Earlier this year one of my goals was to try and make a transition on this blog and start to review consumer electronics a little more. I’ve had a few posts in mind, but none of them seemed to make sense or fit with the flow of this blog. Recently I received an offer from Sony to try out their new top-of-the-line MEX-BT5700U car stereo unit from their Xplod line. I happened to be looking for a car stereo at the time, had just bought a new one for my wife’s car, so figured I’d give it a try and take them up on their offer, planning to post a review in return. Little did I know that it may have just given me a new category of posts that I will include on this blog. I discovered, that in combination with an iPhone that my Truck could quickly become a fully-connected machine powered by the Social web. I’m going to call these devices “Social Electronics”, and hopefully I can review more of these for you in the future (I already have several in my home). I’ll explain.
Meet my baby truck. I call it the “SocialMobile”. I think you can see why. It’s a 2000 Ford F-150, and I love it – I may even sell my first-born child for it, just maybe (not really honey!). I bought it a) because I always wanted a truck growing up in Texas, and b) because I needed something to get me through the steep slopes in the middle of the winter of Parley’s Canyon near here when I would drive up to work at BackCountry.com in Park City, Utah. But now it’s just a fun car to drive.
While I can decorate it all I want with stickers, license plates, and more, there has always been one thing lacking, an actual “Social” experience, to live up to its name. When I got the truck, I bought a Monster iCruze which enabled me to control my iPod from the dash of my factory default Ford stereo system. It was one of my favorite gadgets, and had magnificent sound when connected to the iPod! However, when I got an iPhone, I could no longer use the iCruz. I kept the old iPod and used it as a CD changer of sorts for awhile, but it just didn’t give me what my iPhone was capable of doing. So I was craving something to give me the full experience, in the car, which my iPhone could give me.
Enter my parents’ car. My parents have several new Ford cars, one of those is in the hands of my little sisters at the moment. One of the coolest features in their Fords was a technology, powered by Microsoft, called “Sync”, which enabled you to seamlessly connect your phone or iPod or any wireless or USB device, and tell it what to do via voice commands or the in-dash controls of the car. I craved this technology. My car didn’t have it, and I would probably not be able to get it until I bought a brand new car, something I just can’t afford right now. The tough thing was until recently you couldn’t really buy anything that fully duplicated that experience outside of the factory, in-dash stereos that came with new cars. I was jealous!
The Sony XPlod MEX-BT5700U
At CES this year, Sony rolled out a new line of stereos aimed at solving this problem. The MEX-BT5700U is the top of their line of these stereos, and thus far has covered everything I craved for from the in-dash factory models that you could only get with a new car. The advantage here is that anyone can get that technology now, and install it in their own car!
I’m by far a radio expert, so I’ll just share my personal experience. These are all my own opinions, and not meant as a comparison to any other model out there. I encourage you, after reading this, to go out and read the other stereos that are out there and make your own comparisons. The one thing I do know is that for the most part, this stereo seems to solve all my problems.
To start, let’s share some of the highlights of what you get with the unit:
- USB Port: In the front of the unit is a USB port that allows you to attach an iPod or other USB device. It also works with the iPhone and will charge your iPhone.
- BlueTooth handsfree support with external and internal microphones: There is both an internal and external microphone that comes with the unit. The external microphone can fit anywhere that makes sense in the car, and if you have a good installer can stay out of sight. To answer a call, you just push the dial knob, and do the same to hang up. It also supports voice controls if your device supports it, and will download your address book so you can choose who you want to call from your radio all without ever having to take your phone out of your pocket. It is also built to support all 3.x operating systems for the iPhone, something I needed.
- HD-Ready Stereo: Why these devices don’t come with HD pre-installed, I don’t understand, but this is standard. The stereo has decent quality and typical memory channel presets. It also is Satellite radio ready.
- CD Player: The device has a Flip-down front that reveals the CD player. It will also connect to an optional CD changer if you want. It supports MP3/WMA/AAC formats as well as traditional CDs. The cool thing I noticed is that for normal CDs it even detects the song names some how and displays them as they’re playing. You can also navigate through a submenu of songs on the CD and pick them out individually that way.
- “Zappin” Jump Mode Technology: If you can’t take your eyes off the road but you want to pick out a certain song, you just click the “ZAP” button, and it will automatically play each song for the device you’re using (CD, iPod, iPhone, etc) in 6, 9, or 30-second clips. Press the tuner dial knob and it will play the song you’re previewing.
- A Remote!: I never even knew I needed it! But having a remote is extremely handy if you can’t afford to take your hands off the wheel, for instance. Or, if you have others in the back of the car you can give the control to them to handle the music. I think that’s pretty handy.
Things I Liked
Let’s just get this out of the way. I love this radio! As an iPhone freak it complements my driving completely. I step into the car, and it recognizes my phone immediately. Set up was easy – just go into the bluetooth menu (there’s a “bluetooth” button on the face), select your device, and pair as you would any other bluetooth device with your phone. Now, when someone calls you, you push the dial knob and it answers. If you want to call someone else, just select the number via the dials and it calls them. If your phone supports it you can even use voice dial.
I noticed some of the reviews saying the display was too dim for middle of the day driving. I don’t know if they fixed that, but the display is easy to read in the brightest of lights, provides multiple animations and backgrounds you can choose from on the display, and even lets you change the colors of the keys, allowing you to fully customize the experience. My speakers aren’t anything special, but if you have a system that can support it, it supports up to 52 watts of peak power to all 4 speakers, giving almost a more powerful sound experience than even my home theater can provide!
Another frustration I’ve had with other systems has been that they lock your iPod or iPhone when they’re connected. Not so with this device. By default it locks, but by clicking and holding down “Mode”, it exits that lock-down and enters “Passenger Mode”, so your passengers can now have control over the listening experience. If you have an iPhone, nothing is locked down and it uses the bluetooth stereo audio from the iPhone to play sound direct from the iPhone. This was useful so I could play other apps on my iPhone. I’ll go over that in the “Social Technology” section below though.
Things I Didn’t Like
As I mentioned, as an overall system, this system is almost perfect for my needs. It would not be a fair review however if I didn’t not mention some of my frustrations. Here they are:
- No RDS – as far as I can tell, there’s no RDS support with this radio. RDS is the extra part of the FM wavespace that enables the carrier to carry an additional data signal that tells just a little bit about the song that is playing over the air. This was a big part of my factory radio, and it will be missed.
- Phonebook – the in-dash phone book downloader on this thing is great, but I did have issues with the way it imported data from my iPhone. Most of the entries showed up as “Unknown”, making it very hard to find the names I wanted to find. In addition, they seemed to be sorted by first name, yet were a bit out of order even in that manner. It would be nice if it could catch the names from my iPhone, and only display the entries that have real phone numbers and real names attached to them. Otherwise it’s just not useful.
- Voice Dial – I have yet to upgrade to iPhone 3.1, and I know bluetooth integration with voice dial is supposed to be one of the features. I’m hoping that I just need to upgrade to get this. However, the pre-3.1 firmware on the iPhone does not work with the integrated voice dial. I wish it did, but again that may be a phone limitation. They say right in the docs that the voice dial is only supposed to work with supported devices. I’m hoping my iPhone upgrade fixes that.
- Call Quality – My first call with my wife on the device was great – she could hear me fine and I could hear her great. However, once I got going in the truck, with the loud sounds of the truck the receiving end of the call that I was talking to was having a hard time hearing me. I was told it sounded like I was on a speaker phone. You’re supposed to be able to adjust the noise cancellation settings, and I just updated that today so we’ll see how that improves the sound. I imagine this is a common problem with any car hands free system though, so it’s minor.
“Social” Technology, and Taking That on the Go
As I mentioned earlier, what makes me love this unit the most is that it enables me to truly build a social experience in my own car. The marketing and promo material for the unit all emphasize the compatibility with modern devices such as the iPhone 3GS. This is very appealing to me.
Here are some examples:
- The first time I connected it, I immediately went over to my Last.fm app on my iPhone. Despite some embarrassing cases of my kids’ Disney songs coming up in my recommendations, I was immediately playing my Last.fm songs, on my car stereo, in full stereo sound! Not just that, but I could favorite any one of those I liked right there in my car without taking my eyes off the road. Those favorites go to FriendFeed, and my friends all see them and can comment on them, or try them out themselves.
- I immediately downloaded the Sirius XM app and gave it the 7 day free trial they offer at Louis Gray’s recommendation. In no time I was listening to CNN Radio, right on my car radio, no satellite radio install necessary! All of it over my AT&T 3G connection. My wife was very pleased to learn she could listen to Suze Orman on the car radio as well.
- The iPhone Shazam app tells me what is playing on the radio
- My favorite – I can open up the Ustream app and have live streams right in my car. Of course, I don’t watch them – my passengers can, but most streams, like TechCrunch 50 for instance, I can afford to listen to and not miss much. I did this the other day in fact – I was watching it at home, had to go pick up my son from school, and immediately turned it on my iPhone via the Ustream app. The Sony Xplod immediately picked up the bluetooth audio as I entered the truck, and I was listening to the stream right in my truck. If I needed to, I could stop the truck and leave something in the chat even.
To sum up, I’m extremely pleased I gave this radio a try. This is now my new favorite truck gadget, and fits perfectly with my online and social experience. The iPhone integration is amazing and seamless too. The phone retails for $299, and should be available in most stores.