Over the past few years, we've had a number of customers approach us with generic Android based head units typically from sites like Amazon or AliExpress looking for installation. Often times, these head units will boast impressive specs with high resolution screens and a lot more features at a significantly cheaper price than head units from established brands that manufacture head units like Alpine, Sony, Pioneer, or Kenwood/JVC. While quality tends to vary between manufacturers, here are some of the common issues we've found with these generic head units and things you should look out for before purchasing and installing.
1. Head Unit "Din" Size
Perhaps the most common and most significant issue we see from these generic head units is that they don't always conform to traditional chassis sizes. The standard din size is 180mm wide and either 50mm tall (single din) or 100mm tall (double din). This is an international ISO standard and both factory and aftermarket head units tend to conform to these chassis sizes. Dash kit (AKA mounting kit) manufacturers like PAC or Metra also typically build kits to fit either single din or double din sizes. The picture below is of the 7" Alpine ILX-W650 installed with a dash mounting kit to fit perfectly in the dash opening in a GMC Envoy
The most common issue we find with these head units is the excessively wide 7" + rotary volume knob configuration. If you look at the design of the Alpine ILX-W650 (above) you'll note that the head unit already has minimal bezels to maximize screen real estate. However, with some of these generic head units, we're seeing them create 7" screen head units that have similarly sized bezels AND a column of physical buttons and a rotary knob. Now, they aren't defying the laws of physics by squeezing more screen into the same amount of space. They are simply defying the ISO standards for a double din radio, despite claims that they are 180mm or 178mm wide.
The picture above is of a popular generic design which features not only a 7" screen but physical buttons, rotary volume knob, and even Micro SD card slots. Not to mention that the bezels on this head unit are just as big, if not bigger than any head unit from a reputable brand name manufacturer. Don't believe us? Just check out some of the reviews:
While it's true that you can make these kinds of head units fit in certain vehicles, they definitely are not what we'd call a direct fit (even with an appropriate dash kit) in all vehicles. The modifications necessary to make these head units could easily double or triple your install time. If you're paying a shop to install these for you, be aware that the install fee could easily be more than what you paid for this head unit to begin with!
Some of the "brands" we've seen to have issues with mounting size include Camecho, Podofo, Hikity, Eincar, and ATOTO.
2. Chassis Mounting Depth
While depth is not specified in ISO/DIN sizing, it's important to consider when installing a radio. Shallow mount chassis are getting more and more common with mechless (no CD/DVD drive) head units being more popular these days, and they're great for wire management as they leave more room in the dash for wires and modules. However, a shallow mount is useless if you aren't able to secure a head unit to the mounting kit brackets. We've seen a number of these head units offer incredibly shallow mounting depths but not support traditional mounting spots.
The picture below is of a Metra dash kit that has a pretty typical design. You can see that there are slots to screw the dash kit to the head unit, they are often spread out to fit a variety of head units but if the head unit depth is too shallow, it will not reach these holes and thus cannot be secured without custom fabrication work. With many Japanese cars of the 90's and early 2000's, the factory radios were simply din sized and the factory brackets would often need to be reused for mounting an aftermarket radio as dash kits may not be available.
The picture above is of a popular style of generic head unit that has an unconventional body that will prove to be a challenge with mounting. Standard off-the-shelf dash kits may not be compatible with this radio design. Also note the manufacturer specified height of the head unit at 114mm when many dash kit openings are only going to support a 100-101mm opening. A significant amount of trimming/shaving would be needed to fit this on a double din vehicle. This would involve longer install times, greater installation costs, and possibly permanent modification to the vehicle's trim.
3. Sound Quality
While this may not be a top priority for every radio user, we've found that often times the sound quality on these generic head units can often be a downgrade from a factory radio. If a manufacturer can sell a double din head unit with a good screen for under $100, chances are they're cheaping out in areas you won't see. Typically this means low quality digital analog converters (DAC) and weak internal amplifiers. All reputable radio brands will have power ratings for their head units and better manufacturers will list certified RMS ratings (continuous power) for the built-in amps. Peak power ratings are meaningless and don't provide useful information for how an amplifier will actually perform. A good red flag to look out for is whether or not the head unit you're looking at has these kinds of specifications, if they don't list it, they probably don't want you to know.
The poor internal circuits used in some of these head units will often lead to electrical noise that you can hear through your speakers. You might notice some static even if the volume is turned very low which can be traced back to the amplifier. Some of you might be thinking, none of this matters, I'm planning to install aftermarket amps and speakers any way which will dramatically improve sound quality. Note that this is only partially true as if you're amplifying a poor quality source, the output is ultimately compromised to begin with. These head units often will only have 2 channels of preamp outputs and voltage specs for these outputs are very rarely listed. Just about every brand name head unit will list the voltage of the pre-amp outputs, with higher quality ones having 4, 5, or even 6V preouts. In our experience, less than 5% of generic head units have these specs and even then so we can't verify how accurate those specs are. We also find that no matter how you tweak the EQ, the sound quality really doesn't improve significantly.
The fact of the matter is if you're on a budget but want good sound quality, just about any single din brand name head unit will outperform these generic Android decks.
4. Notable Mentions (Pros & Cons)
We do want to mention that not all is bad with these head units, points 1, 2, and 3, are just common issues we've seen with the various installs we've done. That being said, if the end user is realistic with their expectations, we feel that these head units do deliver some pretty good features and benefits such as:
- Good touchscreen resolution and response. Thanks to having decent RAM specs and an Android interface, some of these head units actually outperform brand name radios in this regard.
- Expandability. Again, thanks to an Android interface, you can technically install a huge variety of apps to personalize your user experience.
- Camera display, those who are looking for an affordable way to add a backup camera to an older vehicle should be pleased to learn that these head units offer a good screen to display a rear camera. (*Do note that the wireless backup cameras included with some of these head units can be prone to lag and interference)
There are also a few minor negatives with these head units that don't affect all users but we've found in quite a few radios that we've installed.
- Difficulty programming steering controls. Instructions to program steering controls with these head units are vague and not all keys can be mapped. Often times, we find that one button on the steering wheel may conflict with another button resulting in an undesired effect when pressed.
- Functionality without internet connection. Many of the features require a wifi connection to work 100% and while you can turn the hotspot on from your phone for the head unit to connect to, it's not exactly an automated process nor is it as simple as plugging your USB cable when hopping into your car. In Asia where hotspots and data plans are cheap, this might not be an issue but here in North America it's a bit of a hassle.
We actually think it's a good thing that there are more options for aftermarket radios to increase competition. The response time and screen resolutions of many of these budget head units legitimately put much more expensive brand name stereos to shame. Not only that, but having more affordable options brings business to us as far as installations go and we certainly don't want this blog post to give off the impression that you should only go out and buy the brand name head units that we carry. We'll gladly install a generic head unit and go through potential issues and costs that could arise before we proceed with an installation. We simply want customers to be realistic about the price point, engineering, and performance that goes behind aftermarket radios and we hope that this post helps to educate end users who are considering one of these radios.