I like to joke around and tell people the three greatest inventions of recent times are the air conditioner, the toilet (modern in-house sanitation really isn’t that old) and GPS navigation. I’m only trying to make a point of course—everyone knows the greatest technological advances have all happened in plastic surgery. It’s my way of saying how grateful I am to live during a time when we have these kinds of conveniences. I can get in my car, go somewhere I’ve never been to, and not have to look at a paper map to know how to get there.
Pioneer’s new flagship AVIC-Z120BT definitely can take you where you need to go. This is a sophisticated-looking, well-designed double-DIN all-in-one nav, audio and video unit with a generous 7" touchscreen and a ton of features. When I installed it (a straightforward, easy installation), I didn’t bother putting on the trim ring since I’d be removing the unit soon enough, but the unit is so slick, it looked terrific anyway. Turning it on, you’ll notice it only takes about three seconds for the music to start playing and about 9 seconds before you get the menu screen. That’s actually pretty good. You may remember some previous AVICs had an issue with really long startup times. Not the case here.
The menu is incredibly easy to navigate. Users familiar with recent AVICs know it well enough. You have navigation, phone and AV source. Any time you’re in one of those sections and want to switch, you can hit the Mode soft touch button on the bottom "bar" of the unit or press Home for the main menu again. It’s all very intuitive and user-friendly. In total, there are 8 soft-touch buttons along the bottom, one for utilizing the voice recognition/commands system, volume + and -, Home, Mode, track < and > and Eject. Simple.
Accessing Pandora is equally easy. Download the app (it’s free), connect your iPhone, press the Pandora icon that automatically appears on the side and then turn on the app, select a station. This was the best new feature for me on the AVIC-Z120BT. The variety of music you get (at no extra cost, no less) is amazing. It almost makes satellite radio superfluous. Between some of the great local stations we have in L.A., Pandora and the iPod, I had pretty much all I needed for long drives through traffic. Although once in a while I did have to open the face and insert a disc—it’s getting so that that seems anachronistic!
There is one issue with Pandora. You can’t multitask while it’s playing. If you want to check something on your phone real quick and have to leave the Pandora screen, the signal is discontinued (not that we recommend you do anything with your phone while driving). I had initially written that the problem is compounded by the fact that you have no control over your stations through the AVIC when listening to Pandora. That is true if you don’t download the Pioneer app for Pandora. If you have the regular app you can still access music, but you won’t be able to see on the AVIC screen your list of previously selected stations. But regardless of the app you’re using, if you want to find new stations, you will still have to return to your iPhone and add channels there. If you like to switch from genre to genre, especially during longer drives, like I do, then you’d better be very careful when and how you use the phone to change what you’re listening to! Or load a bunch of different genres on your app before you start your vehicle.
If you get tired of Pandora, then you can always switch over to your iPod. Pioneer has put a lot of thought into how you can navigate through your music library. Some of it’s great and some not so great. I like the fact that you can click on the artist line on the screen and instantly go to the list for all artists (this applies for albums and songs as well). Simply touch the text describing the artist and voila. Very cool. In fact, practically all the visual icons on screen are linked. It’s kind of like being on your computer. But the slide feature for scrolling through the alphabet of artists or albums or songs can be a little frustrating. Sometimes I scrolled too far, or not enough, or worse I would inadvertently click on an something I didn’t want to hear. When you’re not driving it’s not as bad. While driving, it’s not recommended, practically speaking and from the point of view of safety. Some people may not find this a big deal. It really depends on your habits. You may play an album and listen to it almost all the way through. Overall, the navigation design for your music list is intuitive. For instance, it’s also clearly marked where you can select between music and video on your iPod. Note: if you want video playback from your iPod you need an additional cable from Pioneer which will add a small cost to the MSRP of $1,600 for the AVIC-Z120BT.
You have the usual preset EQ settings like Powerful, Natural, Vocal, Flat. Of course you can customize as well. Further though you can adjust your High Pass Filter, subwoofer and also utilize the unit’s Staging options. They’re called, Music Studio, Dynamic Theater, Actor’s Stage and Living Room. I’m not exactly enthusiastic about the descriptions, but you get the idea. The first is a bit more intimate in sound quality, not as much as the last, while Theater and Stage provide a greater sense of acoustic space. I’m not generally a fan of this type of adjustments but they do offer some distinctive qualities that some people may enjoy.
The second generation ECO feature helps you track your driving. Honestly this was pretty much lost on me. I’m not that interested in whether or not I’m driving in some optimal fashion and what impact my driving might be having on the environment. For you green consumers that have the AVIC in your Priuses, I’m sure this will be a lot of fun, however. Seriously though, it is a legitimate feature that actually serves a serious purpose. The other truly new feature is MusicSphere, a software that creates mood-based playlists via iTunes for your iPod. I downloaded this on my PC (it’s not available for Mac until later this year). That was unfortunate for me as my music library is on my Mac iTunes! So I had to sync with my PC iTunes once I downloaded MusicSphere. Terrific. This is one of those ridiculous (if understandable) precautionary design decisions by Apple that really annoy me, that you have to sync with a single computer. What do you do if you own three Macs and a PC, as I and a lot of other people do!? My rhetorical question for Apple. But I digress.
MusicSphere took a long time to analyze my 300+ audio file library on my PC. So long that I finally left the office for lunch. While I was able to load my MusicSphere folder onto my iPhone, I had an issue with utilizing it on the AVIC. I will have to report back on this later, as I wasn’t able to resolve this prior to this review deadline and didn’t allow for enough time for a response from Pioneer. On iTunes it clearly showed, however, the 40 specialized playlists, separated into various categories of what might be described as emotional qualities. Not sure how much I would use that, but it’s not a bad idea. It’s basically doing what DJs have been doing for club crowds for years.
The AVIC-Z120BT uses the TeleAtlas map database which covers the United States, Canada, Alaska and Hawaii. It has 12 million points of interest (POIs). But as I tell anyone that asks about what features to look for when shopping for an aftermarket nav unit, you can ignore POIs. I’ve yet to try an aftermarket product that provided a truly useful database. Too often you get weird results. For example you look for a Home Depot in your neighborhood and you get a listing for one 30 miles away. That was what I found on the AVIC; that is, it’s really hit or miss, as it is on practically all nav units.
As for guidance, the unit performed quite well. Driving all over town, there really were no missteps aside f
rom very minor ones. When arriving at an office building it told me to make a u-turn instead of turning into the plaza where the building was located. Or approaching my home, the AVIC informed me I’d arrived when I was still half a block down the street from my place. Those are the only instances when the navigation was inaccurate and really that’s very minor.
One thing that I really like about the nav system and what Pioneer does in general is the multiple route options. In dense areas where you have a lot of traffic, it’s great having options for routes instead of taking one road and hoping for the best. This is a feature all nav units should have but don’t. However, there is an option that I wished they could include. That’s the one-button detour function which you find on the Garmin systems. That being said, the Kenwood we reviewed a while back which has Garmin nav doesn’t have the multiple route option. I think both should be mandatory!
Of course Pioneer does have AVIC Feeds. If you haven’t heard of this you might want to take a look at this video. It’s actually a great summary of the power of this app.
Overall, navigation was excellent. The only real reservation I had was due to the long wait when you press Address to input a location. From the nav menu when you touch the Address icon it must be several seconds before the next screen loads. Perhaps I’m impatient by nature, but it seemed to me a little long to wait for that.
I love the idea of voice recognition technology, but so often it doesn’t work the way you wish it would. I remember years ago evaluating the first flagship AVIC Z unit with VR. It did some things great, like recognize address input. But on the other hand it didn’t hear POIs like say "Disneyland" very well. On the Z120BT, the system actually understood what I was saying almost all the time, but it was fairly slow and tedious. I hate to say it, but I’ve used factory nav systems with VR that are a little quicker in processing commands. However, I will say that neither aftermarket nor OE really satisfy my sci-fi dream of conversing with a helpful human-like computer like HAL—well, before he turns on you. I do, nonetheless, like having the VR option. It is a necessary option, one that continually gets better. And Pioneer’s system also handles other commands beyond navigation, like controlling what source or music you’re listening to. I found though that it does help to have a somewhat quiet car. I tried using VR with some music playing low in the background and that hampered the system. And also, my Honda isn’t exactly luxury quiet.
No flagship unit would be complete unless it had Bluetooth. And that is what the BT stands for in Z120BT. This feature pretty much worked flawlessly for me. Connecting the iPhone was a snap. The unit quickly got my contact list and best of all the sound quality for both speaker and listener was excellent. I had the microphone positioned low, about chest height, pointed upward, and people I spoke with (like my regular test partner, my wife, who’s gotten good at evaluating this kind of thing over the years) remarked how clear the sound was.
All in all (or all in one), the AVIC-Z120BT is a very cool product that makes driving easier and more enjoyable. Notwithstanding some of the issues mentioned above, it is a complete package that offers overall great performance and a wealth of features that I now have to have in my ride! I have to note everything I experienced during the evaluation, but I would say there wasn’t any single aspect of functionality that really diminished the total quality of the product. It’s ergonomically sound, aesthetically well designed and incredibly user-friendly. Quibble about this or that if you want. This deserves to be Pioneer’s flagship AVIC.