The Pioneer flagship receiver that won our Editors' Choice Award in 2009 is back in its third generation as the AVIC-Z130BT. This all-in-one receiver is something of a car tech magic bullet, rolling GPS navigation, audio and video playback, and hands-free calling into one box, ready to be installed inyour car's dashboard. Over the years, the AVIC-Z series has picked up a few new tricks, including Pandora Internet Radio integration. This year Aha Radio integration joins the party via an iPhone app, as well as HD Radio reception for audio and traffic data. So does the AVIC-Z130BT still have what it takes to keep up with the competition or is it starting to show its age?
Hardware and installation
There's not much to look at on the AVIC-Z130BT's faceplate when it's powered down. The unit is mostly controlled via touch screen, but there is a bank of capacitive buttons along the lower bezel of the 7-inch WVGA display. From left to right are voice command, volume down and up, home, mode, skip back and forward, and eject.
Power the unit up, however, and the massive display comes to life and the capacitive buttons illuminate. Out of the box, the buttons cycle through a spectrum of backlight colors, but you can pop into a menu and select any color you would like, for example to match the rest of your vehicle's interior lighting. We'll talk more about what is displayed on that screen in the interface section.
Tapping the eject button brings up a menu that gives the option to open the motorized faceplate to insert or remove a CD or DVD from the AVIC's optical drive, or adjust the screen tilt angle.
Even the basic installation of the AVIC-Z130BT is slightly more involved than most all-in-one receivers. After making the standard power and speaker connections via the included wire harness, we had to install, route cables for, and connect an external GPS antenna and a microphone. We also tapped the parking brake sensor to enable functions that only work when the vehicle is parked and made the optional speed sensor connection that should help the navigation system's accuracy. There's also a 6-foot USB/analog stereo auxiliary input combo cable that needed connecting--In most vehicles that's more than long enough to reach the glove compartment or center console. Where the AVIC-Z130BT differs from other units we've installed is that Pioneer includes a separate traffic tuner that must be installed in-line with the AM/FM radio antenna and connected to a power output on the AVIC's back panel.
Those who want to expand the AVIC-Z130BT beyond its core feature set will find a veritable smorgasbord of connections on the unit's rear. There's an input for adding a wired remote, an IP-BUS for connecting an XM or Sirius Satellite Radio tuner, and a dedicated video input and reverse gear lead for a rearview camera. Permanently located on the back panel are dedicated, stereo subwoofer preamp outputs and a video output. On a removable pigtail, you will find a video input, a stereo audio input, front and rear stereo audio outputs, and a rear monitor output. That's more than enough in the way of connections to input from or output to pretty much any car audio component you may want. However, if you're making all of these connections and using the traffic tuner, you'll have to be careful to make sure there's plenty of space behind your dashboard to fit everything.
Interface and digital audio sources
The main menu consists of three large icons for the AVIC-Z130BT's three major functions: Destination, Telephone, and A/V Source. Under the Telephone menu, you'll find all of the options for initiating a hands-free call, including an onscreen dialer and access to your phone's address book if you chose to sync during the pairing process.
If there's one way the AVIC-Z series has managed to improve year after year, it's by constantly adding new options to its long list of digital audio sources, all of which you'll find under the A/V Source menu.
Of course, you have the standard CD/DVD playback with MP3/WMA/AAC and DivX decoding. There's also a USB connection for external digital storage devices, a 3.5mm auxiliary input for connecting MP3 players, and an SD card reader for the handful of you who like to carry your audio around on SD cards. Bluetooth audio streaming means you can wirelessly connect a smartphone for listening to music or podcasts. However, things get interesting when an Apple iPhone is connected to the USB port.
The iPhone (and to a lesser degree the iPod Touch) opens up not one, but three additional digital audio sources. The first is standard iPod playback, which gives access to the music, audiobooks, and podcasts stored locally on the device. You can browse the available audio using the touch screen, but there's also a safer option available while driving. When an iPhone or iPod is connected to the AVIC-Z130BT, Pioneer's voice recognition engine will scan the device and create voice tags that can be accessed with the touch of a button. Simply hit the VR button and say, for example, "Play artist Kid Cudi" and the AVIC will create a playlist of songs by that artist. There's also a passenger control mode, which turns control of song selection back over to the iPhone's touch screen, allowing a passenger to pick and queue songs from there.
If the iPhone has the latest version of the Pandora Internet Radio application installed, you can take control of the stream using the AVIC's touch screen to select from your Pandora stations, thumbs-up or thumbs-down songs, and bookmark artist and songs you'd like to check out later.
New to this generation of the receiver is Aha Radio support, which--through an app on a connected iPhone--means you can listen to local traffic reports, news broadcasts, restaurant reviews, and even your friends' Facebook status updates while rolling along at highway speeds. You can select between these feeds with taps and swipes on the AVIC's touch screen and can add or remove channels from the app itself (while the vehicle is stopped, of course.) We found it a bit odd listening to our friends' updates in the system's robotic text-to-speech voice, but for those of you who are addicted to social networking, this could be a cool way to catch up with your friends. There's also a feature called Caraoke (really), which lets people share recordings of themselves singing while driving. In theory this is a fun feature, but after the first five or six submissions we checked out were either nonsense or just downright profane, we quickly removed this channel from our listing. This is, of course, a shortcoming of the Aha Radio service and not the AVIC-Z130BT, and doesn't affect its score.
Unfortunately, iPod and iPhone connectivity requires the CD-IU51V interface cable you'll have to purchase separately. Attempting to connect an iPhone via USB only will still give you access to all of the functions described above, but without the interface cable you won't actually be able to hear anything, which sort of defeats the purpose.
The AVIC-Z130BT features an integrated HD Radio tuner, which we're happy to count among the available digital audio sources. HD stations feature much clearer audio than standard ones. It takes the tuner a second to lock into the HD stream so you get a sort of before and after effect of hearing the audio suddenly become more crisp. Like most HD Radio receivers these days, the AVIC's includes the iTunes Tagging function that allows you to add songs heard on HD Radio stations to a playlist on a connected iPod or iPhone for later purchase in the iTunes Store.
One of the main functions in the AVIC-Z130BT's arsenal is turn-by-turn GPS navigation. You can switch between navigation and audio/video playback with the dedicated Mode selection button. However, destination inputs are still initiated from the Home screen via the Destination menu.
Navigation includes spoken turn-by-turn directions, but does not support text-to-speech. This means that when approaching a turn, street names such as "Main Street" will not be pronounced aloud. Instead, you'll get a simple, "Turn left in 500 feet," for example. The navigation interface seems to have received a visual refresh since the last we saw it in the AVIC-Z120BT--certainly, since our first experience with the AVIC-Z110BT. Maps now have a crisper look that makes them easier to read, and graphic elements, such as the graphic lane guidance, now have a more polished appearance and smoother animations.
We liked that traffic data is displayed on the map. Incidents show up as small yellow icons that can be tapped for more information and flow data is represented by color-coded lines alongside the highways. A red line along a stretch of road means there's a traffic jam. Because the data is pulled from local RDS-TMC sources, you'll usually only have flow data available for major highways with road sensors. Also, the AVIC-Z130BT's routing algorithm didn't seem to take traffic into account when selecting a path to a destination, nor did it present alternate routes when we encountered a traffic jam. At the very least, the system does take traffic into account when calculating estimated arrival times, so you'll know just how late you're going to be.
We will give the AVIC-Z130BT this: the routes that the system chose for our test destinations usually lined up with our own local knowledge of the best route. We also liked that the system was extremely quick to lock in on its GPS position and remained remarkably accurate even in the urban canyons of downtown San Francisco. Because the system uses a combination of internal accelerometers and a direct connection to the vehicle's speed sensor, it's possible that over time the system could even become more accurate as it learns the vehicle's behaviors at a variety of speeds.
The previous Pioneer AVIC-Z models are a among our favorite all-in-one receivers and a tough act to follow, but the AVIC-Z130BT still manages to impress. In one box, it has all of the cabin tech must-haves: hands-free calling, digital audio playback that's safe and easy to use, and turn-by-turn directions with traffic. Whether you're looking to stop there or to keep going, adding rear seat entertainment, external amps, and a backup camera, you're likely to be happy with what the AVIC-Z130BT offers. However, as good as it is, it's not a perfect unit.
We'd like to see that iPod interface cable included in the box in the next generation; there's no reason to have to buy that separately when iPhone app controls top the list of selling points for this unit. More importantly, we'd like to see the navigation software taking better advantage of traffic data. While we're pushing the tech envelope, why not add an option for higher-resolution traffic data than RDS-TMC service?
If you took our advice and picked up one of the previous-generation AVIC-Z models, don't fret. There's not much new in the AVIC-Z130BT to give you buyer's remorse--unless you're a huge fan of Aha Radio, which we frankly weren't that impressed by.