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A car stereo built for the King (of phones)

Kevin Harter

No, you didn't click on the wrong link. We haven't changed our name to The Unofficial Audio Weblog. "Why, then, is my beloved Apple-centric site doing a review of a car stereo?!" you're no doubt asking yourself. 'Cause this thing rocks your iPhone like you've never heard before!

Sony was nice enough to send us one of its newest models, the Xplod MEX-BT5700U, which happens to be the company's flagship head unit. With things like iPod integration via the front-mounted USB port and Bluetooth audio streaming, the $299 single-DIN stereo has an interesting mix of features that you'd expect to come at a higher price.

First off, some ground rules. I'm not an audiophile. This isn't going to be a review chock full of decibel ratings or fancy audio terms. While I've had quite a few aftermarket stereos in my time, and I've installed my share of head units, car stereos aren't my living. Instead, I'll be focusing on its interface and various connections to iDevices.

The specs
The Xplod MEX-BT5700U is no slouch when it comes to traditional stereo benchmarks. It outputs 52W per channel without external amplification and has a separate subwoofer out. It'll play nearly any audio source including HD Radio (via an optional kit), satellite radio, CDs (the store-bought pressed ones in addition to CD-Rs and CD-RWs with MP3, AAC, or WMA data files), USB sticks and drives, a CD changer, and of course MP3 players. Oddly enough, there is no Memory Stick slot. (Thank goodness!)

Oh yeah, it even gets AM!

This was simple enough: Sony also provided professional installation. (Thanks, Sony!)

Anyone that has installed a car stereo before should be able to easily handle this task. The only abnormal step, and one that is becoming more and more common, is the routing of the wire to the external microphone that's used for phone features. Other than that, a wiring harness adapter will help tremendously and the rest is pretty straight forward. As the kids say, no big whoop.

Design and experience
The unit looks fantastic. It has a clean, understated look about it that indicates a higher value than its price tag claims. Buttons are thoughtfully laid out, reasonably labeled, and illuminated in your choice of red, green, or blue. Most of the controls are on the left side of the stereo, within easy reach for the driver. A large knob with a rubberized grip takes its rightful place in the middle of an array of buttons, and serves not only as the standard volume control, but also the main interface to the MEX-BT5700U's many pages of options. There is a large ESC-type button and a search button to help navigate those options as well. Fast forward and rewind buttons (am I dating myself?) are well placed and accompanied by a handful of other controls.

There are a line of numbered buttons under the display that act as presets for the various radio inputs. When in other modes, those buttons take on a variety of functions which are sometimes hard to determine. There are small markings to indicate the dual controls each button represents, but those labels are completely useless at night. Sometimes the functions are displayed on the screen, other times they are not. Users of other aftermarket stereos should have no problems, but if you're the type to stick with the cassette player that came with your ride, this may be a bit confusing.

The screen is a large, four-line bright fluorescent blue that's easily read in sunlight and is customizable. You can even choose from a small collection of animated backgrounds to be displayed while you're toolin' with your tunes. I had no problems reading text on the display, but the font could be a bit nicer looking.

A CD player (remember those?) is hidden behind the flip-down detachable faceplate to make room for the generous display size, and a single USB port sits behind a small door to keep the dust out. Enter the most annoying thing about this stereo: there is no USB port on the back of the unit. More on that in just a minute.

To connect to your iPod or iPhone, you have a few options. First, there's the now-commonplace 3.5mm auxiliary line-in jack on the front of the unit. This allows owners to hook up nearly any music playing contraption, but it's the least favorable way to use your iPod as you'll miss out on the unit's ability to control your music player.

The second way is via the USB port, a mixed blessing. This method allows full control of your iPod with minimal removal of your eyes from the road. All of the controls you'd normally have to use on the iPod are duplicated in the stereo's interface, with an eye on cutting down steps. Navigating playlists, changing songs, pausing the track, fast forwarding and rewinding, and more are easily handled in an intuitive way. If you're traveling with someone with good taste in music, you can even enable Passenger Control and hand your iPod or iPhone to him or her. They'll use the normal controls on the device itself.

However, the result of the placement of this port is an unsightly cable dangling from stereo and over some potentially important car controls. Like the stick shift. Perhaps it's only the way that my five-speed manual Jeep Wrangler is designed, but that USB cable drops right on the shifter. If I wasn't careful, this could become a significant hazard to not only the unsuspecting pedestrians, other drivers, and myself, but more importantly to my iPhone, which could get ripped from its perch on top of the dash and thrown violently to the floor of the vehicle.

A more elegant solution would have been to include a port on the back in addition to the easily reached front-mounted connection. Then, a longer cable could be routed under the dash, through a custom opening, or even into the glovebox. That way, you could hook up an unused old iPod with oodles of music preloaded and lock it away, safely out of the reach of hoodlums and your shiftin' hand.

To rid us of the cable altogether, Sony included Bluetooth integration. With the ability of iPhone OS 3.x to stream audio over BT, this third option becomes a nice feature for those that simply want to queue up a playlist and jam. However, podcast fans such as myself will most likely be annoyed by the lack of controls to select episodes, fast forward over commercials, or pause the TUAW Talkcast long enough to order a McRib meal at the drive-thru. Also, I've had problems with my iPhone 3G staying paired to the Xplod consistently. To be fair, this problem and the missing control features may be failures of the iPhone rather than anything Sony has control over.

Where this Bluetooth ability does come in super-handy is the integration with the phone itself. Handsfree calling, including a voice-activated address book (sorry, it's separate from the iPhone's Contacts), is a mere BT pairing away. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, this stereo was installed in my Jeep. Anyone with a Wrangler knows that any kind of handsfree calling is a worthless myth, as the vehicle is entirely too loud to make such luxuries useful. That is, unless you're sitting still on the side of the road, at which time it would probably be just as convenient to not use Bluetooth.

I know, I could ditch the gas-guzzling four-wheel drive trail-climber and get what some people might call a "useful vehicle," but I look way too cool in the Jeep. Besides, the chick (read: my wife) digs it.

Speaking of podcasts (was I?), this is by far the best stereo I've used for playing them. There may be other models out there than make the process even simpler, but I haven't seen them. It's a breeze to get to anything in any of your playlists, really, but a separate entry in the interface for Podcasts is a welcome addition. To get there, one only has to tap the Search button, select Podcasts from the menu by clicking the volume control knob, and pick an episode from the resulting list. This, incidentally, is the same procedure to choose any track from your USB-connected iPod.

Alas, I do have one complaint here as well. Podcasts are included in the general tunes library, so you're likely to begin an episode of Mac OS Ken immediately after singing along at embarrassingly high volume with R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon." [iTunes link] Talk about a let down. (No offense, Ken!)

Did I mention that this thing rocks? I've had four other stereos in my current ride in the seven years I've owned it, and this Sony is easily the best sounding of the bunch. It has most of the sound-shaping controls as previous Pioneers I've owned, yet I've found that there isn't much tweaking required to get great sound. You can adjust filters to determine which speakers get the high and low tones, customize the EQ, and use the built-in Digital Cinema Sound surround sound technology to "open up" the music. The subwoofer is on its own channel with its own controls, like most good stereos, and several settings are dependent upon the audio source. The sound that comes out of this music-maker is clean, crisp and clear.

All-in-all, the Sony Xplod MEX-BT5700U is a stellar stereo at a swell price. Packed with features, this head unit is capable competition to those costing much more. With only a few minor annoyances -- I'm looking at you, Mr. Front USB Port -- Sony has done a great job of designing a car stereo that is perfect for the iPod or iPhone owner on your holiday list.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled Apple blog.

TUAW policy is to return or donate all hardware provided for review. For more details, see our
policy page.

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