We really don't have to tell you how important music is. After all, it has tamed each one of us at one point or another, motivated us, got the party going, kept it going, and helped us stay awake on long hauls. Combine a high-end advanced sound system with cool apps and an accurate and easy-to-use GPS navigation that easily guides us to our destinations and you get what we think is the perfect in-cab mapping tool and entertainment system.
We just picked up Pioneer's new in-dash AVIC-X950BH navigation AV receiver and a complete sound system, which includes high-end speakers, an amp, and a subwoofer. We installed all this trick gear in our late-model '12 Ram 1500 truck. The 4x4 had what we thought was a good-sounding factory sound system until we started pumping tunes through six new Pioneer D-Series speakers. The realization of what we weren't hearing from the factory stereo components was amazing!
Pioneer Electronics has been around since 1938, and we've used the company's stereos and speakers in our 4x4s ever since we were youngsters. We've always had great luck with Pioneer components and like the fact that Pioneer offers a full line of equipment, which can be very reasonably priced for budget-minded truck builds and a high-end line of components for extravagant builds. None of the components are too terribly complicated to install or operate.
We're not sure how many of you folks are audiophiles, but we know you like music. We aren't fanatical nor experts in the field, but we can confidently operate and install a good sound system. Just like most people we can also tell the difference between crisp clear music with little distortion and just-OK sound. It is easy differentiate the highs, midtones, lows, and vocals of a sound system, especially when switching from the nonpremium factory sounds system.
The features of the AVIC-X950BH are just what we have been waiting for in an audiovisual navigation system. The receiver not only uses a very detailed GPS guidance and a mapping database, but it also features the latest entertainment technology, such as Pandora Internet Radio, HD Radio, Sirius XM Satellite Radio, App Radio, Bluetooth connectivity, and Aha web connectivity, which allows you to listen to Facebook and Tweets safely. The iPod and iPhone connectivity allows the viewing of the album, songs, and artists. The system works with iPhone 4, 4S, and 5 (iPhone 5 requires a special interface cable and firmware update). The NavTec navigation features Total Traffic real-time traffic updates, 12 million points of interest, and 2D and 3D mapping.
We can't think of anything Pioneer left out of this radio! The receiver has a number of other really trick features, such as rear audio and video outputs, meaning your kids can watch movies or listen to audio on separate monitors in the backseat while the adults listen to their own entertainment up front. If you truck doesn't have a rearview camera the AVIC-X950BH has an input for a backup camera. We have found it very handy while backing up trailers or negotiating tree lines backwards!
Before picking up the AVIC-X950BH we shopped around. At the time no other system had all the features this unit has and the factory receiver with audio/navigation was $1,900-$2,100 compared to this unit at $950. We are splitting this review into two parts since the system does so much. Part 2 of our story will cover the system's performance and a full review of all the features.
Obviously the high-tech components aren't as easy to install as the low-budget superstore radio that was bolted into that old '70s farm truck. The wiring in late-model trucks is complicated, but adapters are available for aftermarket audiovisual components that make installation less complicated and systems nearly a direct plug-in.
We contacted Crutchfield, and the guys there helped us out with the factory integration adapters and dash installation components. Without their help we might have spent days tracing wires, splicing, and crossing our fingers in the hope that we wouldn't short-circuit the truck's critical electrical components. Crutchfield carries just about everything needed for the proper and professional installation of an audio system, including adapters so a truck's steering wheel audio controls can still be used with an aftermarket system. Crutchfield's website is easy to navigate, so we found our parts quickly—we also called them a couple of times for technical advice and they were more than helpful.
Step By Step
We couldn't be happier with the in-dash AVIC-X950BH. It offered everything we are looking for and more. The navigation so far has been accurate and easy to use on road trips, and the receiver has all the entertainment we can handle that's allowable by law when driving.
The receiver is a perfect entertainment system. We wouldn't recommend the unit for a hardcore trail rig, but it's definitely a great fit for daily weekend warrior rigs and tow vehicles. We would highly recommend the AVIC-X950BH on the next long haul, say, from Florida to the Midwest. Although the system won't play a movie while driving, it's a great way to pass the time when stopped.
The 7-inch touchscreen is exceptionally easy to use for scrolling through the application screens. With a tap of a finger you go through the HD radio, CD, DVD, Bluetooth, and other sources of entertainment. At first, cruising through the screens seemed a little complicated, but in no time we got to know system very well.
The AVIC-X950BH comes with number of connections, including HDMI, RCA outputs for video and audio, and rear camera input. However, wiring the system could be problematic on late-model trucks when trying to interface with the unit. Cutting into the new truck's factory wiring harness wasn't something we were looking forward to. Connecting the navigation system to the VSS (vehicle speed sensor) helps the accuracy of the mapping, so it needs to be tapped. This made us very nervous. However, VSS signal wire is already in the pigtail wiring plug for the factory radio. This is where Crutchfield and the PAC interface accessory come in.
The D-series speakers are some of the best around. The cones are constructed from dual-layer IMX aramid/basalt fiber. What's that? Pioneer tells us it's "basalt fiber made from natural rock interwoven with aramid fiber. The composite material is highly rigid and better absorbent, enhancing stability and maintaining integrity throughout a wide temperature range." OK, we believe that. The larger speakers come with tweeters and crossovers.
Out of space? The new Class D digital amplifiers are designed for smaller mounting locations and are 50 percent smaller than the older GM series amps. At half the size, these extra-efficient amps crank out a huge amount of power. The GM-D8601 rated at 1,600 watts max power will be powering the 10-inch shallow-mount subwoofer.
Crutchfield quickly sent us the Sirius XM receiver, PAC interface, AM/FM radio antenna adapter, and universal mount with bezel sides to fill the gaps between the dash and the receiver. Crutchfield has some of the best prices, and the technicians were quickly able to answer a few questions we had on the system's installation.
The backup camera is an optional accessory well worth the additional cost. It plugs directly into one of the RCA plugs on the back of the receiver. Once installed, it needs to be activated via settings of the receiver.
Obviously we aren't sure what type of vehicle others might install the AVIC-X950BH in. Disassembly of a dashboard can be complicated in some trucks, but the Ram truck dashboard and console are simple to take apart. Most of it is held together with snaps and screws. The entire face of the center console snaps off in one piece. The factory receiver is mounted behind it and held in place with four screws. Once the screws are removed the radio can be pulled out and the wiring harness unplugged.
This is what you will find behind the center console of a '12 Ram. There's not much there except a few plugs, which are easy to reconnect.
We started wring the PAC interface and the Pioneer wiring pigtail together. We hate using the cheap crimps and plastic-covered butt connectors. Our favorite connectors are the Waterproof Extreme Condition Connectors from Painless Wiring (www.painlesswiring.com), but we were out so we used bare connectors and heat-shrink tubing.
The heat-shrink tubing must be placed over the wiring before the connectors are crimped. Always test the crimps before heating the tubing. Give the wire a slight tug but don't pull too hard.
Heat the shrink tubing until it's firmly secured around the wire and butt connector. Don't heat it up so much that it melts. Soldering connections, Extreme Condition Connectors, and heat shrink are about the best way to join wire. The cheap metal and plastic connectors always seem to come apart, especially since the plastic cover deteriorates in a just a few years.
We had to trim a little of the dashboard's interior plastic support so the new receiver would fit. We cut it with an air saw, but the plastic is soft enough to cut with a razor knife. We also had to cut the metal radio support bracket inside the dash. There are existing slots in the support bracket where it can easily be cut.
Once the wiring was connected and triple-checked for color-code matches from the receiver to the PAC interface, the pigtail assembly was plugged into the factory radio wiring plug. Using the aftermarket interface makes receiver installation extremely easy and something not to be afraid of.
With the connections made, the radio was ready to slide in place. In total there were seven connections on the back of the receiver: factory antenna, Sirius XM antenna, GPS antenna, interface plug, iPhone/iPod plug, backup camera, and amp power/startup.
We cut a notch in the top of the right plastic dash pocket and fed the connection cable through it. The pocket was unused and kept us from dragging the cable out from under the dash—it would have just been more clutter!
Cheap paper cones on factory speakers? Surprised? We were. OK, maybe we were a little bewildered because the speakers actually sounded good. That is of course until we heard the new D-series Pioneer speakers. The difference in sound clarity is amazing.
The TS-D1720C speaker construction is really slick. No wonder they sound great. The factory speakers were 6x9 inches, but the Pioneer ones still fit in the same locations with a couple of new screw holes. After hearing the sound from the speakers we lost our concern about moving from a 6x9-inch speaker to the smaller 6�-inch round speaker. The new speakers without a doubt have superior sound.
We mounted the new 5�-inch speakers in the factory speaker holes of the rear doors. They are small, but they sound great too. With the help of the Pioneer-supplied mounting brackets, we were able to get the speakers in the larger openings by turning the brackets sideways and then screwing them to the inside of the opening.
The Pioneer 10-inch shallow-mount subwoofer fits easily under the rear foldup bench seat. We'll show you its installation and wiring in Part 2 of the story. The subwoofer will fit nicely in the pocket below the rear seat and out of the way.
If you don't have a backup camera, then how cool is this? We found this one of the coolest aspects of the navigation unit, especially when trying to maneuver a trailer into place.
The camera for backup mode can be mounted just about anywhere. We placed ours just above the license plate and get a complete view due to the camera's fisheye lens.
We made some small brackets out of scrap sheet metal and mounted the tweeters where the factory tweeters were mounted. The clarity of the vocals with the Pioneer tweeters is amazing.