Pros: Sound, options, features, connections, filters
Cons: Looks, price
A Little Background
This head unit was recently installed in a 2004 Chevy Trailblazer. It sends signals to three Zapco amps via StreetWires interconnect, power, and speaker wires. The speakers consist of Morel mains and twin Rockford Fosgate subwoofers. All the amps feature single farad capacitors upstream. I mention this as point of reference really. If I were to evaluate it using a set of $15 Pep Boy speakers and oem 20awg wiring, certainly the results and my opinions would be significantly different.
I want to preface things by saying I have been very unimpressed with Pioneers low line for some time. I feel they have lost their way in styling, much like Sony, but not quite as bad. I have also been kind of ambivalent about the ease of use as it usually involves using lots of tiny, non specific keys/buttons. The last two Pioneer decks I have had a lot of experience with I have not been impressed with, one of which is still in one of my Accords. I didn't write on either of those, and I doubt either is still on the market, but I was feeling a little bleh about this one when I started the final tune. I am happy to say I have changed my mind in this case, so read on...
First Impressions and Install
This unit looks fairly nice right out of the box. I say fairly nice because even now I am still not a fan of how it looks closed. It's very plain when closed and it seems they could have gone dot matrix or OEL for the outer screen. The inner screen looks great, especially at night and this is the way I would keep it. It is almost mandatory to use the big screen if you are an info junkie like me and want to see all your MP3, CD, or tuner info... with lots of blinking crap too :) The rear connections are straightforward, sturdy and easy to understand. All the mounting hardware you will need in most situations is included, but it will always be easiest with the traditional Japanese double DIN dashes as there is virtually no fabbing.
Although this particular vehicle has quite a bit of damping from the factory, it was decided to add three cases of Dynamat anyway. Although I did a quick run around the block before and after the damping install, I didn't have a sound meter, but I can say the difference was noticeable to my ear to say the very least. Ultimately I think it will help really make this install, but it has been my experience most folks aren't this serious and unless you do it yourself, the labor can be shocking. The install was pretty basic for a GM vehicle, a few adapters were used and an install kit was fitted and polished (aka Dremel) a little after a test fit. I have said it before and I'll say it again, SOLDER! Twisting and wrapping is irresponsible, especially when you spending this much on a head unit. Remember, soldering kits are super cheap at your local Radio Shack and even if you haven!|t done it, there are tutorials all over the net. You can do it, it's easy.
Features and Use
This unit has all the features you would expect today at this price point. Not only will it play standard CDs (and CD-R/RW), but MP3s and WMA files. It has the obligatory AM/FM tuner, but will also control an XM tuner as well. This head unit features neither an integrated HD radio tuner nor is it HD radio ready. This tech has a lot going for it, but it is too new to really worry about right now, and XM is an outstanding option for little money. This receiver features a fairly burly (so Pioneer says) amp, but if you are going to spend this much on a head unit, it really behooves you to get an external amp or amps. There are many 5-ways currently available that will more than cover most needs and let!|s face it, no head unit amp will really make your car bump like it should.
All the sound shaping you could possibly want is available for modification at your whims. This unit features high and low pass filters with a selection of cut off points (50, 63, 80, 100, 125, 160, 200) for each as well as selectable slopes from 6-18 db/octave (LP), nice! There is even a phase reverse feature if the cut offs (subs vs. mains) are set at a common cut off. The high passes feature the same cut off points as the low, but the slopes are 0-12 db/octave in 6db increments. You can adjust balance as well as fade just as any other amp, but it doesn't stop there.
This receiver features a position option, to specify your desired sweet spot (as it were), whether front left, right, full front and whole car. In addition to this, it also features mild time correction allowing you to enter rough estimates about how far away the speakers are from your ears, simply put, a more user friendly version of basic DSP called TA, or Time Alignment. To some degree you could say that it is accurate because you can list distances in centimeters, but who knows what the actual parameters for change are. I set things up as I needed them for the client, assuming there will be no change in distances.
There is an EQ control function available too with seven settings and a fairly reliable default feature. There are 5 factory settings that can be individually tweaked or if you so choose there are two custom settings. The neat thing is if you modify one of the factory settings it will be saved by default as one of the custom settings. I came across this through testing and tuning, but once I finally looked at the manual, it lays it out fairly succinctly. EQ settings are also assigned to specific inputs as well. There are 13 bands of equalization available, so it is easy to completely adjust the output to exactly fit the music. There is a feature on this model called ASL, or automatic sound levelizer. The purpose of this particular feature is to increase volume in relation (variable ratio) vibration noise. In theory it is a nice feature, but I wonder how useful it would be in various apps. A sport compact with a loud exhaust could potentially have the volume yo-yoing like crazy, but on its lowest setting it's almost imperceptible, which is probably the point.
For those that hate a blaring radio when switching from another source there is a feature that will normalize all of the input levels to the head unit. Though there is some redundancy, it is a useful feature without a doubt. Although there is BBE processing, almost across the board I find it sounds very saturated and only useful at very low levels. The same it true for the loudness option. Although I don't know at what frequency the loudness bumps, it is like the BBE, only really useful at low levels, or more specifically if you were using the head unit to power the respective speakers.
I want to say that naming CDs as well as general labeling could be easier. It is not that it is hard as it is very time consuming, especially if the proper code isn't there for the receiver to recognize. This is not to say that it doesn't do well displaying tags and general info. Depending on whether the disc is factory or home burned, it generally does a good job with info and with the primary face slid down, it is easy to see what you might be listening to. Navigating some huge mp3 CD-R is easy when the folders etc are set up logically. It might not seem so critical with CDs containing only a dozen or so tracks, but when it is 150 tracks a disc, having folders and the ability to read them is essential.
The display is a joy to see and is far brighter and more vivid than I thought it'd be, especially at night. It is a bit hard to see in the direct Texas sun sometimes, but a nice tint should knock that out. This particular vehicle has a 20 percent tint all around and it makes things easier, but if you have never lived south you may not realize how unbelievably bright it can get and this can be a challenge to almost any receiver, even some of the nicer Alpines, which have excellent contrast btw. This sort of thing though is true with many OEL or TFT displays, even some of the uber high priced Sony's (the MEX-1HD looked great, but not during the day).
Once properly tuned, this unit sounds exceptional. This model really reminded me how good the consumer level Pioneer products can be. Right out of the box (ie untuned) this unit doesn't impress, but after an hour of tuning it really shines. Although quite a bit of the fidelity could be attributed to the speaker choices, the fact remains that a lesser processing section wouldn't sound as good. The simple fact I had such capable transducers made the evaluation that much easier in respect to ground noise and overall bulk noise. Quite spots are really very quiet, accuracy is very impressive (specifically the HU playback), and the overall control of sound through all the digital processes makes it possible to truly shape the sound as desired, almost regardless of speaker ability.
The control over specific frequencies as well as how well specific frequencies are routed to specific drivers makes tuning a breeze, even though a bit long winded. There seems to be some contradiction in Pioneers own materials and in their own site. The site states a 50CD memory, but the O/M lists 48 as the max for the onboard unit. It also states the changer max as 100, when most ads (I never got to see the changer spec sheet) state it as higher. The bottom line is that if you use MP3 as a standard, chances are, even a 20 disc memory will be more than sufficient. The client made a bunch of test discs on his Mac, some worked better than others as far as tagging. If for some reason you use a mobile Pioneer 50 disc carousel (yeah, they actually made one), there is software to aid with that too.
The Brass Tacks
The numbers for this particular model aren't all that, but most in dash receivers don't really excel in power or distortion under their own power. It will do 22 watts into 4 channels and peaks at 50wpc. Expecting any real punch out of the onboard amp is no better with this than most, but for the average person, it might very well be more than enough. Most people don't demand the accuracy, sound pressure levels, and punch that only outboard amps can provide. There are more than enough presets for the average commuter and the serious commuter will get satellite radio (which is hands down the bomb). CD response is the standard at 5Hz-20kHz, but one thing is the Burr-Brown D/A, and you can't go wrong with BB D/As.
This is a fairly nice receiver with some bells and whistles not normally found on other units, some useful, others not so much. The unit has a solid feel to it and though the looks may floor you, it's still growing on me. The build seems good and though the warranty is fairly standard for the industry at one year it seems like it may last quite a long time. This unit retails for $600 but can be had for as little as $425 or so delivered. One thing a smart shopper will notice is that this unit is almost identical to the Premier model, which oddly, also retails for $599. This kind of raises the question regarding the value Pioneer's Premier line other than warranty. This being the case I would say go ahead and get the high line model if you can find it for the same price, which shouldn't be too hard. As it stands, this stereo is a nice unit, though ultimately worth retail, should be shopped so you can pay substantially less as you will be even happier.