For 2008, Sony makes a minor update to its entry-level Bluetooth-equipped car stereo. The MEX-BT2600 retains many of the positive features that we liked in the MEX-BT2500, including Bluetooth hands-free calling, the capability to play songs streamed via the A2DP Bluetooth profile, and support for a range of digital audio formats. Changes to the system include different button labeling, a mic-level control, and some new expandability options.
The MEX-BT2600 follows the basic chassis and faceplate design of the current crop of single-DIN entry-level Sony stereos, which we saw most recently in the CDX-GT420U. A rotary dial provides the main control interface and is surrounded by six buttons for one-touch access to the system's major features. While the MEX-BT2600's buttons are in the same place as those on its predecessor, the updated system assigns new functions to two of them, giving drivers a dedicated Bluetooth and Display buttons, an update that we found to be very useful in the day-to-day use of the system. Also to our liking is the stereo's neon blue backlighting, which gives it a classy visual appearance. For audio sources, the MEX-BT2600 features an open disc slot and a front-mounted auxiliary input jack for connection to portable audio players. While it lacks the bold X-themed styling of the high-end MEX-BT5100 Bluetooth head unit, the MEX-BT2600 does advertise its membership of Sony's X-Plod line of products with prominent badges on its bezel--a subtle but notable difference from its predecessor.
Features and performance
The main reason people will buy the MEX-BT2600 is its competitive price and its integrated Bluetooth hands-free calling capability. With a built-in microphone and Bluetooth adapter, the system provides an easy and intuitive means of making calls from behind the wheel, an increasingly important consideration as more and more states enforce bans on driving while talking on cell phones. Pairing a phone to the MEX-BT2600 is straightforward: after holding down the BT button for five seconds, drivers search for the stereo using their Bluetooth-equipped phone, completing the process with the entry of a passkey. With the connection made, all calls made out from the cell phone handset are routed through the car's speakers while the system's built-in microphone lets drivers speak naturally and be understood from the other end of the line. Unlike its higher-end sibling, the MEX-BT2600 does not copy cell phone address books when paired. This is not a problem for incoming calls, which are answered by the touch of the rotary dial. However, there are limitations on outgoing calls: drivers can either use the handset to dial out (not ideal when driving along); redial the last number (obviously limited in its scope); or use the voice-dialing feature of the phone to call out. While this last option is dependent on the phone having a voice-dial option, we found it to be by far the easiest--and safest--way to call out via the MEX-BT2600. With a call underway, incoming sound quality via the car speakers is clear as is outgoing call quality--although the latter does sound a bit tinny. A new mic-volume control lets drivers adjust the outgoing call volume.
The other Bluetooth function of the MEX-BT2600 is its capability to stream music via the A2DP Bluetooth audio profile. There are only a limited number of phones that come with built-in A2DP, and we had to search around the CNET offices to find our Sony Ericsson K790 test phone. To play Bluetooth audio via the MEX-BT2600, the phone must be paired in a similar way to that for Bluetooth hands-free calling. (A single pairing connection will suffice to connect the same phone for Bluetooth calling and music playback.) With our A2DP phone connected, we were able to stream music from the phone to the head unit and out through the car's speakers. While the phone handset must be used to start playback of a track or a playlist, but once started, the controls on the stereo can be used to skip forward and back, pause and restart tracks, and control volume level. During Bluetooth audio playback, no track information is transferred to the stereo's display, so drivers will have to either refer to the phone display for track information or select tunes by ear when on the road.
While A2DP is an impressive technology, it is still by no means a popular medium for in-car audio. More usefully, the MEX-BT2500 can play regular Red Book CDs as well as MP3/WMA digital audio discs. For the latter, the system's bright LCD display shows eight ID3 tag characters, which automatically scroll across the screen. Using the Display button, drivers can cycle through information on folders, files, and ID3 tags.
We also like the front-mounted auxiliary input jack, which can be used to play audio from portable audio players such as iPods. Audio-tweaking functions on the MEX-BT2500 are limited to a number of preset EQ configurations and a custom setting that lets the driver set high and low outputs. Like its predecessor, the MEX-BT2600 kicks out 52 watts (max) through four channels via a digital-to-analog converter. The system also features four-channel preamp outputs, including a selectable sub with its own level control. However, the entry-level unit lacks a number of the higher-end MEX-BT5100's more advanced audio capabilities, such as its EQ3 parametric leveler, and its BBE MP signal processing, which restores some of the sound quality lost through the compression of digital audio files by reamplifying acoustic details or "harmonics" that were reduced in the compression process.
In a major upgrade from the MEX-BT2500, the MEX-BT2600 gets a range of expandability options, making it compatible with external modules for connection to satellite and HD radio, as well as an optional intelligent iPod adapter.
With a price tag of $169.95, the Sony MEX-BT2600 represents a great value for those looking for an all-in-one hands-free calling and audio receiver. If you can live with its lack of phonebook transfer, the system provides an easy-to-use Bluetooth speakerphone with good calling quality and seamless integration. Its wide range of audio options--including support for Bluetooth audio--is an added bonus.