And now a nod of the editorial Fedora to the avionics industry. As the new century comes off the starting blocks, the industry continues to produce navigation and communication gear of astonishing capability at prices that, if not cheap, are at least affordable.
While were saluting, well also note the industry hasnt done as well in providing cockpit entertainment options. Were not sure why this is so but surmise that looking out the window is all the entertainment some owners seem to require, thus the market is hardly vast. For those of us who drone across multiple states and half-continents on our appointed rounds or have to keep kids occupied in the backseat, PS Engineering appears to be on the case.
PS, a scrappy upstart in a forest of giants, is best known for its high quality audio panel and intercom systems. These have been well regarded enough that at least two major players-UPSAT and Bendix/King-have private-labeled PS audio panels rather than bothering to make their own.
With audio as its firm foundation, it was logical for PS to expand into cockpit entertainment systems and that it has done with two new products, the PXE7300 combined disc player and AM/FM radio and the PAV80, which adds DVD capability to the stereo and radio.
Cockpit entertainment systems are nothing new for the bizjet set. Theyve been enjoying inflight movies and music for years, including live television and radio broadcasts. This capability has been elusive for light aircraft owners, especially the TV part. Weve seen our share of car radios adapted for aircraft use and music input jacks for portable CD players but not much in the way of mainstream, approved installations.
Approved is the operative word here because the FAA has never been happy with automotive radios adapted for aviation use and given the difficulty of gaining approvals for even certified equipment, few shops will agree to install them. Some have even been skittish about TSOed audio entertainment systems, of which there are a couple, including Audio Innovations AI-CD and PS Engineerings PCD7100, both CD players.
In our view, PSs new products advance the state of the art, both in capability and ease of installation.
Better yet, they are quite affordable, although we wouldnt stretch that and say cheap. The PXE7300-CD and radio only-retails for a mere $1395 while the PAV80 sells for $2995, with a small LCD screen suitable for portable mount on the back sides of the front seats. Bigger screens are available but…it gets complicated, as well discuss in a moment.
Starting with the PXE7000, think of it as the equivalent of a standard car audio system approved for aircraft installation. Interestingly, it has far fewer knobs than the typical car radio; no station pre-sets, no dedicated scan/seek buttons, bass/treble or the rest of the stereo folderol found in the typical car. Still, it has most of those functions buried in the operating logic.
The overall size of the device is standard rack width-6.25 inches-and 2 inches high, making it essentially the same size as a Bendix/King KX155 navcomm but nearly 3 inches shallower in length. Therein lies a potential problem-the height not the length. If you can easily fit a KX155 into your panel, the PXE7300 will go there, too. If not, good luck. Its not that the unit is large, its just that many panels dont have much surplus real estate.
PS kindly offered us a test unit for our Mooney but after conferring with contributor Larry Anglisano about finding room, the consensus was: fuggedabout it. On the other hand, the system looks lost in the spacious panel of the Archer we test flew to sample the sound quality.
The PXE7300 is best thought of as a box that ties a bunch of the other guys technology together, including a nifty little AM/FM receiver about the size of business card and a CD player provided by a well-known maker of consumer electronics. The CD will handle standard discs and the MP3 format recorded on CD.
Installation issues aside, the unit is easy to operate but like all modern avionics, it has a certain Zen to it. A data knob, for instance, wears many hats, depending on which mode is selected. It can tune the radio, switch tracks on a CD or, by pushing it in, cycle through song names, album names and so forth stored on the disc.
We said the radio had no pre-set knobs but it does have pre-set functions, accommodating up to nine AM and FM stations. This function is accessible by pressing the data knob and rotating it through the stations or using the scan up/down knobs. Whether this is a useful function is debatable since even at slow cruise speed, an aircraft runs out of an FM stations range in 30 to 40 minutes; less at faster cruise speeds.
Having never had an FM radio in the aircraft-at least one that worked-we cant say how the thing might be used, whether left on a few favorite stations or irritating the passengers with incessant dial surfing.
We can say this: with a Bose 10X headset, the music quality was terrific, both in FM stereo and through the CD player. It should go without saying, but might not, that youll need good noise canceling headsets with stereo capability to get the most out of this system. It should also pipe through an audio system capable of muting the music when an incoming ATC call arrives or when passengers speak on the intercom. (Obviously, the PS audio panels do this, as do some other intercoms and audio panels.)
On a brief flight in an Archer owned by PS principal Mark Scheuer, we had little trouble making the box do what we wanted without prompting. That said, we wouldnt mind a bit if it were more car like, which is to say dedicated keys for some of the functions rather than having them hidden behind layers of mode keys and push-to-guess knobs.
The typical car radio can be operated by anyone by merely looking at it; theres sufficient similarity between brands. A passenger with no avionics experience will be momentarily baffled by the PXE7300.
Whats most impressive is that for the same size box, the PAV80 does all the radio/stereo functions and also plays DVD discs. Considering it does all this for under three grand, this strikes us as quite an achievement, technically. Were less certain how well the unit will actually work in the airplane with a portable screen, however.
When we visited PSs factory in mid-June, they were finishing up some certification details and we were not able to fly it. However, we did demo the unit inside a room with normal lighting and found that the screen detail is crisp and the color dense for such a small screen. (It measures 5.5 inches diagonally and is about an inch thick.)
To avoid hopeless certification entanglements, the screen is handled as a portable installation, with a cable running from the panel unit to the screen. There are various ways to handle the portable installation but the leading method seems to be a fabric pouch provided by PS as an extra-cost accessory that hangs off the seatback. (No price on that was available at press time. )In the confines of a four-place aircraft, this pouch method might be the only mounting solution, although we can imagine that the RAM accessory line (www.ram-mount.com) might yield some ideas.
However, in a larger airplane-say a cabin-class single or twin-we would be inclined toward a semi-permanent installation of some sort thats easily removable so as not to catch the FAAs eye. (If it sounds like were advocating cheating, we are. The certification straight jacket has become onerous and the FAA has all but stopped doing unique field approvals.)
Like all LCDs, the screen has a somewhat limited viewing angle. From the side, the image washes out and disappears. Were not sure how this would work in the real world of a rear cabin or if two passengers could view one screen on a single seatback.
The simple solution is to merely buy another screen which, at $395, strikes us as a cost-effective option. Multiple screens are an option-up to four-but will require a $795, remotely mounted distribution amplifier. The PAV80 outputs in the NTSC and S-Video formats, which are standard and it will drive a screen of any size. Again, for any cabin-class airplane with an available bulkhead, we think a larger screen is a must. Also, were sure the player itself could also be mounted in the cabin, to give passengers access to it without disturbing the crew.
But what about those circumstances where it has to be panel mounted? Does the crew then become a voice-controlled channel changer for the rear seat pax who need entertainment? PS has a solution for that, too. The PAV80 comes standard with an electronic remote control that handles all of the DVD and player functions, including channel changing, volume, radio tuning and CD/DVD channeling.
The remote is quite compact; less than half the size and thickness of a typical home TV remote. This makes us wonder how often it will be dropped and lost under a seat. Having an extra wouldnt be a bad idea.
The PAV80 can also do split function, with the radio for the front passengers and TV for the backseaters. Or vice versa. The system also has an auxiliary input for games but if you plan to rig up a PlayStation or Xbox, good luck. The display quality is up to the task but youll have to devise an acceptable way to get line power to the game box. Again, that might have to slip under the FAA radar.
Is it practical to put a DVD in a small cockpit? Or are we gilding the lily here? In our view, it depends on how badly you want to entertain the backseat passengers and what youre willing to put up with in terms of a less-than-ideal portable screen set-up.
Until weve seen some field experience, were not able to judge the hassle factor on the screen installation. Our guess is that the wires and mounting can be made to work unobtrusively but it may take some effort.
As for the boxes themselves-the PXE7300 and PAV80-both provide high-quality output at affordable prices, assuming you can find the panel space. With automuting available, the music fades to the background when things get busy so the irritation factor is non-existent. Passengers will need a short briefing on how to work the devices but this can be done easily on the fly; this is a minor wart.
Warranty on these units is 12 months, no-questions-asked return/replacement if the unit is installed by a PS Engineering-approved shop. The PAV80 is expected to be available later this year while the PXE7300 is already shipping.
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