A hands-on review of the Pioneer SPH-10BT car stereo
The Smart Sync app turns your phone into a touchscreen
In a nutshell: We review the Pioneer SPH-10BT smartphone receiver. Some of the points we looked at are:
- Setup and phone connection
- Customizing the stereo's features
- Using your phone as the stereo's display
- Potential drawbacks
Read on for the full hands-on review.
The Pioneer SPH-10BT digital media receiver shatters boundaries by turning your smartphone into a touchscreen display for the stereo, giving you easy access to music, maps, and messaging — without the need for a large dash opening.
In this review, we get hands-on with the SPH-10BT receiver and Pioneer's Smart Sync app to see how well they work together in a controlled environment.
Along similar lines, we recently reviewed a pair of groundbreaking modular touchscreen receivers from Pioneer for difficult-to-fit dash openings.
A stereo designed for smartphone integration
The first thing I noticed about the SPH-10BT is its fairly minimal design. The head unit itself sports six large hard keys across its face, with very little room for a display. Most of the screen load is carried by the driver's smartphone, which fits into a cradle that folds out of the receiver.
Without the smartphone in the cradle, the receiver offers fairly limited utility. It's fair to assume that most folks will be using the stereo in conjunction with their phone, and that the phone will be mounted in the receiver's cradle. If you already have another spot on your dash where you prefer to mount your phone, that's fine.
Mounting your phone
To get the cradle out, I had to detach the stereo's faceplate, then pull the cradle out and fold it up to form a base for the phone. The faceplate then reattaches pretty easily, but you cannot put the cradle back without removing the faceplate.
The cradle's sliding backplate adjusts upward a couple of inches to accommodate the width of various phones — it clamps down on the phone rather forcefully to ensure the phone doesn't fall out. The cradle's "legs" also adjust horizontally to let them touch the phone's sides without impacting any phone buttons.
Behind the scenes: To conduct this review, we used a simulation dashboard you might've seen in one of our many head unit demo videos shot by fellow Crutchfield writer Ken Nail.
The Pioneer SPH-10BT's cradle offers a safe home for most smartphones.
Big buttons make it easy to control
The buttons along the SPH-10BT's faceplate mimic the functions of the Smart Sync app:
- Musical source selection
- Voice assistants (including Siri® and Google Voice™)
- Navigation (including Waze and Google Maps, plus Apple Maps for iOS users)
- Messaging (including Facebook and Whatsapp)
- Smart Sync application launch
They're easy to find without even looking down while driving. There's also a USB port (with a somewhat annoying port cover) above the left-hand buttons, and a small display screen in the middle of the stereo's face. You can see a little bit of text on the display, but most of the action will be on the phone's screen.
Setting up the stereo and your phone
When I got everything hooked up and turned on, I went through the setup. The first thing I did was to check Pioneer's website to see if a firmware update was available for the SPH-10BT. Sure enough, there was, so I downloaded it to a thumb drive and updated the stereo to make sure it was current.
Then I went through the initial setup with my Apple iPhone® 6s. This included pairing it with the SPH-10BT through Bluetooth® and choosing a language, clock setting, and whether the app control function would be done through Bluetooth or a wired connection. On this initial setup run, there were no issues pairing the device with Bluetooth.
Once I paired my phone with the stereo and placed it in the cradle so that there were no issues with the buttons, I started going through wallpapers and illumination settings. There were about a dozen wallpapers to choose from, a few of which feature "live" moving images (nothing too distracting, though). There are also a dozen illumination colors for the faceplate, or I could choose a constant cycling through of all of them.
Navigation and messaging settings
There are more settings to play with that go beyond cosmetics. I was able to choose the default navigation app (Google Maps please, although Waze is available for both kinds of phones and Apple Maps for iPhones), as well as my messaging app of choice (between iMessage, WhatsApp, or Facebook).
Sonic setups galore
A 31-band EQ could easily provide hours of fun tweaks if I was using it in a car with a decent stereo system; it even includes several presets and a pair of customizable options that I can save. I don't really know much about "Super Todoroki Sound" but there are three settings for it, or I can just turn it off.
"Simulated Sound Fields" add the ambience of different types of listening rooms to my tunes, like concert hall and stadium. And there's "Easy Sound Fit" for making no-hassle time correction tweaks depending on what kind of car I'm in. More advanced settings include manual adjustments to time correction and fader/balance controls.
All in all, this SPH-10BT offers a lot of audio adjustments to ensure it'll sound good in your vehicle.
Another cool feature is "source level adjuster," which lets me set the volume levels for different types of sources — I find that Bluetooth audio is usually much quieter than FM signals and USB media, so it's nice to be able to boost that volume level without getting blasted when I switch sources.
The main screen
Upon pairing the phone with the SPH-10BT and launching the Smart Sync app, I took in the main display screen, which is divided into three parts: musical source, clock/date, and speedometer with altitude reading. I question the utility of including the speedometer (or at least not making it optional), but perhaps Pioneer imagined people mounting their phones over their vehicle display panels and covering up the speedometer.
You can also choose to have the shortcuts for source, voice commands, navigation, text, and phone dialing along the bottom of the screen or not. With the display split into thirds, I can only see part of the song info as it scrolls along, but it does show album artwork when using a wired connection (more on that in a minute).
By pressing the musical source button either on the radio or my phone, I can explore the different options available, whether it's songs stored on my phone, songs on a thumb drive (if connected), streaming apps like Pandora or TuneIn, or even podcasts.
The main music screen shows album artwork, artist/title/album/genre info, what EQ setting is in play, and whether or not any effects are being used. I can also see the time elapsed and remaining on the track. And from this screen I can quickly access all my albums and playlists or filter songs by genre if I want.
The navigation screen looks pretty much like the navigation screen on my phone. I can type in a destination or use my voice to speak it, and I can choose between different kinds of maps depending on how I plan to get around.
The voice button lets me compose a text and it also lets me choose to have an incoming message read aloud to me. This is definitely one of the most handy features of Smart Sync, and I found the incoming text being read aloud quite easy to understand.
The phone button pulls up my phone's contact list and lets me dial with a fingertip touch or by speaking the name aloud.
Launching the Smart Sync application from the receiver just brings up a couple of more options, including showing the button shortcuts on the phone screen or not, and card/list display options for albums, artists, and titles.
One aspect of the SPH-10BT I was concerned about was how seamlessly it would move between different sources. When I was connected to the radio via Bluetooth, there was only a slight lag when moving between streaming music apps, stored music files, and the FM tuner.
In some cases with the streaming music apps and stored music files, I would not see the album artwork, although the song titles and artists would always show up. Moving between the phone sources and music on a thumb drive took a little bit longer, but that's to be expected.
When I had my iPhone plugged into the SPH-10BT's front USB port, the artwork was always present for whatever was playing off my phone, whether streaming or stored files. And switching between those sources was quite seamless.
One thing that took a while to figure out was the "App Control" setting at setup — if I hadn't launched the Smart Sync app on my iPhone, the stereo would use the iPhone as the audio source whether I had chosen "Wired" or "Bluetooth" as my App Control default.
It was a pain to try to get music off my thumb drive without engaging the Smart Sync app first. When I launched the app and connected to the stereo, then the app became the command center for sources whether the iPhone was connected via Bluetooth or a cable.
I didn’t play much with an Android device, but according to the manual, as long as you're using the Smart Sync app, everything will work the way it should, whether you use USB or Bluetooth to connect to your phone. After all, that's how the stereo is designed to be used — in conjunction with the app.
If you want to listen to music without using the Smart Sync app, then connecting the phone via USB is probably the best way to go. The stereo uses the AOA 2.0 protocol to talk to your phone. As long as you have a newer phone, you should be able to have control and see album artwork. If your phone doesn’t seem to be up to speed, you might have better luck going the Bluetooth streaming route if you don’t want to turn on the Smart Sync app.
The connection issue
Before the testing, I noticed a few complaints on our site and elsewhere online about both the SPH-10BT and the Smart Sync app itself. One of the main issues seemed to be that the app would work fine at first but then eventually have issues connecting with the stereo. I experienced a bit of that on my third and fourth rounds of testing with my iPhone 6s.
It took me roughly 15 minutes each time just to get Smart Sync on my phone to pair with the stereo after the first couple of times doing the test under similar conditions. For round five I tried connecting with an iPhone Xs Max and had no issues, but I didn't do much testing beyond the connection because I really wanted to see how the cradle would work with a larger phone.
Another potential issue I read about was the tendency of the Smart Sync app to lose all its programmed settings (radio station presets and EQ curves in particular) every so often and for no apparent reason. I didn't run into this specific hurdle, but it was in the back of my mind as I encountered connection problems with the app on the third and fourth rounds of testing.
The phone fit issue
The fit of the phone on the cradle was another major complaint I saw about the SPH-10BT, the main thrust being that it doesn't accommodate thicker phone cases. That may be the case for some folks, but I have a thin Laut case on my iPhone 6s and experienced no issues. I didn't have any problem putting the iPhone Xs Max on the cradle (without a case), either.
My impressions might be different if I were driving and needed to adjust the angle of the phone for a better view or hit a nasty pothole, but in the simulated dash it accommodated a couple of different sized phones easily.
The SPH-10BT's USB port is conveniently located but the cover's not friendly to big fingers.
That darn USB port cover
This is a small thing, but the cover on the faceplate's USB port feels extraneous, bordering on annoying. I understand the need to keep that area free of dust, but the cover can get in the way of large fingers like mine when trying to attach a thumb drive or USB cable. If you're inclined to use the USB port often, it seems likely that the cover might break off eventually.
Final thoughts about the SPH-10BT
The Pioneer SPH-10BT presents an exciting way to combine your phone and your stereo into a seamless experience. It's also a great way for single-DIN dash owners to get the convenience of a touchscreen stereo without paying big bucks for a fold-out receiver or something requiring major modifications.
In general, it works pretty well for basic music, mapping, messaging, and calling functions, and the voice command aspect of it is very attractive from a safety perspective. Sonic enthusiasts will definitely dig all the tweaks available through the app.
On the first few passes with the iPhone 6s, the Smart Sync app and receiver performed admirably together. However, the stereo/app combo is asking a lot of the Bluetooth connection, which is not always as robust as I'd like it to be. As Bluetooth chips for both the stereo and phones improve, perhaps Smart Sync will prove to be a reliable alternative for those who love their phones but can't invest in a touchscreen receiver.
Interested in the Pioneer SPH-10BT?
If you want to know more about the Pioneer SPH-10BT or other touchscreen digital media stereos, contact us by chat, phone, or email. Our friendly and knowledgeable advisors will be glad to help. And you get free lifetime tech support with every Crutchfield purchase.