It’s been a long time coming, but I finally equipped the GTO with a new stereo head unit this past weekend. Although the stock Blaupunkt (not “det face”) head unit was passable, it lacked any sort of auxiliary input, MP3 support or other technology that most vehicles are coming equipped with these days. As a gadget lover and someone who has a wide variety of fairly eclectic audio in digital format, as well as a smartphone capable of streaming still more audio over the Internet, I was feeling left out of the party. After spending a few months working on side projects and saving up some money, I finally had everything in place to do something about it.
History shows that I’ve always chosen my cars for one purpose above all others: driving excitement. It’s no wonder, then, that they’ve all been Pontiacs. All of them. Going all the way back to 1995. However, where I was wanting for nothing in the horsepower and torque department, most of Pontiac’s performance vehicles from the last two decades had little in the way of mobile entertainment options. A 12-disc CD changer in the trunk with a combination tape deck up front was the most exciting thing I’ve ever owned. This was little consolation when you wanted to listen to something that you just downloaded from iTunes but hadn’t burned to a CD yet, or stream a radio show from another part of the country that you can’t get over the air locally. Not gonna happen.
So a couple weeks back, with money in hand, I ordered a JVC KW-XR810 Double DIN Dual USB/CD Receiver, as well as the Axxess ASWC Steering Wheel Control Interface so I could retain my all-important steering wheel controls. I got the whole setup from Crutchfield, which — although they may not have the most rock-bottom prices online — always throws in a ton of very good stuff for free. This included:
- The Crutchfield “master sheet”, which gives you pictorial instructions on how to swap out the head unit and speakers for your specific vehicle
- A custom wiring harness that allows you to plug your new stereo into your factory harness without cutting off any connectors or doing anything destructive
- An antenna adapter, if needed
- A double-DIN bezel that’s designed for your car
I also scrounged up a $20-off coupon code for Crutchfield just before checking out, so I was pretty pleased with the total.
I’ve installed one car stereo before — in the old ’89 Firebird Formula that I once had as a project car — and it wasn’t terribly difficult, so I decided to go the self-install route this time as well. I’m no good at soldering and have no soldering equipment besides, so I went to Radio Shack and picked up some crimp-on butt connectors with adhesive heat shrinkable ends. I then spent an evening connecting the custom Crutchfield wiring harness to the one that came with the JVC deck. In true ghetto fashion, I used a lighter on the heat shrink and then wrapped each wire connection with electrical tape just to be sure. It was a simple process, with only one “gotcha”: the GTO has a radio antenna that’s embedded in the rear glass, and so you must supply power to the car’s antenna booster with a switched 12V source. The JVC harness had a lead that was meant to be used for a power antenna — in other words, carrying 12V only when the radio is actually on — and this worked perfectly.
The Axxess ASWC steering wheel control adapter was a different story, unfortunately; as I needed to splice into two wires in the factory harness, and the T-taps that I tried using didn’t give me a reliable (or indeed, any) connection, I had to take the car into a local stereo shop to have them properly wire that thing up. I think it took them about 30-45 minutes or so, and works perfectly now.
I’ll spare you the brunt of the tribulations I went through trying to actually get the radio into the car. Suffice it to say, it turns out I am apparently not very good at reading arcane pictorial directions and didn’t realize that there were not one, not two, but three metal sleeves that needed to be removed from the JVC before I could properly install the mounting brackets I needed. Once I had everything put together, it was time to test this puppy out.
The JVC KW-XR810 is one of those rare double-DIN units that’s not a touchscreen. I’m not adverse to touchscreen units, but they were all too expensive for my budget — at least, the ones with the streaming Bluetooth audio (A2DP) support that I needed. Additionally, my boss recently had his truck broken into in broad daylight at the office and the touchscreen head unit stolen out of it, so I was looking to attract as little attention as possible. The XR810 ended up being the perfect option because it looks fairly stockish, but actually comes packed with lots of features, including:
- Two USB ports and one 3.5mm aux in
- Bluetooth for phone calls and streaming audio, with included microphone
- Customizable control and display colors (with two color zones)
- Single CD drive supporting discs containing MP3, WAV or WMA files
- Three-band equalizer (with more options than that implies)
- Wired steering wheel control adapter port (none of that IR crap)
The face of the JVC KW-XR810 has a power/source button, EQ button, a four-way control switch, 6 preset buttons, three round buttons for Menu, Back and Phone, and a large dial/pushbutton control that is the mainstay of the stereo’s user interface. Seriously, you can do just about everything with that one dial control thanks to its dual-functionality: turn it to make a selection and push it to proceed. I expected one serious downside to the lack of a touchscreen would be difficulty in controlling the unit, but this thing is incredibly easy to use. And, in fact, easier to use than a touchscreen if you’re trying to go by feel alone, without taking your eyes off the road. Fortunately, none of the controls interfere with the GTO’s 6-speed manual shifter, but if you had a particularly lengthy USB stick in the front USB port, you might want to be careful when shifting into reverse…or even fifth gear.
The display colors are completely customizable to match your existing instrument panel lighting, which was a big plus for me since I like everything to match up and look like it belongs. The GTO’s instruments are mostly green (with white used only for numerics on the larger clocks), and I found that a pure green color preset on the JVC wasn’t quite the same. Adding one part blue allowed it to achieve the perfect match. You can choose a different color for the JVC’s display screen if you like, but I set everything to the same green.
You also have the freedom to set different colors for night operation, which can be triggered either by the headlight switch (via the dimmer lead) or based on a time schedule that you configure. On top of that, the display screen can be set to either “Positive” (black text on a light background), “Negative” (light text on a dark background) or “Auto”, which uses Positive when your headlights are off and Negative when they’re on. I found “Auto” to be the most pleasing. One caveat: In Negative mode, the text gets pretty blurry and hard to read when it scrolls, so keep that in mind.
Beyond the appearance of the thing, there are plenty of other configurables that the JVC KW-XR810 gives you access to. One nice thing is that you can choose a “volume adjustment” for each and every source input, relative to the FM tuner. In essence, this treats the FM tuner volume as a base, and allows you to adjust every other individual source upward or downward relative to it. Are you finding that the music on your USB stick is a lot louder than the radio stations? Set the USB input volume a few notches lower, then. This was a really cool feature that keeps you from having to remember to ramp up or down the volume every time you want to listen to a specific source.
The Bluetooth integration is very cool, but honestly not as useful as I had expected. For a start, be aware that although the XR810 has two USB inputs — one in the bottom right corner of the front panel, and another at the rear attached to a fairly long pigtail — if you want to use Bluetooth, you will have to plug a tiny USB Bluetooth adapter into one of these ports. That’s right: the Bluetooth chipset isn’t internal to the unit. That said, the Bluetooth adapter is so tiny that you barely even see it sticking out of the USB port. I chose to put it in the front port, and run the pigtail for the rear USB through the back of the car’s center stack and into the glove box. There, I plugged in a 16 GB USB flash drive loaded with music and just leave it in the glove box at all times, where it can’t even be seen.
Back to the Bluetooth stuff: Once you pair the JVC head unit with your phone, you’ll get access to two options (assuming your phone supports them). One is the “Phone” button, which lets you see your recent calls, browse your phonebook, make and receive calls right from the head unit. The other is the Bluetooth audio source, which lets you stream audio via the A2DP protocol directly from your phone. When your phone is paired, its signal strength and battery level is displayed on the JVC’s screen, which is really handy. You can also pair two phones simultaneously, and switch back and forth between them by holding down the “Phone” button on the face of the XR810.
The phone integration is really quite nifty; JVC even throws in a free wired microphone which I hid behind the grille in the GTO’s gauge cluster bezel. You can transfer your phonebook to the unit (it stores up to 400 entries), or if your phone supports it as mine does, simply access your contacts wirelessly over Bluetooth. When you receive a call, the JVC’s display can change color and ring through the car’s speakers, using either one of several built-in ringtones (which are actually not obnoxious) or the ringtone from your phone. When it rings, it displays the name and number of the contact who is calling you, or their caller ID if they’re not in your phonebook. Lastly, it can also notify you in a similar fashion when you receive a text message, but it can’t show you anything about the message (such as who sent it or what it says), which makes that feature somewhat useless. I decided to just turn it off since I don’t need the distraction if there is no useful info to be gained.
Anyway, this all works really well, and the sound quality for calls is quite good (it even mutes whatever you’re listening to automatically when you start talking, and resumes playing when you hang up). However, the JVC’s built-in noise and echo cancellation has to try and remove so much noise from my GTO’s exhaust system that it’s pretty darn hard for anyone to hear and understand me if I’m talking to them while driving. Things get clearer if I turn off the echo cancellation, but then the caller hears their own voice echoing when they speak. I need to do some more tests, and I might relocate the microphone to the visor if I can figure out how to get the GTO’s bloody A-pillar trim off. But I don’t do a lot of talking on the phone while I drive — none, actually — so I’m putting that on the back burner.
The Bluetooth audio streaming is nice, but far less useful than I’d imagined. The problem is that the JVC KW-XR810 offers little to no control over your streaming audio. Now, to be fair, this is dependent largely on what type of device you’re using to stream audio from, as well as its software version and how well the JVC’s firmware is programmed to deal with it. I’m using my new Apple iPhone 4S running iOS version 5.0. The JVC is capable of starting playback, but not stopping it — you can only mute the audio, not pause it. You can change tracks forward and back, and fast-seek backwards or forwards within a track. But the display remains maddeningly blank this whole time, refusing to display any information about what you’re listening to. You also can’t change playlists, folders, or anything else using the controls on the JVC head unit, meaning you have to dork about with your phone in order to effect any type of serious control.
This is a deal-breaker when you’re actually driving, naturally. Although I had originally intended to just stream music from my iPhone via Bluetooth, I changed my strategy and picked up a SanDisk Cruzer 16 GB USB flash drive from Best Buy for $15 during a recent sale. (It’s even black and red, to match my interior!) After loading it up with music, I popped it into the JVC’s rear USB port (via that pigtail which I located to my glovebox). The only thing I use the Bluetooth streaming audio for now is Pandora, TuneIn Radio and other such apps that stream audio from the Internet, where control is already fairly limited. This is great for those radio shows I like to listen to that aren’t local to our area.
As for that USB flash drive? This, I’m convinced, is where the JVC KW-XR810 really shines. When you first switch to the USB source, it will spend a few seconds (about 4 or 5, maybe) reading the flash drive, then it will start playing — either from the first folder/track it finds alphabetically, or from where you left off if you were listening to the USB source earlier. What’s awesome here is that you can use a combination of just three controls on the JVC’s face — Menu, Back and the control dial — to browse the entire flash drive and play anything on it. It’ll show you full file and folder names (up to 25 characters worth, anyway) and will read ID3 tags from MP3 files, smoothly scrolling information that’s too long to display on the screen.
Of course, you can use the four-way control pad to change tracks, seek through a track, or change to the next or previous folder for quick access. And when you press the mute button, your music actually pauses instead of just going silent, meaning you won’t miss anything when you resume. I was also happy to discover that the next/previous track buttons on my steering wheel can also be used to seek through a track when held down, which my factory radio didn’t support.
You’ll get the most out of the USB input if you’re somebody who likes to organize their music collection via the filesystem (read: folders and subfolders) rather than by tags. I’m definitely a filesystem kind of guy, and had a grand time filling up my USB flash drive with a hierarchical system that makes the most of the JVC’s various “Random” playback modes. You can use the head unit’s Random function to shuffle songs within your current folder or on the entire drive, but more importantly, the current folder setting also includes subfolders. So if you organize your files accordingly, you get the ability to shuffle either songs from a certain album, from a certain artist, from a certain genre or whatever, depending on how high up the folder tree you are when you activate random playback.
And did I mention that the XR810 can playback and browse music from your iPod or iPhone in much the same way as it can with a USB flash drive? Yep, just plug your iDevice into one of the JVC’s USB ports and you’ll get access to the same easy-to-use user interface for browsing and playing all of your music, including your playlists, artists, genres and all the other lists that are standard on iOS. Very nice.
Altogether, this makes browsing a USB mass storage device the most ideal way to listen to music on the XR810. It’s incredibly easy to use, sounds great, and gives you access to a mind-boggling array of music. And you’re not limited to flash drives, either; you can plug in a portable hard drive for hundreds of gigs of entertainment. (But I don’t suggest using a spinning-platter disk drive in a moving vehicle, for longevity reasons — get yourself an SSD instead!)
Naturally, there’s a CD drive here too — although I only used it briefly. It’s capable of reading MP3s, WAVs and WMAs from data discs, for which navigation presumably works the same way as it does for the USB input. It also reads CD-TEXT information from Red Book audio discs, which I tested and found to work quite well. (I’ve been burning CD-TEXT info onto my custom CDs for years, but this is the first time I’ve had a player that knew what to do with it!) To be frank, I doubt I’ll ever use the CD player portion of the XR810, but it’s nice that it’s there.
The radio tuner is — what can I say? — a radio tuner. Both FM and AM are supported, with a possible 18 FM presets and 6 AM presets. There are 6 dedicated preset keys on the face of the unit, so if you want to access FM presets higher than that, you have to use the up/down arrow keys. I believe there is also a way to select a preset directly from a menu using the control dial. Other tuner options include the ability to assign a name for up to 30 stations (consisting of up to 8 alphanumeric characters each), as well as a feature that locates the six strongest stations in range and automatically assigns them as presets. Good for traveling, but would be more useful if it had its own bank of “temporary” presets and didn’t overwrite any of your regular ones. The GTO’s stock stereo actually had the latter capability, believe it or not. Unfortunately, there is no RDS support, and no way for the unit to set its clock automatically over-the-air.
In what is perhaps my biggest gripe about the unit, when in FM or AM mode, my next/previous steering wheel controls don’t move up and down the list of presets, but instead seek up and down, which is practically useless. JVC is solely responsible for this and they have made a very poor choice in my opinion; it makes those controls on my steering wheel effectively useless in tuner mode. Why couldn’t they allow you to cycle through your FM presets with those button, and still allow seeking if you hold the buttons down? At least the up/down keys on the face of the XR810 are on the driver’s side and thus easy to reach, because that’s the only real way you’re going to be scanning through your presets while you’re driving.
Other than those few annoyances that I’ve mentioned, the JVC KW-XR810 is an apt replacement for the GTO’s factory stereo and offers improved sound with a wider range of equalization options and two different (and very effective) loudness modes that the original system lacked. It’s got the same peak wattage rating as the factory unit I used to have, but sounds so much better — and I don’t dare get anywhere near even half volume on this thing because it would destroy my car. There’s definitely plenty of sound available for the taking, if you can handle it.
- Great sound and decent EQ options
- Customizable control and display colors with dimming options
- Lots of inputs, including two USB, one 3.5mm aux in and a rear external input (the latter requires a special JVC dongle, if I recall correctly)
- Excellent UI for browsing filesystem on a USB mass storage device
- iPod/iPhone control via USB works just as well as browsing a USB flash drive
- Bluetooth phone integration is easy to manage and works very well
- Has Bluetooth A2DP audio streaming, which is hard to find at this price point
- Control dial system makes it easy to interact with the unit
- Looks that won’t entice thieves
- Bluetooth microphone can’t handle loud muscle car exhaust systems 😉
- Front of the unit is too high-gloss and attracts dust and fingerprints
- Display occasionally gets a little cluttered
- Bluetooth audio streaming mode lacks almost all control and display information, at least on iPhone 4S
- Bluetooth requires USB adapter which takes up one of your USB ports
- Next/Previous steering wheel controls perform seek rather than switching presets on FM and AM bands (what the hell were they thinking)
- The unit forgets absolutely everything if you disconnect the battery (no EEPROM for storing presets or other data when power is lost, like the GTO’s factory radio had)
Oddball Verdict: Highly Recommended in the Under-$500 Price Range
I’d also like to add a shout-out for the Axxess ASWC steering wheel control adapter. Although it was beyond my capability to install properly, it auto-detects the GTO without any manual programming necessary, and there is no perceptible delay when you press a key on the wheel. Works just like factory. Well done.
I just discovered two new cool things about the KW-XR810 on the way to work this morning. For a start, pressing the “Mute” button on the steering wheel turns the unit on. (No, it doesn’t make sense, but I’m just happy to have a way to turn it on from the wheel.) Even better, though, holding down the “Mute” button on the wheel will also turn the unit off! At this rate I’ll never even have to touch the JVC itself.
Unless I want to surf my FM presets. Grrrr.