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Clarion CZ401 Review: a lot of car stereo for $90

A couple weeks ago, the volume control on the factory stereo in my 1996 Miata finally gave up the ghost. I had already put a fair bit of sweat equity into fixing my stereo, even soldering in new bulbs when the display failed to illuminate.

Tired of cassette adapters and wonky volume controls, I went to Crutchfield, where I usually go to research car audio before going to eBay to get a better deal.  My needs were basic- I wanted a name brand head unit with auxiliary input for my iPhone, since I listen almost exclusively to my iPhone when driving. Bluetooth would be a cruel joke in the Miata, and satellite radio was obviated by my use of Rhapsody with an unlimited data plan. Although CD players are on their way out of cars, I did want a CD player for nostalgic reasons. I suspect they’re the 8 track players of Generation X.

On Crutchfield, I was shocked to see a Clarion head unit for $90 with free shipping.  The CZ401 looked like it hit all the marks, with nice extras like HD Radio and a USB interface for the iPhone. My experience with iPhone interfaces has been mixed, as I’ve seen them disable the UI on the phone, locking out Rhapsody, TomTom, and any number of apps that I like playing through the stereo.  Still, with an aux input, the USB interface was at worst superfluous.

I did a quick gut-check on eBay, where the same unit was $180 and pulled the trigger on Crutchfield, especially since they include an install kit and personalized instructions with every order.  I added a $10 DIN pocket to add storage under the stereo, bringing my total to $100.

The stereo arrived about a week later, and it was packed well in those dissolving foam peanuts. An install kit was included, but a nice bonus was also a wire stripper to add to my collection of low-quality wire strippers. Since this wasn’t my first install, Nora and I soldered the harness together and I installed the stereo.

It was perfect. While it didn’t have the integrated look of the OEM stereo, being about half as tall, the new pocket under the stereo added much needed storage to my car.   It worked great, and the amplifiers were certainly better than what I had before. HD Radio is just like normal radio, as it’s a digital stream embedded in the FM Radio signal. All stations broadcast analog, and the ones that support HD seamlessly switch to digital about 5 seconds after tuning. This is either barely noticeable or huge as marginal stations lose all static upon the switch. HD Radio also supports iTunes tagging, so I can press ‘tag’ while a song is playing to save it on my iPhone for later purchase.

After this, I hooked up my iPhone to the Clarion using a standard Apple USB cable. As expected, the stereo took over my Music app UI, expecting me to pick tracks from the stereo. After a glance at the manual, I was happy to see that there’s a mode called S-CTRL that restores control to the iPhone. In S-CTRL I can use my iPhone for UI and it plays through the stereo. For apps that support it (most music apps), you can still skip tracks and display track info on the stereo itself. Most importantly- S-CTRL includes a DAC bypass, so the music is streamed in digital format over USB and sent to the onboard DAC on the stereo, reducing static and noise, especially common in phones that charge through the 12v plug on the car.

The USB interface was much cleaner than the auxiliary input, and I was very pleasantly surprised with how much stuff I got for my $90. Would buy again.

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