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Clarion NX501

Over the last couple years Clarion has been working hard developing good looking, high performance products that are in line with what technology thirsty consumers are looking for. In this review we’ll have a look at a great example of those efforts, the new Clarion NX501.

Features:

The Clarion NX501 is a full featured double DIN sized source unit, incorporating an AM/FM tuner, CD, DVD, MP3, AAC and WMA playback. It also includes full 2D/3D onboard satellite navigation, connectivity for your iPod or iPhone and Bluetooth for hands-free telephony and A2DP streaming audio. The 6.2” TFT touchscreen provides control and customization capability for all your favorite sources and the bright and easy to use GUI makes day to day living with the NX501 a very pleasant experience. The unit is priced right around the $1000 mark in the US and Canada.

Clarion NX501

There are so many bells and whistles incorporated into the unit that listing them here is impossible, but here are a few of the more notable features: The TeleAtlas based map database was created using high resolution aerial and land based data. The supplied maps cover all of the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. The mapping data and over 15 million points of interest are stored on a 4GB Micro SD card for fast data retrieval. Map updates are available for purchase online from clarion.naviextras.com. And, the maps are very cool too. Just like an old school paper map the 2D mode will show you streets and elevation by color. If you switch to 3D mode, you can see the altitude and actual differences in elevation. You can see valleys, mountains, and even elevated roads. In selected cities, some landmarks and buildings are also displayed in 3D. If you’re not into reading maps, simply enter your destination on the touch screen and follow the voice guidance that will route you to your destination. When it’s time to turn, the unit will mute your music and announce the upcoming guidance. The unit will also alert you to the presence of hazards or school zones, and you can even enter your own personalized alert points. Junction View, Signpost display and Lane Assist are also new features found on the NX501.

The built-in Bluetooth connectivity is powered by Parrot and offers comprehensive compatibility with a vast array of mobile phones, personal music players and PDA’s. An integrated microphone is built into the front panel and an optional external microphone for use in noisy environments is also available.

Don’t think for a minute that the engineers at Clarion neglected the unit’s audio and video playback capabilities. The NX501 boasts one of the most powerful internal MOSFET amplifier ever used by Clarion, as well as 3 pairs of RCA outputs (Front/Rear/Sub) rated at a full 4 volts. There are also two auxiliary inputs, one on the front panel for easy access, and another rear mounted input for more permanently installed sources.  Speaking of additional inputs, the NX501 is “Made for iPod/iPhone”, and is fully compatible with all iPhones, iTouchs, iPod Nanos and Classics as well. Simple Control is a selectable feature that lets your passenger play DJ, and control the tunes via the iPod while the track and album art is still displayed on the unit. Even better, when connected via the USB cable, the DAC in your iPod is bypassed, and that task is taken over by the NX501’s built-in 24Bit D/A converter for maximum fidelity. If you use something other than an Apple product, no worries, the included Aux inputs and USB port will allow you to easily connect virtually any storage device or player.

Dual zone controls provide the ability to have different audio and video signals playing at the same time, an excellent feature when you want to listen to music, and the kids want to watch a movie via an overhead or headrest monitor. The feature list goes on, but by now I think you get the idea!

Clarion NX501

Controls and Ergonomics:

Okay, for me the controls and ergonomics are what makes or breaks a source unit. Regardless of how many features it has or how great the specifications are, if it’s a pain to use, I won’t even consider it.

When it comes to ease of use, the Clarion scores quite well, with large intuitive icons and controls and an excellently designed rotary volume control. The touch screen does require a firmer touch than I’m used to, but once I became used to how hard I needed to press, it worked very well. I could access all the sources, and make all the setup and adjustments without needing to continually refer to the manual, which I appreciated.

When watching a DVD, the video clarity was excellent, and the picture is adjustable for brightness. There is also a selection of wallpapers to choose from, and the option of being able to import your own photo from a USB drive, but when I attempted to do that, the unit would not recognize my photos on the drive. The resolution of the pictures I happened to have handy were simply too high – they need to be formatted to 800x480 pixels.

While making the initial setup adjustments, I noted that the internal amplifier can be turned off for installations using all external amplifiers, which provides maximum performance from the pre-amp outputs.Clarion NX501

To help get your system tuned, the NX501 comes with built in low and high pass crossovers, at frequencies of 62, 95, and 135Hz. The low pass filter affects the subwoofer outputs and the high pass filter controls the front and rear outputs as well as the output of the internal amplifier.

A built in DSP controlled three-band EQ is included for further tuning, and comes with three preset curves, or if you prefer you can customize your own tuning. The equalizer provides adjustment for one of three frequencies in each of the bass, mid and treble bands. The filter Q is also adjustable, in four steps. A feature Clarion calls “Magna Bass EX” emphasizes the very lowest couple of octaves, and really pumps up the very deep bass. The effect of this circuit is controlled by volume settings and reduces as the volume is increased for a better balanced system response. If you have a car with factory steering wheel controls, an optional wired interface will plug into the NX501 and enable retention of the factory controls.

Listening:

So how does it sound? In a word, brilliant. With the NX501 as the source in my reference system I really put it through the paces, trying every available source and all kinds of music. Throughout the listening session it never missed a beat, delivering exceptional clarity and musical realism. Sound staging was distinct and accurate, and the overall tonal balance was spot on. On very quiet passages, the NX501 was dead silent, contributing zero audible hiss to the systems noise floor. The AM/FM tuner performed very well, with the AM reception just a bit weaker than normal, but the FM section was great, with clear strong reception even of some difficult local stations. CD and DVD performance also proved to be excellent, although the mechanism does take a few seconds longer than some others to load and play a disc initially. iPod control and sonic performance proved to be very competitive as well, with my only minor gripe being the layout of the GUI, I would have preferred a bit more flexibility in the available adjustments.

All in all, the sonics of the NX501 are among the best I’ve tested in some time, and although the display was easy to use and easy to read, (some information like track time is very small) I have been spoiled by more customizable units that allow me to choose the ability to show certain information and hide other stuff, to scroll things in larger fonts, change overall background colors, and to move touch screen based control buttons around to find a configuration that suited me. If these customizable options aren’t important to you, you’ll find the NX501 GUI’s completely acceptable.

On The Bench:

What the unit lacked in terms of user customizability it made up for in spades on the test bench. Very flat frequency response, very low distortion, low noise, good output impedance, and excellent stereo separation make the NX501 one of the better performers my bench has seen in the last year or so. The unit will play an all high bits track at full volume without clipping the actual 4 Volt pre-amp outputs, and even the CD mechanism is ruler flat from 20Hz to 20kHz.  If you are connecting an amplifier to your source unit, this Clarion has one of the best pre-amp output sections currently available. It’s just uncommonly good.

Clarion NX501 Clarion NX501
Clarion NX501 Clarion NX501

Clarion NX501

Conclusion:

In terms of performance, feature sets, and general functionality, the Clarion NX501 is tough to beat. I love the rotary volume control, and the incredibly good pre-amp section. It combines all the modern technology and convenience features into a single product that really sounds great. Yes, it’s maybe not quite as customizable from a GUI cosmetic standpoint, but if you are serious about your sound, there aren’t many other choices that come this close to sonic nirvana.

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Measured Specifications

Amplifier

CEA-2006A Power per channel (all channels driven,@ 4 ohms)… 18.6 watts/ch x 4

A Wtd S/N Ratio (ref to 2V/1W @ 4 ohms) Amplified output………-81.1dBA (CD)

THD+N @ 2V/1W @ 4 ohms 1kHz ……………………………………………….0.03%

Frequency Response (-3.0dB) ……………………………………………………..20Hz – 20kHz

Preamp Section

Max Usable RCA Output Voltage ……………………………………………………4.5Vrms  Frt/Rear/Sub

A Wtd S/N Ratio ref to full output voltage………………………………….. -88.0dBA

Output Impedance ………………………………………………………………………..152 ohms

Frequency Response (-3.0dB) ……………………………………………………..20Hz – 20kHz