Pioneer AVH-P5900DVD review

Following the replacement of the original radio in the Delica, I upgraded to the Pioneer AVH-P5900DVD with iPod connectivity. This is marketed by Halfords as a “made for iPod” unit, though their website erroneously stated that the necessary CD-I200 cable is not included.

Installation was sufficiently simple that it was done in the Halfords car park in a matter of minutes, and as such with a wallet £519 lighter (web price at the time of purchase, now available between £470 and £600 online), I was able to enjoy AV in the Delica again.

However; comparisons with the Ripspeed DV920i it replaced are inevitable, and they aren’t all in the Pioneer’s favour…

Pioneer AVH-P5900DVD

Initially, as with nearly all of the retractable-display style of 1-DIN headunits, the Pioneer front end is somewhat of a disappointment. As well as protruding significantly from the dashboard, the single-line VFD display looks cheap and inefficient besides the sort of high-end headunits you may have considered previously, and the simple control layout of five buttons and a volume control looks downright restrictive.

Unlike many, the Pioneer does not come with a remote control – the appropriate model is relatively inexpensive, but not actively marketed by high street retailers like Halfords, meaning you will need to go online to find one.

For those of you worried about theft, the front panel is detachable – though this does little more than leave a prospective thief in no doubt as to what is installed in your car, with the edge of the LCD display clearly visible. The front panel is coded to the car stereo, but I cannot help wondering if the designers would do better to come up with “hidden” versions – I would like to see a system similar to Kenwood’s “MASK” faceplate, with a normal radio interface on one side which can rotate or drop to allow the screen to emerge from the head unit. Given the thickness of technology like the iPod touch, this is not impossible.

Installation of the unit is otherwise conventional, with the usual provisions of DIN cage or screw mounts, a fascia trim for cars which can use it, ISO connectors and AV in, out and parking camera terminals. RCA pre-outs are provided for front, rear and subwoofer.

The only caveat for the home installer is the presence of the “park sensor” wire – in this case, as a reputable manufacturer they do not provide an option to ignore it in the menus, and an unscrupulous installer may be tempted to short it out on the car chassis, which does work.

Naturally for the safety of the driver and other road users, a professional installer will have to connect this to the handbrake to ensure DVD/video functions are not going to distract the driver…

Clear, but wasteful radio function

Once installed, the user interface presented is a clear, and well designed initial layout with multiple colour “themes” (the buttons may also be illuminated in blue or red). Clarity appears to be at the cost of “efficient” use of the screen display when using primary functions however – and what information there is is not always displayed well.

Radio setup is quick and easy, with exceptional reception compared to the cheaper Ripspeed unit, and Radio Text is clearly interpreted and displayed in a series of memo pages. Interestingly the ability to use the RDS “CT” or Clock Time function is not implemented, meaning you must manually set the time – for 21st Century technology, this is surprisingly 1970s.

The choice of themes available consists of 8 colours and 3 background patterns, of which I favour the grid layout seen in my screenshots. (Looking back at this in 2020, it just needs a retrowave font and a red sun on the horizon to be perfect).

The DVD drive allows the use of CDs, CD-Rs, MP3 CDs and DVDs, and DVDs containing DiVX encoded video as well as traditional DVD content. Using the “advanced” media functions is somewhat irritating – MP3 CDs contain little enough information that the simplistic user interface is not a barrier to efficient browsing, but 4.7GB of files is asking a bit much of it.

For some reason it seemed unwilling to play back multiple DiVX files on a disk, and I need to go back and explore this issue thoroughly. When it accepted a movie, the nearest comparison I can think of is watching it on a slightly larger Sony PSP – this may be coloured by the fact that the source was an encoded version of Totoro produced to watch on the aforementioned device!

DVD playback is of tolerable quality given the low resolutions provided on all these displays (despite the availability of 800 x 480 displays in this format with touch screens, nearly every automotive DVD display I have seen works at very low resolution of 480 x 234, or as many technical specifications like to claim, 336,960 “pixels”.

Pioneer’s new AVH-7800DVD does feature a higher resolution display), and CD playback is perfectly acceptable, with the 4 x 50W output actually resulting in decent volume with good quality despite the Delica’s factory (and 12 year old) speakers. It is comfortable, at speed, at around 2/3rd maximum volume, leaving plenty of headroom for quieter tracks, and suggesting improved speakers would yield very respectable performance.

iPod connectivity

Of course, the primary reason I favour this class of headunit is not the ability to play CDs well – I can do that for a fraction of the cost – or indeed, watch DVDs on a large, but cellphone-resolution, display. It is the ability to safely control an iPod (or iPhone – it works, despite a warning, and will smoothly mute the music for an incoming call. Use a bluetooth headset and this is a surprisingly effective alternative to a car kit!

The iPhone’s SSD storage and smaller capacity results in faster playlist access, too) using large, friendly control surfaces and in depth interfaces.

Given the Ripspeed’s surprisingly good performance, I had very high hopes for the Pioneer – although Halfords had conveniently left the iPod cable disconnected, so I was unable to test the interface before purchase. This, out of everything with the Pioneer that offers, would prove to be the biggest disappointment.

6 artists per page, one click...

When provided with a 7″ screen to control a device which can have a capacity – even at the time this unit was launched – in excess of 10,000 tracks, it would make sense to prioritise searching. Apple, in their wisdom, have come up with a rapid search mode that was first implemented in the 5.5G iPod Video (30GB/80GB) and remains in the current iPod Classic and iPod Nano models.

This uses very fast selection of alphabetical characters and narrows down the list using them. Pioneer – and indeed, every other manufacturer – appears to have missed this innovation. As far as I can tell the “Made for iPod” specification appears to have some sort of pre-loading of playlist/file information, and using this, Ripspeed were able to provide a proportional scrollbar – so how hard can it be to make that extra step and have it narrow down by character?

Pioneer have actually made it even harder. Not only is the scrollbar non-proportional, it cannot be dragged. Let’s make that clear. You have a display showing 6 “items” – artist, albums, or playlists – and you cannot drag the marker through the list.

You tap the control to skip a page of six, and then tap the album to select the songs – upon which it gets worse; you have to tap the song or continue paging – you can’t navigate by using a “joystick” type controller, or hardware buttons. What this means is that if you have 800 artists and would like to choose an album by, say, Dire Straits, you may have to tap the screen or hardware controller a hundred times (the alternative is to hold your finger on the display – going from Dire Straits to Princess Superstar took over a minute). Pop Will Eat Itself? The currently playing track will have ended.

At which point, if it’s the end of an album or playlist, the menu will jump right back to the beginning! This is an exceptionally poor showing in interface design, but Pioneer are far from alone in serving up this half-baked dross as “direct iPod control”.

If you cannot easily select information – be it a rapid skip, or search, or even playlists – without suffering more distraction from the road than perhaps manually retuning the radio, then you are failing to provide a safe, or useful, direct iPod control function. It is quicker to switch to iPod Video mode, which passes control over to the iPod, and allow your passenger to select music on the iPod itself. While potentially illegal, IMO it’s probably safer for the driver to do that too – it’ll be a lot faster.

Compounding this is the utter inability of the unit to provide any meaningful display on the VFD. You have a choice of nothing, current time, or n/n indicating which song number out of the number in the current playlist is currently playing. All you can do with the hardware buttons on the front is skip songs in a playlist – there is no form of menu navigation at all without using the large display.

Don't play with your joystick in the car!

In terms of multimedia features, the Pioneer’s AV inputs are initially confusing, with AV on the primary menu being more a “marker” to a setup option that actually chooses the input from S-VHS, Video or other sources. Once configured the lone additional AV input provides a clean signal with stereo audio, and the colours are good (but have easily accessed adjustments if you require).

You may also set a video source as your background image, so you could (for example) have a looped video or screensaver playing behind the radio controls.

Pioneer provide a range of expansion units connected via the P-bus standard, including the CD-BT200 Bluetooth telephone interface, CD-UB100 USB interface (for connecting memory stick devices, or hard disk drives), DEQ-6000 surround sound processor, GEX-500DVB Digital TV tuner (an analogue tuner is also available but would be a poor investment now), the unusual AVG-VDP1 Vehicle Dynamics Processor and the AVIC-800DVD navigation unit.

It’s possible to turn the AVH-P5900DVD into the centre of a very impressive and complex in-car network, which makes the low quality of some aspects of the system even more frustrating.

Pioneer’s “high end” entry in the standalone DVD/Radio head unit market comes with a claimed RRP of £899, putting it up against some fairly heavyweight products from Alpine, Kenwood and feature-packed options from LG. Fortunately, the street price is much lower for what turns out to be quite a limited featureset. Coming up from the budget end of the market, there are tangible benefits in terms of build quality, stability and reliability – but there are also some surprising ommissions.

With the benefit of more experience and information, I suspect I would not have chosen to spend as much on this particular head unit.

2 thoughts on “Pioneer AVH-P5900DVD review

    1. From memory – and we’re going back a long way here – the composite A/V cable would be the right one. It’ll play the video, but it won’t control the iPhone, you’ll need to do that from the handset.

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