By Chris Scott Barr
When it comes to listening to music in your car, you have a lot of options these days. Satellite radio, AM/FM stations, CDs, and MP3 players can all give you access to your favorite tunes. With the popularity of the iPhone, many people like to utilize it for their in-car listening pleasure. Unfortunately if you’re looking for a truly integrated solution, you’ll find that you have few options.
I personally use a Sony head unit which features an iPod adapter. In order to get it to play nicely with my iPhone, I rely on a special adapter from Scoche which does the trick. It gets the job done, so long as you aren’t searching out specific songs or artists to listen to. The controls are clunky at best and barely functional at worst. Most of the time I have to unplug the iPhone, find the artist or song I was looking for, start a song, then plug it back in. I finally became fed up with it, and have started on a search for a better solution. Apline was kind enough to endulge me by letting us test out their iDA-X305 stereo. Read on for my full review.
I’ll start off by reminding everyone that I’m no audiophile. I’ve worked around audio equipment enough to know when something sounds really off, but I’m not going to focus on the audio merits of this device. I’m really only here to talk about how well it functions in conjunction with an iPhone. That being said, the audio quality was not lacking in any way, thus I have no complaints in that department.
If you’ve installed a car stereo before, then this is familiar territory. You’ll go through the usual steps of stripping wires, twisting them together and wrapping them in black tape. I do get frustrated by manufacturers that decide not to specifically label each individual wire. It shouldn’t be that big of a deal, but when you’re colorblind (as a large portion of the general population is) and staring at two sets of wires which only vaguely resemble the same colors, it gets frustrating. Proper labeling alleviates these frustrations. In the case of this particular unit, the wires were not labeled. A minor complaint to be sure, but we’ll just call it a pet peeve of mine.
The controls on this unit are fairly self-explanatory. I had no problems whatsoever navigating the menu to set the date and time. I was also easily able to modify the background of the LCD screen to my tastes. It’s usually at this time that I turn on the radio to set my favorite stations. This was a task that was apparently beyond my abilities.
Most stereos have several dedicated buttons for the preset stations, something that the iDA-X305 lacks. This of course meant that setting a station involved something more than simply tuning to it and holding down on the corresponding preset button. A quick check of the manual gave me information on how to scan all stations and automatically assign the presets. Let me make it perfectly clear that this is in no way helpful whatsoever.
If a person is defining preset stations, it is because in the dozens of signals out there, there are a few that they really wish to listen to. The iDA-X305 merely scans all frequencies and assigns six of the best signals (in no logical order) to the presets. To the best of my knowledge, there is no way to manually assign which stations you want to have. There are four stations that I always keep assigned in my car, only one of which was ever assigned to the list.
Looks aren’t always the most important factor when selecting a device, but most people do enjoy showing off their stereo. The 2.2-inch color LCD screen is going to jump out at anyone sitting in your car. This can be set to one of three modes while playing music. First, you have your typical hybrid display. This will show a thumbnail of the album artwork and all relevant information for the track (name, artist, album). You’ll also see a small clock and date below these. Second, it can display a larger picture of the album cover with only the track name printed. Finally, you can have it depict a large clock along with the date.
There aren’t a lot of buttons to be seen on the face. It is dominated by a large silver knob, which is used for most of the navigation functions. The center is also used for searching and doubles as an “enter” button. Your other primary buttons surround the knob, with a few other minor ones off to the left. As with most stereos, the face is removable, though only partially. The left side will come off, leaving only the LCD screen in place.
The iDA-X305 comes with a USB cable and a special iPod connector. This is long enough to run to your glove box, or just about anywhere in the front of the car you’d like. Upon plugging in the phone, you’ll be greeted with the same charging screen that you see with all iPhone-supported docks. On the stereo itself, you’ll see a brief message notifying you that it is “scanning.” This lasts for a second, two at most, then your music starts.
With the absolute basics out of the way, my main concern was navigating through my piles of music. The last thing anyone wants to do is spend 5 minutes searching for a song while they’re driving 70mph down the interstate. Sure, I have playlists with groups of music that I enjoy listening to, but finding specific songs, albums and artists should be easy as well. The iDA-X305 does an excellent job of this.
With the press of a button you are prompted with the choices of songs, artists, albums and playlists. Once you select one of these, you can then use the large knob to scroll through and make your selection. Since there could be hundreds of options to scroll through, there is a secondary way to get through the list. If you press in on the outer ring of the knob and twist, you can skip through the selections much faster. This can be programmed to skip ahead by 10% of the list, or to the next letter of the alphabet. Utilizing this, one can find exactly what they are looking for in a matter of seconds.
It should also be noted that all of these controls respond almost instantly. Most other head units that aren’t specifically designed around the iPod/iPhone tend to have a delay which causes further headache. This is in no way present here, making navigation a smooth process.
The most notable feature that you won’t find on the iDA-X305 is a CD player. This could be a turn-off for some people, as it’s still common for some people to burn a mix CD, or purchase a new album off the shelf. Unfortunately with the rise of MP3 players, the compact disc is dying. I’ll sometimes live in a CD for those times when I’ll not be in the car long enough to bother hooking up my iPhone, but after having this installed in my car for a few weeks, I was perfectly content without that option.
Not everyone is going to have an iPhone or iPod filled with music, which seems to defeat the entire point of having this particular unit. It does support other MP3 players and even hard drives (and flash drives) via USB. I loaded up some of my music onto a 2GB flash drive and tested this feature out. It doesn’t do anything fancy with your files (like display artwork or sort them into artists/albums), but as long as your songs are organized, you should enjoy listening to music in this way. You can still set individual folders to shuffle if you like, and navigating through them is just as easy as on the iPhone.
The iDA-X305 has support for several extras that Alpine offers. This would include an HD Radio Tuner, Satellite Radio interface and a Bluetooth adapter. We did not have the opportunity to test any of these add-ons, but they are available if you are interested.
The Alpine iDA-X305 has a couple of minor annoyances, but these are overshadowed by its seamless integration of your iPhone/iPod. It’s clear that in the future we’ll be moving away from CDs and relying more on MP3 players, and Apple still dominates that market. Alpine has done a great job of making sure this unit feels more like an extension of your iPhone/iPod, rather than a clunky accessory. The $350 MSRP is pricey, but you certainly get the quality that you’d expect from Alpine. (Not to mention smart shoppers can find it for considerably less by shopping around.)
[ Alpine ]