Funny, but replacing an old marine stereo with a modern, Bluetooth-capable system is not quite as easy as you’d think.
Was she serious? In a routine-looking email, a rep from Clarion U.S.A. was asking if I’d like to replace the Betty Jane II’sold stereo with the latest-and-greatest from Clarion, try it out for a while, and then write up a review in the magazine. Hmmm. I almost hit the delete button—a prank, undoubtedly. Nice stereos are pricey, sophisticated. Why would a stereo manufacturer want to send its latest-and-greatest to a guy who is, I’ll be the first to admit, several nautical miles from being a stereophonic guru?
I twiddled my thumbs for a bit but then—you guessed it—I succumbed to curiosity and called the lady, since she’d included a phone number. And yup, she said the offer was legit. Clarion, she explained, had been seriously into marketing its marine products back in the day. But, over time, the company had shifted its marketing focus towards all things automotive, while reducing its public presence on the marine side. Now, they wanted to make a comeback.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll agree to your offer if you understand the review could go either way, positive or negative. Or maybe both.”
When the new CMS4 system arrived at the ol’ ranchero, the packaging contained a cool-looking display head with an optically bonded, Corning “Gorilla Glass” LCD; a “black box” digital receiver; six marine-grade speakers; a four-channel digital amplifier; two remotes; and oodles of cables with top-shelf Molex-type connectors. But I was leery. As just noted, my knowledge of marine stereos? Limited—you turn a knob, avoid downing the speakers with wash-down water, and rock on, right?
So hey, I acknowledged my limitations. I took Clarion up on its offer to have a professional install. A 20-year veteran of the electronics biz, Tony Eden of Jacksonville’s Boattronics of North Florida, got the job. The photos and captions on the following page illustrate the work Eden did, which took two full, non-stop days, entailed a level of stereo-related expertise well beyond my own, and turned out beautifully.
My take on the CMS4? For starters, the system’s not cheap, especially if you dabble in MSRPs which, truth to tell, you can significantly beat by surfing the web. The Black Box, display head, and assorted cables officially go for about $750. Betty’s cockpit and flybridge absorbed another $500 for two pairs of 6.5-inch CMQ1622RL speakers and her salon added $300 for a pair of 8-inch CM2223RL speakers. Toss into the mix yet another $200 for the XC2410 amplifier and the cost of my system hovers around $1,750. The install: $1,700. The total: $3,450.
But hey, we’re talkin’ a stereophonic extravaganza here. The CMS4’s rugged little display head is simplicity itself—I got a Bluetooth/iPhone hookup in a super second and optioning FM, AM, Weather Band, SiriusXM, and Pandora was wholly intuitive. Moreover, I have yet to firewall the volume knob, for fear of blowing out the windows in the dockmaster’s office. And being able to separately control three of the CMS4’s four available discrete zones means I can check the weather topside while Ajeet Kaur chants at one volume setting in the cockpit and Bill Frisell twangs in the salon at another. And finally, I don’t mind not having CD and cassette slots a bit. I switched to Pandora and Sirius years ago.
Eden determines Betty’s 30-year-old electrical panel is not reliable enough for a modern stereo system. He decides to install a separate Blue Seas Systems six-circuit fuse block to supply power from the boat’s battery switch directly to the Black Box and amplifier.
Cable runs were mostly Anchor double-insulated 14-2 marine grade wire, not clear-jacketed “speaker wire.” Double-insulated is better, says Eden. An electrician’s “fish tape” serves to pull cable. All work is finished with waterproof heat-shrink connectors and terminals.
To facilitate complex cable pulls, Eden uses electrical tape to temporarily affix a screw-on nozzle from a tube of silicone to the end of his fish tape. This “Cone Trick” allows him to pull some large cables or even multiple cables through some comparatively small holes.
Clarion sent no manuals and no speaker templates. Undeterred, Eden spiled (a wooden boatbuilding technique) templates using packaging. Clarion attributed its oversight to confusion arising from “promotional items.” We always ship templates, they said.
Eden sometimes uses hole saws to cut speaker openings that are relatively large, but prefers a RotoZip, a tool that mixes drill and saw functions in one spiral-type bit. Thus, the wicked torque of big hole saws is avoided and the depth of cut can be carefully controlled.
The CMS4 is smartphone-only. Clarion says the display head is virtually impervious to saltwater, UV rays, and vibration. Backlit buttons and knobs can be dimmed. Add a rear-facing camera and you can see and hear what goes on while backing down via the LCD.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.