Provides: iPhone/iPod compatible car stereo playback
In order to righteously call yourself a geek, you need the appropriate technology in all areas of your life. Up until I received my evaluation unit for the Sony Xplod Bluetooth Audio System (model numer MEX-BT5700U) for my car, I was sadly lacking in that area. Now that I’ve had it and have been able to spend time using it, I don’t know how I went without it in my car (which is a Mazda 626 LX). From the user interface to list of features, it is definitely a car stereo that I would recommend to anyone looking for a device in this market. While it certainly has a few issues like any product, my overall experience with it has been excellent.
I should mention the old car stereo setup before we begin. Using the stock stereo and cassette player (my car is a 1999 model), I would listen to my iPhone by plugging it into a cassette adapter for my stereo. I also had a car charger that plugged into my cigarette lighter in order to charge my iPhone if I ever needed to while on the go. While it worked for what I needed, it certainly wasn’t the most clean or efficient way to go about it at all. Having connectors to both the top (3.5mm jack) and bottom (30 pin dock connector charger) of my iPhone made it sort of annoying to handle and harder to control while driving.
So, here we are today (see the image below). I now have this new piece of technology in my car that has a feature set including Bluetooth connection for making hands free phone calls, the ability to work seamlessly with my iPhone, the possibility of using HD radio, and a killer display. While it certainly isn’t a touch based system with GPS and all the crazy stuff in cars nowadays, it fits in perfectly with how a stereo should be used in a car. It is a nice combination between too much and not enough. In this review, I will tell you what I though about all of the aspects.
Display and User Interface
As you can see from the image of the faceplate of this system, it is very sleek. The model I received sports blue LEDs as well as a four line display that gives the user various information throughout their use of the system. The lights and location of the various hardware make it easy to navigate the system while keeping your eyes on the road. As usual, there is a knob that is turned to navigate various lists as well as adjust the volume. Furthermore, there are six buttons that are used for preset radio stations and other functions along the bottom of the faceplate, and buttons along the left for changing the station or song.
My experience with the hardware was pretty good, for the most part. The only issue I ran into was that some buttons are placed too close to each other, causing me to hit the wrong one. For example, the button used to change the track (which I use the most) is placed right next to the “ZAP” button, which I didn’t find all that useful. Sometimes I would accidentally hit that button and initiate a feature I didn’t want. I’m sure these design features were made while trying to also keep the device slick and small, but I feel they could’ve raised the buttons they think to be the most used just to make them more prominent when pushing.
As I said, the hardware works well with the system. However, the real power lies within the software. It has been put together very nicely, and there are neither too many nor too few buttons to interact with it. Navigation through system settings is both intuitive and easy to understand, as there is a very small learning curve. Also, navigation through phonebook contacts or iPod songs works just as you would want it to. To give you an idea of how it works, imagine using the knob as a click wheel on your iPod. Using that as hardware, the songs are listed in the same exact way on the screen of the device. Furthermore, there is also an awesome “Jump Mode” that let’s you skip larger chunks of songs as well when scrolling through all your music, sort of like jumping letters on the iPod.
Furthermore, there are different ways the information can be displayed. Simply tapping the display button in the bottom right can, for instance, change the screen data from one line displaying playback information to numerous lines. Also, when going into the settings, the graphic in the background can be changed to various different ones. There are simple background art options as well as visualizers that bounce and/or move to the music.
At night, the device is very easy to use as the blue LEDs point out where every button is. However, I sometimes found there is a slight glare (just enough so to be annoying at times) on the screen when in the sun, making it a little difficult to see the display when trying to see the name of the song that was currently playing. However, it may have just been the way the player sits in my car. Either way, it isn’t all that much of an issue, more of an annoyance.
Audio Quality and Different Playback Abilities
The Sony Xplod unit offers many different ways to play your audio. You can plug any MP3 player in using the auxiliary connection, or your iPod or iPhone using the USB port on the front. You can also play a CD using the player, or stream audio via Bluetooth. For most of my experience with the unit, I simply used the white iPod USB cable, as it works perfectly and also charges my iPhone, but I made sure to check them all out.
To begin, the USB cable is what I will probably end up using for the majority of the time. It is nice listening to the music this way because it also charges my iPhone while it reads the music from it (and we all know the iPhone could use more battery life). Furthermore, since it is all digital, the quality comes out just as it would from the MP3 you play on a computer. It comes as no question that this is better than the casette adapter that I was using. Still, one of the best parts about this method is that the metadata for the songs shows up on the head unit. However, this method does disable you from using your actual iPhone to control what plays as it displays the message shown in the image later in the review. When plugged in, you must navigate your music through the head unit.
Another way that the music can be played is through an auxiliary cable, which can be anywhere from $10 and up at a local electronic store. They simply plug into the headphone adapter on the iPhone and the port on the front of the head unit. Listening to music via this method allows you to navigate your songs through the iPhone user interface as it is simply sending a signal as if the head unit were a pair of headphones or external speakers. While the quality is just as good, I sometimes find that auxiliary cables or ports can deteriorate in quality over time. Most of the time it is just due to the cable becoming worn, though, and a new one will fix it.
If you want a mixture of these two methods in that you want to play your music via the iPhone’s interface but don’t like having the wire around or don’t want to charge your device, there is an option for you. Via the “Bluetooth Audio” option from the “Mode” button, you can wirelessly stream your iPhone’s music (see image below). Simply make sure your phone is connected via Bluetooth to your head unit and then hit play. Like magic, the music plays from your car’s speakers. And the best part about it is that I didn’t notice any lag or skips during my use with this method. However, the only thing I didn’t like (which I’m not sure if it’s a limit of the Bluetooth) is that the song metadata doesn’t show up on the display via this method. If possible, it would’ve been nice to include that. Also, another annoyance with this part is that the Bluetooth can take a couple seconds to connect when you turn the unit on. While that isn’t all so bad, it does seem to mess up the audio playback if you already have it plugged in via a USB cable when you turn your car on. What I mean by this is that it will stop the music from playing via the USB cable and will only start again if you replug it in.
This head unit also compensates for the older styles of listening to music, if you’re into that. While a CD isn’t necessarily outdated, I much prefer the other methods. That said, this unit does have a CD player and eject button that is revealed by hitting “Open” in the top right of the head unit and watching the display flip down (this is also how you detach the unit). Just insert your disc, close it, change the mode to CD, and you’re good to go. I was disappointed in that the metadata didn’t show for this method either for burned CDs. I know the CD had metadata because it showed up in iTunes, but it doesn’t appear via the head unit. Perhaps this is a limit of the technologies at hand?
While I didn’t get a chance to test the HD radio abilities of the head unit, I did try out the regular radio. There are six preset buttons along the bottom of the device which can be programmed by simply holding them while on a station. The radio sounds just as good as it would with any other unit, but it, too, doesn’t display any metadata that the radio station may be broadcasting (at least in my experiences). I do know these stations broadcast it as I’ve seen it on my friends’ cars, so it would’ve been a nice feature to have on this as well.
Overall, there is a way for anybody to play their music, no matter for what they are looking. Each offers its own advantages and disadvantages, but they all work as intended. It was interesting testing out all of the different methods to get my music from my phone to my car, and I can see myself using different styles at different times, so it’s nice to know they are all included.
Bluetooth Connection (Phone Book, Calls, Microphone)
This device also features the ability to connect your phone via Bluetooth and make hands free phone calls. As I mentioned earlier, I used the iPhone running the latest software from Apple. One of the first things I tried after the device was installed was setting up this feature. I turned on the Bluetooth on my iPhone for the first time since I have bought it, and searched for the Xplod unit with it. While it took a little while, they did eventually find each other and connect.
From there, you can enter the Bluetooth menu by either switching to “Bluetooth Phone” with the “Mode” button or hitting the “BT” button on the left. After consulting the manual I received with the device, I was able to grab the contacts list from my iPhone and download it to the device so that when someone calls me, both their name and number appear on the display. This only took a couple moments, and the list can now be viewed whenever my phone is connected. That said, there is a slight delay each time you try to access the list with a message that reads “Listing.”
Calling a friend from the phone is as simple as navigating the list and clicking in the volume knob to select them. From there, you pick the number you want to call that is related to that contact (and the interface does provide images to tell whether the number is mobile or home, etc) and the device does all of the interacting with your phone. The audio from the person you call plays from your speakers in your car, and you can speak back using the small microphone that comes with unit. When placing my calls, most of the receivers said the audio was pretty good, but I did notice that having the windows down could make it harder for the person you are calling, which makes sense.
When you receive a call, the number appears on the display and the music dims as usual. You answer it by simply clicking the volume knob. Like I said, the interface for this part of the device is very intuitive. However, I sometimes found that hardware aspect of it to have troubles. For instance, sometimes it simply wouldn’t connect to my iPhone despite having the Bluetooth turned on. When it does, there is a message that appears on the screen to let you know. This is nice, I just would’ve liked to see it every time. Sometimes resetting the Bluetooth on my iPhone would do the trick, so it may have been either of the devices that was having issues. That said, it worked fine once it all got connected.
As I’ve mentioned a couple times now, I did all of my testing with my iPhone 3G running the latest software. Overall, the experience was nice in more ways than one, and the device doesn’t have any issues recognizing and interacting with the device. When plugged in via the USB port, the iPhone shows a message when you try to open the music application and doesn’t allow you to interact with the music via the iPhone’s interface (as seen in the image below). That said, it does allow you to interact with all of the other parts of the interface. Furthermore, when streaming via Bluetooth, you can interact with the iPhone music interface.
I did run into a slight annoyance when using the iPhone through the USB cable. At some points in time (depending on when I turned my car on and/or plugged in my iPhone to the USB port), the head unit would be showing that music was playing, but it wouldn’t be coming out of the speakers (and it wasn’t due to not having any volume). I tried pressing various buttons to get audio, but the only thing that seemed to fix it was unplugging the USB cable and plugging it back in right away. The annoyance here is that the head unit does take a couple seconds to “Read” the device and start interacting with it.
Overall, my experience with this product was outstanding. It has a long list of features that I know I will find myself using in the future. However, it also finds the perfect balance by leaving out features that aren’t necessary on a day-to-day basis…or even ever. As I continue to use it, I still find cool new things that make it even more usable and exciting. That said, I also have found a few minor issues along the way, as explained above.
For the most part, though, I would strongly recommend the Sony Xplod to anyone who likes Sony products or wants a new, high tech, iPhone compatible head unit.
Buy the Sony Xplod Bluetooth CD Receiver