept guest users? If I have someone else in the car—say, your kids and their friends—and someone wants to DJ, it needs to be easy for them to connect and start playing.”
When we first published this guide, we settled on nine finalists for hands-on testing: the Alpine UTE-52BT, the Pioneer DEH-X8700BS, DEH-X6700BT, MVH-X560BT, and MVH-X370BT, the JVC KD-AR959BS, the Kenwood KDC-X998 and KDC-X598, and the Sony MEX-N5000BT. From those we chose our original top pick—the Pioneer DEH-X370BT—and three alternative picks, the Pioneer DEH-X8700BS and MVH-X560BT, and the Kenwood KDC-X998.
For our latest update, we again surveyed the newest offerings from Alpine, Axxera, Clarion, Dual, JVC, Kenwood, Pioneer, and Sony to see if any of them were significant enough to replace those picks. Although the manufacturers keep making small improvements, no models released in the past year or so dramatically raise the standards. So, based on the features and pricing of the current offerings, and the intelligence we gleaned from our testing, the only change we made to our picks this time was to replace the Pioneer models with their newer versions, which are evolutionary upgrades.
Instead of installing each of the units on our short list into an actual car, I bench-tested them head to head at my residence. Bench-testing them allowed us to experiment longer and more thoroughly with each product. After hooking each receiver up to a 12-volt power source and a set of moderate-quality speakers, I put it through its paces. We focused on Bluetooth functionality, not audio quality, since so much of that is dependent on the number and quality of speakers in your vehicle. While many readers in our survey indicated that they’d consider upgrading to better speakers at the same time they upgraded the head unit, that wouldn’t have affected our results, as great speakers will indeed sound better across the board. If you’re an audiophile, you can find plenty of options for expandable systems, which we’ll describe briefly later on.
I tried the test receivers with both iOS devices and Android phones, simulated hundreds of vehicle entries and exits to gauge Bluetooth reacquisition behaviors and speeds, placed and received calls to see how well the Bluetooth hands-free communication worked, and, of course, streamed music via Bluetooth and USB cables. I learned what sort of control each receiver permitted over music selection from the head unit itself versus the connected device, and I also hooked up multiple phones to see how easy it was to switch between devices.
Along the way I paid close attention to each model’s interface—the screens, the buttons, the included handheld remote controls, and the downloadable app controls that many devices offer. I looked for functional, comprehensible setups, and devices that were easy to use.
Bluetooth setup on this Pioneer model takes seconds instead of minutes, via Secure Simple Pairing (which means no code is required to pair) or USB if you have an iOS device. It offers guest mode, plus the ability to use two phones simultaneously and switch between them. It even displays song information even when you’re playing music wirelessly (some units can do this only over USB). It is also compatible with Apple’s Siri Eyes Free. And it has the latest Hands Free Profile (HFP), 1.6, which allows for better call quality, giving it an edge in usability over the competition.
Other touches include snappy menu navigation that drops unused inputs from the source selector (for instance, “Aux” won’t show up as a source unless something is actually plugged into that). We also like the fact that Pioneer is the only company that ships its stereos with prestripped wires for easy installation. Such details show that Pioneer really set out to make a stereo that people will like to use.
With no CD player present, the face of the unit has no slot, and the device is much shallower than CD-equipped models. This design won’t make much of a difference to most people, apart from the novelty of unboxing such a compact, lightweight car stereo, but it means the unit can fit in a wider variety of cars (primarily older or vintage models that may not have been made to accommodate a CD player) and can also slip more easily into motorcycles and boats. And you don’t have to worry about a CD drive wearing out or breaking.
As with a few other newer units we considered, including the more recent Kenwood model, you can set this Pioneer receiver to pair automatically whenever you connect a new iOS device via USB cable, which is very handy. (Android phones work with Secure Simple Pairing but not USB pairing.) During our original tests, reacquisition—how fast the Bluetooth technology picks up your phone when you start the car—was excellent in the MVH-X370BT. The receiver automatically resumes playing where you last left off as soon as it pairs (though so did the other units in our tests).
If you want to pair two phones with the system, the MVH-X380BT switches seamlessly between them, and it can stream audio and accept calls from both telephones. (Like all the units we looked at, this Pioneer model includes a wired microphone that you can place wherever you want for optimal voice quality—usually on the visor.) For either phone, you can scroll through contacts and missed, received, and placed calls, or your phone book; you can also store frequently used numbers. If you use an iPhone (or two), you can take advantage of Siri Eyes Free to handle anything that Siri usually does—from playing favorite tracks to getting weather reports to requesting turn-by-turn directions—so long as the task doesn’t require use of the screen. Audio quality for telephone calls is exceptionally good, and unlike with other units we tested (which provide full music-search functions only for phones connected over USB), song info displays even when your phones are connected wirelessly.
Although you have no CD player here, you’ll find USB and aux inputs and an AM/FM radio. The MVH-X380BT’s interface, unlike those of most units we investigated, shows you only those sources that you can actually use—if you don’t have a device hooked up via USB, for example, you don’t have to scroll past the USB option when you’re navigating the menus. You can even deactivate and hide the aux input if you never use that.
The technology in the MVH-X380BT should be sufficient to handle most cars’ stock speaker setups. It uses Pioneer’s 50-watt-per-channel four-channel amplifier—enough to power most vehicles’ four-speaker setups—and a five-band graphic equalizer that lets you adjust bass, treble, and the like through the menu system. It also has a set of 2-volt, two-channel RCA preamp outputs, which allow you to add a separate amplifier for powering an additional set of speakers. (A model such as the Kenwood KDC-X700 is better, though, if you’re considering future expansion, with 4-volt, six-channel preamp outputs and an additional subwoofer preamp output.)
The “installation” of our original test sample, the MVH-X370BT, was a breeze—though it was a simple bench-test—and we expect the MVH-X380BT experience to be the same. Pioneer preps the speaker, power, and ground wires for you via small cuts that require you to simply slide the cable casing off to expose the copper beneath. This little touch spares novices the risk of accidentally cutting a wire completely while trying to strip it; among the manufacturers of the nine units we originally tested, Pioneer was the only one to take this step, bless its high-tech DIY heart.
The faceplate (which is detachable, if you’re concerned about theft) is cleanly organized, with buttons that are large enough not to require precision jabs with your fingernails.
In our testing of the older MVH-X370BT, I was happy with the included remote, which is the same one that accompanies the newer MVH-X380BT. Many remotes favor cosmetic appeal and size over functionality—sometimes even burying the rubber buttons within the plastic case so they’re harder to press. The Pioneer remote, however, is large enough and has buttons prominent enough to be easily navigated without your glancing at it. It also weighs next to nothing, which means you can stick it in a convenient location on your dash or center console using 3M’s Command strips. It has a mute button—something surprisingly handy when you’re chatting with passengers, talking to drive-through operators, and such. You can also purchase steering-wheel controls that mount discreetly on your wheel, or use a separate adapter to connect the unit to your car’s own steering-wheel control buttons, if it has them. This is true for most of the units we considered.
Overall, I believe that the MVH-X380BT is better than not only the other receivers we looked at but also most of the factory-installed systems I’ve tried in hundreds of press cars. It offers functionality that few car manufacturers think to consider—a handheld remote, for instance, or the automatic elimination of unusable sources. My own car has a lot of vehicle functions built into the double-DIN LCD, so I can’t install the MVH-X380BT in my own ride. That’s a bummer. Maybe I should get a new car.
We don’t have much to complain about with the Pioneer MVH-X380BT. The primary LCD screen is only one line, which limits you to one category of information (track name, station, artist, and so on), but it scrolls smoothly and legibly for longer titles.
You can’t tune the display color to match the rest of your dash (it’s white), and the buttons are backlit in blue. This color scheme may make the unit less of a natural fit with your car’s dashboard, but it doesn’t affect overall functionality. While other units, such as the Sony MEX-N5000BT, automatically dim when your headlights come on, the MVH-X380BT’s display can be dimmed only manually, or programmed to dim at specific times of day. And the handheld remote control has no button to activate Siri Eyes Free; you have to reach for the multifunction knob on the head unit.
Hardcore car-audio geeks won’t be into this unit due to its limited options for expandability (in terms of extra speakers and subwoofers). But that is an exceptionally minor complaint, since most buyers won’t be interested in expanding beyond their car’s existing core capabilities.
We chose the KDC-X700 over our previous upgrade pick, the Kenwood eXcelon KDC-X998, because it costs less, offers improved Android functionality, and has the ability to pair with two phones via Bluetooth, not just one. Like the KDC-X998, the KDC-X700 supports Siri Eyes Free, a 13-band equalizer in place of the usual three-band unit (making it easier to fine-tune the sound of your car), and higher preamp output voltage, better for adding amplifiers and subwoofers. Its display isn’t quite as large or high-resolution as that of its older and pricier sibling, and it has just a single USB input versus the X998’s dual inputs, but it offers a better balance of smartphone support and the meaningful audio features that enthusiasts will find useful.
We think most people would prefer the simpler interface and superior Bluetooth capabilities of our top pick. Also, Kenwood’s handheld remote isn’t ideal: The buttons are too small and too close to one another for most people to use easily while driving, and for some reason it has a numeric keypad, which takes up a lot of space and is only occasionally useful.
The Sony MEX-N5100BT has a built-in CD player and supports near-field communication (NFC), which lets you pair a compatible phone with your receiver just by holding it up to the head unit and selecting the pair function in the menu. This Sony unit currently costs about $30 more than our top pick, the Pioneer MVH-X380BT, mostly due to the presence of the CD player and an input for the optional SiriusXM satellite-radio connector. It has an app remote that lets you not only control the music but also adjust the audio settings; I’m not a fan of app remotes, however, and I find them of limited utility. Overall, we preferred our Pioneer pick because of its lack of a CD player, its inclusion of Siri Eyes Free support, and its thoughtful elimination of unused sources from the menu.
If you do want a CD player—or at least don’t mind having one—you open up the door even further for more options. We considered many units from the key manufacturers but found most of them to be overloaded and generally too complex for people who want simple and streamlined operation.
Although the Sony MEX-GS810BH is a great, powerful unit with the latest Bluetooth and Siri Eyes Free, it’s pricey at about $200 at this writing, and it doesn’t have quite the audiophile cred of our upgrade pick, the Kenwood KDC-X700.
The affordable Alpine CDE-143BT has good Bluetooth support but lacks Siri Eyes Free.
At the time we checked, the CD-equipped Alpine CDE-153BT sold for about $200, too much for what that model offers.
The Alpine CDE-SXM145BT adds SiriusXM radio but is too pricey.
The JVC KD-X230 is an exceptionally affordable unit that’s extremely spartan and lacks the usability features and advanced smartphone connectivity of the Pioneers.
If you want your car to be as much a part of your digital world as your smartphone, the Pioneer MVH-X380BT digital media receiver is the way to go. It serves as a solid and reliable portal to the music, communication, and—thanks to Siri Eyes Free—Internet access that your smartphone provides. Furthermore, this receiver is simple, elegant, easy to use, and a great value, without a lot of the often-distracting glitz and flash that seems to accompany most head units.