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Factory Head Unit Vs. Aftermarket Comparison

Factory Head Unit Vs. Aftermarket Comparison

The head unit is arguably the most underrated part of the car’s audio system.

It’s primarily due to the lesser direct impact it has on the sound.

For example, car subwoofers are known for producing a rich and impactful bass response, while the amplifier gives a more powerful signal to the car speakers, resulting in a loud and detailed sound.

On the other hand, the head unit doesn’t do any function like this.

Therefore, most car audio installers only upgrade the amplifier and the sub/speaker.

They don’t realize it’s the head unit that sends the pre-amp audio signals to the amplifier. So if you have an average-quality head unit, the amp can’t do much about it, and you’ll get an average sound in the end.

Factory vs. Aftermarket Head Unit Comparison Table

Factory Aftermarket
InstallationInstalled by the vehicle manufacturerRequires professional installation or DIY
CompatibilityDesigned specifically for the vehicle modelUniversal or vehicle-specific options available
DesignIntegrated seamlessly into the vehicle’s dashboardVarious designs and styles to choose from
CustomizationLimited customization optionsWide range of customization options available
Audio QualityAverage to good qualityPotential for improved audio quality with higher-end models
Connectivity OptionsBasic connectivity options (e.g., AUX, USB)Expanded connectivity options (e.g., Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc.)
Smartphone IntegrationLimited smartphone integration capabilitiesAdvanced smartphone integration (e.g., Apple CarPlay, Android Auto)
NavigationBasic built-in navigation or optional add-onOptional add-on or compatibility with popular navigation apps
Sound ControlBasic sound controls (e.g., bass, treble)Advanced sound controls (e.g., equalizers, time alignment)
Multimedia CapabilitiesLimited multimedia features (e.g., CD player, FM/AM radio)Enhanced multimedia capabilities (e.g., DVD player, streaming apps)
Screen Size and ResolutionVaries, typically smaller screens with lower resolutionOptions for larger screens and higher resolutions
Touchscreen FunctionalityBasic touchscreen functionalityAdvanced touchscreen features and user interfaces
Vehicle Information DisplayLimited vehicle information displayExpanded vehicle information display and diagnostics
Backup Camera SupportOptional support, not always availableCompatibility with aftermarket backup cameras
PriceIncluded in the vehicle’s costPrice varies based on features, brand, and model
WarrantyTypically covered under the vehicle’s warrantyVaries depending on the manufacturer and seller

In this article, we’ll discuss some pros and cons of upgrading the head unit.

Sound Quality

The sound quality is one of the main reasons car audio enthusiasts opt for aftermarket head units.

That’s because factory head units, including some so-called ‘premium’ audio systems’ give an average-quality sound.

The sound is usually tilted towards either bass or treble in these head units. And it starts to distort as soon as you turn up the volume level above halfway.

On the other hand, aftermarket head units come with better quality built-in amps and high-end building material, allowing them to produce a balanced and detailed sound at higher volume levels – without distortion.

Must Check Our Latest Posts If you are looking to upgrade your factory radio

Sound Customization Options

Sound Customization Options

Both factory and aftermarket head units have different settings that allow you to customize the sound per your preferences.

But in the factory head units, these settings are limited. You can only change basic bass, mids, and treble settings and set sound presets for different music genres, such as rock, jazz, etc.

On the other hand, the aftermarket head unit comes with a nine or 13-band EQ that allows you to tweak these settings at a much more granular level.

You also get time alignment and crossover settings to get the best sound out of your car’s audio system.

Additional Features

Additional Features

In addition to sound quality and customization, aftermarket radios come with many other features that you don’t usually get in factory options (especially on low or mid-tier).

This includes Apple CarPlay/Android Auto functionality, built-in GPS navigation, pre-amp outputs for aftermarket car amplifiers, and a wide range of connectivity options.

Vehicle Compatibility

So far, we’ve discussed different pros of having a 3rd-party head unit in your vehicle. But like every other component, these head units also have cons.

The first of such cons is compatibility. As other vehicle systems are integrated into them, the head units are getting more difficult to replace with every passing year.

Therefore, you’ll have to do a considerable amount of research regarding which aftermarket head unit is suitable for your vehicle.

Overall Cost

The second downside of aftermarket head units is the cost.

Most premium models cost more than 500 bucks, with some going even higher than $1000.

Needless to say, not everyone can afford such a budget for one car audio component.



Even when you find a head unit compatible with your vehicle, you’ll have to spend a noticeable amount of time installing it. Of course, you can hire a mechanic for this job, but they charge roughly $150-$250 (depending on your location).

On top of that, you may need to install different adapters/harnesses to fully integrate the new head unit, which can increase the overall cost.


Aftermarket head units can alter the appearance of your dash area, which can put off some potential buyers when you’re selling the vehicle.


So these were some pros and cons of upgrading to an aftermarket head unit.

If you’ve decided to replace the factory head unit, make sure that the new head unit is compatible with your vehicle, and always go with a reputed brand.

The latter is important as many Chinese head unit brands promise to offer everything you get in high-end car radios at a fraction of the price.

But that does not turn out to be true as these head units come up with cheap and low-quality building materials. 

In short, always go with well-known brands, such as Pioneer, Kenwood, Sony, etc., unless you’re seriously short on budget.


Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a new head unit for the new speakers?

If you’ve replaced factory car speakers and the new speakers demand more power, it’s better to upgrade the head unit too.

Does the head unit affect sound quality?

Yes, the head unit has a significant effect on your sound quality. A high-quality head unit can produce powerful audio signals without any distortion. The amplifier will not have to work hard to boost these signals.

Are aftermarket stereos better than factory stereos?

Yes, aftermarket car stereos are better than their factory counterparts in many aspects, such as sound quality, customization options, and advanced features.

What makes a good head unit?

The definition of a ‘good’ head unit varies from person to person. For some, a head unit should have a touchscreen, GPS navigation, voice control, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity. While for others, any radio with decent sound quality would be considered good.

Why are head units expensive?

Some common reasons for head units being expensive are the high-quality building materials, advanced features (voice control, smartphone integration), larger touchscreens, etc.
That being said, not all head units are expensive. There are many single-din radios you can find for less than 200 bucks.

Must Check Our Posts If you are looking to upgrade your factory radio

John is an automotive enthusiast who has been passionate about cars and car audio systems for over 25 years.

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