Pioneer AppRadio 4 (SPH-DA120) CarPlay Receiver Review

Published On January 28, 2016 | Reviews

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The AppRadio 4 (SPH-DA120) has been Pioneer’s ‘go to’ headunit for people seeking an Apple CarPlay enabled receiver, whilst on a budget. Currently retailing at £299 in the UK ($429 US) the AppRadio 4 is in the same league as Alpine’s later released iLX-700 (iLX-007 in the US) and the newly announced system releasing early this year from JBL, the Legend C1000, which is rumoured to cost a wallet-friendly $399. But is the AppRadio 4 the best ‘budget’ CarPlay receiver out there? Let’s find out…

First Impressions

Out of the box it is clear that Pioneer has chosen to mimic the look of Apple’s iOS devices. With its silver edge rimmed bezel design, the AppRadio 4 carries a close resemblance to an Apple iPad. The glass-fronted display houses a 6.2-inch capacitive touch-screen, with a resolution of 800×480 – similar to both the Alpine and JBL headunits, and most other headunits selling in 2016 come to think of it.

Compared to the Alpine the AppRadio 4 has a smaller screen size, which is due to the left edge of the bezel being slightly thicker, to accommodate a handful of touch-sensitive function buttons. A ‘home’ function button is placed in the middle of the pack, with the upper half housing volume buttons. The lower half features a ‘mode’ button to switch between App and AV screens and below this you’ll find the seek/skip forward and back buttons. Just like the Alpine, these buttons are also touch-sensitive buttons, so they are not the kind of buttons you physically have to depress down – meaning you’ll need to de-glove in the winter if you want to operate these buttons.

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Around the back Pioneer has given us a generous line-up of ports, including: external GPS antenna, 2x USB ports, 1x HDMI port, backup camera port, power amp ports, rear seat audio, RGB port, Sirius XM port, iDatalink port, external microphone port, car antenna input port, an external remote port, the usual power supply/cable loom socket and both front and rear speaker connections. The AppRadio 4 is certainly feature packed for a ‘budget’ receiver, and it will allow you many media options, all of which I’ll touch on later.

Power Up!

sph-da120_ew5_red_front_a2Powering up the Pioneer you’re taken to its main home screen. In today’s age of digital displays and tough-screens, I think it is now time for Pioneer to heavily invest some time in this area. For me, their current menu screens feel somewhat archaic. It’s practically ancient now, in its design, and it oozes that ‘boy racer’ style and doesn’t carry the sophistication that Apple has ushered into our lives and will be something iOS owners will be accustomed to. Navigating through the menus can feel you’re physically running through a mental mind maze, regularly finding yourself taking the wrong turn and ending up at a dead end.

Interface & Apple CarPlay

The real reason you’re here though is CarPlay isn’t it? So let me tell you all about that…

It is worth highlighting that CarPlay is an evolving software platform that lives on your Apple iOS device, not in the receiver itself. So whichever aftermarket receiver you choose to install in your vehicle, the OS experience will be the same throughout – Don’t let any dealer tell you otherwise!

We will see over many days, months and years, Apple’s CarPlay experience continually evolving via regular iOS updates. The same can be said with CarPlay compatible applications on your iOS device, these too will have intermittent updates from its developers that will usher new features, improvements and functionality to their CarPlay experience.

I will not report on CarPlay itself on the Pioneer because, what is written today can change or could be improved upon next month with software updates, so be sure to read our other articles for opinions on Apple CarPlay OS, its app updates and changes to Apple’s CarPlay platform with each new iOS update.

The AppRadio 4’s interface features menus, upon menus; a sea of buttons and options litter the front screen from the very start, all begging for your attention, and with no clear winner. Thankfully, with an iOS device connected, a ‘CarPlay’ option sits prominently in to top corner of the front screen, so Apple users can dive right in and feel right at home with Apple’s ‘clean and simple’ user interface. MirrorLink is also here, should you have a non-Apple device.

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CarPlay on the Pioneer AppRadio 4 is as it is on most enabled receivers. The capacitive screen helps with scrolling and interaction with the CarPlay interface is fairly responsive and on par with the Alpine, and like the Alpine, changing the location of the CarPlay side bar is done via the settings menu. One major criticism I have, is when connecting the iPhone you always get a disclaimer screen that you have to interact with to start using CarPlay. You don’t get this with the Alpine and it is unknown why Pioneer has to put you through this jarring process, every time you fire up Apple’s in-car platform.

Without a CD/DVD drive, you’re limited to radio and media over USB or HDMI, but by simply connecting your smartphone to the AppRadio 4, it will bring new life into the headunit, with the possibility of feeding it a variety of your own content, not only through Apple’s CarPlay platform or MirrorLInk, but with your device connected, applications such as Apple Music, Spotify or Pandora can be played through the receivers own audio player. This is great if you find CarPlay’s crashing a real burden from time to time, and it’s a nice way to have something a bit more stable to use until Apple iron out all the niggles that its CarPlay platform can bring!

Wireless Bluetooth Audio

If wireless CarPlay is a requirement, you will not find it here in the AppRadio 4; but there is an alternative option that the Alpine’s iLX-700 severely misses out on, and that is built-in Bluetooth. Once paired, the audio from your smartphone can be beamed into your car’s speakers, without a cable in sight! OK, so you will not get what Apple is promising with its wireless CarPlay, but audio is all you need 99% of the time in the car, and the AppRadio 4 allows you to do this over its competition in the same price range. Bluetooth audio can be controlled via its built-in music player, with music meta-data such as title, artist, album name and genre being populated into the player’s interface. Navigating through tracks is then done either on the device, via the controls on the headunit or by your own steering wheel interface controls (if compatible).

Customisation is important to many of us when it comes to in-car systems, and the AppRadio 4 has a number of features to help it blend into your car interior’s environment. By entering the ‘Themes’ area in the settings menu, you can choose from a variety of backgrounds, including a way to add your own images from a USB drive. In the ‘Illumination’ area, you can select from a few key colours that will change the colour of the touch-sensitive buttons on the side of the headunit. If you can’t find the right colour to match your interior you can enter the colour wheel and select any colour you desire. Over in the ‘Themes’ sub area, you can choose from a small selection of colours that change the interface colour scheme of the home area of the display. And finally, in the ‘Splash Screen’ section you can change the start up screen of the headunit. Once again, you can add your own image here by plugging in a USB drive and selecting your launch image of choice.

Many Media Options

This Pioneer packs a number of media options that out paces its ‘budget’ rivals. With its two USB ports, you’ll have one spare port to connect a USB drive with a whole host of files you can throw at this headunit. Want to watch DivX, H.264, MPEG4 and MKV video? Sure, you can do that using the built in media player. Want to have a slideshow of images/photos? Well, you can do that too! If you have an alternative video source; via the HDMI port at the back, you can plug this source in and have its content display on the AppRadio 4’s screen.

Like other CarPlay compatible receivers, the AppRadio 4 also supports backup camera input. By simply connecting up to your car’s backup camera, the receiver will show its rear-view video feed on the display along with parking assist guidelines. This is coming pretty standard in media receivers these days.

For audiophiles, the AppRadio 4 offers a number of features and modes to cater for your critical ears. Pre-set and customisable equalisers allow you achieve the type of sound you want, however if you’re on the lazy side, you can plug in a microphone and let the Auto EQ measure your vehicle’s acoustics and adjust the receiver’s audio levels automatically to suit your car’s interior.

Another common feature found in Pioneer’s headunits is MIXTRAX – a technology that creates non-stop mixes of selections from your audio library, complete with DJ effects that make your music sound as if a DJ is sitting in the back seat. This is a particular feature that I don’t see ever using on the AppRadio 4. With most of my own music streamed from Spotify, it rules out any chances of a local library of music files that this feature needs, however if you want to entertain your passengers with flashy graphics and a customised DJ experience, then MIXTRAX might be for you – glow sticks not included.

Let’s Wrap Up

With very few CarPlay enabled budget receivers on the market, the choice of getting Apple in your car for under £400 is fairly limited. So which should you buy? Well that depends on your wants and desires, as well as what media sources you plan on connecting to it. The Pioneer has a great list of connections, the best in fact, for its price. With two USB ports, you have the opportunity to have a fixed connection for your iPhone whilst having the ability to connect additional media, such as video and image files. The HDMI port opens up many more media possibilities in the car and the equaliser and visual customisation options will please many.

For me though, even with all these media source options, I would still go back to my Alpine iLX-700. Why? We’ll, all I want to do is just connect my iPhone and use CarPlay, and with its slightly bigger screen, the Alpine feels and looks better in the car in my opinion. CarPlay already uses up the side of the screen with its interface ‘side dock’ bar, so having a wider display reduces the hit caused by Apple’s user interface – I really don’t see the point in reducing the user experience even more with these 6.2” headunits.

My instant reaction, when turning on the Pioneer, was that the screen felt lower in quality. The pixels on CarPlay icons looked more pixelated than on the Alpine, even though both displays share the same resolution of 800×480, and the Alpine’s display is bigger.

This resolution is criminal in this day and age of high DPI retina displays, and it is something I feel that ALL manufactures should catch up on – even $1000+ CarPlay units carry this same resolution, and it shows, badly.

One killer feature that the AppRadio 4 has over the Alpine, is its Bluetooth audio streaming support. This simple feature, found in most headunits today (apart from the Alpine!), opens the ability to stream audio wirelessly, for that short trip home and without the need to take the phone out of your pocket, or allow your passengers in the car to become the DJ during your trip.

So it all crunches down to your own preferences really. If pimping your display with the right colour scheme floats your boat, or you see yourself playing movies or flicking through images in your car a thing you’ll do quite often, or perhaps you can’t live without bluetooth audio streaming, then the AppRadio 4 is a very good deal for its price point and a very worthy ‘low-entry’ model into the Apple CarPlay ecosystem. But for me, there isn’t enough here to make we want to swap out my Alpine for the AppRadio 4, purely for its wider screen and no-frills ‘cleaner’ interface, it’s just a shame about the missing Bluetooth, that the AppRadio 4 has.

Pioneer AppRadio 4

$429
Pioneer AppRadio 4
8

Display

7/10

    Sound

    8/10

      Features

      9/10

        Pros

        • Plenty of media source options
        • Very customisable
        • Bluetooth audio streaming (Note: Not wireless CarPlay)

        Cons

        • Small 6.2-inch display
        • Messy and dated user interface
        • Would prefer physical buttons

        • CarPlay Life

          If you have any questions about either the Pioneer AppRadio 4 or Alpine iLX-700 and my comparisons above, please let me know in the comments.

        • Mischa

          great review! Thank you! I get my alpine next week! Cant wait.

          • CarPlay Life

            Thanks! I hope you enjoy the Alpine. It’s a nice bit of kit 🙂

        • Bart Meltzer

          I bought and installed an SPH-DA120 last month into my 2005 Explorer. It fit right in with the mounting adaptor I bought from Crutchfield for the Explorer. I also bought the wire harness adaptor for the same vehicle from Crutchfield.

          I bought the SPH-DA120 from Ebay for about $420.00.

          I selected the Pioneer over the Alpine because of all the features the Pioneer has over the Alpine, such as Bluetooth and all the other features included with the Pioneer. However, to date, i have not used many of the features myself, although the other two people who drive my Explorer do use them.

          Also IMO, for resale value, the option to use other than carplay technology is there in MirrorLink and AppRadio. That allows the Android folks to have some options, although they won’t have Android Auto. With Alpine, it’s strictly CarPlay.

          The user interface is very good IMO. I’m not exposed to touch screen displays in cars often so I don’t see the interface as dated like the author of this article does.

          I also like Pioneer’s interface better than CarPlay, at least as far as music goes. The aesthetics are better, IMO, you get to see album art, and scrolling through long play lists is much easier as the alphabet pops up on the right side making scrolling through long playlists much faster and easier. Carplay also allows you to scroll playlists, but with out alphabet short cuts. That makes scrolling long playlists much more involved.

          A negative element of both CarPlay and the Pioneer music navigation is that each time one navigates from the currently playing song to a playlist, one must start from the root directory every time and navigate to the desired play list. The current playlist is not shown when selecting play lists nor does either UI remember the last play list selected. Again, that is a distraction as it requires focusing on the unit for longer then necessary.

          Hopefully, both Apple and Pioneer will fix this with updates in the future.

          That’s all I got. Concur with the Author on his review.

          • CarPlay Life

            Thanks Bart. The Pioneer is a great receiver for future proofing your connections and adding some resale value for your car. Thanks for your comments.

        • jflet1

          I installed my SPH-DA120 a few weeks ago – and I’m very happy without. However – there is one issue that European buyers need to be aware of – complete lack of firmware updates. For units purchased in the US, they get regular firmware updates….

          Eg.
          In the UK, firmware is available here :-
          http://www.pioneer.eu/uk/support/software/SPH-DA120/page.html

          and its empty 🙁

          In the US, firmware is available here :-
          http://www.pioneerelectronics.com/PUSA/Car/AppRadio/AppRadio+4+(SPH-DA120)?tab=firmware

          My unit is running 6 versions behind the latest US firmware. I can’t believe the updates just fix US radio issues ….

          • CarPlay Life

            It really is frustrating that the EU/UK hasn’t seen any new firmware updates for this unit.

        • Kent Hede-Jensen

          I installed the SPH-120 last summer and i like it. I found it to 339 Euro or 370 US.
          I don’t think the perfect car radio is on the marked for now hopeful it will come but the SPH-120 suites my needs pretty well. I love that it has 2 USB ports on the back so i can have my music on a USB stick and use CarPlay at the same time.
          Would like to have better volume settings and DAB+ but i have seen that the new Pioneers have DAB+ so maybe the next gen.

          • CarPlay Life

            Thanks Kent, let’s hope Pionner learn from this unit and people’s feedback and bring out an even better next gen version of the AppRadio. I’m sure we will see it later this year. It seems odd for it to miss out on their lineup of updates at CES last month.

            • Kent Hede-Jensen

              I think Pioneer is holding back to see if wireless CarPlay is coming from Apple in IOS 10 or allowed by Apple. Not sure Pioneer sees the need for an update to the unit before.

        • Ian Forest

          I had my DA120 fitted this afternoon by Huets and i’m really pleased with it so far. The 2 USB ports are very useful, maybe not so much when my partner uses the one on her side of the car to charge her phone up and override my music choices. Would’ve really liked DAB+ too but it’s not essential.

          I really do wish though that Pioneer and other makes concentrate on making their own radio interfaces look great because they really do remind me of all the fairground style lights that were on head units inside my Vauxhall Corsa back in 1996, why haven’t things moved on?

          Anyway, nearly considered the Alpine unit but it’s criminal lack of bluetooth put me right off!

          • CarPlay Life

            I think we’re slowly started to see OEMs catch up with their user interface, but there is still a long way to go, sadly.

        • Dave

          Very informative and detailed overview of the DA120 / AppRadio 4… thank you.

          I purchased this unit about a month ago (having researched here first) and I absolutely love it.

          • CarPlay Life

            Thanks Dave. Glad you’re enjoying it. 🙂

        • MDom

          In the US there is no Sirius port on the back. See Amazon in the US.

        • Jim Schroeder

          I bought the AppRadio 4 a few weeks ago to replace an aging Alpine IDA-X305 that was starting to have some problems. The Alpine sounded better, so I miss the clarity of the Alpine unit. But more than anything I needed a two USB port CarPlay unit and this one fit the bill for the price. Alpine, unfortunately, doesn’t have a unit that has 2 USB ports. Beyond missing the cleanliness of the Apline sound I will say I am really happy with this unit. It looks great in my car and people really take notice when they get into my 2004 Civic and see this thing. It has so many connectivity options it’s insane. The learning curve is tremendous compared to what I’m used to. My major gripe is about CarPlay and how Now Playing displays album artwork (or mostly doesn’t). The AppRadio app and usage is very confusing so I typically only use it if I want to play movies which has been rare. With it’s caveats, it’s a nice head unit and breathes a little entertainment life into my car.

        • Kfir Uzan

          Can I use my steering wheels buttons ?
          I have a Prius and so far a can’t