Pioneer DEX-P99RS High End CD Tuner
Enthusiasts of car audio have always been posed with a crossroad when it came to selecting a source unit. Either you choose the high-end sound quality based path, or you choose the ‘connectivity’ path offering iPod control and access to things like Bluetooth and USB connectivity. At last, Pioneer has given enthusiasts and SQ aficionado’s one clear path that unifies these two previously disparate philosophies – it’s called the DEX-P99RS, and it stands clear as probably the very highest performance single DIN CD tuner ever created.
- Friday 17th June, 2011
Absolutely stunning from every aspect, finally a true high-end CD transport that offers modern conveniences, 125 colour illumination, excellent iPod connectivity with App Mode, wants for nothing really.
Bluetooth option hideously expensive, iPad charging not supported, auxiliary input awkwardly placed.
Okay, let’s address the two elephants in the room; Alpine’s F#1 Status and Clarion’s HX-D2. I can discard the Alpine quickly on the grounds that it was devilishly expensive and required an outboard signal processor. What’s more it didn’t afford anything in the way of connectivity support for the mod cons and, frankly, it’s no longer for sale. Pioneer's DEX-P99RS, meanwhile, affords all the connectivity you’d ever want and comes in a single DIN chassis without the neccesity of an outboard processor whatsoever.
This just leaves the venerable Clarion HX-D2, which itself is on its final throws as a source with barely a handful left for sale. I know for a fact that manufacturing of this unit halted last year and the rumors of a more modern replacement are just that for the moment – rumors. Since it is comparably priced to the DEX-P99RS and still technically for sale the HX-D2 is the singular model worth benchmarking the DEX-P99RS against, which I’ll get to a little later on ‘coz I know more than a few of you are very curious to know how they compare.
For now let’s have a look at what all the fuss is about. The DEX-P99RS has been quite a while coming to Australia, and is the very latest in a long line of high-end biased Pioneer sources on offer overseas that until now have never been available locally.
Previously,we’ve had to make do with the DEHP-80RS, which was a slimmed down version – a P99RS lite if you will. I’ve owned and enjoyed the 80RS and it was a great little unit, but was no match for the HX-D2’s sonic purity. I’ve had the HX-D2 as my personal reference source for many years, having owned more than one in my time. To say I’m excited by the prospects of an equivalent source but with better and more modern features is an understatement!
Here’s a snapshot what you get in the DEX-P99RS:
- CD transport with 4 x 24 Bit AKM DACs
- MP3, WMA, AAC and WAV file support
- 32 Bit Binary Floating-Point DSP
- Sound Master Clock Circuit
- High/ Mid/Low/Sub RCA pre-outs with 5VRMS
- Independent L/R 2/3/4 way crossover with up to 36dB/oct. slopes
- Independent L/R 31-band Graphic EQ
- 8-channel time correction
- Rear USB with digital signal transfer from iPod
- iPod/iTouch/iPhone 4 and even iPad connectivity and control
- ‘Application Mode’ for Apple devices
- OEL display
- 125 colour illumination
- Bluetooth Ready
- Steering wheel control ready
- Copper plated chassis
- IR remote with steering wheel mounting kit
Unlike virtually every other high-end CD tuner on the market, the DEX-P99RS poses no hurdles during installation over a garden variety CD tuner. There’s no external processor or DC/DC converter chassis like you have to deal with when installing Alpine’s or Clarion’s equivalents, so wiring is a cinch. Pioneer have graciously put the RCA outputs onto a detachable flying lead (a bugbear of the HX-D2) to assist in making things simpler as well, while the rear attached USB fly lead comes with a supplied extension cable so it can reach into your glove box or centre console.
For this review I removed my trusty Clarion HX-D2 from my reference vehicle and directly replaced it with the DEX-P99RS. Due to the HX-D2’s remote DC-DC converter and associated cabling it actually took longer to remove the old unit than it did to install the DEX-P99RS! It will honestly take you no longer to install the DEX-P99RS as it does a $199 cheapy. Top marks Pioneer.
As a final part of the installation I attached the supplied steering wheel mounting pod for the supplied IR remote and clipped the remote into place. If you’d prefer, the remote can be placed in a dash mountable pod that is also supplied – or simply use it by itself.
Let’s dig into those amazing features a little deeper, shall we? The primary foundation of any budding high-end source is a quality CD transport backed up by equally stellar digital-to-analog conversion. The DEX-P99RS kicks these aspects off with what they call their ‘High-Performance Damping Material and Mechanism. This is essentially used to firmly secure the entire CD mechanism to ensure the laser tracks the CD without error.
The output signal is controlled by the new High-Precision Sound Master Clock that’s claimed to be ultra precise and eliminate jitter noise, then through a 32-Bit Binary Floating-Point DSP chipset. After signal processing the signals are then converted from digital to analog via no less than four separate AKM 24-Bit DACs. While not as well known amongst high-end automotive circles, AKM DACs share equal reputation and status with Burr Brown in the home hi-fi and Pro Audio industries.
As a final boast, the DEX-P99RS is endowed with a staggering 115dB signal to noise ratio. By comparison the Clarion HX-D2’s benchmark was 112dB.
The DEX-P99RS bucks the high-end trend by being fully supportive of compressed media formats like MP3, WMA and AAC via the CD transport or flash based media connected to the rear mounted USB port. Better news still is that the USB drive will support playback of uncompressed WAV files ripped from CD (but not Apple lossless), which means you can load multiple albums onto larger flash drives if you don’t own an iPod – as many as 20 albums on a 16Gb drive. A Pioneer proprietary iP-Bus port is provided if you wanted to dig up an old CD changer, but given WAV file support via USB why would you bother?
Talking iPods, this is probably the first true high-end CD source capable of direct connection to Apple’s wide array of portable devices. Plug your iPod cable into the USB port and all manner of iPod, iTouch, iPhone and even iPad will connect and be controlled for audio playback. The iPad I tested worked flawlessly but sadly the USB port can’t provide the full 2.1-amps of current so charging is not supported.
The DEX-P99RS does, however, boast Pioneer’s very latest ‘App Mode’ control functionality, and here we finally arrive at a solution where multi-media and high-end sonic performance coalesces into one seamless system. With any touch screen based Apple player connected you can browse and use all your Applications like games, internet, navigation, movies and everything else while the audio stream is taken from the lower docking port digitally to be processed just like any other source. That means the signal gets processed via the four AKM DACs too, which is far superior to Apple’s own DACs or even those of garden variety CD tuners.
In this way the DEX-P99RS is probably the best sounding ‘iPod capable unit’ ever built. As an alternative to a full blown $2000+ A/V source unit a simple DEX-P99RS and iTouch or iPad combo all of a sudden makes an extremely compelling choice.
Aside from the aforementioned USB port and iP-Bus connection you also get a small auxiliary input for an analog source. This doubles as the microphone input for the Auto EQ function, and is awkwardly placed under the lower edge of the face plate. Since it’s placed this way, and since you’ll need a custom adaptor from 3.5mm to 2.5mm, I don’t see many people using this input – especially given the regular source options on hand.
You can buy Pioneer’s optional CD-RB20 iP-Bus auxiliary adaptor but this retails for $299. Likewise, the CD-BTB200 Bluetooth adaptor can be added for hands-free calling, but you’re eyes will wince at the staggering $599 RRP for this addition! That seems mighty expensive given Pioneer sell a whole CD tuner with BT built-in for just $339. Maybe it’s time to revise that price to something like $99 guys?
Anyway, onto the outputs, of which there are the four pairs of 5VRMS RCAs on a plug-in flying loom. That’s its really, as there’s no in-built amplifier to speak of as the DEX-P99RS must be used with external amplification – as it should too.
Here’s where the DEX-P99RS needs to be compared to not only the HX-D2 but to other high-end signal processors like the Audison BitOne and Alpine’s new PXA-H800. Great signal processing allows the manipulation of the signals to each speaker to be done so that you can correct for the offset driving position, apportion the appropriate frequency range to each speaker, and correct for response deficiencies. The DEX-P99RS has one key advantage in that it does all of this processing internally prior to the DACs, and is the only source of its kind to offer this very convenience to not only the CD playback but for USB based sources too.
The crossovers are a good place to start, and each of the eight channels can be adjusted individually or as matched pairs for cut off frequency, slope, phase and level. All four pairs of outputs can have high, low or band pass filters applied to them, and all filters can be set for full range output, 6, 12, 18, 24, 30 or even 36dB per octave filter slopes.
The filter range for the HIGH outputs spans 5kHz to 20kHz for its low pass and 800Hz to 16kHz for its high pass. The MID, LOW and SUB outputs all share the same spans for high and low filters, with 25Hz through to 20kHz for the low pass and 20Hz through to 16kHz for the high pass. All outputs offer 3rd octave filter spacing between cut off frequencies. In this way it can be considered that virtually any kind of speaker array could be filtered using this excellent system, as all outputs can be more or less configured infinitely.
Delaying each of the eight channels is done via the time correction system, though Pioneer have a slightly unusual system whereby you need to set the Auto-EQ system prior to be allowed to tune manually. This, in-turn, sets automated delays and channel levels for each channel that you need to manually restore back to zero in manual mode prior to commencing your own tuning regime. It’s a bit pesky and has been a part of high-end Pioneer units for years so there’s not much to do but work through it until you have arrested full control for yourself.
Once back in manual control you get up to 394.24cm of delay that can be applied to any of the output channels. Nearly four meters is quite a lot of delay, but anyone who owns a very large SUV with rear facing subwoofers may run of out ‘push’ given the path-length needs to be calculated from the cone of the subwoofer back to the rear of the car and back around to the front again. Clarion’s HX-D2 has an extra meter of delay to play with, for example. Still, for 99% of people the time correction will work perfectly well.
Lastly we have the equalizer aspect, and Pioneer’s philosophy is to provide independent left and right channel 31-band graphic EQ. Most rivals prefer parametric EQ because it allows you to vary the ‘Q’ with of each filtered band, so you could attack a broad peak or dip in response that spans half an octave or more with just one filter. The graphic EQ argument is that it is far simpler for novice tuners to simply set the individual 31-bands of EQ as required to attend to a wayward frequency response shown on the matching 31-band spectrum analyzer.
Both approaches have merits, but since Pioneer’s is done in the digital realm it shouldn’t suffer the primary deficiency of older analog 31-band GEQs – which is the unwanted interaction you get between neighboring EQ bands. You can save up to five user set EQ curves, plus there’s a sixth FLAT curve on hand for referral at all times.
Aside from these critical basic tuning systems the DEX-P99RS also houses a variable LOUDNESS function plus Pioneer’s Sound Retriever system aimed at restoring lost ‘richness’ from compressed media files like MP3. Take my advice and just use lossless music.
There’s been some criticism leveled at the DEX-P99RS on our forums based around the GUI (Graphic User Interface). More specifically, that accessing the functions are tricky given you only have two large knobs to work with. Personally I had no real troubles navigating the dual controls, with the left one acting as a straight rotary control while the right side one offers 7-way control including left/right/up/down toggling. It’s simply a matter of familiarizing yourself with the sub menu system. If I was to be really picky I could say that you can sometimes get a little confused by the 7-way toggle, and every now and then you twist when you should have rotated or toggled and vice-versa, but it’s easy to correct.
To keep things simpler Pioneer have decided to place secondary ‘once-only’ settings like illumination and beep tone settings in a sub menu that can only be accessed while the unit is power off. This leaves the day to day functions as the only ones you can find during daily use. Makes sense to me.
The display screen itself is a nice large OEL design that can be set for positive or negative appearance as well as a choice of different display screens, while you get a choice of a massive 125 colours to choose from for the back lighting for the main controls. Where the OEL really comes into its own is while changing your signal processing settings, as its detailed display clearly shows you filter slopes and EQ curves. This is a Godsend compared to other units that feature high-end tuning but only offer very basic displays.
Pioneer also provides two additional conveniences for enhanced control. You can add a PAC SWI-PS if your car has factory steering wheel controls and this can plug into the small 3.2mm port on the rear of the chassis. Alternatively, they provide an excellent IR remote control unit that comes with a steering wheel mountable pod. Both options assist greatly, and are the reason why the front panel of the DEX-P99RS can remain clutter free and what is in my view one of the most attractive sources on the market today. It’s classy and bespoke looking in a way that oozes ‘high-end’, while the buttons have a nice weighty feel to back up the sensation of quality.
A week or so using the DEX-P99RS was a real joy, and after the past few years living with the HX-D2 I’d forgotten how nice it was to have the basics like proper iPod control, while the steering wheel mounted remote allowed me to make most system alterations without ever taking my eyes off the road. Being able to match my car’s interior illumination was a nice touch as well.
What many of you will want to know is how the DEX-P99RS stacks up against the HX-D2 from a tuning perspective, as well as from a pure sonic stand point. I can certainly state that tuning with the DEX-P99RS is easier from a GUI perspective, plus it offers superior crossover filtering. The GEQ is also easier to work with given it afford one band per 1/3 octave filter point.
When it comes to the sonic comparison there’s really nothing between the two sources for CD playback, with the DEX-P99RS sharing the HX-D2’s incredible fluency, transparency and clarity of image placement. Where the DEX-P99RS improves upon the HX-D2 is in the quality of playback from iPod sources, and thanks to the far higher grade digital-to-analog conversion the improvement in sound quality is dramatic – so long as you’re utilizing lossless quality rips of course. Indeed, since I actually spend 99% of my time listening to music via an iPod based source this singular contribution has made the most significant improvement to my daily listening pleasure. Until now I honestly never knew an iPod could sound this good!
So, is the Pioneer DEX-P99RS a flawless performer? Well, it does have its few idiosyncrasies, but I’d still have to conclude that it truly is a staggering performer on all fronts. Not only does it offer the very latest modern conveniences of iPod control, Bluetooth option and steering wheel control interface, but it provides an exemplary performance in sonic reproduction as well as signal processing. In short, if you can’t get an incredible result from the DEX-P99RS you must be doing something drastically wrong.
I also reckon that its retail price of $1,699 is completely justified, especially when you consider how much it would cost to access this level of CD transport, connectivity and signal processing by any other means. Pioneer’s DEX-P99RS is now the new benchmark 1-DIN high-end solution, comfortably taking over the crown worn for so many years by Clarion’s HX-D2. What’s more, the DEX-P99RS is superior to the HX-D2 in virtually every measurable manner and amazingly it costs a solid $300 less. Sure, $1,699 is still a fairly hefty investment for a source unit these days, but Pioneer’s DEX-P99RS does something extremely rare and wonderful – it makes listening to music a special event. And for that I absolutely adore it.
The King is dead, long live the King!
Pioneer Electronics Australia
5 Arco Lane, Heatherton, VIC, 3202 Australia
Pioneer Customer Care can be contacted on
(03) 9586 6380 or 1800 988 268,
9am to 5pm Monday to Friday (EST).