New NMEA 2000 stereos: Rockford Fosgate PMX-5, JL Audio MM100s & Navico SonicHub2

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Mar 9, 2016

Fusion_MFD_integration_collage_cPanbo.jpgBeing able to use your helm's bright waterproof color screen to run your stereo system has to be one of the most appreciated benefits of multifunction display evolution and the NMEA 2000 network standard. Typically the stereo head unit is installed in the boat's living area while one or more MFDs serve as remote controls in the cockpit, on the flybridge, etc. The interface can be a simple mute/volume/next menu bar leaving ample screen room for navigation or a screen window with more controls and info. Usually, you can also go full screen to easily browse a phone or iPod full of music, or access the stereo's deeper settings better than you can on the head unit. And it costs next to nothing!...

FusionLink_graphic_aPanbo.jpgThis wonderful feature is now available on every major brand MFD, usually via NMEA 2000 but sometimes via Ethernet. However, as best I can tell, neither the NMEA nor any marine electronics manufacturer ever anticipated this integration. Instead, it was relatively unknown Fusion Entertainment that first decided to reinvent marine audio and then introduced Fusion-Link in 2011 (Panbo was there). Fusion did not just trailblaze the happy marriage of entertainment electronics with marine electronics (and with the mobile electronics we now commonly use to bring entertainment to the boat), they owned the concept almost completely. If you want stereo control on your MFD system, you get Fusion. But that situation seems about to change rapidly, and while it may be great in terms of healthy competition and consumer choice, we should be careful with our expectations.

NMEA_2000_Entertainment_PGNs_cPanbo.jpgAdmittedly, developing stereo head units that integrate with MFDs should be much easier since NMEA worked up a set of standard N2K Entertainment PGNs (message groups) for that purpose, as you can see in the NMEA PGN list (PDF) partially collaged above. (Yes, N2K now has standard methods to handle Bluetooth connections, and don't you wonder if that might be useful beyond entertainment?) But I wonder if NMEA's committee-based, standards-making process was able on the first try to provide the underpinnings for the deep integration that Fusion created over time in team-to-team development environments with each of the manufacturers that eventually adopted Fusion-Link? (And, by the way, how about a high five to the NMEA for creating a standard in which such innovation could happen via proprietary PGNs.)

Raymarine_Rockford_Fosgate_PMX5_integration_aPanbo.jpgInterestingly, one of the first not-Fusion integrated stereos was announced as a partnership between Raymarine and Rockford Fosgate, and the NMEA 2000 aspect seems a bit muted. In fact, the release says that the "PMX-5 will integrate via CAN bus to the Raymarine MFD where a custom designed user interface will be displayed," and you won't find a mention of N2K in the Rockford Fosgate PMX-5 manual either.

Rockford_Fosgate_PMX-5_integrate_Raymarine_aPanbo.jpgSimilarly, the Boston audio guy in this hilarious PMX-5 "review" video blows right past the CANbus integration, though you will see that this $400 stereo has a lot going for it, including support of both iOS and Android music streaming (which took Fusion a while). The killer feature, though -- and one that Fusion has only talked about so far -- is support for simultaneous dual sources. That means that you could be listening to, say, your favorite FM station on the flybridge speaker zone while the kids are down below enjoying their own source on their own zone.

Raymarine_Rockford_Fosgate_PMX5_integration_closeup_aPanbo.jpgOn closer inspection the PMX-5 integration looks darn sweet, at least in product photos, and it will purportedly arrive soon to many Raymarine displays with a new Lighthouse II update, though the feature rich R16 version being teased now (go Ray!) doesn't include it. However, it would be no surprise if it's only partially based on the new NMEA standard entertainment messages, with the other part using custom PGNs worked out between Ray and Rockford developers. That shouldn't matter a bit to owners of Raymarine MFDs but it may explain why Rockford Fosgate is not currently marketing the PMX-5 as compatible with other MFD brands.

But this may well be a temporary situation. NMEA Director Mark Reedenauer told me that Rockford Fosgate, as well as JL Audio (below) and Clarion, all had representatives volunteering on the entertainment standards committee and also that all are planning on N2K certified products. The day may come when you can shop for an integrated marine entertainment system pretty much regardless of what MFD system you have now or may have in the future (Fusion style). And, by the way, check out the coming-soon Rockford Fosgate PMX-8DH system with its optional PMX-CAN N2K gateway.

JL_Audio_MM100s_w_N2K_aPanbo.jpgNow say hello to the just-announced JL Audio MediaMaster MM100s, which JL describes as a purpose-built, marine grade audio source unit and a "very important product" for the company. This premium $550 head unit looks gorgeous to me, and I've learned over the years that JL marine speakers and amplifiers have a sterling reputation in some demanding parts of the boating world. But JL has little experience at stereo head units and having "A NMEA 2K-compliant CAN bus...on board to aid in connection to compatible marine electronics" sounds vague to me. Which MFDs support the standard audio messages and what are the results? My initial integration expectations would be low, but that might change quickly. Actually, most of the major MFD brands have a motivation to support these new stereos that goes well beyond simply trying to please their customers.

The elephant in this room is that Garmin acquired Fusion in 2014 (shortly after I wrote about how well Garmin uses FusionLink) and even though Fusion has remained independent in every way I can see, Garmin's direct marine competitors may have lost some enthusiasm about seeing Fusion gear installed as nicely integrated elements in their larger systems. Behold, for instance, the Lowrance, Simrad, and B&G SonicHub2 black box audio system. It looks a lot like the original SonicHub I enjoyed testing in 2010, but with nice improvements like an extra USB port, built-in Bluetooth streaming and Pandora support. Also, note the conspicuous support for the new entertainment PGNs, though again a little special sauce wouldn't be surprising (could there really be a Pandora like/dislike command now in N2K?). According to industry gossip, though, what's really different about SonicHub2 is that Fusion had nothing to do with its development and isn't manufacturing them, unlike the original.

So how is Fusion reacting to new competition and perhaps even some resistance from long time partners? Well, I've seen them at several of the winter shows, and in Miami they hosted a sensational demo ride. Fusion is NOT sitting on its butt simply enjoying its success, and that's also good news for us marine stereo consumers. More to come...

Navico_SonicHub2_aPanbo.jpg

Comments

I have always wondered why the only player in the N2K entertainment realm has been Fusion. I've had three of their systems on various boats (one you can see in a front panel here: http://www.sailbits.com/blog/2012/03/front-panel-is-in-html/ ) and love the integration with MFD's. I've come to rely on that control from the cockpit, and would never go back, having used it with Simrad, B&G, Garmin, and now Raymarine. I currently have the MS650-AV unit paired with a Raymarine eS78, and while it works, the on screen controls in the Raymarine pale in comparison to both Garmin and Navico.

Fusion was slow to get all of the various streaming and Bluetooth support integrated as mentioned above, and even now it's not as full featured as some of the bigger vendors out there in stereo equipment. My car has far more control and visibility into playlists, album details, and even dedicated Pandora and other streaming modes.

I always love seeing more competition, and this is one of those areas where I think we need more choices + competition to drive even more interesting integrations and growth. I absolutely love my Fusion stereo now, and am glad those guys from down under blazed the trail, but I'm looking forward to even more innovation from them and others with these changes!

Posted by: Steve Mitchell at March 10, 2016 10:42 AM | Reply

We're putting a Sonichub2 in; it would be nice if the MFD's had the added webcam/microphone functionality to allow use as intercoms and to enable "hands free" bluetooth telephony to cell/satphone as most automobiles can do.

Posted by: Sheldon Haynie at March 10, 2016 12:51 PM | Reply

Have been looking into this since thinking of getting a new sailboat.

It will have B&G at the helm so getting a SonicHub2 sounds great. The questions seems to be that B&G gang does not have a media remote for use inside the boat, or do they ? I guess one could control it from a Triton display but that is expensive to get just for that purpose.

The next question if one gets a Fusion wired remote would it work with the SonicHub2.

What other ways are there, controlling the SonicHub2 with a phone or tablet ?

Otherwise just have to go with a mediaserver that has a control interface as well, like the JL audio above.

Posted by: Fredrik Johansson at March 11, 2016 2:29 AM | Reply

I am installing a SonicHub2 from B&G, and it came with a Bluetooth antenna, so presumably there's ability to connect to it via some application, and/or have it access your Itunes that way.

the Docking station for your Ios/Android is available to charge/protect the phone/ipod, but I can't see why I would want to use it as it does not to my knowledge support remove phone usage.

S

Posted by: Sheldon Haynie at March 11, 2016 9:36 AM | Reply

Glad to see numerous good points brought up that I sort of glossed over in the entry ;-)

As best I can tell, the SonicHub2 may be problem on some boats because it lacks much choice of remote control. Using an MFD is usually great when you're underway, but you may not want to run it or walk to it when, say, on the hook.

And I strongly doubt that a Fusion wired remote (or their Bluetooth remote app) will work with the SonicHub2. The Fusion gear was developed before standard N2K entertainment PGNs and even if Fusion is starting to use them now (I don't know), presumptions about compatibility may lead to disappointment!

Plus, no matter if the MFD manufacturer is working with standard or proprietary (Fusion) PGNs, the end result will vary from MFD brand to MFD brand (and even models sometimes), as Steve experienced.

Note that the new Rockford and JL control heads discussed above both seem to support a variety of wired remotes as well as control via N2K (which remains vague except for what Raymarine is doing).

Meanwhile, Fusion already offers the MS-BB300R black box stereo...

http://www.fusionentertainment.com/marine/products/stereo-units/ms-bb300r

...that comes with an NRX200i wired (via N2K) remote and FusionLink. And the just launched BB100 has a small screenless wired remote which is also its Bluetooth antenna, and the box can be controlled with Fusions app (as well as stream from your mobile, two different things):

http://www.fusionentertainment.com/marine/pressandmedia/item/fusion-releases-the-ms-bb100-black-box-audio-system

I believe that FusionLink N2K integration is still fully supported by B&G, Simrad, Raymarine, etc. and hope that doesn't change.

Posted by: Ben at March 11, 2016 9:54 AM | Reply

What I would like to see from just one stereo head manufacturer is bluetooth audio out. In my sailboat the stereo head and speakers are in one end of the boat and the cockpit is at the other. In order to hear the stereo and control the volume separately in the cockpit I would need to hard wire a separate pair of speakers to a separate audio zone. That is a real pain in the neck. I have recently devised a workaround where I plugged a small bluetooth out device into the audio out of the head unit and paired it with a pair of waterproof bluetooth speakers that I hang in the cockpit. This works fine until the bluetooth unit needs to be recharged. Wouldn't it be nice if just one stereo head unit manufacturer had this incorporated into their device. I can't be the only one in this situation.

Posted by: steve at March 11, 2016 12:56 PM | Reply

If you have bluetooth audio out, then what purpose does the stereo head serve?

It has amplifiers and multiple hardwire speaker capability, and conceptually integrates/switches Bluetooth streaming, Sirius/XM, AM/FM and USB connected programs. As all of those can be broadcast on bluetooth by your smartphone, why have them in the Stereo system?

Posted by: Sheldon Haynie at March 11, 2016 12:59 PM | Reply

I guess the operative word is conceptually. It is not possible to run hardwired audio out and bluetooth speakers at the same time without a workaround.

Posted by: steve in reply to Sheldon Haynie at March 11, 2016 1:04 PM | Reply

I agree with you, Steve. It would be nice to make what you're doing easier and maybe Bluetooth out could be easily treated as a new and separate zone since it would need little power. That way the existing amp/speaker options of a head unit would remain the same.

It won't help with consumer confusion, though. The Bluetooth logo on a stereo could mean:

* Accepts BT streaming (hopefully both iOS and Android flavors)
* Can be controlled by app over BT
* Can stream to BT speakers
* some or all of the above

Sheldon, I can't count how many ways I've used various Fusion marine stereos that wouldn't be possible with my phone or I just don't want to do with my phone. If you got under the shrink wrap right now, you'd find that the Fusion had an old iPod full of music in it, and a similarly loaded USB stick. You'd also see how its antenna input goes via a Vesper Marine splitter to a good, high VHF antenna (and I yearn for a dedicated FM stick), and there's also an aux input set up so that I can easily attach it to the boat's computer/TV when I want that system's sound to be big and clear. Frankly I rarely take my phone to the fly bridge (BT connected hearing aids help), but when I do it's often so I can control podcast streaming to the Fusion. (I can also control the Fusion via an app, that's via WiFi and the Ethernet connection Fusion seems to be moving away from.)

Posted by: Ben at March 11, 2016 1:45 PM | Reply

I can agree with Bluetooth speakers out as an additional zone;

I think I can probably find an RCA input to Bluetooth converter for that if I looked. (I looked: http://www.amazon.com/HomeSpot-Wireless-Bluetooth-Transmitter-supported/dp/B00QV77XU6/ref=sr_1_19?s=mp3&ie=UTF8&qid=1457723717&sr=1-19)

How many separate bluetooth zones? That pairing would be fun, and might reduce stray magnetic fields. (the Grateful Dead Deviation problem...)

I do have mine already unboxed, screwed down and wired along side the NAIS, Navico Antenna Splitter & H5000, but with the masts down have not fired anything up yet. Given my 50' main mast bridge clearance on the VHF whip, I'm good with taking the FM off at the splitter rather than a deck level stick, though for the mastless I can see your point.

Yup there's a place for Sirius/XM and a place for USB as well, with the BT100 going into the Aux as I recall.

I keep my phone in a zippered pocket, or a charging cradle while within range unless racing, and would like to have the Fusion/Stereo heads support it over the system with a simple remote phone protocol using the speakers, as I have in my cars.

Posted by: Sheldon Haynie at March 11, 2016 2:23 PM | Reply

There are several bluetooth trnasmitters on the market, the only drawback is that they cannot draw power from the head unit and must be recharged every now and then. Then, being when you are in the middle of an outing!

Posted by: steve in reply to Sheldon Haynie at March 11, 2016 2:33 PM | Reply

This one has a 5VDC input based on photo... maybe USB +/or a plug type.

Posted by: Sheldon Haynie at March 11, 2016 2:41 PM | Reply

I had the original SonicHub with a wired remote, and while it gave me enough control for basic things, it was sure hard to flip inputs or change other settings compared to my full head unit on the current boat.

It was nice to have the MFD control of the SonicHub because of the size of the screen, and access in different places around the boat, but as Ben mentioned, having to use a MFD all of the time was annoying. The electrical draw too was a concern on the sailboat - might not be for everyone though.

The MS-AV650 that I have now has so many inputs/outputs that zones aren't an issue, and I would think you could grab one of those and use a BT transmitter to send to a remote location if needed.

I would caution on BT usage on the boat - I have found several areas where even though I am well within the spec of the distance for BT while moving around with my iPhone, it gets choppy or outright disconnects from the head unit. In some cases it's as close as 10 feet. I'd definitely test a few times before relying on an install of BT with all of the extra EMI on a boat.

Posted by: Steve Mitchell at March 11, 2016 3:01 PM | Reply

Steve,
I have a 51ft sailboat with the head unit in the salon just aft of the forward stateroom and I have no trouble getting a bluetooth signal to a speaker in the cockpit. As a matter of fact I found a bluetooth speaker that has solar panels on one side so I hang it from a bar in front of my dodger, or from the boom when I am not sailing and it works like a charm. Unfortunately there is no way to use one of those zones for the bluetooth out. I have had numerous conversations with Fusion and finally resorted to the work around stated above. Maybe someone from Fusion might read this thread and realize it would be a great add on/solution for the boating community.

Posted by: steve in reply to Steve Mitchell at March 11, 2016 3:19 PM | Reply

Thank you for this article.

Posted by: Anonymous at March 13, 2016 10:06 AM | Reply

My issue with boats and audio systems... is too many boaters have no respect for others and play their music too loud.

We have a real problem with people destroying their (and others) hearing with over modulated sound and most of it is from music systems including earphones and ear buds.

Please keep it down!

Posted by: SanderO at March 14, 2016 11:28 AM | Reply

Also remember WiFi integration on the Navico product

Posted by: Anonymous at March 21, 2016 4:57 AM | Reply

Well, OK, but what audio and/or SonicHub2 WiFi integration is that????

Oh, maybe Anon means running a SonicHub2 using a GoFree WiFi app on a phone or tablet? I think that will work, but you'd still need to have an MFD powered up, not even on Standby, I think.

Posted by: Ben in reply to Anonymous at March 21, 2016 9:02 AM | Reply

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