Friday, November 6, 2009

Hands free!

The MR2 we bought back in February has been a blast, but it had a few audio skeletons in its closet:

  • The driver side speaker stopped working completely

  • The CD player never worked since we bought it

Fed-up with one channel of audio for long trips, we finally broke-down and forked-out the dough for a new head unit. I like knobs and analog-esque controls, which basically means that I hate every aftermarket radio I find. So I started to look at other features, and quickly got caught-up in the Bluetooth capabilities offered on some models. Long story short, I went in with my only requirement being aux-in, and put my money down for a radio that had aux-in, USB, iPod compatibility, and Bluetooth.

I paired-up Megan's iPhone and immediately fell in love with the ability to have a conversation with someone, hands-free, from the car. Even more so, I got a kick out of every one in the car participating in the conversation. Sure, it's only a 2-seater convertible, so every one adds up to...well, two of us. But just think how fun it would be in the Element!


This Bluetooth revelation hit me so hard, I dumped my TracFone for a new Bluetooth-enabled TracFone (they're floating a great deal at the time of this posting, btw). I mean come on, $29.99 for a new phone with BT, no strings attached? I'm a sucker, what can I say...

So months later, I began researching how to add hands-free cell phone operation to stock radios. I fell for Parrot's products hook, line, and sinker. I like stock radios (they have knobs), and Parrot's lower-end CK3000 would let me keep the Element's stock radio with benefits (<-- Bluetooth). Where do I sign?!

Crutchfield. That's where! Well, a day or two after purchasing the CK3000 and a Honda ISO harness, UPS showed up at my door with the goods. Damn that was fast. I got around to installing it a week+ later (I had some fork repair still in the queue). First of all, the CK3000 (and probably all of the Parrot products) is a rat's nest. I don't necessarily mean that negatively. I just mean, holy sh*t, there are yards and yards of lots of wires and funny little boxes with connectors and plugs and ... stuff. I'm not easily-intimidated when it comes to DIY, but I must say that the mess that fell out of the Parrot box intimidated me a little. Just a little...

So I had the mess of wires in the Parrot box, and the Honda ISO harness. Speaking of which, why does one need the ISO harness? Well, apparently, European cars have these ISO harnesses on all car radios. Parrot's products cater to those ISO connections, and aren't compatible out-of-the-box with US vehicles. You need one of these ISO cables to convert your stock wiring to ISO connectors. Then, you will be able to easily hook-up the Parrot kit. Yikes, that's confusing. Especially since hands-free cell-phoning is becoming law in some states. Whateva...

So I connected all these connectors at the dining room table: plugged all the loose connectors from the Parrot kit into the loose connectors on the ISO harness. Then, I took the disaster of wires, draped over my shoulders (a copper scarf), to the car outside. I threw the mess in the passenger foot area and removed the radio. Then, I laughed. Ha ha ha ha! Here's the stock harness that plugs into the back of the radio (imagine it's here, anyway), and over here is the radio. They plug into each other. Simple. But over there is about 6 feet of Parrot/ISO mess that I need to put between the stock harness and the radio.

Ha ha ha ha ha...

That's a lot of cable to manage and stuff into the small cavity behind the radio. *sigh*. Game on!


Well, I did it. I found a place for the mic (on the rear view mirror), and snuck the long wire to the back of the radio. I found a place for the little control unit, and snuck that wire to the back of the radio. I then plugged the parrot mess into the radio, and the stock harness into the mess of wires. Then I cut up my hands scraping into all the sharp edges in the dash cavity trying to find hidden volumes where I could stuff some of the parrot mess. And voila. I did it! I screwed the radio back in, stuck the key in the ignition, and got ready to have fun!

That's where the experience turned into disappointment. Somehow, this parrot device made everything insanely loud. The radio, CD player, and the Parrot speaking menu system - everything was *extremely* loud. Three (3) graduated clicks of the volume knob and it was too loud to listen to. That's just not usable. I overlooked that for a few minutes while I paired my TracFone and did a test call. Score, it worked! But oh-my-flippin-goodness it's loud.

Some internet research, a call to Quick Connect, and a call to Parrot's tech support, led me to the following conclusion: the 2007 Element LX's audio system is an "amplified system" - meaning...I don't know what. But basically, there is an amplifier somewhere in the Element's audio system that the Parrot device does not account for. This is the reason for the ear-piercing volume post-installation. what do I do, remove and return it? Can I even do that? I hate being a quitter, and I hate returning things. There must be something I can do. Quick Connect offers an ISO harness for "amplified systems", but you have to be kidding me - $150??? That's more than my whole Crutchfield order! Thanks, and seriously, thanks...but no thanks.


So a heartfelt Thank you! goes out to DesignoSLK, who posted this on the Parrot user forums. Basically, it appears this user figured out a way to attenuate the signal coming out of the Parrot mute box which in turn lowers the volume of audio produced after installing the Parrot device. I copied his information to a 'T', and reinstalled the Parrot mess. What I have now is still much louder than stock, but the resolution of volume control is *much* more reasonable than the unmodified Parrot device. Did I say thank you, DesignoSLK? Well, thank you!


So I think I appreciate Parrot's CK3000, but the mystery of compatibility and mess of wires is less than cool. Worse still was Parrot's official recommendation to remedy my problem. Install a $150 ISO harness made by Quick Connect or use an external speaker solely for the Parrot CK3000. <--unacceptable. I bought this device to use my existing audio infrastructure for phone conversations. And thanks to DesignoSLK, I can!


However, if I ever rip that mute box open again (I'm pretty lazy, so this is unlikely), I'll *most def* put higher-value resistors in place. The 1 kOhm resistors helped, but not enough to be considered permanent. It needs to be a little quieter. Maybe a stereo pot is the way to go...

So put that cell phone down and keep your damn hands on the wheel. It's so easy to go hands-free, isn't it? Is it? I don't know...

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