When it comes to choosing a radio upgrade for your car or truck, you’ll find hundreds of options. At the bottom of the market are inexpensive radios of dubious reliability, with difficult-to-see displays and questionable performance. Then there are the name-brand products that go through years of design and months of testing to ensure that they do what you want, how you want it. Sony’s car radios live at this upper end of the spectrum. I have one of their XAV-AX4000 digital multimedia receivers in the BestCarAudio.com Test Drive Review lab for some analysis.
Basic Features of the Sony XAV-AX4000 Receiver
Though the display and escutcheon are a standard double-DIN size, the chassis of the XAV-AX4000 is a single-DIN, shallow-mount unit. The compact dimensions of the radio make it easier to install than those with a body that’s 4 inches tall from front to back. Wisely, Sony affixed the body of the radio to the top half of the display, leaving room for interface modules like the iDatalink Maestro RR, a steering wheel control interface, interconnect cables or wire harness adapters to be tucked underneath.
The display on the XA-AX4000 measures 6.95 inches diagonally and includes a low-profile bezel for a clean and tidy look. The display uses a resistive touchscreen interface, so it’s compatible with winter gloves. Under the display is a small, raised panel with six physical push buttons for volume, tracking and access to the home menu and voice commands. If you want to change the volume while driving, having actual buttons instead of a touchscreen interface means you don’t have to take your eyes off the road. Maybe automotive product designers are finally realizing that touch-only interfaces aren’t as intuitive as they look, even if they seem cool.
Sony has equipped the XAV-AX4000 with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration technologies. Connectivity for CarPlay is via Wi-Fi only. You can use Android Auto via a cable attached to the USB-C port on the rear of the chassis or via Wi-Fi. If you haven’t experienced these smartphone solutions, you are missing out. They use the voice recognition features of your smartphone to execute commands like making a phone call, sending a text message or getting detailed navigation directions to almost anywhere in North America. The systems use Google Maps or Waze for navigation on both platforms, and you can use Apple Maps if you have an iPhone. Of course, you can ask these systems to play any music stored on your smartphone or access a streaming service like Pandora, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Tidal or YouTube Music. The wireless connection to either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto eliminates the need to connect your phone to a USB cable.
Audio Sources and Features
The radio features Sony’s Digital Clarity AM/FM tuner module for terrestrial radio. RDS information display is included so you can see what song a station is playing, if the station is broadcasting that information. The radio is SiriusXM-ready and can be upgraded with an SXV300 tuner module and subscription to access almost any genre of music or entertainment you want in North America.
The USB-C port on the rear of the chassis can accept Mass Storage Class (MSC) memory devices to play MP3, WAV, AAC, ALAC, FLAC and DSD audio files. If album artwork is available, it will be displayed on the screen, along with the title and artist information. The USB-C port is rated to provide up to 3 amps of current to power or recharge a connected phone quickly.
Sony has also included a Bluetooth transceiver to stream audio directly from a smartphone or portable device. Of note, their Bluetooth system features Sony’s LDAC audio coding technology. You can stream hi-resolution audio to the receiver when connected to an Android phone that supports a 990-kbps connection. Lower-bandwidth connections (330 and 660 kbps) are also supported. Unfortunately, if you have an Apple device, you have to use the AAC codec to play music because Apple doesn’t support LDAC. The quality is still quite acceptable – just not AS good. The SBC codec is also supported in case you have an older device. The Bluetooth connection supports A2DP version 1.3.1 and AVRCP version 1.6.1, so you can see album art and change tracks on your smart device from the radio screen or the buttons on the steering wheel if they are interfaced with the radio.
Sony hasn’t been shy about including premium audio processing features in its source units. The XAV-AX4000 starts with a 14-band graphic equalizer that your installer can use to fine-tune the performance of your audio system. The equalizer includes nine preset curves, and there are two user-adjustable, and saveable, presets called Custom 1 and Custom 2. The equalizer can apply up to 12 dB of boost or cut to the signal. A listening position adjustment menu is also available to align the arrival time of the four main output channels and the subwoofer to the master listening position. Your installer can dial in delays in 1-centimeter increments. When set correctly, your system will sound as though you are sitting at the console of a world-class mixing console with the performers spread evenly across the width of the vehicle.
Finally, Sony has included adjustable crossovers on the front, rear and subwoofer outputs. Your installer can set a high-pass filter at 50, 63, 80, 100 or 125 Hz at slopes of -12, -24, -36 or -48 dB/octave on the front and rear channels. The subwoofer output has a low-pass crossover with the same frequency and attenuation options. If you’re starting to build a custom car audio system, your installer can turn on the high-pass filters and use the amplifier in the radio to power the front and rear speakers, then add a powered subwoofer to take care of bass frequencies. With the bass removed from the radio’s amplification requirements, you’d be surprised at how loudly it can play.
Regarding audio connections, the XAV-AX4000 includes a four-channel audio amplifier rated to produce 20 watts of power per channel. In addition, dedicated stereo front and rear preamp outputs and a single mono subwoofer output are rated for 2 volts of output.
Connectivity and Expansion Options
Your installer can add a steering wheel audio control interface when installing the XAV-AX4000 into your vehicle to make using the radio while driving easier. This Sony radio also supports the iDatalink Maestro RR or RR2 system. The RR (radio replacement) modules not only provide a steering wheel control interface but also allow the Sony radio to monitor the computer network in your vehicle to show engine and dash information, tire pressures, battery voltage and, in some applications, the climate control screens.
An included steering wheel control input harness also allows custom programming of ground-based resistive input on the wires, which can be found in some older vehicles. In this scenario, the installer can custom program the radio’s inputs to match the vehicle buttons being pressed. Again, check with the retailer you’re working with to find out which options are supported on your vehicle.
A backup camera input jack is provided in the input/output harness that plugs into the back of the radio. Your installer may be able to integrate an existing factory-installed camera with the Sony radio, or they can install an aftermarket solution to help you see what’s behind your car or truck while parking or maneuvering. With the Maestro interface, the OEM backup camera display may include dynamic parking line information to show where the vehicle is going. Sony has a button on the main screen to bring up the camera while driving should you need to check on a trailer or see if Ross Chastain is drafting you or setting up for a wall ride.
If there’s one thing that makes Sony stand out from the rest of the aftermarket radios on the market, it’s the simplicity and responsiveness of the interface on Sony radios. The main menu couldn’t be simpler or more intuitive. There’s a large clock and five menu options across the bottom of the screen. An icon appears on the upper left if you have CarPlay or Android Auto activated and the device is connected. You can tap the All Apps text on the right to open the app drawer and see the rest of the source and configuration options. Pressing and holding the icons allows you to move them around the screen and make those you use most often readily accessible from the main menu or sort them to your own liking in the app drawer.
The radio is designed to boot quickly and respond nearly instantly to inputs. Therefore, testing the responsiveness to inputs is a top priority if you’re shopping for a radio. You’d find the system frustrating if you had to wait for a few tenths of a second for the requested command to be executed. It doesn’t seem like a long time, but imagine if you had to pause while typing an email or SMS message on your smartphone while it had to think before displaying a letter or symbol. This Sony radio provides fast response in any scenario.
Auditioning the Sony XAV-AX4000
I set the XAV-AX4000 up in my listening room. The front RCAs feed a high-bias Class AB amp driving a set of bookshelf speakers, and the sub output feeds a 2,500-watt Class D monoblock feeding an audiophile-grade 12-inch subwoofer in an acoustic suspension enclosure. I set the crossovers over the deck to 80 Hz with a fourth-order (-24 dB/octave) filter.
The difference between good and great source units is pretty subtle, so we’ll pull out the big guns in terms of music for this test. I started with “I Can See Clearly Now” by the Holly Cole Trio. This is a simple track with percussion, piano and an upright bass accompanying the vocals. The Sony sounded great. Holly’s voice was clear and detailed, and the instruments were placed perfectly and rendered with impressive realism and accuracy.
The next track I listened to was “Spanish Grease” by Willie Bobo. If you’ve been reading my amplifier reviews, you know this track has amazing spatial effects that only work well when the system is well-balanced in amplitude and phase in both channels. The word “get” is repeated about 28 seconds into the song. Again, the Sony XAV-AX4000 didn’t disappoint, and the effects approached the listening position just as they do with my reference source unit.
I finished off with “Chocolate Chip Trip” from Tool’s Fear Inoculum album. Again, the dynamics and realism of the drums were great. You could clearly hear the sticks and hammer hitting the skins, and none of the sounds blurred together. The synthesized effects accompanying this fantastic drum solo remained wide around the edges of the soundstage, giving the presentation a great sense of size and presence.
A nice feature that I noticed during my testing was that the radio will resume playing whatever song you were enjoying if you remove and reconnect the USB stick. I needed to add a track, and the Sony picked up where it left off.
So, what’s the difference between a premium source unit like the XAV-AX4000 and something audiophile-quality like the XAV-9500ES? The ES exhibits more transparency. The difference is subtle, though. The AX4000 is like looking through a spotless windshield with nothing to distract you from the experience. The 9500ES is like not having any glass in front of you at all – minus the bugs and stones you’ll get hit with. Don’t be afraid to build an impressive system around the XAV-AX4000 – it sounds excellent!
Lab Testing the Sony XAV-AX4000
One of the most critical factors in any audio product is frequency response. I started by playing a sine sweep through the Sony radio, recording it using a USB audio interface, then analyzing it in Room EQ Wizard. Unfortunately, my usual high-end interface was damaged recently, so I’m using a not-so-fancy model until it returns. The measurement shows the XAV-AX4000 delivers an effectively flat response from just below 10 Hz to just over 22 kHz on the top.
Next, I wanted to quantify the radio’s noise and distortion characteristics. I played a 1-kHz test tone recorded at -1 dBFS and adjusted the output of the source unit to 1 volt on the preamp and 2 volts on the speaker outputs to equal 1 watt into a 4-ohm load. I measured a THD+N level of 0.007% on the preamp output and an SNR of -86.38 dB. On the speaker outputs, the numbers are 0.0103% and -89.03 dB at 2.05 volts.
The next test was to check the preamp output voltage and the power production capabilities of the built-in amplifier. The preamp produced 2.032 volts RMS with an output impedance of approximately 310 ohms using a 0-dB test tone track. The radio did not clip at full volume. Turning up the EQ to increase the output of the test frequency increased the output voltage to just under 2.5 volts RMS without exceeding 1% THD+N. It’s nice that Sony builds some headroom into the output stage.
Power from the amplifier driving a 4-ohm load was 21.94 watts, with 14.39 volts supplying the radio. The idle current with the audio muted was 0.905 amp when supplied with 14.45 volts from my power supply. Pressing and holding the Home button to put the radio into standby mode dropped the current draw down to 2 milliamps. With the accessory wire disconnected, the dark current was 0.91 microamps.
The source unit’s rear USB-C connection produced 4.91 volts of output at 1 amp of current and 4.45 volts at 3.0 amps. If you exceed this level of current, the radio will display an error message and disable the USB port until you cycle power.
Sony makes bold claims about how quickly its source units will boot and start playing music. For example, if you left the radio playing music from a USB memory stick, it would resume in about 7.5 seconds. However, if you were listening to the radio, that time drops to about 6.5 seconds. Having seen source units that take over 20 seconds to boot and another five to start playing music, this is an excellent performance.
Triggering the backup camera brings up the display in under a second. If you start the vehicle and put the transmission in reverse right away, the camera image will be on the screen in about four seconds. You want to test these last few items at your favorite local Sony retailer before buying a source unit.
Thoughts on the Sony XAV-AX4000 Digital Multimedia Receiver
Every time I visit a car stereo shop, I poke and prod at the radios on display to see how quickly they respond to input. It’s amazing how slow some of them are. Even compared to models from a few years ago, the Sony XAV-AX4000 is lightning fast. Add to that support for all the most popular digital audio file formats and the iDatalink Maestro, along with the most intuitive interface on the market, and you end up with a winner.
If you’re looking for a great multimedia receiver to upgrade your car or truck with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, drop by a local authorized Sony car audio retailer and ask about the XAV-AX4000. For more information about Sony car audio products, visit their website and be sure to follow them on Facebook.