Review – Upgrading your Automobiles Sound System with the Pioneer AVH-4100NEX in-dash receiver

A decade ago a full-featured audio system in your automobile meant AM/FM with a CD player. No longer. Cars ship with built-in GPS, Digital Tuners, sophisticated displays, and a multitude of features. With Americans holding on to their autos longer and longer, coupled with higher quality engineering, upgrading to a state-of-the art audio system like the Pioneer AVH-4100NEX makes a lot of sense. In the first of this multipart story, we explore the equipment, process, and features.

Our 2003 Honda Odyssey, a versatile workhorse that came standard with an AM/FM with cassette player, so we opted for a built-in CD. This might not seem important, but it is, because the dash was designed for dual-height system, which meant that the 4100-NEX fit perfectly into the existing dash with no modifications. Many other older vehicles often mean easier retrofits.

When we discussed this with Pioneer, the underlying question was when is it appropriate or reasonable to adopt technology, not only from a feature standpoint, but also from a financial one? The reasons people hold on to older cars are varied. Some just like their vehicle, others see the miniscule trade-in value as not commensurate with the actual value a well-maintained vehicle is worth. Older vehicles are cheaper to insure, register, but still have modern safety features.

Upgrading one’s audio makes sense, especially since upgrades bring much more than just audio features. The Pioneer AVH-4100NEX has a set of features that are quite rich, opening up a new level of interaction in the auto environment. Aesthetically, it is beautifully made, with a large removable touch screen. The lower row of buttons on the front panel adjust volume, mute the audio, tilt the screen for a different viewing angle. The screen also can pivot open, giving access to the CD/DVD slot, and SD card slot. Another button moves the screen into position so you can easily and simply remove the display when needed, leaving just a black faceplate in case you are worried about security.

We would caution against removing the screen unnecessarily. The unit comes with a small padded case for the screen, but if you lose it or damage it, it’s an expensive replacement. The same holds true for the security code. The code is stored in the screen unit, so if you lose it, you might brick the entire system, so we chose not to enter a security code, and leaving it in the vehicle more often than not.

One of our favorite features came as a bit of a surprise. A few years ago, television signals migrated to digital transmissions and abandoned analog. After the grumbling died down, the advantages were obvious: a digital signal maintained the source resolution and audio, with crystal clear video over the air. Well, radio did the same thing but maintained the analog signal, so that many stations simulcast in both digital and analog. The 4100-NEX can receive both signals, starting first with analog, but if the unit detects a digital signal, after a few seconds it switches to digital.

And… what a switch it is! FM stations that sounded pretty good, suddenly snap into sharp, pristine sound, with CD quality separation and tonal range. When the HD signal locks on, it’s almost like you had been wearing hearing protection and took it off – the difference is that audible. Another benefit is that many stations have more than one broadcast, not unlike TV where a station will have the primary, and then additional content. So, on a local rock station,  we discovered the .1 channel was softer rock. The same was true for our local NPR affiliate, which had extra options. So, HD Radio turned out to be the killer app for us.

The touch screen held a few more surprises. The most heralded is the inclusion of Apple Car Play, and Android Auto. Two USB ports on the back of the unit feed either an Apple iOS device, or an Android device. The ports don’t auto switch, you need to actually run two cables if you have a mixed OS household, one for Apple and the other for Android. Using either feature set allows you to access music from your phone on the touch screen, have GPS navigation display on the screen via your cell phone, and use your phone and address books. It comes with an external microphone, which our installer mounted near the top of the windshield, pointed down at the driver. Some folks install this near the steering wheel, but then it could pick up all the noise of blinkers, turn signals, wheel noise, etc.; for us the best solution was to mount the microphone near the rear view mirror.

Another feature most folks might not expect to encounter in an automotive audio system is the inclusion of high-performance Digital to Analog Converters. As explored in our earlier review of the Pioneer SC-71 AV receiver, Pioneer has extensive experience with high-end DACs in their home theater AV receivers that are capable of high-sampling rates and 24-bit depth, so the inclusion of the same capability in their automotive line shouldn’t come as a surprise. The addition of an SD Card slot means that you can load up a card with a set of high-resolution FLAC files. We tried it with the new Keith Richards’s solo album, Crosseyed Heart, supplied by HD Tracks, as 96khz 24bit flac files. The system read the Kingston SD card adeptly, and moments later high-resolution Keith Richards poured from the speakers!

Of course the unit reads CDs and plays DVDs. There is a safety interlock that prevents the playing of DVDs unless the parking brake is on, a common-sense safety step. The unit can feed rear displays, so kids in the back seats could watch a video.

As one would expect, the 4100-NEX features a fully featured graphic equalizer, including automatic EQ, It is designed to interact with Sirius radio, so if satellite is your favorite way to listen, no problem – the capability is built-in. The feature set includes HDMI® Connectivity, wideband speech & A2DP AAC Bluetooth® connectivity, Android Auto compatibility, Apple CarPlay™ compatibility, MirrorLink® connectivity, HD Radio™ technology, iDataLink® Maestro® technology, & dual zone audio/video playback. Other units are available with GPS at a higher price.

The screen is a high-resolution, clear resistive 7-inch touchscreen display that we found easy to read no matter the light level. It is precise to the touch, and has little lag response. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t just designed to let you access your smartphone's capability, the real goal is to reduce distracted driving. By centralizing audio, smartphone, plus GPS, Bluetooth, and voice activation, the days of feeling the need to look at your phone screen while driving should be over.

In this age of smart devices, It might sound obvious but the primary reason of an audio system it to play music. Because the speakers were stock, we chose to replace them with Pioneer Co-Axials in the rear, and the front speakers were two-way systems, with a speaker to fit in the door panel, as well as a crossover fed tweeter for the empty tweeter grills under the windshield.

The speaker replacements were able to fit into the stock speaker mounts in the Honda Odyssey, so to the naked eye, they were invisible, which was the goal.

All this technology needed to be installed, and in part two we follow the two Mikes of Sound of Tri-State in Morton, PA, as they install the AVH-4100-NEX.

Harris Fogel, Posted 11/2/2015

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