For the most part, we review single items. Rarely do we conduct a system review. But that’s what we’re doing this time. There’s a good reason to. After all Pioneer has gone through a huge marketing shift this year. They have completed a thorough revamping of their own website and they were able to introduce features to better help a consumer pick not only the correct product for their needs, but also the best product they can for almost any budget.
We’re talking about Pioneer’s "Stage" categories. They basically divided their products into four levels of audio quality and feature sets. To simplify this idea, you could easily think of these stages in comparison to the old good-better-best idea.
In this review we wanted to focus on a Stage where a vast majority of consumers fall into. Mostly that’s because of budget constraints; but also, it may be because he or she may be relatively new to car audio aftermarket. If you’re one of those people, then hopefully you will be able take away some good information that you can use on your potential purchase of an A/V system. We bypassed Stage 1 (the good) category. Most people want a little bit more for their money and are willing to spend that extra twenty dollars or so to get that. And we didn’t think there would be many CAE readers that would start there—while some may consider the next Stage of products.
Of course, if you have a fat wallet and want to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on a car audio system, you can go straight to the Stage 4 line that Pioneer offers, which is actually better then the "best" category. An example of that would be the system built by Chris Yato, seen in the Pioneer Lexus IS-F. Minus the custom install, naturally.
Having run an Al & Ed’s store (part of a regional car audio chain in California), we’ve seen tons of people come through the door looking for that full system. Usually what they say is: "I want to get the best sound possible, but I don’t want to spend a lot." Come on, you know you’ve said this one before! With Pioneer’s many different Stages, it makes it a lot easier to help a customer to pick out products for their car that address their desire for quality and features while staying under their budgets. The system we reviewed here totaled a very reasonable $1,300 (we found some minor discrepancy on Pioneer’s site for pricing so the total will vary depending on that). By going for a basic install you can keep your costs down.
We used a 1999 Honda CRV for this with the idea being a standard replacement of the radio, all speakers, and adding a couple of amplifiers and subwoofer. For the full list of which products we used for this installation, refer to the end of the article. Since we went with a basic install, the process was very simple. On the vehicle side there were no issues; and we really only had a few issues in regards to the amplifier.
Starting with the radio replacement, we chose the Pioneer AVH-P3200BT, which features built-in Bluetooth for hands-free calling, full iPod control for complete browsing of both audio and video (a separate Pioneer cable is required), CD/DVD playback, AM/FM radio and of course the optional add-on navigation and satellite radio. Programming your Bluetooth enabled phone to the unit is as easy as you would hope. Bluetooth hands free features are within easy reach from any screen and if a phone call comes in while you are listening to any video or audio source, the radio mutes the sound so you can answer the phone and talk completely hands-free. The sound quality of the Bluetooth during a phone call was very good. Certainly it was superior to a recent factory system we tried (but that’s a different article). We will say, however, it does require that the included microphone be placed in a good location in the vehicle, away from windows and A/C vents to prevent extra noise. The best place we could find was over the rear view mirror in the center of the vehicle clipped into the headliner of the roof.
The Pioneer AVH-P3200BT is not the best looking A/V receiver the company offers and does suffer from a smaller screen size, only 5.8”. But you’d be surprised how well the product works. In fact, we prefer the iPod search function on this over that found in the new AVIC-Z120BT. It’s actually easier to use (especially while driving). And the front USB input is unattractive as well, but we found it convenient for the most part. Overall the unit is ergonomically well-designed and has everything but navigation. But we might consider buying this first, if on a budget, and then adding nav later.
Moving on to the speakers, we had no complaints here either. They went into the factory locations without any problems and it was a breeze to hide the crossovers that came with the Pioneer TS-A1702C component speakers. We were able to locate them in the kick panels because of their small size.
These components have a sound quality rating (TSQ) from Pioneer of 173. They start with a rating for typical factory speakers and then grade their products based on how much superior they are to those and assign a relative number. This is also part of the helpful Stage concept. You can buy on price, but also have a shorthand for assessing for audio fidelity. And for the money, these speakers are pretty decent. The tweeters are a little on the bright side, but as a set they perform quite well, and can handle some power. In fact, it might be worth the expense or time (depending on your DIY skills) to reinforce your doors or build enclosures for the woofer. That will help these rather inexpensive speakers play even better.
For rear fill we installed the TS-A1683R coax speakers. These have a fairly low TSQ of 112, but considering what they’re for in our system, we didn’t have any issue in terms of audio or install.
Powering the speakers and the subwoofer are the Pioneer GM-6400F and GM-5400T. As we mentioned at the top of the review, this was the only piece of the system we had a little trouble with. The amps themselves were well marked as far as the main power connections and RCAs, but when it came time to hook up the speaker outputs, the labels were a little confusing. To be a little more specific, the connections on the GM-6400F are not marked channels 1 through 4 but instead marked left and right both "A" and "B". The only other thing we noticed was that this amplifier only had a switch for the High pass, Low Pass, and the Full pass crossover built in. We would have preferred to have an actual dial to fine tune the sound a little better (at least, to my taste), but it leaves room for one to bump up to the Stage 3 if these features are desired.
Lastly, and for some people, the most important part of the system, the subwoofer. In this case, we went with the Pioneer TS-W303R 12” subwoofer, part of their Champion series. It MSRPs at a puny $89. For the money it’s not puny, trust us. It’s plenty loud. In fact, it’s louder and cleaner sounding than its predecessors and if you put it in the right size box it really does bump. OK, it won’t deliver the thunderous or deep-in-your-soul bass that you might crave, but hey, that’s what the higher Stages are for. We played some bass-heavy tracks at moderate to high volume and the TS-W303R fell somewhat short of our hopes, but pretty much in line with our expectations. Pioneer’s TSQ for this is a fairly formidable 145. But if you want even better bass, then you might want to consider mixing your system a little, maybe keep everything else the same but get a little more powerful amp for a superior subwoofer. For consumers, the Stage system makes it easy to plan and buy a full A/V system, however you decide to choose the components.
Overall, we were very impressed with the concept and the actual system as a whole, especially considering the little amount of money and time we spent. People may be focused on the high-end Pio
neer A/V receivers or navigation units, but don’t discount the AVH-3200BT. It’s a great unit for the cost. Despite a few reservations here and there, the sound was a marked improvement over the original OEM products but, as mentioned before, on certain songs the system did leave us wanting a little more. With that said, if you’re shopping on a budget and are looking to get the most for your money, consider checking out Pioneer’s Fit Guide online to get you pointed in the right direction and get your system started quickly, avoiding some of the confusion that I’ve heard expressed from my customers over the years. And take a look at their Fit Fotos section to see how their products might look in various cars: http://fitfotos.pioneerelectronics.com. The Stages method is a great way to get going with an aftermarket system that you can build on and improve over time. And of course you can always mix and match to tailor your gear for your taste and needs. —Brett Ivey
Pioneer Stage 2 Product Breakdown
Pioneer AVH-3200BT ($499)
Double Din Audio Video Receiver With Bluetooth Built In.
- 5.8-inch touch screen display, HD and sattelite radio ready with front USB input and 3 sets of 4 Volt pre-outs.
- Comprehensive user interface that has been revamped, which delivers intuitive touchscreen control and customizable menus. Tap, swipe or drag you finger across the screen to activate many funtions of the bluetooth, ipod, or menus with ease.
- Advanced iPod control featuring album art display, double-tap alphabet search, iTunes
tagging and passenger control mode.
- Navigation ready, easily add navigation to any new AVH system with the AVIC-U220
Bluetooth® built-in, Dual-Zone video, SD memory card slot, 8-band graphic EQ with auto-EQ, and more!
Pioneer TS-A1702C ($179) TSQ 173
6-3/4" Component Speakers
- 50 Watts Nominal Power
- "Open and Smooth" Sound Design
- Deep Basket for Full Bass
- The included 6"x8" adapter allows this component set to also be used in many Ford and Mazda vehicles that feature a 6"x8" speaker application size.
Pioneer TS-A1683R ($109) TSQ 112
6-1/2" Coaxial Speakers
- 50 Watts nominal power
- "Open and smooth" sound design
- Carbon graphite IMPP interlaced aramid / basalt fiber cone
- These speakers now feature upgraded power handling of 280 watts max. (50 watts nominal).
Pioneer TS-W303R ($89) TSQ 145
12” Subwoofer With 1200 Watts Max Power
- 4-Ohm Single Voice Coil Design
- Recommended Enclosure Use: 0.85 ~ 1.75 Cubic Feet
- The TS-W303R handles an impressive 1200 watts max. (250 watts nominal power),
and features Pioneer’s extremely strong and lightweight IMPP Composite Cone Woofer
for improved sensitivity and reduced distortion.
Pioneer GM-5400T ($179) TSQ 177
2 Channel Amplifier
- 125 Watts x 2, at 4 ohms <= 1% THD+N
- 380 Watts x 1, at 4 ohms BRIDGE <= 1% THD+N
- 75 dBA Signal-to-Noise Ratio (Reference: 1 Watt Output)
- Built-in Crossover (80Hz, LPF)
- Selectable Bass Boost (50Hz, 0/6/12dB)
- Speaker Level Inputs
Pioneer GM-6400F ($200) TSQ 197
4 Channel Amplifier
- Bridgeable 4/3/2 Channel Capability
- 4 Channel Crossovers (HPF/LPF)
- Speaker Level Inputs
- 60 Watts x 4, at 4 ohms <= 1% THD+N
- 150 Watts x 2, at 4 ohms BRIDGE <= 1% THD+N
- 80 dBA Signal-to-Noise Ratio (Reference: 1 Watt Output)