This article originally appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of WiFi HIFi Magazine.
- De-EQ and removal of the time correction in a factory system can be done in two minutes
- Easy-to-use smartphone app for audio tuning including touch and slide 31-band EQ
- Affordable and extremely easy to use
- Independent time correction, but post EQ is global (not per channel)
- Does not have internal summing capability
- Does not have an option for a centre channel (though most cars don't)
When I bought my 2018 Volkswagen Golf R, I was disappointed that VW no longer offers Dynaudio audio as a factory upgrade option in Canada. It was offered for my 2010 Golf GTI, but now, Fender Premium Audio is the upgrade option for the GTI line.
I first listened to a Fender Premium Audio system when it was introduced with the VW Beetle several years ago. While I found it inferior to the Dynaudio system, the system was more than acceptable to my ears. But when I received my new car, I was not pleased at all with the sound quality. It was nowhere close to the original Fender audio system that was designed and tuned for the Beetle by a multi IASCA champion in SQ (Sound Quality) who also designed the Harman Kardon system in my Mercedes GLA250 and my mother's Lexus (both of which are more than acceptable to my ears). So I figured something was amiss, despite VW's claim that the new system is based on the original. I verified this by comparing VW's Beats system badge to the new Fender Premium Audio. I had a 2018 GTI and 2018 R sitting next to one another in a quiet underground parking garage, playing the same sound loop in sync, at the same level. The audio quality was comparable - there was no noticeable difference between the two.
After almost a year of driving my car, I was given the opportunity to try Pioneer's latest DEQ-S1000A DSP calibration module. First, I had to diagnose where the problem actually lies, and whether DSP had the potential to solve it. It turns out there are multiple issues. The tweeters are crossed over too low, making too much of the midrange go to the tweeter. The subwoofer creates loud bass and doubles the bass from the car's cabin. But it's neither deep nor clean. The bass/mid/treble controls on the head unit, meanwhile, are controlling the wrong frequency points, making the mids sound more horn-like, treble harsher, and bass more bloated.
I provided this detailed description of the problems, and worked closely with Pioneer so they could recommend a system that not only sounded good, but would fit within my budget. I also wanted to ensure a clean, out-of-sight installation that would allow me to easily revert to the factory should I decide to do so. I didn't want to hear any rattling - Volkswagen is notorious for rattles, especially after dismantling anything in its cars. After hearing my requests, Pioneer referred me to Joe Karimzad at Ultra Auto Sound (www.ultraautosound.com) in Mississauga, ON.
Pioneer also recommended I get two pairs of TS-Z65CH Hi-Res Certified Reference Series component speakers ($450/pr.) with switchable high frequency tuning choices of +/- 3dB and the obligatory 0dB for both the front and rear speakers. This was accompanied by a TS-Z10LS2 Reference Series shallow subwoofer ($360) being driven by a single GM-D9605 class-FD 5-channel power amplifier ($500) rated at 4x75 watts for the cabin speakers and 350 watts for the subwoofer located in the trunk. All of these would be controlled by Pioneer's new DEQ-S1000A DSP ($270), which has built-in power amplifiers that Pioneer claims to be enough for basic applications (we bypassed it and used the RCA pre-outs to feed the power amplifier). Meanwhile, Joe recommended I install enough butyl-based sound dampeners on the car panels to prevent them from sounding plasticky while also maintaining the weight of my car as close as possible to the original.
Why a DSP? Why Not Just Upgrade the Speakers?
Some new cars have infotainment touchscreens that do the duty that dashboard controls and displays once did, and are necessary for controlling, customizing, and monitoring everything in the car from the HVAC, to navigation, phone control, and even throttle body response. Because the computer is located within the screen module, changing the head unit is impossible. With my car, the Park Distance Control (PDC) indicator and rear camera display also require the infotainment system screen. That means if I changed the head unit, I'd also lose control of many features.
On the other hand, if you think you can upgrade the sound quality of your car audio simply by changing the speakers and/or amplifier while still using the original OEM head unit, you'll be sorely disappointed. This is because nearly all factory systems have employed aggressive amounts of non-defeatable EQ to compensate for the lack of quality in their speakers. Because of this non-defeatable factory EQ, merely upgrading the speakers could leave you with a system that sounds worse than the original factory set up. Something should be done to get rid of the equalization the car manufacturer has imposed on you.
With DSP auto calibration, the de-equalization process is a breeze. Plug your phone into the processor, then put the phone where the main listening position is (likely the driver's seat) and at ear level while playing back a test tone downloaded from Pioneer's website. The process took just a couple of minutes - faster than toasting a Pop Tart! Trying out the process multiple times and measuring the end results using my AudioControl frequency analyzer, I also found that the measurements were always consistent.
As the entire installation process takes several days, I dropped my car off a day before heading to CES 2019, leaving Joe and his team ample time to complete the system installation.
When I picked up the car, my initial response was positive. The installation was impeccable. Visually, you wouldn't be able to tell that anything had changed in the vehicle. But once I sat in the car, I could "hear" the quietness of the cabin, which was, according to my SPL meter, at least 5-10dB quieter (depending on which area of the audio spectrum is analyzed) than before. In some aspects, when the car is parked inside a garage, it's even quieter than my dedicated home theatre floor noise of 35dB.
Testing Out the Pioneer Audio System
Because the DEQ-S1000A did the de-EQ by reading the sonic response from the listener's point, not only is the original factory head unit's EQ deleted, but so are the cabin's anomalies. Once there's a flat frequency response, I was able to adjust the frequency curve to my taste. Pioneer provides several presets with names like Superbass, Powerful, Natural, and Vivid. I personally find Natural to be the most, well, natural sounding among them. But in the end, I used Flat with the crossover set to -3dB for its high frequency roll-off.
There were two more features I had fun with. Super Todoroki boosts low sounds and automatically adjusts mid- and high-range sounds to add impact and clarity to your audio environment. That's great if you don't use a subwoofer, or if you want to satisfy the bass-head in you. But most audiophiles will prefer not to use the feature. And there's a special effect of a crowd roaring to simulate being in the middle of a live concert. Again, it was fun, but it's more of a novelty.
You can also use the available 31-band graphic EQ to customize sound. I wish there was a way for the DSP to copy one preset to a custom bank to be customized further. Perhaps Pioneer will add this feature via a firmware upgrade. As it stands, I can only copy between Custom A and Custom B equalization memories.
After giving the speaker system (especially the subwoofer) some time to break in, the system showcased a remarkably complete performance. It's as detailed as I've heard for the price - equivalent to the Burmester's upgrade cost in upper echelon Mercedes vehicles that are not a C-Class - and was capable of unravelling every one of my own recordings with ease. Rarely do I hear a car system at this level that so readily reveals the production differences between recordings. Such is the system's transparency, so much so that it becomes difficult to discern whether the qualities I heard belonged to the recording or the product.
That means the Pioneer speakers' tonality is pretty much spot-on. There's no jarring emphasis on any part of the frequency range, and the bass stays controlled even when the speakers are played at very high levels. I fed the speakers Def Leppard's "Hysteria" and the low frequencies of the gated electric bass drum came through with punch and power. The grip at the low-end was impressive while maintaining the car's hatch area as-is. The vocals of Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty in the "Bombshell - The Musical" audio CD were reproduced nearly as good as they are in my dedicated home theatre.
The system is fully capable of delivering high volume levels with composure, and doesn't harden-up, even when pushed with tracks from the "It Came From Outer Bass" bass demo CD I purchased nearly three decades ago. Not in the SPL category, of course, but in the SQ category. The system maintained a high level of refusal to sweeten any flaw in any recording. The speakers are pleasingly refined, sounding as clean and crisp as you like given a signal of adequate quality. Even the Hi-Res files of the "Jazz at the Pawnshop" album sounded pleasing while I was driving along backroads in and around Stouffville, ON, north of Toronto.
The system reveals a lot of information and manages to assemble it in a composed manner. The speakers rarely sound stressed or cluttered no matter how demanding the music gets. The subwoofer is rhythmically surefooted and can convey the momentum of music well. I like their precision with beats and ability to define the leading and trailing edges of notes. The only way to make the bass sound better is by changing the enclosure position and moving it to the cargo space instead of having it under the floor. But that's a definite no-no for a car that I use to transport my calibration equipment - I need the space.
Even when I switched to Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," both known to test a systems' limits, the system responded with a large-scale soundstage (for a car) and a crisply focused image. As I moved my head from the calibrated driver's listening/seating position, I noticed that the system's stereo presentation stayed unusually consistent. I don't recall ever having experienced this level of solid soundstage in any car without a centre channel being installed. CDs from Telarc will highlight any problem in dynamic reach, but the Pioneer system has nothing to worry about. The music's savage dynamic shift is reproduced with gusto and determination.
For the system price of $3,500 including the DSP, speakers, amps, summing module, basic acoustics treatments, and installation, along with Pioneer's new dash cam (see my review online), there's little to complain about here. This system wasn't intended to be a studio-accurate set-up, but it still holds a high level of musicality.
Joe and his team made my VW Golf R much quieter than a Mercedes CLA250, nearly free from road noise, and 100% free of rattling. Aside from wishing for the summing capability to be included within the DSP unit, and perhaps a calibrated calibration microphone and mount to make the calibration process even easier (even as an optional extra), I'm extremely pleased with my in-car sound upgrade. Sorry, Pioneer, you are not getting this system out of my car anytime soon.
Hands-On the Pioneer ND-DVR100 Dash Cam
Alongside the audio installation for my VW Golf R, Joe Karimzad and his team at Ultra Auto Sound in Mississauga, ON also installed Pioneer's new ND-DVR100 Dash Cam into my car, as I was in the market for a new one. I haven't been happy with other dash cams I've purchased in the past, running into issues like limited dynamic range, unclear (moving or otherwise) or flashing images, and failure of the camera to handle extremely cold and/or hot weather. These include units costing $100 all the way up to $300.
The ND-DVR100 comes with the G-shock sensor, loop recording, snap-shot photo, and 114-degree lens you'd expect. What's not typical, however, is the use of 27.5 fps recording to match the LED lights refresh so you won't see flicker in your recordings.
While I had mine professionally installed, you can install it yourself by simply mounting the bracket to the windshield using the adhesive, positioning it behind or next to the rearview mirror. Then, route the power cable neatly to the cigarette lighter adapter.
The camera records in full 1,080p, and you can set the compression level. I suggest use the smallest compression (largest file) and use a good quality 32GB microSD card, like a SanDisk Extreme, since the card will have to handle all kinds of weather condition, especially heat during the summer months.
Unlike most dash cams, the unit can be easily slid out of the bracket in case you need to take photos of an accident scene or show the video/camera to the officer on the spot. When you're ready to put the camera back into its bracket, just slide it in, versus having to fumble with positioning a unit at the proper angle in a suction cup-mounted unit.
Time stamp, location coordinates, and driving speed are all automatically recorded as part of the video and photo metadata. The picture quality, while not top notch, is still better than other dash cams I've tried. But my expectations for top-notch picture quality is in the GoPro range, so I may just be expecting too much from the unit.
For $200, it's a no-brainer to install one of these dash cams in your car. In fact, having a good dash cam is actually a requirement in order to be covered by insurance in many countries (though not in Canada). Whether your insurance provider will give a discount or not, at the very least, having an effective dash cam like this one will eliminate any he-said-she-said situations in the event of an accident.