I recently bought a new (to me) Subaru. It still had the factory stereo and 6 disc in-dash changer. The previous owner was using a tape adapter to hook up his iPod. I don’t really listen to CDs much anymore. I’m about 98% iPhone, so this wasn’t going to work. It actually didn’t sound bad. But whenever I turned the stereo up above talking level, the audio would cut out as if it was being overloaded. I thought about moving my Clarion and Infinity system from my old car to my new car. But I also decided to look at the current state of the art in car stereos to see what’s new. Suffice to it say, looking for something that was iPhone-centric, I was very disappointed.
This is the big “new” thing in car stereos, the ability to control an iPod or iPhone. I put new in quotes because when I bought the Clarion unit in 2008, it was a new feature then to. Ok, this is where everyone fails. Apple created one of the best user interfaces the world had ever seen with the click-wheel iPod and then they did it again with the iPhone and iPod Touch. When you hook an iPod or iPhone into the USB port of an Alpine, Clarion or other head unit, it takes over the i-device and no longer lets you use the controls (see pic above). You then have to use the head unit’s controls. This would be fine except for the fact that the layout is NOTHING like the iPod/iPhone.
Clarion has replaced this:
Granted this head unit is 4 years old, but the current single DIN models aren’t much better. The graphics are crisper as you can see in the first photo of Alpine’s unit, but you still only get 3 or 4 lines of information. Even an iPod Nano shows more songs on a single screen.
I don’t want to control my iPhone from the head unit. I want to control my iPhone! The other issue is this only works with the iPod app. If I want to listen to Spotify, I can’t do it with the USB cable plugged in.
When I hook my iPhone up to the USB port on the head unit, I want it to do 2 things:
1. Charge my iPhone
2. Play the stereo audio output of my iPhone, which is higher quality than the headphone jack.
I want to make all the selections from the face of the iPhone, not from the head unit’s bastardized interface.
OMG, this head unit can play Pandora! This is another thing that’s BS. Manufacturers of home stereo receivers and TVs are making this mistake too. I used Pandora like crazy, until I started using Last.fm. Then I started using Rhapsody. And then Spotify blew them all away. Have you heard all the live music on Archive.org? Point: head units will never be able to keep up with the start of the art in this realm. A car stereo is something that will last the life of a car (hopefully) or at least the car’s current owner. I don’t want the stereo to feature a flavor of the month service. That’s fine for my Blu-Ray player or Roku or Apple TV. Those things only cost like $100. But for large investments like TVs, home receivers and car stereos, these flavors of the month should be put on the chopping block. Either have them all using something like an app store so I can choose what I want and they can easily be updated, or nothing at all.
**#)@&$($___WELCOME TO CLARION___)@&!()$)$*@)!
Why the hell does my Clarion head unit welcome me to Clarion whenever I start my car? Guiding me through a world of spinning blue asterisks and pseudo EQ curves done with bad QWERTY symbols. It does this dance of punctuation the entire time it’s on. There’s no way to shut this off and I didn’t even know my head unit did this until it was installed in my car. I remember making fun of friends with crappy bass-heavy compact home stereos that did this, and now there’s one of these in my car. Can’t it just say AUX or show the time?
OK, now we’re getting somewhere. For the most part, I’ve seen some pretty good implementations of Bluetooth. Most impressive was the factory stereo in a 2009 Ford F-250. Once I added my iPhone via Bluetooth, I could play music from it and make phone calls though the built-in speakers and microphone. But this wasn’t seemless. If I was playing music on my iPhone (through the Bluetooth, which sounded great) and I got a phone call, it wouldn’t automatically go through the stereo. I’m not sure if this was an issue with the stereo or the phone. Also, when the conversation was over and the music started back up again, it would play through the speaker on the phone. I would have to re-establish the Bluetooth connection to the stereo to get music again. Not great, but at least the Ford stereo didn’t try to control my phone like the other head units. It just played the iPhone’s stereo out, which is what I wanted. I would like to see a seamless music to phone call to music flow for Bluetooth to work for me. Interestingly, this stereo had a USB port as part of Microsoft SYNC, but that connection didn’t work with the iPhone. I guess Microsoft really hates Apple. Using Bluetooth was the only way to get the iPhone to work with this stereo.
The displaysticks out like 2 inches from the dash
What happened to car stereos that were flush with the dashboard? I can’t find one with a removeable faceplate that doesn’t stick out and doesn’t have a god awful bezel.
This thing is ugly as hell and just doesn’t look like my car
It’s pretty easy to tell when a car has an aftermarket stereo. It just doesn’t look like it belongs in the car. I know it’s probably impossible to design a single stereo that looks like every car interior out there. But car stereo designers have to at least meet the car designers half way. Even the worst car dashboards make the best car stereos look like globs of plastic with random blue and red blinking lights glued together by a rabid meth-addicted monkey. The original Blaupunkt factory stereo meshed very well with my VW Passat’s dashboard and interior. Then Clarion welcomed itself into that contemporary German design and shat blue cotton candy all over it. The best design choice here seems to be the larger double DIN units with DVD players, GPS and touch screens. They typically have small or no buttons, which really cleans up the look. But then you’re dependant on a touch screen interface that’s just plain…
Awesome. They’re just like iPads right?
Touchscreens as used in car stereos have 2 main problems:
1. The screen itself is usually not sensitive enough for touch. Sometimes it seems like I’m smashing on the screen just to register a click. Using something like an iPad or iPhone and then switching to a car stereo touchscreen feels like going down more than a few notches and back a few years.
2. The interface is never well designed. Some have horrid icons, some require too much tapping, and others just have a bad layout. We now live in an age where things can be customized or updated on a regular basis. If you don’t like how an app on your computer or portable device is working, you email the designers and suggest a change, or you delete it and get a new one. Car stereo manufacturers can’t really compete in this realm. They would have to change just about everything their design process, support system and supply chain. But this is now what people are expecting.
I don’t really care for this in a head unit. I bought a GPS app for my iPhone because the only time I need a GPS is when I’m traveling a long way from home, which means I’m probably in a rental car and not my own car. I also think it’s safer to have a GPS up high near your eye-line, and not down low where most head units reside. This is more a personal preference though and not a huge sticking point. I can see why many people like this feature and would demand it. The GPS in most head units I’ve used have been great. My only other complaint is that they’re not as easy to update as stand alone units and usually don’t have as many options or detailed maps.
Factory stereos have an advantage over aftermarket stereos in that they can be tuned to the specific acoustics of the car at manufacture. The typical aftermarket stereo will have a balance, fader, a parametric EQ and a subwoofer out. That’s about it. Many add preset EQs that just sound awful. Alpine offers what it calls Imprint which is Audyssey processing built into an inexpensive add-on unit for certain Alpine receivers. For $150 (and a PC and microphone for initial calibration), this unit allows you to create EQ curves and time corrections that are specific to your vehicle. That’s pretty cool and works well to open up the soundstage and add a level of detail that many aftermarket systems can’t match.
What do I want?
It’s really pretty simple. I use my iPhone for almost everything – music from multiple sources, not just the iPod app, GPS and phone calls. I want a head unit that charges my iPhone and will play the audio output and make it sound great. That’s it. I want what’s known in the home theater world as an “integrated amplifier” – basically an amp with a source switcher and nothing else built in.
I want a great sounding and high-powered built-in amp. The files on my iPhone are lossless and I want to hear that quality through the sound system. I don’t have room for external amps and crossovers. I want some decent power in there. 18 watts RMS is not enough. I want something similar to Imprint for setting EQ and time corrections.
I want a super clean interface that’s flush with the dashboard. Since I’m using my iPhone for just about everything, I really only need a huge volume knob. Alpine’s Digital Media head units are close. Take all the buttons off and make the thing a huge touchscreen with a large volume knob and now we’re talking. Design the touchscreen so I can have only the buttons I want. Then I want the ability for the entire display to go black. I don’t need to see anything. I don’t want the stereo welcoming me anywhere. It should be enough to be knocked out by the incredible sound. If you can figure out how to get the images from the iPhone, that’s great. Otherwise, black is your most flattering color.
Now who want’s to build one of these for me?