For me, the season of giving came early. This summer I was contacted by two PR firms who wanted me to test out some new Bluetooth, phone enabled in-dash car stereo systems. Both requests for review were unsolicited and completely independent of each other. And since they both offered me the units for free including the installation, that was something I just couldn’t turn down. I did warn both of them that I would be doing not only a head-to-head comparison, but that it would be a balanced review, highlighting positives AND negatives.
So let’s set the framework here. We have two very different companies within the same space producing similar products. One company, Sony, has been doing Consumer Electronics and specifically car stereos for many many years, in fact, my first car stereo was a Sony. The other company, Parrot, is French with a US presence and not as well known in the US as the Sony brand. Sony manufactures "all things electronic" it seems (I’m currently doing a big project with them called the DigiDads project – this Sony review has absolutely NOTHING to do with that project and is completely coincidental), and Parrot is much more of a niche market player, focusing mainly on auto stereo components. I believe that Parrot is much larger in Europe than it is here.
The stereos were installed in two different autos. I realize to really make an apples to apples comparison that they would have needed to have been installed and tested in the same cars in the same environmental conditions. Unfortunately, I don’t have the luxury of that type of setup and the two decks are actually quite different in many ways that I’m not sure that it would have mattered that much. Regardless, I will point out differences, positives, negatives and any environmental issues that may affect my opinions.
My testing process is less than scientific. I wanted to see if I could truly mimic real-life scenarios, since that is how most people would be using these stereos. Having scientifically sterile environments for acoustic testing, ambient noise isolation and dynamic range measurement is not something that most everyday users are interested in. They more want to know how the device works, if it works and what does or doesn’t work well under normal driving conditions.
I received the Sony Xplod several months ago, complete with a pre-set installer. A month or so later, the Parrot folks contacted me and after some discussion, they too agreed to send me the new RKi8400 unit, complete with an installer as well (which happened to be the same one). The Sony was installed in a 2001 Honda Odyssey (the family taxi) and the Parrot installed in my "famous" (read my on-going clear coat issue) 1998 Honda Accord. While not the same environments, they were close enough to the "real world" that they were prefect for my testing.
I intend this review to be somewhat comprehensive from an end user experience standpoint. I have broken the review into up into a few distinct sections: About the Parrot, About the Sony, and Head-to-Head & Final Thoughts. Unfortunately, I cannot cover every single aspect of each of these products so if you have specific questions, please post a comment to this review and I will answer them accordingly.
Before I dive in to the specifics of each device, I want to talk about some general commonalities between these two devices. Lists are best soâ€¦
â€¢ Have AM/FM radios
â€¢ Are Speaker Phones that connect to Bluetooth-enabled phones
â€¢ Support HD Radio add-ons
â€¢ Support Bluetooth (Hands Free and Audio Playback)
â€¢ Have USB connectors
â€¢ Have graphical interface
â€¢ Have internal amplifier
â€¢ Have removable faceplates
â€¢ Support multiple paired phones
â€¢ Come with mics
But that is about where the similarities end. Read on for more details.
About the Parrot
Since the RKi8400 was installed in my preferred family vehicle (e.g., the one I drive), I had the most hands-on experience with it. This is a new product for Parrot who mainly deals with smaller Bluetooth car (and motorcycle) devices. This is a full featured Bluetooth and Telephony integrated unit designed to make music, radio, phone and other playback easy and straight forward.
Before I go into the product itself, I do need to be completely honest with my experience with my initial tests. As I had told the Parrot folks that I was going to do another in-dash stereo review, they kindly rushed me out the one sample that they had in their US office and quickly lined up the installer. I got it installed quickly and immediately encountered several issues with its functionality, stuff that in my opinion, made the experience horrible. The device that I got came with Firmware version 2.01. While initially I was rather wowed with the beautiful 2" color screen, I started running into some issues where the Bluetooth audio would compete against music being piped in via an iPod/iPhone connector. I had static and pops and couldn’t make phone calls easily. When I tried to use the iPhone/iPod music playback with the cable connected, the Parrot would flip over to Bluetooth playback. I simply couldn’t use the device when it was connected to the iPod connector and had to rely solely on BT audio. At times, the device would freeze and I would have to take the faceplate off to â€œrebootâ€ it.
Luckily the RKi8400 comes equipped with a way to flash the firmware. By this point, I was working with some senior tech people at Parrot. They tried to provide me with a pre-release version of some new firmware that was supposed to fix the issue. Unfortunately, I could not get the firmware to flash the device so I had to wait until the official release came out. Once firmware 2.03 arrived, I tried flashing the RKi8400â€¦it, too, didn’t work. So, I was shipped out a new faceplate that had the firmware already installed and I returned my original faceplate. It turns out that my 1st faceplate was a pre-production sample, which explains why it didn’t work. So now, armed with the latest firmware and a production version of the faceplate I was able to start testing.
Design – The RKi8400 has a very unique design. For starters, and probably one of the coolest things is the fact that right behind the faceplate, it is hollow. This is by design actually, since within this space is a USB connector and an iPod/iPhone docking connector. The idea is that you connect your iPhone to iPod to the RKi8400 and cover it up with the faceplate. I actually find this design to be quite innovative as well as safe, especially with all of the recent hype around banning texting and driving. If your iPhone is connected to the Parrot and tucked away within the little cubby hole with the faceplate in place, there is no way to look at emails or texts while you are driving. You simply have the Parrot interface to navigate through whatever music you have on your device or make hands-free phone calls.
The front of the RKi8400 sports a dial-pad for the phone (also used for radio station presets among other things). In the middle is a large dial that is used for a variety of things including navigation through the device/music,/contacts, adjusting volume and other preferences and selecting items (by clicking it). To the right is a large, 2.4 inch TFT color screen. On the side of the faceplate is a SD card insert and on the bottom is a micro USB connector. The faceplate detaches quite easily and is held in place partially by some magnets on the right; on the left, there is a latch that holds the faceplate in place. Attaching and detaching the faceplate is very easy.
Screen – A little more about the screen. The screen is quite nice, actually since you can select different themes or pictures that display on it (I have a warm, orange â€œislandâ€ theme). When your iPod or iPhone is playing through the RKi8400, it displays the album artwork (if any is attached to the songs). I personally like this touch as it makes your stereo seem much more like your iPod or computer. The large screen also displays the album name, artist and song, phone contact/caller information, radio station info and song/artist details (if broadcasted by the station) and a variety of other items. You can dim the entire RKi8400 by clicking and holding the volume since the screen and buttons can be a bit of a distraction when driving at night.
You need to get the RKi8400 professionally installed but our installer took only about an hour to do it. Installation includes a double microphone (used for noise canceling) so a good installer will be able to carefully hide the cords for the mic. The RKi8400 also has the ability to connect an HD Radio turner or other types of auxiliary audio devices.
Pairing – Pairing the RKi8400 is straight forward and you can pair up to 10 phones. Once a phone is paired, it is remembered. That means that you simply turn on your phone and when you enter the car, it automatically connects for phone and BT streaming.
Menu Navigation – Another things that the RKi8400 has that is pretty interesting is that many of the menus are spoken as you dial through them. This helps you keep your eyes on the road eliminating the distraction of having to repeatedly look down at the deck. As you scroll through your phone contacts, for example, the Parrot makes an attempt to pronounce the name of the person in your address book. What I found funny was that the voice had an accent (I guess because Parrot is a French company). My daughter and I laughed when we scrolled to "Dialed Calls" which the Parrot pronounced "Dee-Led Calls". (You can hear an example of this in the video below.)
Phone – Also built into the RKi8400 is the ability to do speech recognition for calling people. To initiate the voice recognition, you simply press the green (answer) button and the Parrot asks you for the name of the contact that you want to call. If there are multiple numbers for that contact, you will be asked which number to call. You can confirm the choice by saying "Call" or "Yes" or the number type (Mobile, Work, Home, etc.). In my tests, however, the speech recognition didnâ€™t work that well. I believe that it should have a name confirmation process instead of just dialing the number. You can also assign speed dials to frequently used numbers. To use, choose the "Phone" source (via the big dial), then press and hold the appropriate Speed Dial key for 2 seconds. Lastly, when a call comes into your phone, the RKi8400 will announce the name of the caller, assuming that their name and number are stored in your phonebook. This is very handy and a good safety feature to have, again, keeping your eyes on the road.
Audio – In terms of audio, there are many different ways to play music, etc. You can, as I mentioned, stream music via Bluetooth (I love using Pandora on my iPhone and frequently stream all sorts of music that way). You can use the iPod connector (assuming you have a compatible iPhone or iPod), which, in my opinion, has the best audio quality, much better than (flakey) FM and quite a bit better than even BT streaming. You can also put music onto an SD card (or micro/mini SD card with adapter) assuming the files are MP3 or WMA. Similarly, you can use a USB device to hold your music. I put a bunch of children’s songs onto a flash drive and just keep this in the car. At first I had some issues with this because I put the music in Directories and didn’t select that option. Best bet is to have properly tagged MP3 files. You can also connect a CD player to the front using a jack cable.
Radio – The radio works as expected. It has a bit of an annoying feature where if a station loses its tuning, the audio playback stops altogether. If you have the RDS enabled, the RKi8400 will scan and automatically change the frequency of the current radio station if the signal is too weak. If the signal is strong, the RKi8400 does pull in and display any additional information broadcast like station name, song and artist.
The current version of the firmware (2.03) seems to be much better than what I first started with. I do like the ability to upgrade the firmware with more features or fixes. However, I still feel that the RKi8400 needs a lot more polish and testing. I encounter frequent BT audio stutters, which I can duplicate (and I have sent on to their support team and they confirmed the issue). Also, I wish there was a clock display on the device; there currently isn’t but a firmware update could potentially rectify this feature request. Lastly in the complaints column, there is a fan that is built in to the faceplate (I believe). With my first faceplate, the fan noise verged on being unacceptable. My replacement faceplate was much better, the fan wouldn’t stay on as long, was not quite as loud or high-pitched, but you can still hear it if the car is off or very quiet inside. Usually, powering off takes a few seconds (you see a "Good Bye" on the screen) and the fan, I’m guessing, cools off the faceplate before you remove it.
Below is a quick video review of the Parrot:
About the Sony
Sony has been manufacturing in-dash car stereos for many years. My first deck was a Sony back in the late 80’s. They have literally â€œbeen around the blockâ€ a few times in a few cars. The funny thing is, they haven’t even changed the "remove your stereo tone" reminder that plays after you turn off your car so you don’t forget to take out your stereo. When I first heard that tone, I immediately flashed back to that first Sony stereo.
The Sony Xplod MEX-BT5700U is a very polished device. While a bit "youthful" in look and features (with names like ZAPPIN and Quick BrowZer), it delivered solid performance and a good mix of functions, many of which are shared with the Parrot. However, while these two devices do have similar functions, how they are implemented are extremely different. However, unlike the Parrot, the Sony seems to be pretty closed down. I couldn’t find anything on firmware updates for the Xplod. But there is a reason for this, I believe. Where the Parrot seemed to "need work done", the Sony was "already dialed in."
First impressions of this top-of-the-line Bluetooth-enabled in-dash stereo were quite good. You have the standard features: AM/FM Radio, CD (note, the Parrot didn’t come with a CD player), BT audio, cell phone integration, USB connector, Satellite/HD Radio capable, removable faceplate, and LCD screen.
Connecting to the Xplod initially via Bluetooth was easy. The Sony can remember up to 9 devices. Once paired you can use the Xplod for calls as well as music streaming. The Sony display will show the signal strength and battery status of your paired cell phone.
Design – The front of the Xplod has a lot of various buttons for different functions. While eventually I figured out what most of these buttons did, this was one of my few areas of complaints about the Xplod: too many nondescript buttons. When you are driving, you frequently have to do a lot of things by touch. For example, having preset buttons (along the bottom row) that also act as pausing and shuffling albums is a bit difficult. Being a parent, you frequently have to pause music to answer a child’s question. Finding the right button to pause the music quickly is critical. The Parrot simply had a toggle on the Play button for Pause. There is a larger dial that is used for a variety of functions including scrolling through lists and answering/hanging up calls (by pushing). Many of the main functions are in buttons to the left of the dial including seeking, selecting the source, list/browsing, Bluetooth settings button and mode selection. I found it a bit difficult to distinguish what button did what without taking my eyes off the road to look.
Remote – Luckily, the MEX-BT5700U also comes with a full-featured remote control. This is great for so many reason. For starters, you can have the remote in a cup holder near you to pick up to be able to control pretty much every aspect of the Xplod. But even better (for parents especially), you can give the remote to a passenger and let them control the Xplodâ€™s music destiny. My kids love being able to play songs again and again (and again and again) so they now have the ability to do this.
CD Player – After using the Parrot for a few weeks, it was actually nice to use the Sony to play CDs, something that you can’t do with the Parrot. The front panel of the Sony flips down and CD’s can be easily inserted/removed, without having to turn off the stereo. The Parrot, instead, innovates by using the space that would have held the CD drive with empty storage space (with the connectors).
Audio – I found the Bluetooth streaming playback to be very good, I would almost say it sounds better than that of the Parrot. Also, streaming was consistent without any dropping, popping or crackling. You can also connect iPods and iPhones via a USB connector (actually there are many different USB MP3 players that "should" work, however I have heard that there are some incompatible devices so be sure to test it out if you can). I did run into an issue where I connected my iPhone via USB and Bluetooth simultaneously but I could not get the music to work on the iPod mode. Also, the Sony takes over full control of the iPod/iPhone interface when it is connected, however, Sony does have a nice feature that allows a passenger to actually control the iPod interface.
Menu Navigation – Using two of the trendier named features (ZAPPIN & Quick-BrowZer), you can quickly navigate through songs or artists – the magnifying glass lets you quickly browse by categories. The ZAPPIN features lets you hear brief playback of a series of tracks of music. The playback can be 6, 9 or 30 seconds and is usually within the song. Once you locate the song you want to hear, just press the ZAP button again and the song plays. This is a nice feature to have since it doesn’t require the driver to look at the display, they just listen to listen for the desired song.
Phone – The phone works well, however, seemed to pick up a bit more ambient noise than with the Parrot. This could be do to a variety of reasons, though, including different car interior space (Parrot installed in a sedan, Sony in a minivan) or the fact that the Parrot sported a 2 mic, noise canceling setup, while the Sony was a single mic.
Like the Parrot, you have full access to your cell phone’s address book for making calls (which you can store on the Sony too). Navigation I found to be a bit trickier than with the Parrot but you use the same process that you do use for browsing for music. The Xplod does support voice dialing if your cell phone has this capability. I have always found this to be somewhat difficult to do, though, on both devices simply because ambient noise makes it difficult sometimes for the receiver to understand the commands or names.
Lastly, the Xplod has a very large amount of customizable settings. You have full access to sound settings like equalizer, DSO (Dynamic Sound Organizer), Fader/Balance, subwoofer tuning and other audio levels. Some of the other system settings allow you to change the display, time, background image, ZAPPIN time, FM tuning, and a lot more. While the display is nice and fairly easy to understand with visual icons, I still preferred the bright, large, color display of the Parrot.
Below is a quick video review of the Sony:
Head-to-Head & Final Thoughts
These 2 in-dash Bluetooth-enabled car stereos are similar in many ways. Each offer the ability to do hands-free, speaker cellular calls once you have paired your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone. Both allow for connectivity of iPods and iPhones with full control over your music library, as well as both have the ability to stream audio via a Bluetooth connection. And both of these are fairly easy to use, with clear displays, microphones installed within the car, and the ability to pair multiple cell phones.
However, through my testing, if found that this is about where the similarities end. The Sony Xplod, by far, is the most polished of the two, with obvious years and years of in-dash stereo auto experience under their belt. The layout of the device is clear, with functions working properly. I did have some issues with the layout of functional buttons and found myself frequently trying to look at the Xplod to figure out where I was in the navigation or to understand what button did what. Having the remote control definitely helps with that, especially since passengers can fully control the Xplodâ€™s functions.
The Parrot, on the other hand, seems like the child of the pair, especially since it is a new entrant to the market. The design is nice. I particularly liked the hollow center of the device for putting an iPhone or iPod in, out of sight. This is by far a unique design that will definitely reduce the distraction of texting or checking emails as you drive. Even when your iPhone is in the cubbyhole, it is charging and provide full iPod functionality. However, the issues that I had with firmware, and the fact that I still have some Bluetooth audio streaming issues (stuttering and popping of playback at times), itâ€™s clear that the Parrot has a ways to go with their firmware. Luckily, Parrot does seem to be releasing new firmware pretty regularly and I expect the functionality and stability to improve (hopefully eliminating the occasional reboot and the Bluetooth-streaming issues). Having text-to-speech for the phonebook and caller ID are great and the voice recognition of name dialing is a nice plus.
I feel that from a â€œsafetyâ€ perspective, the Parrot has a slight edge, with the physical design and voice capabilities. The Sony, however, has the edge in terms of stability and maturity; it simply worked properly and did what it is supposed to do.
So the choice is basically yours. If you want to have an in-dash deck that just â€œworksâ€ and performs as it should, you should go with the Sony. However, if you are interested in a device that seems like it will grow over time, with new firmware and functions (and fixes) being pushed out but still a bit buggy in nature (as of this writing), you might want to consider the Parrot. If I include my initial frustration with the Parrot, I would swing towards favoring the Sony. However, if I disregard the issues that I had with the Parrot, I might consider it slightly higher than the Sony. If you have the opportunity, definitely try to test out both. Go to a local boutique installer that has both and try them out.
HTD says: Getting a car stereo is a personal experience, something that will be with you for a while. Review the functions, read reviews and make a list of the features that are more important to you.