Thursday, August 11, 2011

Kenwood Excelon DNX9980HD Fully Loaded Multimedia Navigation Car Receiver Review

When I was at CES this past January, I was in awe at the clever slogan that some marketing mind at HTC came up with for the upcoming HTC Thunderbolt cell phone. The slogan read..."It's not your dream phone, it's the one after that." When I saw the list of features, that's the same way I thought of the Kenwood Excelon DNX9980HD. Although that is what I have come to expect from Kenwood as an innovator in car audio. And their performance has again and again been among the best in car audio.
So when given the opportunity to review the DNX9980HD, I naturally jumped on it. Being amount the early adopters of new technology, I have been using Bluetooth and HD Radio in my car for years. These have been possible through add-on adapters. It was nice to see the Kenwood Excelon DNX9980HD continues with the tradition, and add to it.
The Kenwood Excelon DNX9980HD truly is a flagship product. And in terms of features, it comes fully loaded. It is a double DIN Multimedia Navigation system. Starting with the multimedia in side, it is a 7" touchscreen LED backlit display and DVD player with 5.1 surround sound. You read right...5.1 surround sound in the car! Navigation comes from built in GPS from Garmin, and includes voice commands. But the voice control doesn't stop there. The Kenwood DNX9980HD actually includes voice control for the whole system. This means you can use voice commands to control Navigation, multimedia, and even the radio! Other features include Bluetooth and HD Radio already built in. Not only does it control your iPod, but Kenwood up'd the anti, and it will control two iPods. There are still connections on the back for even more, in the form of front and rear cameras, and a TV tuner. All of this is controlled by a windows CE 6.0 OS powered by an ARM RISC processor, with an MSRP of $1,999.
It's features and specs include:
General features:
DVD/CD player with AM/FM tuner
built-in navigation system with free traffic services
built-in amplifier (22 watts RMS/50 peak x 4 channels)
6.95" motorized touchscreen with multiple display angles
voice control of many receiver functions
animated display with multiple GUI
built-in Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming
PANDORA® Internet radio connectivity
built-in HD Radio tuner with iTunes tagging
fits double-DIN (4" tall) dash openings
remote control

Audio/visual features:
plays CDs, DVDs, and USB memory devices (see Hands-on Research for full capabilities)
13-band EQ, digital signal processing, and HP/LP filters
5.1 channel decoding
dual-zone A/V output

iPod control: Kenwood cable required for full access to audio/video content
works with Kenwood satellite radio tuner
inputs: rear USB input, two rear A/V inputs, rear-view camera input
outputs: A/V output; 7-channel preamp outputs (5-volt center, front, rear, subwoofer)

Other information:
compatible with most factory steering wheel audio controls (adapter required)
warranty: 2 years
Is your head spinning yet? Mine certainly is. That is a lot of features! Although I'm not sure about the TV turner input, Kenwood used to make an analog TV tuner, but with everything going digital, it would no longer work. Maybe they will be coming out with a new one? Or it could be for use in other countries.
Ok, now where to start? I thought my trusty Kenwood Excellon KDC-X991 did a lot. Tuning the dial and going through all the inputs reminded me of my home surround sound receiver, and not a car receiver. And this Kenwood DNX9980HD does even more! And it will even do 5.1 surround sound to boot!
The unit came double boxed, so it was well protected during shipping. The box had your typical yet pleasant Kenwood styling and graphics, with pics of the receiver, remote, and feature icons that seemed to go on forever. Opening the box showed a well laid out configuration. On the left was a section where the owner's manual (on CD), cables, wires, and accessories are all included. These comprise of wired microphone for handsfree calling with Bluetooth, GPS antenna, voice control switch, ferrite cores, rear view camera cable, a/v inputs and outputs, 5.2 channel pre-outs, and of course the wiring harness for all the speaker wires as well as power, ground, etc. There is also the front bezel, remote, batteries for the remote, mounting screws and tape, keys to remove the deck and I also can't forget the GPS quickstart guide, Voice Command Table, and warranty card. The top half of the styrofoam had cut outs to hold the bezel and remote. Pulling that out of the box revealed the actual receiver wrapped in a protective bag and held in the bottom half of custom fitted styrofoam.
All in all it was well packaged and well protected. Pulling the receiver out of the protective bad revealed a well made receiver. On the back are all of the connections, as also shown in the manual. I also noticed a mini USB slot, which I assume is used by Kenwood for servicing the units, as nothing else is labeled to plug-in there. The bottom holds the model number, serial number and barcode sticker. And next to it is a small windows Embedded CE 6.0 Core sticker. I'm sure that Windows CE 6.0 is all it needs to function, but I can't but help to wonder what an Intel Atom Processor would do for it. I can see multiple layers of circuit boards, looking at it from the back. It has a very good weight and a solid well built feel to it. The front comes with a clear plastic wrap to protect the touchscreen display. And I almost forgot the built-in fan at the back to help keep it cool. With all it has going on under the hood, I'm sure that is a necessity.
Now let's go over the features, starting with the GPS. The GPS functionality is powered by Garmin, and is a fully functioning GPS, just like a stand alone unit. Only it can be displayed on the huge 6.95" display that does not take away any real estate from your dash, or block any part of your windshield. You can program in the address you want to go, and choose your route preferences. It has 3D functionality that will display landmarks in 3D, such as high rise buildings. When traveling in large cities with complex freeways, the lane assistance with Junction View is a huge benefit! The Kenwood DNX9980HD also comes with a lifetime subscription to Navteq Traffic. Now if traffic is delayed because of an accident, you will be notified and given alternative route options. There is also split screen AV control. So if you don't need the navigation to take up the whole screen, you can share the screen with the AV controls.
Bluetooth systems are not all equal. One of the best done by Parrot, and Kenwood has used Parrot for the Bluetooth functionality in the DNX9980HD. So you know it will be reliable. I really like the Bluetooth functionality. One of the included accessories is a wired microphone that would get mounted on your steering column, or some other similar location close to you. And the Bluetooth will link your cell phone or other portable device to the receiver. It can access your phone book in your cell phone, as well as your call history. Now making and receiving calls hands free is a snap. The sound is piped through your car speakers. The Bluetooth functionality will also work with portable music players, so you can listen to that music through your car stereo.
Another very cool feature is the Advanced Speech Recognition. More and more attention is put towards our electronic devices and driving. Many people driving while holding a phone to their ear, or texting on their cell phones, have caused a lot of accidents and been the reason for laws regarding such. Voice guidance on the GPS receivers, and Bluetooth functionality has helped. Kenwood has taken car safety a step further with the employment of Advanced Speech Recognition. Now not only can you use your voice for phone calls, you can actually use it to control your system! HD Radio, play, pause, next track, FM one preset two, are just a few of the types of voice commands that are so many that Kenwood provided a separate manual listing all of the exact commands. Star Trek fans around the globe have to be excited with this feature! Remember Star Trek: The Voyage Home, where Scotty is trying to talk to the computer and was then given the mouse to use? Now you can talk to your car stereo! How cool is that?
Other advanced features include EcoRouteHD, Rear View Camera Touch Control, HD Radio, Pandora Radio, Twin iPod Control, USB connectivity, 5.1 output, and Reverse Tilt Monitor. EcoRoute HD is a cool feature that works with newer cars. Using an optional accessory that plugs into the OBDII port, you can get diagnostics of your vehicle such as intake air temperature, oil pressure, emissions, transmission status and condition, code clearing, fuel report and mileage report, etc. The Rear View Camera Touch Control gives you control over the rear camera for those that have that optional accessory. The HD Radio is actually a built-in tuner to enjoy HD Radio. FM quality in now similar to CD quality, and AM quality is similar to FM quality. Substations are available for additional content, and you can see information on screen such as station call letters, artist and song titles, and iTunes tagging. Pandora Radio is a new feature for internet radio. You can create your own stations with types of music that you enjoy. It's commonly used on Smartphones, and now you can connect your iPhone to the DNX9980HD and listen to Pandora through your system. Twin iPod Control allows you to have two different iPods connected to your system for your music enjoyment. 5.1 output allows you to actually have 5.1 surround sound in your car (a center channel speaker and amp to power it are required). There are 5.1 outputs to connect to 6 channels of amplification. The Reverse Tilt Monitor allows you to tilt the display with the top facing out to reduce glare.
I also don't want to forget that it is Kenwood under the hood, and that means some great audio features. Some of which are reserved for their flagship models. Having used the KDC-X991 for years, I am glad to see the same features included. Being a reviewer of car audio components, I need the best gear to get the best sound of the components being reviewed. After all, it all starts with the receiver. The KDC-X991 is a great receiver, and the DNX9980HD continues in that tradition.
The audio features included in the DNX9980HD give you total control of the sound through EQ curves, DSP, time alignment, crossovers, and surround control. The Audio Control screen is where you would adjust the balance, radar, subwoofer level, volume offset, and Supreme (increases the high frequency range that is typically lost when encoding MP3's). The EQ screen gives you access to set EQ curves such as Rock, Pop, and Jazz and also has a manual control option for the front, rear and center channel speakers. Digital Time Alignment allows you to set the distance from you to each of the individual speakers, and then set the listening position to Front R, Front L, Front All, All, and User Positions. Digital Time Alignment also allows you to select your type of car, the speaker location, time delay, and channel level for each speaker. Surround Control allows you to use Dolby ProLogic II Movie, Dolby Pro Logic II Music, and Dolby Pro Logic Maxtrix, and adjust those settings. The Speaker Setup screen uses crossovers. Here is where you select the speaker size, the filter frequency, and it's slope. Zone Control allows you to have 2 different zones, with different sources for each zone. SRS Wow HD allows you to further control the sound through TruBass, Focus, and SRS 3D. TruBass provides super bass control, Focus adjusts the vertical position of the sound, and SRS 3D provides a natural 3D effect.
As you can see, Kenwood really loads up on the audio features. The SRS Wow HD is really cool, as is the 13 band graphic EQ. All of these controls will give most users the ability to tweak all that they need. And unless you are a true audiophile fanatic, a trunk mounted EQ will not be needed.
Audio features however are not the only features the Kenwood Excelon DNX9980HD has. As previously listed, it has a boatload of features. It truly is a top of the line fully loaded receiver. And given it's $2,000 MSRP, it's a good thing it comes fully loaded. Even the display itself earns top marks, using LED backlight. I also noticed it is loaded with features that will be used, unlike my KDC-X991 with it's G-Analyzer. It was a feature that measured G force and horsepower-useful on your "Fast and the Furious" type of cars, but not sure it was a feature that was really used by many.
Hopefully many of you are salivating. I know I got myself salivating. It looks to be a well built receives, and it loaded with features. But like they say, the truth is in the pudding. Let's see how the DNX9980HD really performs.
With testing the way the receiver performs, I will first start with the initial set up. It's easy for us guys to say or think that we don't need to use the manual to figure out how to set it up, or use the receiver. Trust me. Pull out the owner's manual. You'll need it. And there's no better way to quickly learn and figure out how to use the boat load of features in the DNX9980HD. Due to all the features and the 105 pages to explain it, the manual is on CD. So you will need to either take some notes or have your laptop handy. You can also download it from Kenwood's website to view on your tablet or cell phone. One suggestion to Kenwood: while it would be a tad thick, some users may appreciate having a printed copy of the manual.
Going through the initial set-up was easy to do, for language, background color, time and date, GPS settings, audio settings, etc. Thanks to the manual. Now that it is set up, it's time to test out it's features and functionality. I'll start with the standard features first, then go on to the more advanced features.
Using the built-in tuner was easy, and worked well enough. Saving my favorite channels as presets was simple. I had an HD tuner that connected to my KDC-X991, and I was glad to see that HD Radio was a built-in feature in the DNX9980HD. There is no need for a separate tuner. HD Radio sounds better than standard radio, and I also liked the ability to see the song title, and artist info on screen. Tagging songs you like is also cool.
Next up is CD functionality. Loading and unloading went without any glitches. The same was true for playing, skipping forward and backward for tracks as well as searching forward and backword through songs. I also did not have any problems with different disc types. Standard CD's, CD-R's, DVD's, DVD-R, and SACD's all played well. It is not SACD compatible but it did play the CD layer on the disc. And when watching DVD's, I was glad to see the center channel pre-out. That means you can actually have 5.1 surround sound in the car. Unfortunately it does not play blu-ray discs. Hopefully, that will come in the near future.
IPod functionality is actually double the fun. You can have 2 iPods connected. The first will handle audio and video. The second iPod connection will work for audio only. And to keep the sound quality at a premium, Kenwood included a separate 24 bit DAC chip for the iPod connector. This means you are not at the mercy of the iPod for this DAC functionality. I love this feature. I have all my music collection ripped to my iPod in lossless format. Thanks to the built-in chip in the DNX9980HD, my music on my iPod sounded great! I also like the 2nd iPod connector. That means I can keep my iPod connected, and if any buddies are with me, they can connect their portable player if they want me to listen to some song that they have. The second iPod connector is also not just for iPods. It will work with other MP3 players, and even just flash drives.
The bluetooth functionality also worked great. Linking up to my cell phone was a cinch. And making and receiving calls was just as simple, with the sound coming through my front speakers. I also liked the ability to scroll through my phonebook and call history on screen. I also did not have any complaints with people hearing me through the included microphone.
The voice control was also really cool to use. It picked up my voice well enough. It took a little getting used to, and studying the included manual for words to use in the different functions. It does not pick-up on just any words. You do need to use the ones programmed in. And it does work, which was really cool!
Garmin's GPS functionality also proved to work really well. I did not get lost or taken to the wrong place. Not even once, which is a good thing. Especially with the time that products have had it improve. Lane guidance makes it very simple to see where you need to go. And I really liked the 3D functionality of tall buildings and landmarks to help me see where I was. The split screen functionality was also very handy. Unfortunately, in my testing, I never came accross an accident, where I could test out it's re-routing and traffic function. But it is there in case you need to use it.
Using the DVD player to watch movies, I was impressed with the display. While it is not high definition, and obviously so, it did look good. The colors were saturated enough and the resolution was good. Skin tones also looked natural. Being able to watch in 5.1 was really cool. The DNX9980HD also has Dolby Prologic II, so you can get 5.1 out of stereo sources. So now if you go to the drive-in, and tune in to the radio channel, you can hear it in surround sound. Music also sounds cool thru it.
Last but not least, I also wanted to go through the user interface. I have heard there has been some complaints about the responsiveness. Maybe past models were particulary slow. But in using the user interface, it seemed pretty responsive to me. And changing between sources, such as going from tuner to CD did not have any lag. The ARM RISC processor seemed to work well enough for the DNX9980HD. The GPS also included standard features found in stand alone units, such as setting preferences such as fastest time or shortest distance. You can also set your home location, and select routes.
When it comes to car recievers, I feel like I just got off the X2 at Six Flags Magic Mountain. What an amazing ride this Kenwood Excelon DNX9980HD gave me. And the nice thing is it will keep providing that ride to you over and over again. It's features and performance will keep you grinning ear to ear for a long time. As I previously mentioned, I have heard some complaints about the way you navigate through the system, and it's responsiveness. I did not have any problem navigating the system. And it seemed responsive enough to me. I've always bought my receivers on the features I want, quality and price. The user interface is something that I learn after the fact. And the interface is simple to use. Based on it's quality, features and performance, the Kenwood Excelon DNX9980HD has earned our Editor's Choice Award. Kudos to Kenwood for a top performer. For more info and complete specs, check out their website at