Review: Pioneer AVIC-Z1 Navigation System with CD-IB100II iPod Adapter
Pros: A top-of-line 7” touchscreen display that’s added to your car as an aftermarket accessory, featuring very impressive GPS navigation, outstanding AV system audio controls, and numerous optional modules for iPod connection, Bluetooth, satellite radio, and more. iPod kit charges your iPod while drawing music from its superior Dock Connector port. Our rating is based only on the iPod integration.
Cons: Other than AVIC-Z1’s audio controls, iPod integration using CD-IB100 kit is physically and navigationally unimpressive, with an oversized, case-incompatible Dock Connector cable, extremely slow iPod content search speeds, and no support for iPod photo or video display inside your vehicle. Workaround solutions involve annoying, over-aggressively repeated warning screens.
In the past, we’ve opted not to review premium-priced iPod car kits for a few reasons: though they’ve unquestionably offered superior sound quality to the FM transmitters and cassette tape adapters that dominate the iPod car accessories market, we haven’t been impressed by their interfaces or value for the dollar. In our view, car kits with price tags so much higher than low-end options need to earn their keep by providing a superior iPod user experience, and with rare exceptions, they haven’t. Most of today’s kits force their users to pre-program playlists full of music and, in essence, use CD player-quality track-to-track controls; the equivalent of turning any iPod into a shuffle. The iPod itself becomes little more than a slave hard disk with five or six set ways music can be played back.
For more than a year, companies such as Alpine and Clarion have gone a step beyond that simple formula, offering iPod integration kits that connect to AV and navigation system touchscreens - conceivably an ideal way to let users access their iPod music libraries. Pioneer has also released a number of touchscreen car AV and navigation systems in its AVIC series, including the D1 and D2, N1, N2, and N3, with its newest top-of-the-line model Z1 only recently appearing in stores. Like its predecessor screened models, AVIC-Z1 ($2250) can be paired with one of Pioneer’s two iPod kits - the CD-IB100 ($120, now discontinued) or the CD-IB100II ($100) - to deliver an aftermarket GPS navigation and AV solution that’s designed to be without peer. And in fact, there are many laudable aspects of this system, which when professionally installed will set you back about $3000. Unfortunately, the iPod integration isn’t one of them. Since we’re an iPod-focused publication, our rating above and the review below are focused almost entirely on the iPod experience provided by Pioneer’s components, and should not be read as a negative judgment on the rest of the Z1 system.
In fact, other than the iPod experience, AVIC-Z1 has many, many positives. Rather than using a screen that pops out from a small CD player-sized (“DIN”) unit in your dashboard, Pioneer makes superb use of the taller, “double-DIN”-sized holes found in many of today’s cars, filling it almost entirely with a 7-inch, 16:9 aspect ratio color touchscreen. The screen’s 1440x234 resolution permits more than acceptable display of DVD movies - though not while the car’s in motion - and does great justice to the impressively detailed GPS navigation maps collected inside. Multiple 2D and 3D navigation modes are available to the driver, as are split-screen modes that permit 2D and 3D displays to appear simultaneously in 1/3 or 2/3-sized windows. This can become even cooler: if you purchase an optional rear camera, you can allocate 2/3 of the screen to watching the camera, and 1/3 to a map. When you’re backing up, the camera’s image takes up the full screen.
AVIC-Z1’s GPS power isn’t just visual. The system has one of the very best recorded female voices we’ve ever heard - clear, pleasant, and professional - and then goes a step beyond: it includes an impressively accurate speech synthesis feature that properly pronounces the names of even Spanish-language local streets. This enables the Z1 to provide more detailed audio cues for the driver, and reduces one’s need to rely upon screen for directions. An included microphone enables you to issue voice commands to the system, including menu selections, map destinations, and more, and proved respectably accurate in our testing.
There are additional frills. Unlike the vast majority of in-car navigation systems, AVIC-Z1 uses a 30GB hard disk to store all of its maps, as well as a massive points of interest database culled from the U.S. Yellow Pages - searchable by address or phone number - and details on your past routing decisions. This way, Z1 can learn - via a neural AI system - the routes that you prefer to use, and avoid taking you down paths you’ve opted to avoid in the past. There’s also a full Gracenote CD database on the hard disk, if you can believe that. Using 4X ripping speeds, AVIC-Z1 can actually rip your CDs to a free 10GB partition of the hard drive, and Gracenote will automatically identify the track, album and artist info for proper tagging. The system also enables you to connect numerous optional modules, including the aforementioned iPod kits, a Bluetooth phone module, satellite radio receivers for both Sirius and XM, a 6-Disc CD changer, and even a TV tuner. You can also connect other devices with RCA cables of your own to the unit’s auxiliary AV input port. Judged apart from its iPod functionality, and other than a few quirks, the AVIC-Z1 is highly versatile and impressive.
The CD-IB100II Adapter
After coupling Pioneer’s brand-new iPod Adapter module for 2006 to its top-of-line navigation and AV system, we were expecting to be impressed. But we weren’t. As it turns out, the company’s $100 optional CD-IB100II iPod Adapter is virtually identical to last year’s $120 CD-IB100; other than the $20 price difference, Pioneer has now shifted to using a non-standard, oversized white Dock Connector cable that’s amongst the largest we’ve seen. Though it is compatible with all iPods with Dock Connectors - the 3G, 4G, 5G, mini, and nano - it is physically incompatible with a number of cases we wanted to use, and less surprisingly, it didn’t blend in with the car, either. For that reason, your installer can run the cable to a less conspicuous place, such as a glove compartment, or leave it exposed somewhere in the car if you prefer. Our installer noted that unlike systems from other companies, such as Alpine’s black, lower-profile and less expensive Dock Connector cable, Pioneer’s cable wasn’t detachable from the CD-IB100II’s box, and couldn’t be easily replaced.
The nicest thing that we can say about the CD-IB100II is that it does in fact provide two benefits when connected to an iPod: it delivers pristine sound quality from the iPod’s Dock Connector port, and recharges the iPod while it’s connected. In other words, for $100, you get what’s basically the equivalent of SiK’s $30 imp, nestled behind your car’s dashboard rather than in front of it. There’s one other major difference, however: as with most Dock Connecting car installs, the iPod’s menus are deactivated upon connection; a Pioneer logo appears on the iPod’s screen, signaling that the AVIC-Z1 has taken control of its hard disk. You can’t use the iPod’s controls in any way; anything you want to do must be done using the Z1’s touchscreen. You begin by selecting the iPod as an input source from the AV menu pictured above, and the screens below appear.
The familiar iPod Now Playing interface appears on the left of Z1’s screen, with most of the details duplicated on a bar that appears at the screen’s top. To the screen’s right are a collection of simple buttons - track reverse, play/pause, and forward, under Search and a folder up icon, and above repeat and shuffle buttons. Pressing the AV Settings button brings up the system’s most impressive features; the Hide button removes all of the screen’s contents save the top track information bar. You can also use physical buttons on the bottom of AVIC-Z1 to change volume, tracks or playlists while you’re using the system’s GPS features.
When you first press the Search button, AVIC-Z1 appears to be ready to duplicate most of the iPod’s interface. The familiar Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs and Genres options are available, and you can access them with the touch screen. Pressing each option allows you to dive into an iPod-like listing of their contents, minus dedicated options such as Audiobooks, Podcasts, Photos, or Videos. If you’re looking to access these special forms of audio content, you’ll need to locate them through the old five options. Notably, photo and video content can’t be accessed at all using the CD-IB100II and iPod interface.
The biggest problem, as we see it, is in the Search feature’s scrolling. This feature is the only component of the Z1’s interface that had the potential to elevate the iPod beyond a CD changer in performance, but Pioneer dropped the ball: you see 5 choices at a time, wait a second for the next 5 to load, then repeat. Not only is this process unbelievably slow - so much that owners of hard disk-based iPods should expect to spend a long, long time wading through the alphabet to find songs - but there’s no alphabetical or other proportional track-skipping feature. Alpine’s latest systems, by comparison, allow you to cut quickly in roughly 20% jumps through a huge list of songs, or scroll quickly through lists. And it goes without saying that the iPod’s own touch interface is hugely superior, as well. Other than the artist, album, and track details, Pioneer’s solution is little better than the screenless solutions that BMW and others have offered for years, begging for pre-programmed playlists. Users expect better for the dollar.
It bears brief mention that since the CD-IB100II is compatible with other Pioneer systems, your experience may vary with a different AVIC unit. But until and unless Pioneer fixes its iPod on-screen software, it’s unlikely that your experience will be better than this one: in fact, on older AVICs, the experience will most likely be even more limited than what we’ve described above.
Powerful AV Settings
There is one bright spot in the AVIC-Z1 for iPod users: the AV Settings menu. Thankfully, it’s available for your use with both Pioneer’s iPod interface or an auxiliary AV input, such as an iPod AV cable, a fact that came in handy during our testing.
AV Settings provides an incredible amount of control over the equalization, staging, and balance of your audio. We were especially thrilled by the 12-band equalizer, which has both presets and easy-to-use user customized options, including the obligatory “Super Bass” and “Powerful” settings. This equalizer is decidedly easier for users to adjust than Alpine’s text-based EQ, one of several notable weaknesses of its interface outside of the iPod sphere.
The AVIC-Z1 also includes DSP effects that use echoes to simulate several environments - a music studio, theater, stage, or living room - in a similar fashion to the effects found on many home stereo systems. Assuming you have enough speakers to pull off all the effects, you can adjust the sweet spot for audio balance to be at the car’s center, off to one of its sides, in its back or front, or a combination thereof. Again, Pioneer’s visual representation of these screens is nicer than we’ve seen on Alpine’s systems.
Additional settings allow the system to compensate for high levels of ambient noise (Loudness), filter out certain types of noise in the iPod’s audio (High-Pass Filter/HPF), and adjust the level of the iPod’s input relative to the AVIC-Z1’s integrated FM and AM radio signals (Source Level/SLA). The latter feature is useful if your music is encoded at low or high volumes and you’re tired of hearing everything blast or too quiet when you toggle from radio mode to iPod mode.
The Auxiliary AV Port
In summary, our view is that the Z1’s highly disappointing iPod navigation functionality is offset by a tremendous amount of user-adjustable audio customization - a trade-off that some users may be willing to make, given that you can get your iPod to sound fantastic in an AVIC-Z1-equipped car, so long as you don’t care about really accessing its menus. After a little testing, we came up with an alternate and somewhat superior solution.
Though it’s not perfect for this purpose, we connected one of Capdase’s Come Home AV Cables - specifically, the one with a Dock Connector and composite audio/video outputs - to the AVIC-Z1’s auxiliary AV port. Though not the smallest we’ve seen, Capdase’s Dock Connector plug is more compatible with cases than Pioneer’s CD-IB100II, and still provides perfect left and right-channel audio to the AVIC-Z1. It also adds video output, a feature the Z1 is missing, enabling iPod movie, TV show, and music video content to be displayed on the 7” display.
The most noticeable thing you give up is the ability to see and navigate your iPod track information on the screen. In our view, this doesn’t matter - AVIC-Z1 didn’t do a good enough job with iPod navigation to make this feature feel missed. Instead, you get a screen that’s almost empty, unless video’s piping through, in which case it’s displayed as you’d expect.
Another bummer is Pioneer’s overly aggressive warning screen system. Leaving aside the GPS system’s similar proclivities, which are themselves annoying, there are literally two warnings that pop up when a video source is connected to this set of ports on the AVIC. iPod music continues to perform despite the lack of video while you’re in motion, but Pioneer really should have put all of its warnings in a single splash screen when the system turns on. Multiple button presses do not a good user experience make.
Finally, there’s the charging issue. Using Capdase’s Dock Connector cable means that you give up the ability to simultaneously use and charge your iPod, a potentially serious limitation that we intend to remedy shortly, and detail in a follow-up review. There are several ways to accomplish this, but one is better than the rest. Single-cable AV and charging is the only part of CD-IB100II’s functionality that we miss in our alternative installation.
Overall, though we’re generally very impressed by AVIC-Z1’s functionality as a GPS navigation system, and love the level of iPod sound control its AV Settings menu provides, we can’t in good faith recommend the CD-IB100II iPod Adapter to our readers. In our view, a high-end iPod integration kit should be judged by certain concrete standards: it needs to be fairly priced relative to competing options, preserve easy iPod interface access, provide top-quality sound, safely charge the iPod, and not exhibit significant defects during or after the installation process. Given the expense involved here, the CD-IB100II and AVIC-Z1 combination provides a mediocre iPod navigation experience that is only partially compensated for by its outstanding audio controls. Luckily, these controls can be accessed without using the IB100II component, but there are still annoyances that prevent workaround solutions from being perfect in our view.
Our advice to readers considering the AVIC-Z1 would be to pass on the CD-IB100II module. We so strongly disliked the AVIC-Z1’s iPod search feature that we entirely removed the CD-IB100II from our test car, and have resorted to using the iPod’s screen and controls instead. If this isn’t appealing to you, especially if you’re looking for a navigation system with a good iPod touchscreen experience right away, we’d suggest you look to Alpine for the time being.