For Claire’s last birthday, I bought her a new sound system for her car. I was on a fairly tight budget, so I prioritized the main features it needed to have:

  • Mp3 CD-R playback
  • Independent subwoofer control
  • A rotary volume knob

Note the last item. It’s important to me because the volume is probably the control you use the most often, so it should be easy and quick to use. Up/down buttons are slow and difficult to find with your eyes on the road. A good old-fashioned rotary knob is really the best way to set the sound level in your car. Ergonomics are important, because ease-of-use helps prevent crashes.

Anyway, it’s amazing how hard it is to find these three features together for a reasonable price. After a fair bit of shopping, I bought a Pioneer unit that fit the bill. It sounds great, and it has plenty of bells and whistles. However, I’ve concluded following a few months of use that its user interface was designed either by an baboon or a sadist. Consider these flaws:

  • The buttons are tiny to make room for the big, useless, graphical display
  • You need to flip the face down to pop in a disc, so there’s more room for the big, useless, graphical display
  • You power it on and off by holding down the tiny “SRC” button. (Intuitive, isn’t it?)
  • The volume knob, ironically what might have been this deck’s only redeeming ergonomic feature, has a frustrating number of detents in its range of motion. From all the way off to full blast, you need to twist it about four full turns. A minor volume adjustment usually means a couple of twists, because the human wrist doesn’t rotate far enough to do it in one.
  • The subwoofer control is buried in a mode activated by pressing a teensy-weensy ‘A’ button. You then have to scroll through various cryptic functions before being able to adjust it. You’ll know you’re there when you see “80 +1” or “120 -4”, depending on the current settings for crossover frequency and sub level.
  • To adjust bass/mid/treble, you also have to scroll through this puny ‘A’ button mode, then use a 4-way button to scroll side-to-side to select one of the 3 tone controls, and up-down to actually set the levels.
  • To avoid having to adjust bass/mid/treble, you can try one of 8 or so preset EQs by repeatedly hitting the EQ button. I quickly realized none of these presets sound any good.
  • Like most car stereos, you usually need to boost bass at low volumes to overcome the road noise, and at higher volumes you can turn the bass down a bit to balance the sound out. In the old days of car audio, this was aided by either a bass control knob or a “loudness” button. This deck has a 3-level loudness setting (a.k.a. yet another set of EQ presets), buried in the ‘A’ menu. This is stupid. The whole purpose of the “loudness” button was to let you QUICKLY compensate for road noise and volume. By hiding it with everything else, they’ve made the feature completely pointless.

I could go on. Anyway, Pioneer’s not the only one designing decks this way. I’ll bet that a lot of accidents and fatalities on the road must be related to drivers having to take their eyes off the road and both hands off the wheel to change the radio station or skip tracks. The morons designing these aftermarket decks need to look at what their OEM counterparts are doing. Displays are only as large as they need to be. There are knobs for frequently-used adjustments. Buttons are big, even on DIN-sized decks.

My ideal car audio main unit? OEM look and feel, but with RCA preamp outputs for front, rear and sub, and auxilliary inputs for other sources. It’s pretty damn simple, probably cheap to produce, and I think it would sell like hotcakes.