Last year we were blown away by a new concept launched by Pioneer Electronics. Its new modular NEX head unit promises to bring 21st century tech to just about any car by way of a trick modular design that has the screen and chassis as separate parts.
We wanted to get out hands on one to see if it was any good. Due to extremely high demand and supply chain issues, Pioneer wasn’t able to send us the modular DMH-WC5700NEX, but it did send us a DMH-1770NEX, a standard mid-range double-DIN unit that the company says is the same head unit, but without the modularity.
After running this unit in two cars for a few months, I have to say that it’s a great upgrade for anyone running an old stereo and wants something that looks factory and packs a good sound punch for the price.
(Full Disclosure: Pioneer Electronics invited us to test their fresh line of NEX head units. However, because of demand the company got us a slightly different unit than requested. I installed the unit myself, paying for my own installation materials and tools.)
Pioneer has been building its Network Entertainment Experience (NEX) series of head units for over a decade. As the name suggests, Pioneer’s goal is to blend cloud-based apps with their head units’ UI, providing a wide variety of car-based entertainment. The electronics company has been fine-tuning the concept ever since, making head units with more features and with a polished, factory look. NEX really hit its stride when Pioneer released its modular NEX head unit at virtual CES 2021.
This head unit promises to do what others can’t and give cars with funky dashboard setups 6.8-inch touchscreen infotainment.
Here’s José’s 1997 BMW 318ti:
It’s a lovely car, but if you wanted to upgrade its audio, you’re either stuck with a single-DIN unit or with one of those motorized screens. This is a problem that the new NEX head units can solve.
So if you like what you see here, get the modular NEX if you need to.
I first installed this head unit into a 2005 Volkswagen Passat TDI wagon for a short spell before installing it into my recently revived 2012 Smart Fortwo. The wiring harness came from Metra with the dash surround kit from Scosche.
Here is what the head unit in a lower end Smart Fortwo looks like. You get an AUX jack and a basic radio, that’s it. Seriously, there isn’t even a CD player.
Installing a new head unit to an old car comes with an interesting problem. Aftermarket head units often have a feature that locks you out of certain functionalities unless the vehicle’s parking brake is engaged. Some systems won’t allow you to access Apple CarPlay or Android Auto while others won’t let you play videos or access the receiver’s settings.
For the NEX unit, I’ve found that you’ll be locked out of the AUX input and the Settings menu unless the system detects an engaged parking brake.
While newer cars will usually have a wire going to the head unit to tell it that you’re parked, older cars may not. So what do you do?
Well, you could find whatever switch triggers the brake light to appear on your dash, then wire to that. But that may require quite a lot of interior teardown. In the past you were able to just ground out the parking brake wire from the head unit, but these freshest systems are actually looking for the actuation of the parking brake, not just a constant ground.
Attach the wire to a ground, then install a switch. Now you can access your settings menu.
Note: Please do not watch movies while driving.
As you’ve learned from my Boss head unit review, I love a system that looks like it belongs in the interior. The DMH-1770NEX is no different, looking like it was installed at smart’s factory in France. One thing that I love about this setup is that it design fills the whole double-DIN space without requiring filler panels that ruin the look. And the Scosche dash kit looks even better than the surround for Smart’s own optional navigation system.
The DMH-1770NEX features a 6.8-inch glass touch capacitive screen that has a 800 x 480 resolution. Pioneer doesn’t publish pixel density, but it looks even crisper than the Boss unit that I tested last year, despite it having the same resolution. The screen on this unit is the same as the one provided for the modular DMH-WC5700NEX.
Viewing angles are similarly great, which lends to that factory feel that I love so much. And as a nice touch, you can tune the system’s capacitive button glow to match your car’s dash illumination.
One thing that I didn’t like is the lack of a physical volume knob. This meant that I had to look at the screen to adjust the volume, which is a distracting process. This stereo is compatible with steering wheel controls, but a Smart doesn’t have any. The system did come with a handy remote control, and I ended up using that more often than I thought I would.
Interface And Usability
The user interface of a head unit can make or break your experience. OEMs will make sure the touchscreen UIs are clean and cohesive, but that can be hard to find in an aftermarket head unit without spending a lot of money.
Cheap units will often use ugly fonts or make menus so hard to navigate that you’re better off trying to decipher a treasure map. Thankfully, Pioneer knows what it’s doing, and navigating the UI feels no different than using one installed from the factory.
When you boot the NEX only the apps that you have access to will be highlighted.
Other apps will illuminate when you connect the peripherals to make them work. This unit has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but both are wired. That means that they’re both grayed out until you plug in.
The good news is that if you’re like me and you don’t care about Apple or Android, then you can connect your phone via Bluetooth and get right to enjoying your tunes.
While Pioneer says that this DMH-1770NEX is the same as the modular DMH-WC5700NEX, there are some caveats. The modular unit has a few more features, like wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. That one also comes with Amazon Alexa. And if your car is new enough, the modular head unit can run programs that interface with your car’s parking sensors, performance monitors, and TPMS to give you that full factory experience.
This DMH-1770NEX doesn’t have that kit, but my car doesn’t have any of that gadgetry, either, so they weren’t features that I missed.
But the features that the unit does have work really well. Apps load quickly and maps move smoothly, which is something that not all automakers can say about their own units. The unit even functions well in the cold. You can hook cameras up to it, too.
The DMH-1770NEX puts out a max of 200 Watts over four channels, less than the 320 Watts put out by the Boss head unit that I tested last year. If your car has better hardware than my wee little Smart, this might be a reason to pass up on this unit. And yes, even the modular version of this unit has the same output.
That said, Pioneer’s sound design remains good and the music fed through my Smart’s factory speakers sounded even better with this unit than it did with the Boss. And frankly, it blows the embarrassment of my factory head unit out of the water. With the factory unit, lows were too low, highs were too high and the sound overall felt a bit like trying to listen to music through water.
Of course, I played my favorite song to test head units with: Star Trek: Voyager’s theme. The Pioneer managed to hit the mids pretty well for a unit in the mid-range, and it hit the highs without distortion from my car’s speakers.
If you’re the kind of person who enjoys radio, I do have good news. The radio sounds fine. I found reception to be as good as the factory radio. The quality sounded better than factory, too, since this has HD Radio, but the factory unit did not. Unfortunately, I did not get to test the satellite radio function.
It’s easy to blow a ton of money on car audio, but you don’t need to do that to have a good experience. The DMH-1770NEX is solidly a mid-range unit, but it offers the features that I think most people will care about. This unit gives your old car Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio and HD Radio. And if you really wanted to, you could watch a movie on this thing.
If you don’t need the modular chassis, the DMH-1770NEX also has an attractive $350 price. If you want the additional features offered by the modular version of this unit, the DMH-WC5700NEX—if you can find one in stock—comes in at more than double at $750.
If you have a car with a weird dashboard setup, ponying up the extra cash may be worth it. If not, I think that the DMH-1770NEX is a great upgrade for someone looking to upgrade their car’s tech without spending a lot of dough.