Thursday, March 08, 2007

Sony Car FM/CD Head Unit: iPod/Audio-In/USB Car FM/CD Stereo: a review

The stock cassette/CD player ("heat unit") in our 10 yo Subaru wagon hiccuped the other day. That was all the excuse I needed, I began shopping for something with an audio-in jack. I'd gotten tired of using the iPod through a cassette adapter -- they kept wearing out and I hoped a better interface would get better sound out of my feeble stock speakers.

I couldn't find a cassette/CD player with an audio in jack. In fact, it was hard to find a cassette player at all! That's a shame, as we've quite a few books on tape. What I found, instead, was the Sony In-Dash Player (CDX-GT610UI) for $170 with installation (+ $40 for wiring harnesses I didn't know about! Clearly the margin on the harness is enormous.).

I'm not an easy going consumer, and I've found a few warts (especially when listening to podcasts), but I still like it. Here's an edited marketing blurb, emphases mine:

52 watts x 4 peak power: Sounded very good until my speakers started rattling. A big improvement on my original player.

MP3/WMA playback: MP3/WMA/AAC and ATRAC3Plus on USB mass storage, CD/CD-R and CD-RW. The max supported bit rate is 320 kps. I've tested with CD-R Joliett format around 715MB, burned by iTunes at only 680MB (data disk, not mp3, because both AAC and MP3), and Disco burned Hybrid CD. All of them played. There was something quirky about displaying the albums, I think I had to wait until the entire metadata of the first tune scrolled by to be able to scroll albums. I've tested with a USB thumb drive and that worked very well. Of course DRMd media (ex. FairPlay AAC) won't work. You have to burn those to a regular CD then re-encode them, or use a transcoder that does something similar.

Satellite-radio/iPod ready: ...XM™ and SIRIUS satellite radio compatible... more on the iPod below

Set of pre-amp outs: A set of pre-amp outputs..

Detachable face: The fluorescent design face flips down and is detachable...

Remote control: Can do everything on the face plate, but the remote may be handy.

Auxiliary input

Installation instructions: A vehicle-specific wiring harness, antenna adapter, installation kit and in-dash player wiring harness are required to install this in-dash player. Use our car audio fit guide to find the accessories that fit your vehicle.

XM™ and SIRIUS Radio require a subscription, tuner and antenna.

I had the installation done by Circuit City. It was a bit hard to schedule the install, but they did a good job over an hour or so. I was surprised by a $40 charge for two wiring harnesses, one that's vehicle specific and one that's device specific. I suspect Circuit City's "free" installation is paid for by the harnesses. The original harness was left in the car. The CC installer told me they'd switch the old player back for free if I sell the car. I didn't get the install tool or directions back, you may wish to ask for these. The iPod cable was routed through the glove compartment.

The Circuit City web site, by the way, implies you need one harness. That's wrong.

I plugged in my iPod and it started up playing some great Jazz (default is "resume mode"). It sounded fabulous. I thought I had a new car. Evidently the speakers have been underutilized for a decade. I did notice that I had to spin the volume dial a bit to crank it up, but there's lots of ceiling -- more than my speakers can handle. Here are my comments so far:
  • I could detach the face plate easily, but I had a very hard time restoring it. I had to put the top right corner in first, then the bottom right, then I could lay in the left side

  • You can use the iPod with the aux in or through the iPod cable. The latter charges, has a bit better sound, and has a much weaker UI -- but it's easy to control while driving. On balance I think I prefer using the iPod cable; the ease of pause/skip/replay while driving outweighs the clunky UI. I select my Playlist before I plug in the cable. I'm going to rename the Playlists I most often use in the car so they'll be at the top of the SONY's alphabetic sort. If you study the manual and use Playlists I think you can make the SONY UI work tolerably well - except for podcasts (see below).

  • the preprogrammed equalizer modes are silly

  • support is supposedly via (awful web site)

  • the USB connection is powered, so you might be able to run a USB powered hard drive with a single cable. A car is a tough place for a hard drive, but it sure is tempting. Be careful, I tried charging my despised Motorola RAZRZ with mixed results. The phone detected a "data cable connection" and started charging, but when I unplugged it neither the USB drive nor the CD were working (the tuner worked). I had to turn off the car for a couple of minutes to restore everything. I think I crashed the sound system.

  • I've experimented with leaving some old thumb drives or adapted CF cards in the car with specific excerpts from my music. I also now have 4 mixed AAC and MP3 CDs with music and podcasts arranged in folders -- for children, me, etc. Given the limits of the unit's interface, I advise having no more than 4 folders/device. A half-dozen CDs each with 2-3 folders is just right for many purposes. I keep my podcasts on the thumb drive since they change often.

    I tried a 2GB "thumb drive" but it "wasn't supported". The Windows 'remove hardware' utility may explain the issue. A standard "thumb drive" shows up as: "USB Mass Storage Device/Generic USB Flash Drive ...", but this 2GB SD card/reader shows up as "USB Mass Storage Device/Generic- SD/MMC USB Device". I think this "thumb drive" holding a SD card appears to the SONY to be a "hub", and the manual explicitly states that USB hubs are not suppored.

    I also found a problem with copying music from OS X; OS X creates hidden "dot" files on SMB shares to hold metadata and resource forks, the radio treats these as tracks but can't read them. The symptom is that the player seems to skip every other track, this is annoying but not serious.

  • The volume dial is the "select" control and the source button is also power on.

  • The "resume" support works very well. I switch from the CD-R to the USB and it plays where it last left off.
Some notes from the all too easy-to-lose manual
  • set the clock
  • press and hold select button
  • press repeatedly until clock-adj
  • press seek + to get hour indication
  • rotate the volume control to set hour and minute, press Seek +/- to toggle time unit
  • press select to complete.
  • a reset button is located behind the front panel. RESET if buttons don't work or CD won't eject. If the unit loses power, you need to reset on startup. (ex. disconnected, battery dies, change battery, etc.)

  • if press seek twice within 1 second and hold on the second press it will "skip tracks continuously"

  • the setup options change based on the selected source. A bit confusing!

  • press and hold DSPL to change display brightness

  • BTM is "best tune mode": press and hold and it will very quickly autoassign the first 6 stations to numbers 1-6. Probably best when traveling, switch to FM 3 for example. I don't know if it will remember what station was last assigned, if it did you could auto-assign 12 stations between FM2 and FM3. Save FM1 for memorized using the standard "press and hold" number to memorize.

  • iPod starts in 'resume mode'. So you can select on iPod where you want to start, then sleep, then connect and it will play. Press 1/2 to enable the repeat, shuffle, and scan functions. 1/2 also skip and (if held) skip continuously. Mode changes album -> artist -> playlist. During play 3/4 give options to repeat or shuffle track/album/artist/playlist/all. In non-shuffle play hold 5 to enter scan mode, play 10 seconds of each track. (Press again to stop scan?)

  • Press select button to get balance/fade/subwoofer and to customize equalizer curve (spin dial) and to enter setup and change setup menu options. Volume dial selects. I turned off "beep" but I'm still getting an annoying 4 tone warning when I turn off the ignition. It's a reminder to remove the face plate, but I don't want it. I don't think this can be disabled. You can also set "Local-On" here, that limits radio pickup to stronger stations. (Note: to get the radio options you need to select radio in source.)

  • USB (thumb drive - Flash Drive only?, etc) mass storage device. Press 3 or 4 to move between track, album, shuffle album and shuffle track modes. Select shuffle off or "orff" to return to normal play mode. Folders show up as albums. Max 512 albums, 65,535 tracks.

  • CD: Folders show up as albums. Max 150. Max 300 tracks and folders. 32 char for names is safest. Don't use multi-session CD.

  • iPod's supported: all recent, first generation Nano and beyond, 3rd generation iPod and beyond, iPod photo.

  • Error messages:
    OFFSET error message: it's broken. Bring to dealer. (Try reset?)
    OVERLOAD: bad USB device
Some iTunes notes for use with this device
  • You can burn your Data CDs from iTunes, mixing MP3 and non-FairPlay AAC. iTunes prefixes each file item with a number and puts everything in one folder. Note you can't create an MP3 CD from iTunes if your music is AAC, but this car stereo doesn't care. AAC is just fine. I prefer to define my Playlist in iTunes, then drag and drop the files to the desktop, organize them there into folders as desired, and then burn the CD from the desktop. There's an iTunes bug with this, if some files don't make it restart iTunes and drag 50-100 at a time.
  • iTunes can change your ID-3 tags to different versions or adjust character strings for you.
Update 5/7/07 and 7/26/07: What's not to like?

Now that I've used this device for a few months I have a few nits and one nasty.
  • nasty: The engineers weren't thinking about podcasts. The UI is optimized for navigating 3 minute tunes, not 60 minute programs. For example, the fast-forward and rewind buttons work with fixed 15 second increments, and if you slip a bit and press twice you hop to the beginning of a podcast! You can spend 5-10 minutes pressing the button as you try to find your way back to the last 10 minutes of the program (best to do this while waiting for lights to change!). Even if you're using an iPod, you're stuck with this UI because the SONY iPod interface disables the iPod's native controls. SONY should have had the fast-forward and rewind intervals scale, so if you keep pressing it would start to jump at 30 second, 1 minute, 5 minute and 10 minute intervals. This has become a bigger issue the more I use the unit. It's an interesting example of how a device incrementally adapts to new technologies. I think there were examples in early cars of devices that really only made sense in horse drawn buggies.
  • nasty nit/nasty: For weeks I thought some insane marketing droid had betrayed the engineering team and forced a marketing message to blink whenever the device was off. It was so irritating I began to fantasize about hacking the ROM. Mercifully, a comment (see below) put me out of my misery. This is the demo mode. Page 12 of the user manual tells you how to disable it. I turned this into a "nit" when I figured the "demo mode" was my mistake, but I've since learned this is the default setting. Grrr. So it's nasty nit.
  • nit/nasty: Be careful to use true USB "thumb drives", anything that "looks" like a hub (ex. removable SD card in some holders) won't work. I don't know how well a USB hard drive will work, but a car is not a great place for a hard drive.
  • nit: Every time you turn off the ignition it chirps 4 times. This can't be disabled. It's reminding me to take off the face plate, but that's a pain and I don't bother. There should be an option to turn this off.
  • nit: It would be nice to have a dedicated "play/pause" button.
  • nit: You need to really study the manual to get full value from this, but that's an inevitable consequence of a product that does so much. It's generally well designed.
  • nit: Silly equalizer presets.
  • nit: the display is not very effective. I don't really need to know the song format - ever. They could have made significantly better use of the limited real estate.
Update 8/20/08:

I've now been using this device for over a year. I suspect SONY doesn't sell the original model number by now. My original conclusions stand up well. I would add these from longterm experience:
  • I've never had to deal with the reset button.
  • You do need to keep the manual around. It's easy to forget how to adjust bass, treble, etc.
  • The head unit iPhone cable won't charge iPhone 2.0. This is because Apple removed "firewire" charging from iPhone 2.0; many care devices turn out to use the 12V firewire option (since cars use 12V electrical systems). This is a royal nuisance, though I wonder if Apple removed firewire charging to reduce the risk of electrical problems that have been found in some iPod devices.
  • The embedded software that controls a connected iPod/iPhone is quite awkward and can get confused by a video device. I prefer to choose my playlist, etc prior to connecting my device, then use the head unit only to pause and play.
  • The fast forward and rewind controls are inadequate for navigating podcasts (ex. on my USB thumb drive). It takes too long to move through 30 minutes+ of audio. SONY needed to add an "acceleration" behavior.
I hope SONY will resolve some of the above limitations in a future release. I still very much appreciate the unit and I'm glad I bought it.

Update 5/5/09: The Griffin Firewire to USB converter works for me. I can use my car stereo connector again.


Anonymous said...

You mentioned the necessity of reading the user manual to get the most out of your product, and then you have a nit/nasty complaint about the product being in demo mode. I suggest you look closely at page 12 of the user manual. ;)

JGF said...

I was about to launch a contest to hack the ROM for this radio to disable the blinking, when I got your comment. That led me to discover that SONY has fixed their web site, and I've downloaded the manual (links above).

So it appears I set the unit into Demo mode when I was playing around?!!.

I can't wait to try this out.


Anonymous said...

I have almost the exact same radio and i have the iPod adapter too. i do the same thing setting the playlist before i get started but idk about you but i kinda like being able to just use the iPod clickwheel it makes searching for music way faster. And you cant use the iPod if your using the adapter so i guess im asking if anyone can get a hack going where i can use the iPod adapter and the iPod's clickwheel also.

Anonymous said...

i too wanna know how to quickly scan my ipod. i can't believe that if you have an 80 gb ipod full of music you have to go one by one through the playlists. there has to be a better way. if not this is one of the poorest designed pieces of junk ever.

JGF said...

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to use the iPod UI but still have audio go out the adapter and charge the iPod?

Alas, no go.

Yes, the UI SONY provides is very stupid, but not quite as stupid as the lack of accelerate-fast-forward when navigating a 50 minute podcast.

Anonymous said...

I have a new-but-recently-discontinued Sony car stereo and wanted to alert others to a weird problem I had. I copied a lot of my iTunes folders onto a thumb drive, but many of them wouldn't play. It seemed the Sony unit thought they were DRM-protected, which they weren't. But some of the iTunes tracks played just fine. Finally figured out that it was the tracks I ripped in November, 2003. Reimporting them fixed that problem. So, if you've been using iTunes as long as I have, you could run into this, too. Tracks ripped in January, 2004, were fine.

Anonymous said...

I have Sony XR CA 360 head unit and I want to connect my mp3 player to it. I detached the head unit and found 'audio bus in' with RCA socket. I thought its something similar to aux in and connected my mp3 player but no sound :( what to do?

Anonymous said...

If you want to use your ipods ui then you need to get a head unit with an aux in jack. Then plugin your ipod using a headphone to headphone jack cable - awesome! The cdx-gt270 has an aux in jack, featured here:

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've got a different model Sony and it also does that beeping when I don't detach the face plate. REALLY annoying! Mine starts scrolling through the specs on the lcd after about 5 songs - pointless , i've already bought the unit so I don't need to be continuously "sold" on its capabilities.

Unknown said...

Hey guys,
I just solved a similar problem on my Sony CDX-GT330. Press and hold the select button the remote, keep pressing select until you see the screen "DEMO ON", toggle the volume button until it says "DEMO OFF", press and hold the select button again til it beeps. Done!

Anonymous said...

hmm, my unit is very similar, as for using the iPod interface while charging this IS possible. Plug in the iPod via USB, then switch to the USB input, it will detect your iPod like always, now hold the MODE button for 3-4 seconds, you should regain the iPod interface.

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