If I had a dime…
If given a dime for every time I’m told there’s something new and awesome in the audio world, I’d probably have quite a few by now! Seems that many companies out there like to rush new technology to market, often with less than optimal preparation or testing. So, when I heard that Clarion had something new, an eye roll was the first response that came to mind.
But hang on… this is Clarion. One of the oldest and most respected car audio companies in the world, and one with plenty of runs on the board. Not to mention the financial muscle and the know-how to get a product developed and to market in a professional manner. So on reflection, I said yes please, I’d love to review their latest and greatest.
Whose coffin is that?
The delivery from Clarion had been expected all week, but when querying the delay, I was informed the shipping manager had decided to build a crate to ship the review samples. A crate? What was he shipping, multiple 1000 watts monoblocs and half a dozen 15-inch subs to go with them?
When the courier finally staggered down the drive with his trolley (yeah, trolley) I was surprised to see that yes, there was a crate being delivered. About a metre long, it was very nicely made and even had its own little skid to sit on. Cool indeed. After signing for the delivery, I went to pick up the crate, thinking they’d just packed the samples in a crate for protection, but no. There was a good 30-40kg of weight involved as well. Curiouser and curiouser for sure!
Unscrewing the lid of the crate, I half expected Count Dracula to arise, but what I saw was a very well packed and presented selection of audio. Two medium sized bookshelf speaker boxes, along with several smaller packages and masses of wiring (along with those cursed foam peanuts, the bane of a reviewer’s life, as a few always seem to escape no matter what!). But thankfully, the guys at Clarion had followed a logical path with labelling, wiring and setup descriptions.
So after unpacking everything and laying it all out, it became clear how to connect and assemble the system. And yes, this was a complete system, from source to speakers, along with a 240 volts to 12 volts supply to power everything up.
Starting at the beginning (always a good place) there is the amazing Clarion NX706AU head unit. To describe this as simply a head unit is to do it a disservice, as it incorporates so much more. It’s a CD player, infotainment source, phone connection with its ownke ypad and menu access to all the various connected devices. And it continues to the AM/FM receiver, GPS navigation system, 7-inch touchscreen, Siri Eyes Free, HDMI and Hi-Res Format Support and 4-channel built-in amplification.
In fact, due to space and time constraints, it’s been decided that a full technical review will follow on the NX706AU at a later date. Ditto for the other components of this system. But, what I will attempt to do here is to give you, the reader, my impressions of each individual piece, as well as a comprehensive insight into just what the Clarion FDS system is capable of.
Gateway to heaven
Following the NX706AU, we have the Clarion FDS-Z3 Processor and Controller. These two are the gateway and control centre for the Clarion Full Digital System (FDS as you may have guessed already). Here’s where the inputs from your source are connected, whether that be a head unit, such as the NX706AU, your Android or Apple Smart Phone, iPod, Tablet or CD Player or even an existing, or factory fitted head unit. In fact, almost anything that has a compatible digital or analogue output can be connected.
In addition to being able to directly input digital signals of a high-resolution audio source (up to 96kHz) with a USB connection, the analogue signals can also be converted to digital audio data with high precision 96kHz sampling. It is also possible to operate 96kHz sampling frequency waves through all channels ranging from DSP audio source signal processing to digital transmissions to speakers.
The FDS Z3 recognises USB and Optical inputs, as well as standard analogue RCA. Certainly everything I could lay my hands on here could be connected and immediately registered, via the intuitive Auto Sensing System. The FDS Display Screen is a small and simple device, with a nice, tactile volume control, a ‘Menu Button’ and a ‘Set Button’. Anyone born in the last 50 years should have no difficulty navigating and setting the menu options. The Volume Control runs from -00dB to -99dB, in 1dB increments. This screen could be mounted easily anywhere on your dashboard and would not need to be drilled in. The system consumes minimal power (about a fifth of comparable systems), is compact for installation in today’s vehicles and yet is said to be capable of the equivalent of 1400 watts of output.
Outputs from the FDS Z3 are where the fun really begins with Clarions FDS. Running out to connect with the Clarion FDS Z7 165mm Digital Speaker are a pair of FDS speaker output cables… but they’re actually not speaker cables. They are signal cables. Now, those among you paying attention may have noted that there has been no mention of amplification so far. In fact, one of the revolutionary technologies that Clarion has developed for the FDS is the amplifier setup. The FDS Z7 driver contains its own amplification – all six channels of it! This also means the driver contains six voice coils! Yes, six voice coils within a single diver, each with its very own dedicated amplifier.
Freed from other duties, this amplification can be dedicated to that one particular range of frequencies it’s been told to reproduce. Just mind boggling and takes the idea of “Active Speakers” to a whole new level. How this is accomplished is almost in the realm of science fiction and in fact, not too many years ago, it was just that. The control, accuracy, linearity and freedom from distortion and interference this technology is capable has to be heard to be believed. More on that soon…
The amplifier itself consists of an LSI (Large Scale Integrated) chip that’s mounted inside the driver, effectively making the system into… yes, you’ve guessed it, a Full Digital System. So, from the moment the “1s” and “0s” leave your source, they remain in the digital domain throughout processing, separation, distribution and amplification. The LSI becomes the last point in the digital chain. The signal only becomes analogue with the cone’s physical movement, which then produces the sound waves. In fact, the FDS Z7 Driver itself is actually the DAC. Coming to the FDS tweeters, they’re actually powered by their own LSI chip on-board the FDS Z3 itself, with an output of 4.5 watts per channel into a 6-ohms load. There’s a Z25W 10-inch self-powered FDS subwoofer and this takes its signal from the FDS Z3 and power from the system’s 12 volts supply. An additional, second Z25W is provided for with another output of its own.
It takes a while to get one’s head around what’s really going on here, and here’s why I believe the FDS is revolutionary in the true sense of the word. Not only does the technology integrate with the system almost seamlessly, the Human-Technology interface is equally seamless in its operation and execution. I’ll attempt to explain what I mean by this. Technology can remain hidden from view in many systems. It’s there, but it’s working in the background, getting on with its job, but not drawing attention to itself other than in improvements to the sound or in ease of operation. With the Clarion FDS, it would have been so easy for Clarion to announce the FDS to the world, prove its capabilities via the obvious jump in sound quality, then leave it at that. Instead, Clarion has released an app to go along with the FDS. Let me introduce you to Z-Tune. Z-Tune will expand your enjoyment of the Clarion FDS many times over. It’s more than just a tuning system, or an installer’s ideal tweaking and setup tool or something you’ll get bored with after using it a few times. This app is an insight into just what this technology is able to do for you, the listener.
Z-Tune is available from the App Store for Apple, or Google Plus for Android users. It downloads in a minute or two and is extremely easy to navigate and understand. Now, to my mind, as an ex installer, audiophile, tech geek and hopeless tinkerer, Z-Tune is about one of the coolest audio tools I’ve come across.
Interfacing with the FDS Z-3 is via a USB lead and the features available are something else. Additionally, all changes are made in real time and can be done on each individual driver, one at a time. Individual drivers can be disabled, or one channel can be completely isolated allowing for changes to be heard clearly without interference. Adjustments can be made via up/down buttons in 0.5db increments, or with a “finger swipe” on your device on the displayed graph. So, if you already have, say, an idea of the shape of the curve you want on the 31-Band Equaliser function, you can simply go ahead and experiment with it. If it’s to your liking, you can then propagate this to the other channel.
Equally, the full array of drivers in the system, whether it be a simple two drivers per channel setup, or with the optional two Z25W powered subwoofers, can all be individually Time Aligned, one at a time. There’s a neat little display of a car seat and figure that moves relative to each driver as the Time Alignment is adjusted. The crossover function is just as comprehensive, showing crossover slopes, gain, frequency and cut-off. Again, this can be adjusted individually for each channel, or you can go mad with your finger, shaping the slopes and gain into whatever “fantastical” combination that comes to mind! You can save four different custom settings, plus Z-Tunes “Intelligent Tune” setting and apply them at any time.
All settings can be restored to the Factory Preset ‘flat’ at any time, if you get lost in all the changes. Other settings can be imported into Z-Tune as well, so if you hear another system you like and want to experiment, you can take those settings and apply them to your own installation. It’s just an amazingly supple and intuitive interface. Given the results of tuning are heard in real time and are immediately noticeable due to the sound quality and responsive nature of the drivers, it’s an absolute delight to use.
Finally, we get to what this systems capable of, in terms of sound. Strangely enough, given this system was kindly configured by Clarion to be used in a room, with power supply and wiring all ready to go, it took a surprising amount of time for it to break-in and settle down. Initially, the sound was sharp, detailed, dynamic and very fatiguing. Almost too digital and in the high frequencies, likely to set your teeth on edge. A solid day of playing a variety of music at varying levels had the desired effect. Everything smoothed-out considerably and the sound became much more cohesive and enjoyable. All settings were left at factory, just for now.
The Z7 Speakers and the FDS Tweeters had been pre-mounted in small bookshelf enclosures. The Z25W Subwoofer was also enclosed in its own housing separately. The speaker enclosures were only minimally ported, where the grommet for the wiring was fitted. To start with, I used the NX706AU as a source, for both CD and digital playing. Connection via the iPhone was seamless, as was the unit’s ability to switch between sources on the fly. The sound quality was up there with some of the best head units I’ve reviewed and if anything needed to be changed, well then the Z-Tune app was only a swipe away on the iPad!
But, of course, we can’t help ourselves can we… Fully knowing the NX706AU was due for its own review, I switched to plugging sources directly into the FDS Z3. Streaming Spotify via Wi-Fi on an iPad and then connecting to a preamplifier, or DAC has never been my idea of the best way to listen. Yes, I know, it’s convenient and easy and there’s umpteen zillion tracks available and it can be made better with an off-board DAC and better USB cable and so forth and so on.
Playing like this into the FDS was a bit of an eye-opener. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was the best I’ve heard, but with a few exceptions, it’s the best Spotify has ever sounded. There was clarity, depth and emotion, with plenty of rhythm. Dynamics were tight and, well… “expressive”. I spent a very enjoyable hour delving deeply into the Spotify universe. But what I really wanted was a source that would stretch the FDS’s legs. Something that I knew well and something that could be used to gauge just what this setup could do.
My current reference Redbook and HDCD disc spinner is a modified Cary 303/200. I know it well and have owned and listened to it for more than three years. Connected via analogue inputs to the FDS Z-3, it was auto-sensed in a flash. First in the drawer was Splendour In The Grass by Pink Martini. Track 9, “Tuca Tuca” features the vocals of China Forbes. Soaring to just below the point of raucousness, her voice is a haunting one and can often sound hard. Closely miked, every detail is revealed in this track. The FDS did very well indeed, but there was some muddiness in the upper mid-bass area. Barely noticeable, but after all, I’m here to be picky. Z-Tune fixed it in a jiffy.
Raising the crossover point of the Z-7 Midrange driver by just two clicks gave more definition in the lower registers of her voice, as well as taking a bit of the “heat” out of the tweeter output. “Ha-ha, piece of cake, this mixing business” I thought to myself (knowing full well I was kidding myself, but feeling pretty good anyway). Back to the track again and yes, definitely better. Dynamics are great on this track and the FDS did not disappoint here either. Leading edge transients were some of the sharpest, tightest and most “alive” sounding I’ve ever heard from a system this size. You felt you could reach out and grab the drummer’s sticks.
“Nina Nanna” is the album’s first track and again, China Forbes is lead on vocals. Sung in Neapolitan (the group sings in ten different languages) this is a lullaby for a sleeping sailor and is full of emotion and sympathy. A good track to see how a system can reproduce tone and meaning. The FDS managed this with aplomb, making you forget the electronics and just flow with the music and the singers voice.
A real workout was in order next, and what better than Supertramp’s 10th album Some Things Never Change circa 1977. With Rick Davies on vocals, it’s a punchy, fun, swinging tribute to the music of the time. In fact, it stands up equally well today and the strong instrumental interplay is a superb test of any system’s ability to “keep up” with the music. I highly recommend this album and it’s been in the arsenal of “test” discs for many years. Track number 1 “It’s a Hard World” is such a great example of dynamic, uncompressed swings in volume and frequency, you could almost see the sweat on the speaker cones as they were given a real workout. Time to “man-up” Clarion FDS! And man up it certainly did. With a few stops for tweaking of subwoofer volume (down a bit), midbass gain (up a bit) and tweeter output at the very highest frequencies (down a bit), my feet went up on the footrest, my eyes closed and off I drifted, with feet tapping in time. Just an absolute delight. On to track number 5, the title track “Some Things Never Change”. This song features some very deep, very dynamic double bass notes, where the notes descend slowly, one at a time, almost like footsteps on a staircase. It’s immediately obvious if a system cannot follow this, as the bottom steps are simply missing, or completely “woolly” in nature. The FDS followed faithfully, although the last and lowest note was a bit loose. No foul there, as most systems without a big subwoofer, or multiple low bass drivers, also miss out on it. But the other notes were all present and accounted for. And, they had texture, depth and a defined start and finish to each note. Trust me, that’s pretty rare to find. The whole track really moved along and there was a great sense of pace to it.
All the lovely sound cues to the recording environment were in their right places and the FDS hit all the “audiophile marks” with utmost precision and panache. And of course, as your mileage may indeed vary ( and everyone’s does), with the Clarion FDS, you simply tune it to your environment, your music and your tastes. Simple.
The Clarion FDS was one of the most enjoyable systems I’ve reviewed to date. Combining the utmost in versatility, with a simple and intuitive human interface makes Clarion’s FDS system something that you actually look forward to exploring and using.
Add to this the superb sound reproduction, the almost limitless “tune-ability” and the fact that using and listening to the FDS is just so much fun, and you have a truly excellent product, by any standard you care to name.
Clarion FDS system
Price: Z3 Processor + Tweeter + Z7 Driver $1,999,
Z7 (Additional driver) $999, Z25W Subwoofer $999
+ Advanced technologies& superlative engineering; Cutting edge performance
- Needs thorough running-in
Type: Full Digital System with Z3 Sound Processor, Z7 Full Digital Speaker and Z25W 10-inch Full Digital Subwoofer
Features: 32-Bit Sharc DSP, 96kHz resolution, Z-Tune App, 25mm soft dome, 170mm midrange driver, 10-inch powered subwoofer