- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

“You know that you'll lose your AM and FM with this,” Chris Caracofe told me, in a matter-of-fact way, as we walked from the Crutchfield showroom in Harrisonburg, Va., to the car-stereo installation area. He paused.

Um, no, I didn't know, but I said nothing and swallowed hard. Mr. Caracofe's next sentence eased my anxiety.

“They'll be part of the HD Radio setup,” he said. In other words, regular and HD Radio stations on the AM and FM bands are all accessed through the HD Radio “source” that's part of the new car stereo. I exhaled.

Why would anyone want to rip the factory-issued stereo out of a new 2009 Honda CRV-EX and replace it with a bunch of boxes and wires? In my case, it's not fanaticism, but a combination of habit and desire. The habit comes from having had XM Satellite Radio in my car since 2002. I'm accustomed to having access to its channels of programming.

The desire comes from wanting to access music on an Apple iPhone or an iPod as well as HD Radio, a digital over-the-air service with which I've recently become acquainted. If it means sacrificing the Honda-provided six-disc CD changer for a stereo that plays only one CD at a time, so be it.

The more-or-less three-hour trip from Harrisonburg to my home in Columbia, Md., would give me the chance for a “shakedown” of the Pioneer FH-P8000BT stereo and add-ons the Crutchfield employees installed. I chose Pioneer because the unit, introduced in January 2008, fit the space in the dashboard and it offered the two radio services, HD and satellite, as well as iPod access and control. It also could be connected to the steering-wheel radio controls Honda had installed.

There was an extra feature, too: A built-in Bluetooth module handles cell-phone conversations hands-free. The incoming part of the call is heard through the car stereo speakers; a microphone installed discreetly on the left top edge of the windshield amplifies the outgoing voice. The wireless Bluetooth technology sends and receives the call data and voice from the stereo to the cell phone and back.

Would you say no to all that? I didn't think so.

As I have discovered over the years, though, there's a great distance between promise and delivery. In 2002, Microsoft dropped one of the very-high-priced Clarion Joyride systems into the sport utility vehicle I owned at the time, a Hyundai Santa Fe. The device ranged between annoying and infuriating. It was annoying in California, when the built-in GPS seemed about a half-mile behind my actual location. It was infuriating in Maryland, where the unit lacked the maps to make the GPS useful. Audio was OK, but the PC functions of the so-called Auto PC never quite made it.

An Alpine unit that added satellite radio and iPod connectivity supplanted the not-really-a-Joyride, but a colleague belittled it for not producing enough “midrange” sound. Uh-huh.

But that was then. Would this new unit - which I've bought and paid for, by the way - do better?

The installation not only went off without a hitch, it took an hour less than anticipated. When it was finished, it was difficult to tell this wasn't original equipment for the car.

The sound? It's pretty darned excellent. I have not had my midrange-happy colleague out for a ride yet, but I'm hearing every note I want to hear and then some.

I have two quibbles. First, I wish there were more than three lines of LCD-style information display because I don't see everything the satellite and HD stations provide, datawise. Second, there's no “tagging” of HD Radio songs, which would send information to the iPhone (and, when docked to a computer, iTunes) to buy stuff I hear. So be it.

Integration with the steering-wheel control required a separate module to be installed, and it works without a flaw. The stereo-to-iPod connection is via a USB cable, and you can detach part of it to hook up other USB-style devices. When an iPod or second-generation iPhone is connected, the connection will recharge those devices.

The icing on this particular cupcake comes with the phone connection. Not only is the sound really and truly flawless - one customer service person at XM Radio said it was the best speakerphone call he had ever heard - but you can dump your cell phone's phone book into the stereo and then search and dial with the press of a single button and the twist of a knob. Very, very cool and a lot safer than juggling a phone, let me tell you.

Using the hands-free setup has become second nature: A call comes in, I press the main control knob once to mute the radio/stereo and answer the call, and the display shows the caller ID information. Did I use the word “cool” already?

In short, I have the feeling I got my money's worth. My driving, whether for the daily commute or longer trips, is that much better.

E-mail mkellner@ washingtontimes.com.

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