Soul Train for Your Power Train

Pioneer's new car audio system is about as good as it gets—for about $1600

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's 2010 Holiday Gift Guide.

Audiophiles have long wanted car audio systems to sound as sweet as home systems, and their "better sound, more options" rallying cry has already been answered with multi-CD disc changers, satellite radio, and HD radio.

Pioneer Electronics has now set the bar even higher. Earlier this year, it introduced the AVIC-Z120BT, a voice-controlled navigation system that doubles as a full-on entertainment system. It can even play DVD video through its 7-inch LCD touch screen, but only when the car is parked; when it’s on the move, passengers in the rear can continue to watch on headrest-mounted screens.

Meanwhile, the driver and the front-seat passenger can listen to driving directions or music with a new option, Pandora Radio, the free online music service. Pandora allows you to fashion your own music stations based on a song, artist, or genre you set as the starting point; an algorithm plays DJ, selecting tunes from Pandora’s extensive Internet-based database of music. The car system—a first for Pandora as well as Pioneer—connects to the Internet via the user’s smartphone, which is a drawback for those who don’t have one but avoids an additional data service fee for those who do. How much that ends up costing will depend on your phone’s data service plan.

Pandora isn’t, however, the primary source of appeal to audiophiles. That burden is borne by Pioneer’s Advanced Sound Retriever, or ASR. It’s an algorithm aimed at ending the compromise music lovers make between carrying their entire music collections with them and listening to them with the highest possible fidelity.

For the discriminating listener, the thousands spent outfitting a vehicle with a top-of-the-line amplifier, speakers, and subwoofers are all for naught if the source signal is a low-quality MP3 or Advanced Audio Coding music file. When the 44.1-kilohertz, 16-bit data stored on a CD is converted to one of these formats, data at the low and high ends of the frequency spectrum are cut off, resulting in a loss of sound quality. ASR tries to compensate by examining the remaining data and making educated guesses regarding what was removed from the waveform and replacing it. The algorithm even comes in two flavors: one for heavily compressed files and one for those where data loss was minimal. "Sound quality," says Ted Cardenas, director of marketing at Pioneer’s Mobile Business Group, "is an important part of Pioneer’s heritage."

The Z120BT also justifies its asking price with a touch screen that makes it easy to switch stations, choose routes, and—when your cellphone is synched with the device via Bluetooth— dial phone numbers. Or you can just tell the system what to do. Voice control is mandatory when using the navigation system, because the Z120BT shuts off touch-screen route mapping when the car is in motion.

The navigation system includes a feature that Pioneer now calls Eco Graph. The Z120BT gathers engine performance and motion-sensor data and tabulates whether your fuel usage can be improved by adjusting your driving habits. It lets you know whether your driving is green or not with the aim of getting you to smooth out quick accelerations and hard braking.

The system comes with 12 million points of interest stored in its memory and updates itself via an app for the iPhone and BlackBerry. If a location isn’t in the database, the driver can search on his or her smartphone and send the address to the car via Bluetooth.

In my test of the system, Cardenas put the voice recognition through its paces by telling it, "Go to the nearest gas station." The system displayed a map of our immediate vicinity, with markers for three nearby filling stations. Cardenas also told it, "Find an address." It led him through the process of inputting the city, street name, and house number without a hitch.

When I tried to find an address, however, the computer couldn’t parse it. When I said "New York," it asked whether I was trying to say "Newark," or "Hewlett" (a small town on Long Island). Cardenas explained that the system’s ear is a microphone that looks like the kind of body mic you might see clipped onto the lapel of a late-night talk show guest. The test system’s mic had been installed on the driver’s side A-pillar, so it couldn’t pick up my voice from the passenger seat.

A year ago, I reviewed a navigation system that runs rings around this one. But you can’t get it for less than US $33 000—the cost of an entry-level Mercedes-Benz. So if you want to upgrade your riding experience without upgrading the ride, the AVIC-Z120BT might just fit the bill.

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