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Test Report: Clarion CZ401

Back when I was in retail, our store was an authorized Clarion dealer for many years. While we also carried several other product lines, we always had great success and respect for the Clarion brand and their exceptional products. You may not be aware of it, but the history of the Clarion goes way back to 1940, and is closely tied to the history of the automobile itself. Clarion can claim the bragging rights to a great many innovations and technologies over the years, including Japan’s first car radio and first car stereo. Nowadays they offer everything from budget-priced, high-value basic units to some of the most high tech and best performing car audio products on the planet. For this review, we’re going to take a look at a unit a bit closer to the budget end of the spectrum, the new Clarion CZ401, which has a full list price of $229.99 here in the U.S. of A.

Features

The Clarion CZ401 is a single DIN CD/MP3 receiver incorporating an HD radio tuner and iTunes Tagging functionality. Clarion has long been known for their excellent AM/FM tuners, and now they have combined that performance with the clarity and diversity of HD Radio, along with the convenience of tagging new songs that can be added to your collection later.

Sidebar: If you’re not familiar with HD Radio, it is a digital broadcasting system that does not require a subscription and can easily double or triple the amount of available stations you receive. With near-CD sound quality, the ability to “tag” any song for later retrieval via iTunes, Artist and Song Title info, and you can see why the popularity of HD Radio is growing quickly.

I listen regularly to the various HD Radio stations available here in the greater Phoenix area, and I have to say, it’s easy to get spoiled by the great sound quality of the HD Radio broadcasts. The difference is quite dramatic, both in terms of sound quality and reception. If you have not heard HD Radio, give it a try. These days it’s all I want to listen to when it comes to local radio.

Of course, the tuner is just one section of the CZ401’s playback capabilities. Naturally, it will also play back CDs, recordable discs and MP3 or WMA files, either on a disc or stored in a USB drive. The CZ401 is “Made for iPod/iPhone” and is fully compatible with most generations of Classic, Nano, Touch, or iPhone devices via the USB port located discreetly behind a folding door on the front panel. In addition to charging your Apple device, the CZ401 will also display the title information of the selected track via its easy to read two-line, 10-character display.

For those who want more, the Clarion CZ401 also provides the ability to directly connect a Sirius SC-C1 satellite radio tuner, with no additional interface required. An auxiliary input jack also on the front panel provides yet another input for other audio devices. Regardless of what your connectivity requirements are, chances are this unit will have you covered!

The front panel is removable for security purposes, and for convenience, a wireless remote control is also supplied.

So you’re thinking, ‘wow, this thing has a ton of features for the price, they must have really skimped on the audio section.’ Nope, that would be dead wrong.

In fact, the CZ401 has an audio section that would make an audiophile proud. In addition to the built in four-channel MOSFET amplifier that is rated at 18 watts per channel into 4 ohms, the CZ401 also boasts front, rear and subwoofer outputs, rated at 4 volts! And they didn’t stop there. Also onboard are Clarion’s fully customizable “Beat EQ”, “Magna Bass EX”, and built-in adjustable high and low pass crossovers. And finally, if your car has steering wheel controls, there are adapters available to make them work with the CZ401, via a dedicated plug on the rear panel.

Test Report: Clarion CZ401

Controls and Functionality

When designing a head unit’s controls and display, the layout, placement and feel of the controls are critical, as is the readability of the display. Optimally, you want a unit that can be used virtually blind, and when you look at it, the information should be easy to find and clearly displayed. Clarion goes to great lengths in the regard with something they call their H.M.I. or Human-Machine Interface. The result is a design that places frequently used buttons in logical and easy to find spots, incorporates a rotary volume control, and a bright (white) character display on a black background. I have to say that in my opinion, they got it almost perfect. This folks, is basically how it should be. Well done.

If I were to pick nits, I suppose it would be nice to have a bit more flexibility on what’s displayed, and to be able to control things like scrolling speed, but that’s being pretty unrealistic for a product in this price range. The CZ401 is intuitive, the menus were easy to navigate, and I could even drill down to fairly obscure adjustments like the filter Q of the equalizer without needing a manual. While I’m on the subject of the EQ, I should point out that while Clarion doesn’t make too big a deal of the feature, this is a powerful tuning tool. There are three bands, Bass Mid, and Treble, and within each band you can select one of three available frequencies. Boost and cut is adjustable in 2dB steps, with an adjustment range spanning 28dB. On top of that, the Q of the boost is adjustable on the Bass and Treble bands as well. Have a look at the accompanying graphs to see what I’m talking about.

Listening

I keep repeating this, but for a unit at this price range, I didn’t expect the sonic performance to be as good as it was. Music on regular CDs sounded really open and natural with good detail, no sense of compression and without any audible noise. In fact, I was fairly amazed at how noise-free the unit was, with no sound whatsoever between tracks or when playing a “digital black” track, even with the volume wide open. While doing my listening, I changed CDs fairly frequently, and I did notice that the CZ401 isn’t the fastest unit I’ve used when it comes to how long it takes to get audio output from the time you load a disc. Most discs I tried would begin to play within about 15 seconds, which is about 5 seconds longer than average. It was mildly perturbing, but certainly not something that was a real problem. The controls and buttons operated smoothly, with good tactile feedback and without any digital “zipper noise” that has plagued other lower priced products in the past. The tuner also worked very well, with strong performance on both AM and FM stations. The HD tuner also performed brilliantly.

On the Bench

Regardless of the type of product I’m reviewing, I always do my listening first, and then bring the unit to the bench to see if the measured performance specs correlate with what I heard. I’m happy to say that in the case of the Clarion CZ401 the unit sounded great, and the measured specs came out equally as impressive. You’ll recall I mentioned how quiet the noise floor was, and for good reason – the signal to noise performance of the preamp section was about as good as I’ve measured in recent memory, at an exceptionally low -92.8dBA. I’ve measured home audio CD players that weren’t that good!

Frequency response is quite flat as well, and all of the EQ and crossover filters worked precisely as advertised. The output impedance was a touch on the high side at about 236 ohms, but considering the preamp output voltage measured a full volt higher than advertised, I’ll take it.

Test Report: Clarion CZ401

Conclusion

The Clarion CZ401 represents one of the highest performance units I have ever tested under the 250 dollar (US) price point. It will serve perfectly as a replacement for a factory radio, or as the cornerstone of a very high end audiophile system. This kind of performance and functionality isn’t generally found in this price range, so kudos to the Clarion team for developing an affordable, great sounding, uncommonly good product. If you’re considering a replacement for your existing single DIN radio, this Clarion should be at the top of your shopping list.


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MEASURED SPECIFICATIONS

AMPLIFIER

CEA-2006A Power per channel (all channels driven, @ 4 ohms)

18.5 watts/ch X 4

A Wtd S/N Ratio (ref to 2V/1W @ 4 ohms) Amplified output

-82.6dBA

THD+N @ 2V/1W @ 4 ohms 1kHz

0.08%

Frequency Response (-1.0dB)

20Hz – 20kHz

PREAMP SECTION

Max Usable Output Voltage

5.0Vrms

A Wtd S/N Ratio ref to full output voltage

-92.8dBA

Output Impedance

236 ohms

Frequency Response (-1.0dB)

20Hz – 20kHz

Test Report: Clarion CZ401 Test Report: Clarion CZ401
Test Report: Clarion CZ401 Test Report: Clarion CZ401