HD Radio has been available on the digital airwaves for the better part of the last decade, and though there are hundreds of stations taking advantage of this technology, there has been some question as to whether the standard would catch on. That's because most OEM and aftermarket tuners are still of the old analog variety, requiring expensive add-on tuners to gain compatibility. JVC's newest kid on the block, the KW-NT3HDT GPS navigation system, attempts to stand out from this crowd by being one of, if not the, first in-dash receivers to offer HD Radio tuning as a standard feature. However, JVC didn't stop there, and the car stereo manufacturer also managed to get a bit more mileage out of the HD Radio tuner by rolling in Clear Channel's HD Total Traffic network high-speed data service.
Design and installation
The KW's face is occupied primarily by a 6.1-inch resistive touch screen. The display resolution is unpublished, but we're estimating that the screen operates at around 480x234 pixels. The resistive nature of the touch display means that you really must commit to each input with a solid press--glancing blows are simply not registered--but overall the screen can be quite responsive once you become accustomed to exerting the right amount of pressure. Just above the screen is the slot for the single-disk CD/DVD drive and to the left of the screen is a narrow vertical bank with a few physical controls, including a volume knob (which we prefer over a volume rocker for quick sound-level adjustments). Other physical controls present include audio source selection, map/audio control mode toggle, and an eject button. All of the physical controls feature color illumination that can be set to cycle through the spectrum or set with RGB values to match your vehicle's illumination.
Near the lower left corner of the unit are the 3.5-millimeter analog audio input and USB port, the latter being hidden behind a plastic door. We reckon that the purpose of that door is to protect the port from dust, but it is also tricky to open and shut and feels a bit fragile, as though it could pop off at any minute--fortunately, ours did not. The USB connection accepts standard mass storage devices and Apple's iPod- and iPhone-branded devices. When connected to an iPhone, the KW-NT3HDT offers two modes for selecting your music: the standard onscreen selection mode that uses the touch screen and a second remote-control mode that allows a passenger to make playlist selections from the iPod or iPhone itself.
The front of the unit has one more physical feature: a detach button that causes the entire screen faceplate to pop off and be removed for security. Detachable faceplates, while not rare in the car stereo world, are almost unheard of for double-DIN units such as this because carrying a large touch screen can be unwieldy. In addition to being a bit over 6.1 inches diagonally, the KW-NT3HDT's faceplate is about an inch thick and weighs about as much as a small SLR camera, so it's not at all pocketable. However, having the option to bring the screen with you when parking on the street overnight, for example, is a welcome feature. The KW ships with a soft case to protect the screen during transport. Just behind the faceplate, and accessible by partially removing the screen, is a hidden SD card slot. It's very easy to forget that it's back there--or completely miss it in the first place--but this slot does provide yet another audio input option. More importantly, this is where you can update firmware, maps, and the POI database when the time comes.
Spinning the unit around and taking a look at the rear panel for the last time before installation, we were greeted with only a few hard connection points and inputs. The KW-NT3HDT uses a pair of wire harnesses to offload most of its connections and potentially save space. The first wire harness contains the standard power, ground, and speaker connections that are common to all vehicles and must be connected for the unit to function. The second harness is optional and contains a selection of audio/video connections for a rearview camera, an external monitor or rear-seat entertainment system, an input from an external video source, and steering wheel controls. There are standard RCA connections for four channels plus subwoofer output to external amplifiers, as well as connections and pigtails for the parking brake sensor, reverse gear sensor, speed signal sensor, microphone, and GPS antenna.
HD Radio receiver and Total Traffic service
On many receivers we test, the broadcast radio receiver feels like a bit of an afterthought, behind iPod connectivity. In the KW-NT3HDT, radio is center stage thanks to the addition of an HD Radio receiver that both serves as an audio source and feeds data to the navigation system.
When selected as an audio source, the FM tuner will automatically select HD Radio reception when an available frequency has been selected. HD Radio stations may carry the advantages of increased audio resolution, multiple digital substations within the same frequency, and enhanced station info and song metadata. When connected to an iPod or iPhone device, the HD Radio receiver can attach an iTunes tag to a playing song, creating an on-device playlist of songs to be downloaded later.
For navigation, the HD Radio receiver serves the secondary function of acting as a receiver for the Total Traffic HD network data service. This Clear Channel service offers a few advantages over standard RDS-TMC FM traffic services, not the least of which is increased data bandwidth that allows the HD Traffic-equipped receiver to pull down traffic-flow and incident updates 10 times faster and much more often than its analog counterpart.
In addition to the increased traffic data resolution, the Total Traffic HD service beams sports scores, weather forecasts, and select news headlines into the dashboard and makes them accessible via the KW-NT3HDT's menus. JVC includes a lifetime subscription to the Total Traffic Network with the purchase of the KW-NT3HDT and there is no setup required. Simply power up and start using it.
Bluetooth connectivity and audio sources
The KW-NT3HDT pairs with a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone or audio player with a four-digit PIN and boasts an alphabet soup of profiles, consisting of HFP, PBAP, OPP, A2DP, and AVRCP compatibility. The Hands-Free Profile (HFP), Phone Book Access Profile (PBAP), and Object Push Profile (OPP) come into play when pairing with a mobile phone, enabling the KW-NT3HDT to act as a speakerphone and to download an address book when connected to a compatible handset. Audio output ultimately depends upon your vehicle's unique acoustic qualities and speaker setup, so judging audio quality is difficult, but we can say that the KW's external speaker and processing helped to ensure that we heard no echoes during calls and that road noise was minimized--even in our relatively loud economy car test vehicle. The KW-NT3HDT can also download an entire address book in one fell swoop using PBAP or individual contact entries using OPP.
The last two Bluetooth profiles, Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) and Audio/Video Remote Control Profile (AVRCP), work together to give the KW-NT3HDT the capability to stream audio from a paired smartphone or Bluetooth audio adapter and control playback with basic play, pause, and skip controls.
In addition to Bluetooth audio streaming, another audio source is the aforementioned USB connection for iPod, iPhone, and mass storage device playback. Compatible digital formats include MP3 and WMA without DRM. The single-slot optical drive will read DVD video discs, retail audio CDs, and nearly any format of recordable CD that contains MP3 or WMA files.
Additionally, the KW-NT3HDT is satellite-radio-ready with a dedicated connection for adding one of JVC's XM or Sirius receivers.
The KW-NT3HDT uses a combination of an external GPS antenna, a vehicle speed pulse sensor, and an internal three-axis gyro sensor. The three systems complement one another to increase tracking accuracy. When GPS reception is weak, such as in urban canyons, the three-axis gyro can assist, notifying the unit when you make a turn to keep the vehicle on track. Another example is when the vehicle is traveling through a tunnel, the speed pulse sensor can help the KW-NT3HDT to effectively estimate progress until a satellite connection can be re-established. Additionally, the more you drive, the more the three-axis gyro calibrates, and--at least, theoretically--the accuracy of the unit will increase over time. We were still able to throw the system off with our test route through downtown San Francisco, but overall we found the accuracy of the KW-NT3HDT to be quite good.
The addition of HD Total Traffic to the navigation suite means that the KW is aware of conditions on the road around it. We spent some time hunting traffic jams reported by the service and found it to be reasonably accurate in its reporting. The system prompts you to recalculate when traffic appears on the chosen route, but it also has an option to automatically reroute without prompting.
If there is one weakness that we found with the KW-NT3HDT's navigation experience, it's the destination entry portion of trip planning. Address entry is fine, but in our experience the POI search system could use a bit more polish. Most heinously, our system refused to return search results for POIs near us; instead it kept attempting to direct us to drugstores and restaurants far outside a reasonable driving distance. For example, a search for "Walgreens" returned one result that was over 300 miles away, despite there being at least five locations within 10 to 20 miles. The KW continued to do this for the better part of a whole day for various searches, until a hard reset seemed to clear the issue and restore our local POIs. This may have just been an isolated glitch, but even when it works properly, the POI search function can be slow and a bit unintuitive, particularly when looking for a particular location of a large franchise chain. On the other hand, we had little difficulty searching for locations by proximity, for example finding the nearest gas station, or heading to known addresses.
Turn-by-turn directions are given with text-to-speech spoken street names, which we find very useful for keeping the driver's eyes on the road. The system does have a bad habit of expanding abbreviations unnaturally, for example stating "United States 101 South" instead of the more common and brief "U.S. 101 South." We can see some users becoming annoyed by the unnecessary verbosity, but we were mostly unbothered. There's also graphic lane guidance and a detailed intersection view for those times where you need a little visual confirmation.
Another neat feature is the speed limit notification that verbally warns you when you exceed the posted speed limit for the road on which you're traveling by a customizable amount. We found it to be quite useful for keeping our speed in check, but ultimately decided to disable the feature after receiving almost constant reminders that we were driving irresponsibly.
When we look at the bullet points and compare the day-to-day functionality, JVC KW-NT3HDT is on par with the double-DIN all-in-one units in its price range in all areas but one. It has the distinct double advantage provided by its built-in HD Radio receiver allowing it to tune in to HD Radio stations and receive HD Total Traffic data for traffic, news, and weather, features that could cost more than $500 extra to add to a competing model. Factor in the lifetime subscription to the Total Traffic service and the KW-NT3HDT starts to look like a downright steal.
Of course, as we mentioned earlier, the hardware isn't without its quirks, particularly the "Will it break this time?" USB cover and the huge detachable faceplate with its secret SD card slot. And while our POI search problem may have been an isolated incident, we feel it still bears mentioning. Even in that light, the KW-NT3HDT deserves a spot among our favorite in-dash navigation units. It's a very flexible system that offers a good many customization and audio input options, and earns our recommendation for users who are more concerned about getting around in traffic than a glossy, slick interface.