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by Bill Braun

Reviewer Extraordinaire

on October 29, 2013
The term connectivity has been engrained in the minds of receiver manufacturers everywhere.

With more than half of the country’s mobile devices being smartphones, mobile audio manufacturers like Alpine, Kenwood, Sony and Pioneer are doing their best to attract us to their receivers by blurring the line between where your smartphone stops and your receiver starts. I call it "connectivity."

By integrating many of our phone's functions into today's receivers, manufacturers are taking convenience to an entirely new level. Smartphone-based apps for music radio, traffic and navigation are all readily available, and usually free. Models like the Sony XAV-601BT, Alpine IVE-W530 and the Kenwood DDX419 all include the ability to utilize your iPhone or Android on several levels, which is also an ever-evolving way to take your mobile life – literally – on the road. 

The Pioneer AVH-X4500BT is just such a machine. Built to bridge the gap between your phone's pleathora of apps and your need to use those apps while driving, Pioneer believes that those apps should enhance the receivers functionality, without overlapping programs. 

If you need a receiver that provides navigation, and you have a smartphone that already has it – why spend upwards of twice the $550 (MSRP) price tag to get a receiver with navigation built in?  Using your phone's features right on the receiver starts to make a lot more sense. 

Connectivity – it’s a word I hope you get to know quite well.

Design

The AVH-X4500BT takes a pair of different approaches to manipulating controls.  Neither of which are perfect but both certainly have merit. 

Turning on the unit immediately launches the radio.  You instantly know that from the massive “Radio” badge that appears in rather large letters in the upper left hand corner.  The AM/FM presets are easily identified and by touching a file-esque tab right next to it you get the presets.

I know that the majority of the time, the operator of the receiver is the driver, so the logic of putting most items on the right hand side of the screen makes sense. Being nit-picky I would have liked to see the background integrate a little more completely into the selection screen.  As it sits, there are eight background deigns to chose from, not including the pictures on your phone if you choose them instead.

When reading the instructions (and yes, I had to read the bloody instructions for this model) it says point blank that “All the functions have been designed for the easiest possible use, but many are not self-explanatory.”

The point here is that if you have design issues, fix them.  Don’t force us (or anyone who doesn’t want to) to read a manual.  Pretty please.

In the interests of fairness Pioneer’s online library of instructional videos are available, and by and large they are excellent little snippets of practical information.   This assumes you know they are exist to begin with, but that’s us:  masters of disseminating information.

Now that I’m off the soapbox….

The X4500BT is a double DIN receiver that, interestingly, doesn’t use a trim ring; our theory being the ring itself would have to be millimeters thin.   The facing is an appropriately solid black plastic.  To allow the face to collapse downward, there is a long pair of plastic rails to either side. 

I don’t want to see anything that doesn’t prompt us to touch or manipulate an object, so if you’re a fan of a “polished” look, I would encourage you or your installer to make a custom trim ring.  For the record, yes, it should have come with one to begin with.

The receiver has ten hard buttons, including the manual reset.  Pioneer decided to intermix icons with abbreviations, which in this case made sense.  Pressing the buttons gave us decent feedback, with a satisfying beep every time a button was pressed.

What confused me (until I read the instructions – again, trying hard not to hyperventilate here) was the set of four squares that looks way too much like a certain popular computer operating system.  I’ll let you guess which company.  After reading the instructions it appears this is the “home” button, which is designed to take you to the Launcher application; a central navigation point for all the possible places you can go in the receiver.

The entire button assembly sticks out about 1/2 an inch.  Some receivers make a point of being as flush as possible, as often as possible but this method actually felt better to the touch, and were betting easier for women with long nails as well.  Being able to reach the buttons without hitting the screen means a better, more tactile experience.

Features

The AVH-X4500BT will play from:

  • Bluetooth (Pandora or MP3 from your personal playlists)
  • CD
  • USB
  • DVD audio/video
  • iPhone or iPod video with the CD-IU201S USB Interface Cable

With the provided USB cable, the receiver will play audio or video directly from a device like a thumb drive or iPod. The file format must be FAT16 or 32.  The system can read USB’s at Version 1.1 and 2.0.

Supported Disc Types:

  • CD
  • CD-R/CD-RW
  • DVD
  • DVD-R/DVD-RW (Single or double layer)
  • DVD+R/DVD+RW

The receiver can play back video in several formats, and with several internal and external sources:

  • USB video formats can be:
    • MPEG 1, 2 or 4
    • DivX version 3, 4, 5.2 and 6 (except for Ultra and HD)
    • DVD video formats can be:
      • DVD
      • Video CD
      • Windows Media (WMA) Version 7 or above
      • DivX
      • JPEG
      • iTunes encoded video (played via the USB cable through your iPod or iPhone) and must be MPEG-4

It should be noted that I was able to play other video on the iPhone using the AppRadio Car Media Player and the CD-IU201S cable.

The receiver will play music (playlists or Pandora) via Bluetooth.  Placing and receiving calls via Bluetooth is also standard.  

The X4500BT supports several Bluetooth profiles:

  • Hands Free (HFP – lets you make or receive calls without touching the phone)
  • Object Push (OPP – allows pictures to be sent to the receiver)
  • Phone Book Access (PBAP – caller ID displays on the receiver and allows the receiver to download the phone book)
  • Audio Streaming (A2DP – the receiver plays audio from your phone)
  • Audio/Video Remote Control (AVRCP – lets you control audio and video playback)
  • Headset Profile (HSP – Allows hands free Bluetooth devices to communicate with a receiver)
  • Serial Port Profile (SPP - a replacement for simple serial cable, and the basis for AVRCP)
  • Generic Access Profile (GAP – defines how Bluetooth devices discover eachother and establish a connection)
  • Service Discovery Profile (SDP – defines how Bluetooth devices discover available services between eachother)

All the voice commands on your phone work on the receiver by pressing the androgynous talking happy face.  Press the picture of the cell phone to get to that screen.  It works over Bluetooth or hardwired via USB.

Pioneer offers the ability to control what your kids see and hear on eight different levels.  The first of which is a rather typical DVD Parental Lock, which limits what videos can be played without a four-digit code. 

The levels are:

One - Children

Two  - G

Three - PG

Four - PG13

Five - No Rating (home made videos for example)

Six - R

Seven - NC17

Eight – Unlimited (factory setting)

The other option is the Satellite Radio lock, which limits access to certain channels of satellite radio.  Unlike the DVD lock, the system doesn’t “detect” the ratings of specific songs.  The user defines which channel(s) to apply the lock to, as well as a code to access them.

The favorites icon is a large gold star to the right of the screen, meant to speed access to as many as 12 commonly used setup functions like MIXTRAX Setup, Bass Booster, Loudness and Balance.   

Pioneer has invested a great deal of time and creativity into the making of a club-like experience for the receiver, named Mixtrax.   This only works when you hardwire your smartphone into the receiver via USB using the CD-IU201S or CD-IU201V cables, and play music from your phones playlist.  Several different audio and video effects are available to be sifted through in the Setup menu.

Sound Retriever

Sound Retriever is a two step sound enhancement process where music (especially compressed music) is given clearer bass and treble.  The formats supported are:

  • CD Audio
  • iPod/iPhone music
  • Pandora music

*Sound Retriever is disabled with MIXTRAX turned on.

Because of its sheer popularity, Pandora has a special icon built into the receiver.  A free app allows the X4500BT to link via Bluetooth.  If you want to the cover art to appear on the receiver you’ll need the CD-IU201S cable.  Either way you’ll get the band info including their name, album name and song name.

There are four video in/outputs:

  • One component input dedicated for a rear view camera
  • One generic component input
  • One generic component output (for external displays)
  • One four pole 3.5mm input jack accepts stereo audio and component video

The generic component video input is also associated with the A/V stereo audio inputs.  Use these three inputs together for camcorders, portable DVD players or video games.

The X4500BT has 18 FM and six AM presets.  If you want satellite radio, you have a choice of the Sirius CD-SB10 tuner, or for XM radio the GEX-P920XM tuner is also available.  Pioneer doesn’t make an HD radio available for this receiver.

The CD player is Sound Retriever enabled, and has two repeat modes for a single song or a whole album.  You will see any song data listed as well if available.

The DVD player accepts multiple audio languages, as well as multiple subtitle languages.  Use up to five bookmarks per DVD (a bookmark will give you the option of where to restart the DVD the next time you play it.)   The system also supports multiple camera angles if any are available.

An arrow system is available to select items on the DVD menu if you don’t want to try to select an icon that may be too small to accurately select on their own.  There are also three video format selections to “stretch” the display if needed.

  • The receiver uses a 7” VGA (800x400) screen with a 16x9 aspect ratio. 
  • The total peak power is 200 watts (50x4) and continuous power is 22x4
  • Three sets of RCA pre outs with a maximum of four volts each

Warranty is one year parts and labor, provided it is purchased from an authorized retailer.

Usability

Firstly, if you already own this unit I highly recommend you read the instructions.  Some of the commonly used functions are readily apparent, and need no further explanation; but getting the most out this receiver is an involved process, and like most worthwhile things it involves a small investment of your time.  Steve Jobs is officially rolling his grave at that last statement.

One suggestion is to download the instruction book – which could have been written in a much clearer tone in some areas – to see what you like and what you don’t.  Some of the minutiae can be viewed on the X4500BT’s product page in a series of informative videos.

That said, this receiver is at the beginning of the evolutionary scale.  It performs basic functions and adds a bit more flash than most people would expect with the advent of MIXTRAX, then gives us a pleasant surprise with digital audio restoration that actually works in Sound Retriever.

Pioneer goes the exceedingly obvious route with this receiver, in making every source a massive blocked word on the screen.  It’s a good theory that can be executed with a bit more creativity, or at least with some kind of background other than pitch black.  High marks on ease of use though.

This is all assuming you use the touchscreen.  Using the physical buttons is also available to select a source, but beware the “Mode” button.  This is used when you have multiple display sources (like a loaded movie and a camera.)  If you don’t know this going in, it takes a while to figure it out.  It’s a glaring issue given its location on the front face of the receiver, coupled with the generic labeling of the button.

Choosing a function once it has been auto-detected is a simple matter.  Functions like AUX, Bluetooth and SiriusXM are selectable sources as soon as you press the corresponding button.  The issue is the nondescript list that appears. While Pioneer assumes people are going to just “get it” – and most will – I’d still like to see some kind of description that says “hey – choose a source”.

What needs help is the method of choosing a new source, which is performed on-screen by hitting a small white circle with a down arrow in the upper right hand corner.  There several options that would have unobtrusively given the user the choices needed, without forcing them to read the instructions.

One of the very first things I do when testing a new receiver is to attempt Bluetooth pairing, which means I expose my eclectic playlists to the rest of the office. 

Chiding ensures they regret it, as our color commentary usually runs headlong into one us of uttering choice expletives at the other and calling the questionable parentage of each of us into light.  We’d throw Twinkies at each other, but they go for far too much money on eBay now.  In our office, sarcasm has zero latency.

Now that the Bluetooth menu was up, it was a very fast pairing.  I enabled the Bluetooth audio function and took a seat.  Then took another seat in the car.  Then another.  No matter where I went in the vehicle the transmission went uninterrupted, which was fantastic.  Now to find where it fails…

The phone had to literally go to the 30-foot mark (where all Bluetooth everywhere dies suddenly) before the signal was lost.  By that time I had a car door and a brick wall between us and the radio.  Let’s be clear about this, because it doesn’t often happen:  you can not do better than this display of maxing out the range. 

That’s the good news.  Here’s the mediocre news:  the sound quality is middle of the road.  Consider going into the setup screen and use the Bluetooth audio option to raise the default levels. 

The microphone is included in the box, and was well done from an audio quality standpoint.  The pickup pattern has some light noise rejection and echo cancellation, but more important was the sound quality; which you’d be hard pressed to tell apart from the built in microphone in the phone itself.   

What drove us to doubt the software was the voice recognition, which went a healthy zero for ten when trying to make a call in a dead quiet car with the engine off.

The info on the screen was easy to read, as were the icons you need to manipulate while taking and placing calls, but some of the icons are in need of rebadging or a trip to instruction manual-land.

The icon the office dubbed the  “androgynous happy face” is meant to denote voice activation.  There’s got to be a better way, but no one I’ve met can think of an Option B.  The Private mode was a nondescript function until I figured out that it meant the phone call gets rerouted to the phone.  All in all not bad, but not perfect.

The AVH-X4500BT does a good job by minimizing the number of options and menu levels - a hallmark of good planning. As a rule, you never want to run into a point where you're so deep into the choices that frustration sets in.  I didn’t, and that’s a relief.  However a lack of depth doesn’t mean they’ve figured out a simple way to cover all the necessities.  They didn’t.

While there is a main setup screen that controls the status of inputs and some of the broader reaching functions like muting, the other setup screens are only accessible when a corresponding source is detected.  The exception to the rule is the audio menu, which operates the fader, balance, eq, etc…

The question that kept rearing its ugly head was not how to adjust certain features, but why I was not allowed to adjust other features, which drove me to distraction.  For example items in the picture menu are greyed out illogically, as well as items that seemed to be placed in an area they didn’t belong etc.. popped up on occasion and distracted us from making the changes I needed to make.

Touchscreens are far from a new technology, and combining video quality with a workable screen material is not the challenge.  Ask any cell phone owner.

In vehicles, the challenge is dealing with glare and fingerprints.  Pioneer gets high marks on one and disappointing marks on the other, with the screen’s coating being both hero and villain. 

Lets first say that the pragmatist in me liked that there were no detectable dead spots on the screen.  If it was reasonably close to the buttons, they activated.  Score one for the hero.  The texture of the material seems to repel fingerprints, but somehow flattens all color on the screen, robbing it of detail and crispness.

The other consequence is that the screen seems susceptible to glare.  The right time of day, and the sun hits an angle in the car that makes the screen a dull white pane that color seems immune to.  Changing the screen angle helps a little (and that’s not always a good way to fix it) but then I have to bring the angle back to normal once the glare is gone. 

The color quality out of the box is bland. While playing a movie the picture was hampered by a whitish film.  I understand the reason - that being the coating used on the screen to prevent the “whiteout” effect direct sunlight can have, but the tradeoff is having to do some heavy adjusting in the video setup to fight it.  With some adjustments, the picture quality raised to what I consider “tolerable.”  The amount of adjustment will vary heavily based on the light conditions and your personal tastes, but video quality expectations are established a little by our home theaters and a lot by our cell phones.  Sorry, but this comes close to neither.

As in any market where many companies are offering the same basic services, they all attempt to differentiate themselves in some way.  Pioneer has chosen three stand-outs.

The first is MIXTRAX, a DJ-ish set of effects that alters the colors on your screen, the music you play (by adding effects to it mid-song) and how the segues happen from one track to another.  A free app must be downloaded and activated on your smartphone for the MIXTRAX to work properly.

Controlling any of the effects independently is easy through the setup screen, where you find ten selectable audio choices.  You can also activate or defeat the audio segue effects and visual effects.

This was “cool” enough to Pioneer that they chose to plant the feature indelibly on the face of the receiver, right along with their own brand name.  It serves no practical purpose, but I do have to admit that it was fun.  It was cool.  And most importantly it was different - albeit potentially distracting while on the road.  The only down side is that it works with playlists only – and only when they are hard wired to the receiver with a USB cable.

The next is Favorites.  A gold star is always visible on the right hand side during normal playback.  Touching the star allows for as many as 12 of the most commonly used setup functions to be accessed without navigating through the menu system.

It’s hard to understand why this function exists in its current state.  The logic of a quick access button is something fully realized by other brands in market, but where they got it right is where this receiver didn’t. 

Setup screens are by nature “fire and forget.”  Set them once.  Enjoy your music.  Why would you want quick – and by definition “quick” implies “frequent” access – to anything in the setup screen?  A much better use of this function would be for quick access to things like the rear view camera, an auxiliary a/v source, or perhaps a set of links to common contacts the driver calls.

The last is AppRadio.  There are dozens of applications for social media, navigation, traffic, video playback and Internet radio access.  Strictly from a bandwidth standpoint, the hardwired USB starts becoming more and more important.  You don’t have to buy Pioneer’s version of the cable (the CD-IU201S) unless you anticipate playing video, but at minimum seriously consider using your home charger cable to plug into the female side of the USB cable that comes with the unit.

One major issue was a lack of description in the manual.  Given it’s the last informational line of defense, the manual should be descriptive to a fault.  For most products, the very last word you ever want to hear to describe your manual is minimalistic.

Expandability

The receiver supports a rear camera, which can be a Pioneer ND-BC6 or a generic equivalent.  The ND-BC20PA is a more advanced solution, with a processor, backup camera and controller.  The Controller can automatically switch on when shifting into reverse, and can compensate for differences in mounting locations, so you aren’t forced to mount the camera in an undesirable spot like the license plate frame.

I installed the CD-IU201S AppRadio cable, which gave us access to iPod/iPhone video capabilities as well as Internet radio (Pandora is a good example) cover art.  AppRadio functionality also becomes possible with this cable.  The unit is as advertised, but I was forced to remove the protective case from the iPhone whenever I got in the car – the connector would not fit otherwise.

The CD-MC20 Auto-EQ microphone plugs directly into the receiver by folding down the screen, where the plug is hidden away.  When activated through the setup screen, the microphone is used to calibrate the acoustics in the vehicle.

Value

If you are looking for a touch screen that joins well with your smartphone, the AVH-X4500BT is geared towards you.  The feature sets here are basic, as are the setup options. 

Finding an affordable receiver that plays DVD’s without breaking the $600 barrier seems to be a chore, and few competitors come close to doing it with style.   Pioneer made this unit with the thought  - and accurately so – that for the most part your phone can provide the navigation, traffic and social media functions that more and more people are craving.  All they have to do is find a way to get it on the screen.

Their answer to the problem is AppRadio, however as has been said you need to integrate it into the system via USB.  Given that the cable charges the phone as you are driving, it seems a small price to pay.

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