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We spent 80 hours researching more than 60 Bluetooth-equipped car stereo receivers, surveyed hundreds of Wirecutter readers, and bench-tested a half-dozen front-runners to see which models were the easiest to use and offered the best bang for the buck. The $100 Pioneer MVH-X370BT is the one we’d recommend for most people. It doesn’t have a CD player, but it does have the best Bluetooth smartphone support, easiest setup, and the simplest interface out of any of the six finalists we tested—some of which cost over twice as much.
How we decided
I started by reading what few car stereo reviews remain from CNET, CarAudioNow, Crutchfield, and customer reviews from Amazon and Best Buy. I then interviewed experts from Crutchfield, about what to look for and conducted a reader survey to figure out what you wanted from a great stereo. This narrowed the list down from the over 100 available options down to a handful of representatives from each major company that places ease of use, robust Bluetooth capabilities, and value above fancier features like satellite radio and touchscreens. We focused on smaller single-DIN units because while you can use a single-DIN stereo in a double-DIN car, the reverse is not true. Also single-DIN units are the most ubiquitous among the population of cars on the road. Eventually I settled on representatives from most of the major brands: Alpine’s UTE-52BT; Pioneer’s DEH-X8700BS, DEH-X6700BT, MVH-X560BT, and MVH-X370BT; JVC’s KD-AR959BS, Kenwood’s KDC-X998 and KDC-X598, and Sony MEX-N5000BT.
With these in hand, I spent 30 hours subjecting each to a variety of bench tests. I evaluated ease of installation, ease of use/interface design, ease of pairing with a new smartphone (Apple and Android), music quality, call quality, and any extras as well (like the ability to simultaneously connect to multiple phones).
Despite being the cheapest unit we looked at, Pioneer’s CD-less MVH-X370BT Digital Media Receiver impressed us at every stage despite going against competitors costing twice as much or more. It was the only unit that felt like it was designed with smartphone users in mind—as opposed to something that’s grudgingly trying to keep up while lugging around a CD player and other outdated technologies.
The Pioneer is barebones in its feature set, but makes up for it with thoughtful design: Its Bluetooth pairing procedures took seconds as opposed to minutes; it displays song playback information when connected wirelessly (other units required a USB connection to do this); and sources that aren’t actively being used (e.g. if your aux or USB input has nothing plugged in) disappear from the source selection rotation so you can access the inputs you actually use and want more quickly. Overall, it’s a breath of fresh air in a field of stale competition.
The Pioneer can show song playback information over a Bluetooth connection, while many other models require a USB connection to do so.
Despite being the cheapest unit we looked at, Pioneer’s CD-less MVH-X370BT Digital Media Receiver impressed us at every stage.
If the MVH-X370BT isn’t available, it’s hard to go wrong with Pioneer’s other Bluetooth-equipped stereos. The CD-equipped DEH-X6700BT costs $20 more and has all the features we liked about our main pick (though the CD player is annoying if you don’t actually use it). It also adds a customizable color display that you can match to your car’s interior. But we don’t think it’s worth the extra $20 if you can find the MVH-X370BT first.
Similarly, you can spend more to get the MVH-X560BT, which is a small step up from our main pick, but it costs 30% more, and most people won’t really notice the features it adds. It’s CD-free and has a very similar interface (though it annoyingly has its USB and Aux inputs on the back of the unit, which makes them a pain to access), but $30 is a lot to pay for customizable colors on the display and an extra line of text for more song info. But if our top pick is sold out and you just can’t abide having a CD player, it’s worth looking into.
Even better/Step up
The $260 Kenwood Excelon KDC-X998 is worth paying extra for if you need HD Radio/Sirius XM compatibility or if you want to expand your car’s audio system beyond the typical four-channel affair. As far as smartphone support goes, the Kenwood has Siri Eyes-Free and easy Bluetooth pairing (like the Pioneers) but uses the older Bluetooth HFP 1.5, which has lower call quality. The interface is also generally clunkier to navigate through because it has about a dozen source inputs between specific apps, different radios, and the CD player. More is more, but more is not always better. You’ll likely appreciate the user-friendliness of our top pick more than the extra capabilities of this higher-end stereo.
This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to TheWirecutter.com.