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Resplendent technology.

Pioneer AVIC-F960DAB multimedia head unit

FOR Staggering features list; Solid sound; Comprehensive format compatibility
AGAINST: Tight in-dash placement due to large cable loom

I still remember my first foray into car audio. Going back around 25 years; my grandiose electronic exposé consisted of a state of the art tape deck feeding a pair of 6x9-inch coaxials on the rear shelf. Well friends… that back then was the very definition of audio greatness; and I can still remember basking in that newfound audio aristocracy when a colleague mentioned that he owned a deck containing both a CD player and tape deck built-in. What? Multiple sources in the one unit? No way!

With such a humble beginning you can imagine why now I sit back with a Disney ‘bad guy’ chuckle as I prepare to review Pioneer’s latest masterpiece, the mighty AVIC-F960DAB, a unit possessing a functionality shopping list which ironically reads akin to an actual – very long – shopping list.

Full o’ features

Abounding with a wealth of functionality, you’ll require at least a few hours just to familiarise yourself with the new AVIC-F960DAB. Starting with the input methodology; it comes equipped with Pioneer’s slim profile disc mechanism, albeit with numerous little refinements affected in order to allow it to live within the limited confines of a chassis packed full of electronics.

It’ll handle all primary types of the plastic hardware such as CD, VCD and DVD. On the software side it deals with the usual suspects including MP3, WMA, Xvid, AAC, DivX and MP4. But wait, it gets even better. This unit also handles FLAC files! FLAC is an acronym for Free Lossless Audio Codec and FLAC is widely recognised as being a far superior, if not the best, algorithmic method for audio compression. There’s also a mini-SD card reader on the front while on the rear side resides the remainder of the physical inputs starting with twin high speed version 2.0 USB inputs. Between this and the SD reader you can interface all manner of digital storage devices from sticks to hard drives.

Next up are the BUS and HDMI ports for using the AppRadio system via your phone – more on that later. Adjacent are the rest of the standard inputs such as audio visual auxiliary inputs, twin reverse and front camera ins that don’t need to be physically switched, microphone and steering wheel control in addition to one which is not too common; the VBA port. This acronym stands for Vehicle Bus Adaptor and, via a separately sold unit, it allows the AVIC-F960DAB to interface with your vehicle’s digital network, thereby displaying all manner of car related information to the screen such as climate controls, parking sensors, performance, kinetic information and so on. Puns aside; the AVIC-F960DAB is pioneering this technology and I’ll hazard the guess it’s only a matter of time before we start tailoring our car’s attributes through our head units.

Moving into the digital realm, we being with the latest Bluetooth 3.0+EDR chipset built-in and the main advantage of the newest version is its speed; it’s much faster when interacting with your phone, whether you’re using its telephonic abilities or whether you’re streaming music. Those more astute will notice the unit also comes equipped with a digital audio broadcast chip-set and once programmed it provides crystal clear digital radio thanks to a signal to noise ration of 85dB, with an enormous number of preset slots available. In the interest of honesty we must make mention of Sydney’s pathetically weak streaming signal strength, stating that any dropout issues are more likely due to this rather than anything Pioneer has underdone. If you continue to struggle with DAB reception in your area, a suggestion would be to install your station’s app on the phone and stream it. If you’re one of the few still clinging to old school analogue you’ve been given a reprieve here with Pioneer including an analogue radio tuner chip set which offers 18 FM presets and six AM presets.

A substantial portion of the AVIC-F960DAB’s entertainment will come via AppRadio. When you first set the unit up you choose whether you’re using an iPhone or Android platform, upon which point you’re then able to install various apps on your chosen device. These apps can then be manipulated though your phone via the head unit, with the face of the head unit basically mirroring the face on your phone. While the app list was a little thin to start with, the coming of age has seen this list expand to the point where now there is an app for just about anything you desire, from hospitality and entertainment through to performance and navigation.  Two of the most popular apps utilised are Aha and Pandora.

Aha! Moment

Aha is a system that allows the head unit to interact with you, firstly by organising your favourite content into personalised groupings such as music, radio, podcasts, traffic, weather, e-books, Twitter, SMS, Facebook and the like; all of which it can then relay to you verbally. Many of these are done in real time using the GPS and your phone’s locator (handy for traffic updates and amenity searching for example).

Pandora on the other hand is an internet radio application which basically allows you to select a genre, song, album and artist you prefer and it will automatically select and play others along a similar vein, with you approving or disapproving tracks as it plays them, allowing the system to build a comprehensive and accurate database of songs you’ll enjoy.

MirrorLink is integrated and CarPlay can be easily installed giving you even more entertainment flexibility. Developed by the Car Connectivity Consortium and Apple respectively these two communication technologies are similar to AppRadio however rather than running only specifically designed apps they instead provide you with unprecedented access to your smartphone, allowing it to integrate with the AVIC-F960DAB before giving you access to a fair greater percentage of your phones abilities; everything from music and video streaming through to navigation. Some will question why you’d want the other technologies if this one is present and all I’ll say is although there are idiosyncratic differences it’s actually not a bad question to ask. But hey; we live in an age where our very worth is bestowed by our gadget’s abilities!

With the exhaustive list of entertainment sources covered let’s now concern ourselves with getting info out of the unit. Starting at the bottom this begins with 4-volts front, rear and subwoofer RCA pre-outs or a specially designed internally-mounted MOSFET amplifier which can output 22 watts continuous or 50 watts maximum at 4-ohms. For extra flexibility, you can select one pair to run bridged, the 2-ohms load being presented to each channel causing them to effectively double their output. This is all performed with a total harmonic distortion of 5 percent, which is around half of many other units on the market. The unit even outputs an audio visual signal to keep your rear passengers entertained on those longer drives too.

Pioneer has come under challenge by some enthusiasts when it came to its existing processing suite in some AVIC units so in retort it’s incorporated a DSP that’s second only to the mighty PRS units. Starting with the fader, balance and loudness, you then continue down the rabbit hole with a 13-band, graphic equaliser with frequency centres set on 50Hz, 80Hz, 125Hz, 200Hz, 315Hz, 500Hz, 800kHz, 1.25kHz, 2kHz, 3.15kHz, 5kHz, 8kHz, 12.5kHz with boost or attenuation of 12dB.

There are numerous preset curves in addition to two custom positions for your own tuning preferences. The satellite channels feature high pass crossovers settable at 50Hz, 63Hz, 80Hz, 100Hz, 125Hz, 160Hz and 200Hz with a 6dB/12dB/18dB slope. The subwoofer section features similar frequency points as low-pass and includes a 0- or 180-degree phase switch. Next in line are the speaker level controls which allow for -24dB to +10dB adjustments, before leading onto a dedicated time alignment section allowing for 0cm to 500cm distance delay. You have the option also to auto-equalise and the unit will set each of these sections for you.

Despite navigation apps being readily available via your smartphone, they’re made positively redundant by the significant navigation suite that comes already installed in the AVIC-F960DAB. Employing Navteq navigation software including 4WD off-road mapping and SUNA live traffic updates you’re well equipped to keep on the move. The system is extremely accurate thanks to a positioning system that utilises your cars speed pulse in conjunction with up to 12 different channels at any one time to fixate its location. There’s also voice guidance and text to speech ability, high resolution two or three dimension maps with landmarks included in the display, school zones, fixed red light and speed camera locations and an extensive point of interest database containing over 750,000 items all searchable by name or by distance from your current location.

Although not dissimilar to its siblings, the appearance has been changed a little via the use of matt rather than gloss black; giving it a clean and professional look, if not a tad industrial. The 6.1-inch anti-reflective TFT touch screen is offset to the right and is coated to resist fingerprints. It offers a superior WVGA resolution of 1,152,000 pixels or 2400 x 480 (16:9 ratio) and is backlit with super bright LEDs. Lining the left hand side is a range of primary buttons and the disc and SD slot to live north of everything at the top. The colours of the button illumination can be tailored to suit your car’s dash colour and the deck comes pre-loaded with what I can only describe as woeful wallpapers so get your own loaded on quick smart! You can also arrange menu functionality into a favourites list which is very cool. The packaging is more refined then previous units and included within are all the looms, aerials and other hardware you’ll require to get the unit into your car and running. A disc containing manuals for the entire AVIC range is also included. The unit is fairly straightforward to install however once you apply good old physics you may struggle – fitting all those cables behind any dash is going to be a challenge; period. When you first fire the unit up, you’re asked to run through standard setup options including region, languages and the like. You then move through to the ancillary items such as look, feel and apps before ultimately arriving at sound.

Although the AVIC-F960DAB offers the complete audio visual experience it’s your ears and the aural environment that’ll be the primary aspect getting a workout – so that’s where we started. Using my test disc to check for noise levels; naturally the pre-outs present very little in the way of additional artifacts – with up to 4-volts outputting this is hardly a shock. Speaker level outputs are also virtually noiseless. What we find amazing is how accurate Pioneer manages to get the latter; even with the distortion level where it is these outputs put most other decks to shame so far as accuracy is concerned.

Moving from disc to other music sources; integration to the deck is seamless on all but a few apps, as the software used is undergoing constant improvement. Whether using iPhone5 with its plethora of apps or just a straight USB stick containing MP3 files selection, control and manipulation were fluid, instantaneous and in the case of actual playback incredibly precise – gone are the days of five second waits and fuzzy sounding music due to software incompatibilities.

Using the navigation allows you to get to where you’re going with minimal fuss and affords you the opportunity to admire the brilliantly bright and sharp image; and if you think that’s impressive just wait until you watch an actual movie. All I can say is wow!

Conclusion

It doesn’t take genius to predict the AVIC-F960DAB is going to impress with its wealth of abilities. And after using this virtual Swiss army knife of receivers for a few hours, I found I wasn’t quite prepared for just how much it is capable of. Its feature repertoire is simply staggering and encapsulates everything you’ll need from analogue through to the digital realm… and it brings it all together with terrific rapport. A high-tech tour-de-force.

 

Pioneer AVIC-F960DAB multimedia head unit

Type: Double-DIN multimedia head unit

Features: CD, VCD, DVD, MP3, Xvid, DivX, WMV, AAC, FLAC. Bluetooth, DAB, AppRadio, Aha, Pandora, MirrorLink, CarPlay. Multiple audio visual inputs and outputs

Power handling: 4 x 22 watts continuous (4-ohms), 4 x 50 maximum (4-ohms), 1 x 70 watts (2-ohms)

Price: $1699