Let the Music Play
Music and boating just go together. Our electronics editor just upgraded his boat’s sound system—is the time right for you too?
Boating and good music go together like, well, boating and good music. The popularity of streaming means how we get our music has changed a lot since even five years ago. So, now is a good time to treat yourself and your boat to an upgrade. If you’re replacing a stereo that’s even a few years old, you’ll notice a big difference. And, if you’re starting with a basic factory installed system, the improvement will be huge.
Fusion Entertainment is one example. The innovative, New Zealand-based company has been busy with new products including the all-new Apollo stereos, signature speakers, new remotes and even new RCA interconnects. I’ve just finished a complete install of Fusion’s current audio gear aboard Have Another Day. The combination of head units, amplifiers, speakers and digital sound processing (DSP) tuning provide for great sound quality and easy configuration.
The stereo on Have Another Day is installed in our cockpit and flybridge. Previously, I had a Fusion UD-650 mounted on the flybridge with an NRX remote control in the cockpit. This time around I installed separate Apollo MS-RA-770 head units in the cockpit and on the flybridge and will take advantage of Fusion’s PartyBus to listen to the same music in both areas. In addition to the RA-770 head unit, the cockpit has two 8.8-inch SG-FL88SPW Signature Series speakers, two 7.7-inch SG-CL77SPW Signature Series speakers, a 10-inch SG-SL101SPW subwoofer and a six-channel SG-DA61500 Signature amplifier.
My flybridge is a relatively large area, and underway with the enclosure wide open it can be a tough spot to fill with good sound. So, with Fusion’s help I selected two 6.5-inch speakers for the helm area, two 7.7-inch speakers for the middle portion and two 8.8-inch ones for the aft-most portion of the flybridge. There’s a subwoofer paired with the middle set of speakers and each pair is a separately controlled zone on the 770.
The cockpit of my Carver 570 is smaller than the flybridge, so I have set up all four speakers and the subwoofer to be controlled as a single zone. I also have four of the MS-ARX70 ANT wireless remotes spread around the boat for quick adjustments to the stereos.
Installing stereos frequently means enlarging holes for different sized speakers. And that means cutting fiberglass, which isn’t my—or any sane boater’s—favorite part of an install. I was fortunate to be able to reuse existing speaker cut-outs for six of the 10 speakers and both subwoofers. One set of speakers was deeper than the ones I was replacing, so I ended up having to make a spacer ring out of Starboard (and while it’s a mess to cut, a palm router and a piece of bar stock makes for easy, and even pretty round, circles) to avoid hitting the side of the hull with the back of the speaker.
The MS-RA770 is slightly smaller than the UD-650 I replaced and the holes don’t line up. Fortunately, Fusion makes a spacer kit that makes use of the existing cutout.
The MS-RA770 has both 2.4 ghz WiFi and Ethernet connectivity options. When using WiFi the radio can act as an access point and DHCP server or connect to an existing network. I initially tried connecting the MS-RA770s to my existing boat network but on my RF-congested boat I couldn’t maintain an acceptable connection using 2.4 ghz WiFi, so I connected both radios via Ethernet to the boat’s network. I wish Fusion had included 5 ghz WiFi in the radios as I’ve not had these connectivity problems with 5 ghz WiFi on Have Another Day.
With all the speakers installed and everything wired up, the moment of truth had arrived. I turned the system on and began playing music. I was instantly quite happy with how everything sounded, though I did notice a little too much bass here or some tinny sound there. But, I learned from the Apollo launch event that I needed to do some digital sound processing magic. So, with my phone linked to each head unit I fired up the Fusion-Link app and navigated to the DSP settings.
The DSP settings on the Apollo head units collect information about the environment in which the stereo is installed (cabin, covered, helm, open air, etc.), whether the speakers and amp are connected, the presence of a subwoofer and several additional configuration possibilities. Once that information is provided, the app shows you the settings you should be using (if you’re using a Fusion amp), and then gives you a button to send your DSP settings.
There’s a noticeable difference in sound quality once DSP settings have been configured and sent to the stereo. My occasional sound issues were all corrected and replaced with well-balanced, rich sound. Prior to discovering boating as a way to spend all my money, I used to consider myself something of an audiophile. In those days I would have turned my nose up at anything using DSP to tune sound. But, the reality is boats are pretty lousy listening environments with odd angles, hard surfaces, open spaces and lots of noise; so, DSP can be very helpful in improving the sound quality in difficult spaces.
Bluetooth has worked flawlessly for streaming on both iOS and Android devices but it has a range of about 15 to 30 feet from the stereo. I frequently find the audio stuttering if I leave my phone in my pocket and walk around the boat. Airplay on an iOS device occurs over WiFi. This means that the range of the connection between the phone and stereo is limited only by the range of the WiFi network and that’s usually a good bit farther than the 15 to 30 feet afforded by Bluetooth. I’ve found WiFi streaming on Android devices to be more difficult, partly because it requires an additional app. But, I have noticed on both iOS and Android that the audio quality is a little better over WiFi.
PartyBus multi-zone audio is one of the most exciting features of Apollo. With PartyBus you can listen to the same audio on multiple Fusion head units connected to the same network. I was able to connect my phone to the flybridge stereo, start streaming via Bluetooth and then link my cockpit stereo via PartyBus and listen to the same music, perfectly synchronized, in both spaces. I was then able to go one step further and join an SRX400 installed in my dinghy to the boat’s wireless network. Now, with the SRX400 on the same network, I can listen to the same music in the dinghy as long as it is within WiFi range. This use might not be the most practical, but I can imagine something similar at an anchorage or sandbar with lots of boats joining via WiFi and enjoying shared music.
With four ARX-70 remote controls spread around the boat, quick changes to music or volume are right at your fingertips. In addition, the Fusion head units can be controlled from NMEA-2000 linked MS-NRX300 wired remote, the Fusion-Link app and from nearly all MFDs manufactured in the last five or more years.
Fusion’s DSP functionality and the benefit of DSP profiles for all of Fusion’s speakers and amplifiers might be enough reason to purchase the stereo. During my testing, I witnessed the benefits of choosing a single brand of equipment from the head unit to the amplifiers to the speakers. The amplifiers are heavily constructed with generous heat sinks, easy-to-connect speaker and power terminals and a lovely mirror-polished stainless cover. The speakers sound great and appear very well made, with sizable magnets, durable composite cone material and LED lighting. Fusion’s interconnects utilize directional shielding to minimize noise, so you must pay attention to the arrows on the shield of the cables that indicate the correct direction from head unit to amplifier.
Fusion and their product line have grown quickly since their arrival in the marine marketplace a little over a decade ago with an iPod (remember those?) integrated head unit. The installation on Have Another Day and Fusion’s impressive list of manufacturers installing their equipment demonstrate the depth of their line and ability to compete effectively in the marine audio market.
Because of the size of the system I installed on Have Another Day, and because I added another head unit in a new location, this install took me a total of three to four days to complete. But this project breaks down nicely into smaller pieces, which is how I did it. One day I swapped in a couple of pairs of speakers, the next I swapped amps, then I worked the head units.
Most of the work was quite easy and I was able to reuse almost all of my existing wiring. I had to run larger wires from my house batteries to the amp for the cockpit stereo. If you have to run new, larger power cabling back to your batteries, I would strongly consider bringing in a pro for that work. That should allow you to hit the right note no matter where you do your cruising.