Ben Ellison from Panbo brings us the latest from Fusion Entertainment

Even bolder than the advertising tagline for the new Fusion Apollo Series, “The Sum of Audio Innovation,” is the second sentence of the company’s recent press release:

The Apollo name and logo also reference the classical Greek god of music, making the product launch seem immensely pretentious if Fusion hadn’t gone equally big with design and audio goodness. But, by golly, I think Apollo delivers.

While you can learn a lot about the Apollo Series online, I attended Fusion’s press event in Fort Lauderdale in early May where the company’s principals demonstrated audio systems on six different boats. Yes, it did sometimes feel weird cruising up and down the same stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway—occasionally on plane, and often at high volume—but touching and hearing are believing. There’s much to justify the high expectations Fusion has set for customers, as well as the company’s dramatic challenge to the marine audio competition.

Before I attempt to cover Apollo’s major features, let me note how our Sea Ray demo boat speaks to Fusion’s claim of being “industry recognized,” as well as to the wide variety of boats Apollo can serve. Sea Ray has announced their commitment to standard-fitting complete Fusion audio systems in all 40 of their current models, which range from 17-foot open sport boats to 65-foot motor yachts.

Our Sea Ray demo boat illustrated how beautifully the flagship Apollo RA-770 audio head unit can be flush-mounted on a modern-style helm. Even in prototype form, the unit nearly blended into the panel, and as the finished SDX290 will be glossy black, the Apollo unit will almost look like an integral part of a long, black glass slab.

Apollo Interfaces

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The Apollo RA-770 display can emulate normal stereo button controls like “pause,” “next track,” and “menu.” A slick multi-touch feature called “Gesture Mode” allows the controls to disappear after about a minute of inactivity, allowing just the track info and associated graphic to fill the 4.3-inch screen. In this “standby” mode, you can tap anywhere on the screen for pause/mute or swipe either way to quickly get to the track or station you want without having to recall the play controls. This allows users to control the stereo without taking their eyes off the water or navigation displays. 

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Given all that’s packed inside, the RA-770 is strikingly compact, just 6.6 inches wide without the end caps (which add an extra inch) and less than 4 inches deep (which includes a cowl to help protect all the input/output cables). The RA-770’s baby brother, the Apollo SRX-400, is crazy tiny at 3.4 inches wide without end caps, 2.8 inches high, and slightly less deep than the RA-770. Its 2.7-inch color screen is not multi-touch enabled, so it has permanent control buttons. Nevertheless the SRX-400 can still serve as a standalone stereo as it includes many features of the RA-770, and it can be networked with an RA-770 unit as well.

The RA-770 Apollo head unit (or multiple head units) can be controlled by existing Fusion NRX remotes, MFDs using NMEA 2000 or ethernet, mobile apps using Bluetooth or wi-fi, and the ANT wireless found in many Garmin watches. And the SRX-400 can do the same except where NMEA 2000 is needed. But there’s more to Apollo control interfaces than even all that.

Apollo Network (PartyBus!)

Picture a large boat with a Fusion entertainment network. In the main saloon is an Apollo RA-770, and let’s assume that two of its four output zones are used for two pairs of speakers in the cabin, while another goes to an amp and cockpit speakers. So the closest fixed control for the cockpit zone is an MS-NRX300 wired remote attached to the boat’s NMEA 2000 network, though most any of the boat’s MFDs or a phone running the FUSION-Link mobile app could also control the cockpit zone audio. While the audio source in the cockpit and saloon will always remain the same, separate SRX-400 units installed in places like the flybridge and staterooms can each have independent source choices. But by linking the SRX-400 units to the main RA-770 unit (by wi-fi or ethernet) the linked Apollo control heads introduce Fusion’s new feature: PartyBus.

PartyBus Infographic

While at the press event, I heard PartyBus in action and it seemed like an easy way to multi-source stereos. In the cabin with the SRX-400, it was just like having your own personal audio system (in fact, it is called “Personal Mode”), but with just a couple of button taps you could join the “PartyBus,” which on this boat meant sharing an audio source with an RA-770 in the main saloon. The music synced across the two otherwise standalone systems perfectly, with zero lag in places where you could hear all speaker sets at once. The networking is multilateral in the sense that multiple RA-770 and SRX-400 control heads can join and share control of the network sound at the user’s behest. Moreover, PartyBus mode allows the more limited SRX-400 to access the whole suite of RA-770 audio sources.

Universal Plug and Play (UPnP)

I’m just starting to learn more about UPnP, but I already know the sound quality and range limitations of Bluetooth audio streaming, convenient as it is. So while audio apps that make use of the UPnP standard to stream over wi-fi to Apollo are just starting to become commonplace, I look forward to experiencing it first hand.

Incidentally, Apollo head units are happy to join a boat’s existing wi-fi network instead of creating their own, so this sort of streaming could be done while still maintaining contact with other wi-fi gear on the boat. Apollo units can browse and stream a media server, as Graham Brain explained to me. While he recommends using an Ethernet connection especially for larger audio libraries, UPnP can also be utilized in this fashion.

Another way to visualize the available wired audio sources is to take a look at the back of the Apollo units. The SRX-400 is missing several of the ports that the RA-770 has such as the Digital Optical interconnect; it does, however, support Bluetooth and UPnP streaming on its own. Both models have AM/FM antenna ports because they each have their own tuners, but do note that there is no NMEA 2000 port on the SRX-400, which is not clear in some of the existing product literature.

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How does Apollo sound?

A much-touted Apollo feature is digital sound processing (DSP). While DSP is a vague term, I can tell you that even on our Sea Ray demo, which only included two 6.5-inch Signature speakers, the projected sound was full and clean. Meanwhile, the bigger systems sounded awesome, and sometimes led writers to spontaneous giggle fits, air guitar sessions, etc. More specifically, I never heard a disconcerting volume level change when switching sources or distortion at extreme volumes. Nor, to my knowledge, did we blow out any speakers, which is another benefit of the technology (functions called Volume Equalizer and Feed Forward Limiter).

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While digital sound processing happens automatically (and apparently work to some degree with third-party amps and speakers), Apollo DSP also has specific Fusion settings that can be adjusted in the FUSION-Link app. In short, they have audio-profiled all their own speakers and amps so that the DSP can better match the output to where it’s going. I suspect this contributed significantly to the good audio we heard, but I’m also aware that it’s a clever way to help prevent the popular choice of combining Fusion head units with JL amps and speakers.

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Chris Baird and marketing manager Marcus Hamilton were understandably thumbs-up giddy by the end of the press event, which also marked the end of an intense development process. As bold as Fusion is with its Project Apollo claims—yes, the name also references the push to put a man on the moon—they’ve delivered a platform that appears to be already nicely future-proofed. And with more Apollo models and peripherals to come, it’s not a stretch to say they are “changing the face of marine entertainment.” The RA-770 ($649) and SRX-400 ($349) are both slated to be available for purchase starting in June 2018, and I hope to test a PartyBus network in depth at some point.

Fusion has been under Garmin ownership for four years now, and hopefully the fear that they will only play nicely with one brand (Garmin) is over. But that certainly doesn’t mean that Garmin isn’t involved. Baird talked about how they helped double the Fusion engineering staff from 20 to 40—once they’d been persuaded to back Project Apollo—and engineering manager Brain told us how nice it was to be able to query his Garmin colleagues on subjects ranging from optically bonded displays to embedded wi-fi radios.

I also learned that in the world of recreational vehicles—which the independent Fusion sales force penetrated first—there are now joint Fusion/Garmin developments ongoing like the RV-IN801 Infotainment System. In fact, one upshot of Garmin’s recent Trigentic acquisition will be similar RV systems with digital switching included. But even if Garmin/Fusion become one brand in that world, it may mean nothing in ours, because—hail Apollo—Fusion seems to be doing just fine functioning as an independent. 

This article first appeared on Ben Ellison’s website, Panbo, and was edited for print here. Click here to read his original post. 

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