Car CD Players and Head Units

The first component in the music chain is the head unit or "deck", often referred to simply as the radio though the head unit does much more than just tune stations. The source you choose for your system depends on your budget and your current collection of music. There are two main categories of source units available. These are CD receivers and external source units (that use an iPod, Zune or Pandora as the source). There are still cassette players being produced but since their market share is so small we will ignore that as an option. Some companies still produce head units that offer both cassette and CD playback in one unit. Typically you will need a double DIN dash opening for these oversized players.

Compact disc receivers are available in the price range from less than one hundred dollars to more than two thousand for extremely high-end units. Many companies offer CD receivers and quality ranges from good to excellent depending on craftsmanship and components used in the manufacture.

The first decision to make when choosing a source unit is whether or not to replace the factory head unit. The quality of original equipment manufacturer (OEM, those that come with your vehicle from the factory) head units has increased to the point where, if features are ignored, the unit will be acceptable for most listener's tastes. If the automobile is lacking an adequate deck or if the automobile is not a recent model, a replacement head unit is needed. Keep in mind that factory head units are usually easier to use with larger and fewer buttons and of course look like they belong in the dash (because they do). Also, a CD changer can be added to a factory deck (or deck lacking CD changer controls) through the FM antenna using what is known as a modulator.

Your factory head may also have inputs and controls for a CD changer which was not installed at the time of purchase. These head units can either have a factory CD changer added later or certain aftermarket changers added with special adapters available through a few select companies such as PIE (Perfect Interface Electronics) and others. Typically it will be cheaper to have an aftermarket changer installed with an adapter than to buy a factory unit. The advantage over an FM modulated changer will be higher sound quality and one less controller in the dash. Factory units may also have controls built into the steering wheel which can be difficult to replicate with an aftermarket head unit. Also, some cars have additional functions built into the head unit that are not audio related that can prohibit the removal of the factory deck. These are usually worked around in later generations of factory adapters. These adapters are also available for using an iPod with a factory head unit which is a very popular option.

Manufacturers do not want aftermarket head units in their cars because this cuts into their profits on premium sound systems they want to sell. These additional functions built into the radio are part of this plan. They have also changed the size of head units from the standard DIN (single height head unit) to 1 ½ DIN, double DIN, oval shaped, and split units where the controls are broken into different parts of the ash. Manufacturers such as Metra and Scosche offer dash kits that will facilitate the addition of standard DIN radios in these vehicles. Some aftermarket head unit manufacturers also offer non-standard size units to fit the more popular vehicles with 1.5 and double DIN.

If you have a classic automobile with a vintage radio shaft pattern and do not wish to cut into the dash to install a DIN unit you should contact a specialty radio manufacturer such as Custom Autosound that supplies these style radios.

The most important criteria to look for when shopping for a CD player or other head unit is the company’s reputation for building quality product. Most decent CD players will have a detachable faceplate. I wouldn't recommend purchasing one that did not as these are usually the lowest models offered by a company.

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Audible Search: With this feature you will be able to hear the music that you are searching through which can be a very desirable feature.

Auxillary Input : In addition to iPod controls you may also find units that have an auxillary input. Generally these are 3.5mm jacks on the front of the unit that you can use to connect virtually any audio device with a headphone output.

Changer Controls: This is the ability of a receiver to control an external CD changer, MP3/iPod or satellite/HD Radio module through its front panel controls. With this option a digital source may be used in conjunction with an in dash receiver.

Dual Illumination: This is a receiver’s ability to change the color of its display between two or more colors, usually amber and green. This is a nice feature to have if you go through a lot of vehicles and are never sure of your next vehicles dash color. Some units have a much wider color selection in addition to these two basic colors.

Frequency Response: This is the portion of the audio spectrum a piece of equipment can produce. The average human can hear sounds in the range of 20Hz-20kHz. Most good CD players can produce this entire range.

Line Output Voltage: This is the output voltage that a deck can deliver, in volts, through its pre-amp line outputs. The higher than number the less chance that noise will be delivered to the next piece of equipment in the chain. Most lower to mid priced decks have an output of 500 mV (0.5 volts) while some higher end units have 4 volts or more.

iPod Control: This is the ability of a receiver to control an iPod or at the very least, accept the music output of an iPod into the unit. Look for units that can directly control the iPod. Some have the ability built in while others require special adapters or cables. The more control you have of the iPod from the head unit the better.

Loudness Control: This is a feature that boosts the lower and sometimes the very upper frequencies to compensate for the human ear's insensitivity at low volume.

MP3/WMA capability: Some CD head units have the ability to play MP3/WMA encoded discs. This can be a real benefit if you have a CD burner and a collection of MP3s on your computer as it eliminates the need to have additional equipment to play your MP3 collection in your automobile.

Power Output: This is the amount of power, in watts, that your receiver should be able to deliver to the speakers. The number printed on the face of the receiver is usually a large exaggeration. Most receivers actually have between three and fifteen watts RMS per channel. Keep in mind that the sound will become quite distorted at this level because of the size and current limitations of your receiver. The best sound is always found in dedicated external amplifiers.

Pre-amp Outputs (RCA jacks): These are the most common connectors used for external power amplifiers. If you plan to add amplifiers to your system I strongly suggest that you purchase a receiver with these outputs. More than one set of outputs are available on some of the better units and are handy for retaining front/rear/subwoofer fading capabilities.

Remote Control: Most people laugh at the idea of having a remote control for an in dash receiver but it is actually much safer to use when on the road. Models are available in large TV sized remotes, handheld remotes, credit card remotes and even steering wheel mounted remotes.

Station Presets: These are the areas of memory in which your receiver stores radio station frequencies. The more the better here. Some units even allow you to assign names to the various presets.

Seek/Scan: These functions are used to seek for the next station that is available and scan through your preset stations respectively.

Tuner Sensitivity: This is the ability of the tuner in your receiver to pull in weak stations. It is measured in dbf and the lower the number the better. Eight is about the best you will likely see and thirteen is about average.

USB Input : Usually a front panel USB jack that will accept direct connection of a USB thumb drive or a similar USB storage unit. This allows you to plug in a small thumb drive and access the compatible digital music you have stored there. This can be more convenient than burning a CD everytime you want to change the MP3s you take with you.

Car CD Changers

There are two methods of connecting a CD changer, either through direct connection to the head unit’s preamp or by FM modulation. Direct connection is done by a special cable that connects between the head unit and a compatible CD changer. This gives the CD changer power and control commands that allow it to work with the rest of the audio system. If an aftermarket CD changer is being direct connected to an OEM head unit, a special adapter will be needed to interface the two devices. Keep in mind that not just any CD changer will work with any CD changer control enabled OEM head units. The aftermarket changer must be made by the same manufacturer that makes the original factory OEM changer. Contact a specialty manufacturer such as Precision Interface Electronics (PIE) or Blitzsafe that manufacture these adapters.

The second method is through an FM modulator and is probably the most common way of connecting a CD changer to an OEM head unit or aftermarket head unit that lacks CD changer controls. In this method the CD changer interfaces with an outboard control unit that accepts the music signal from the changer and converts it to an FM radio signal. This FM radio signal then passes to the FM tuner section of the head unit through the radio antenna plug. The modulator unit receives signals from a wired remote control that is usually placed on the dash or console within easy reach of the driver. This remote controls track, seek, disc, and other functions and displays the CD information on its screen. The drawbacks to this method over the direct connect method are two fold. First, the addition of a second control unit can be confusing and looks less clean then a one control unit setup. Second, the sound quality will not be as good as with a direct connection. The reason for this has to do with how the signal is passed to the head unit. In a direct connection the music passes as a clean preamp signal that is then amplified by the head unit. With an FM modulator the sound quality is limited by the frequency response of your FM radio section. While a direct connection will pass the entire audio band from 20Hz-20kHz, the FM tuner will only cover the spectrum of the FM band which will lower the high frequency response otherwise possible with a CD system. An FM modulated system will sound like a radio station with excellent reception. Certainly acceptable sound but not true audiophile quality and something to be aware of.

CD Changer
Image Courtesy of Kenwood
CD to OEM Head Unit Adapter
Image Courtesy of
Precision Interface Electronics
FM Modulated CD Changer
Image Courtesy of Kenwood

Features to look for when shopping for a CD changer are:

CDR/CDRW Comptability: While most CD changers can read CD recordable discs, not all can read CD Re-Writable discs. This may be important if you burn your own CDs.

Disc Capacity: The number of CDs that the CD changer can hold. This will range from 6 to 12, though 50 disc changers were once available. The more your CD changer can hold, the less often you will have to change the discs.

Disc Changing Time: The time it takes a CD changer to go from CD to CD. Though it has no effect on sound quality, if you are impatient you might want to take this into account.

Frequency Response: This is the portion of the audio spectrum a piece of equipment can produce. The average human can hear sounds in the range of 20Hz-20kHz. Most good CD changers can produce this entire range.

Loading Method: The means by which CDs are loaded into the CD changer. The most common is by a removable CD magazine. Some in-dash CD changers units accept CDs directly.

MP3/WMA capability: Most newer changes have the ability to play MP3/WMA encoded discs. This can be a real benefit if you have a CD burner and a collection of MP3s on your computer as it eliminates the need to have additional equipment to play your MP3 collection in your automobile.

Skip Protection: Some CD changers have a built in memory buffer, usually between three and ten seconds, that will continue to play the music skip free even when the player is actually mis-tracking. This is a great feature if you drive on a lot of bumpy roads.

Size: This is the physical size of the CD changer itself. It's important to know if you have limited space in your chosen mounting location. Some units are even small enough to fit in the dash or glove compartment.


You may also be interested in How to Install Your Own Car Stereo System . It covers many topics including in depth car stereo head unit installation. Click here.


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