When we got our first look at the Pioneer AVIC-Z1 head unit at CES 2006, we were impressed. The double-DIN in-dash system incorporates a 7-inch touch screen and brings in all the functions you would expect to see in a top-of-the-line factory-installed head unit: Bluetooth cell phone integration, voice-activated GPS navigation, and a range of audiovisual media playback options.
And the AVIC Z-1 goes one better by incorporating a built-in 30GB hard drive enabling users to rip CDs to disc to create a mobile media library. There are those who will question the value of such a function, considering the fact that most people who are interested in creating music libraries will probably already have one on their computers and/or on their iPods. The AVIC Z-1 addresses the latter by offering a dedicated iPod interface, which enables those in the car to devolve control of their iPods to the touch screen while driving. (As usual, we expect there will be howls of disapproval from owners of portable digital music players other than the iPod, but at the moment it looks like Apple is the only one making the vendor deals.)
For our test-bench review of the AVIC Z-1, we got a number of the available add-ons, including the Bluetooth and iPod adapters. Wiring up the main head unit is pretty straightforward, and we managed connect it to four main speakers and its additional media modules without the need for any special equipment. In addition to the four standard speakers, the unit has separate RCA connectors for two more pairs of speakers and a subwoofer, all of which require separate amplifiers. There are also RCA connections for a rear video display, external video components, and a rearview camera, which is sold separately.
As a multimedia receiver, the AVIC Z-1 supports a broad range of formats: as well as being an FM/AM receiver, the head unit supports standard RedBook CDs; MP3- and WMA-encoded files; the aforementioned iPod input; and DVD video and -ROM, with video playback via the 7-inch display in one of three screen configurations. There is also an optional satellite radio connector and a dedicated XM NavTraffic module to provide real-time traffic data in conjunction with the navigation system.
Making a mobile library is worth the wait
The first thing you notice when you fire up the AVIC Z-1 is the amount of time the Pioneer-branded start-up screen stays on--we counted at least 30 seconds before we were given a menu, putting it down to initial calibration, but we found that this wait is compulsory every time it is turned on. This start-up delay did give us time to configure the screen angle to our satisfaction--a process that requires you to hold down the eject button to bring up the screen enabling forward and backward tilt.
Use of the AVIC Z-1 as a car stereo is straightforward: hard buttons on the base of the double-DIN bezel let you skip through radio frequencies and CD tracks and control volume, with all other functions carried out using the touch screen. Discs are loaded into the unit by pressing a hard Eject button on the bezel, which causes the screen to retract, revealing a single CD slot. After loading a standard CD, the screen reverts back to its original position automatically, while the head unit digests all the information it can from the disc. An icon appears on the screen informing you that the AVIC Z-1 is equipped with Gracenote, an embedded software and metadata service, which enables devices to identify and catalog audio files for the purposes of building digital media libraries. The default on the AVIC Z-1 is for Autorecord mode, which sets the unit to automatically start ripping audio files from store-bought CDs as soon as they are inserted for playback. As with Apple's iTunes, the music files are then simultaneously played and recorded to disc.
Each track takes about one minute to record to the hard drive, then it can be played back at any time. One small frustration we found with the unit set to Autorecord was the delay that precedes playback of the disc as the reader prepares itself. In addition to Auto mode, the record function can be set to Single and Manual modes, which respectively record the first track of a disc and allow users to choose recording on a track-by-track basis. Using the touch screen to control audio--either directly playing from discs or an iPod, or from the library--is relatively straightforward, with dedicated buttons for random playback, repeat, and search. For homemade digital audio discs (such as MP3s and WMAs), a search button enables navigation of music by folder, track, and artist.