Alpine iPod Interface

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Date: Saturday, May 6th, 2006, 13:53
Category: iPod

alpine9852.jpegThe Alpine CDE-9852 head unit with KCE-422i interface cable is probably the best integrated iPod automotive solution in the $200 price range. I received my unit from Crutchfield with a custom bezel and adapter plug to fit my car, making installation a breeze. This unit will support a subwoofer and I will most likely add one, but the Bass Engine equalizer control allowed me to add significant bass emphasis without the mid-bass tubbiness that you get with a simple tone control. I replaced the paper cone factory speakers several years ago with same size Polk speakers and they sound significantly better with a bit of equalization and the loudness contour turned on. What is there not to love? Great sound, direct control of my iPod and 2,000 plus songs at my fingertips. The display will scroll through Artist, Album and Song Title along with elapsed time. Sounds like heaven. Well I do love this unit and hate it at the same time.
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alpine9852.jpegThe Alpine CDE-9852 head unit with KCE-422i interface cable is probably the best integrated iPod automotive solution in the $200 price range. I received my unit from Crutchfield with a custom bezel and adapter plug to fit my car, making installation a breeze. This unit will support a subwoofer and I will most likely add one, but the Bass Engine equalizer control allowed me to add significant bass emphasis without the mid-bass tubbiness that you get with a simple tone control. I replaced the paper cone factory speakers several years ago with same size Polk speakers and they sound significantly better with a bit of equalization and the loudness contour turned on. What is there not to love? Great sound, direct control of my iPod and 2,000 plus songs at my fingertips. The display will scroll through Artist, Album and Song Title along with elapsed time. Sounds like heaven.
Well I do love this unit and hate it at the same time. A lot of what I hate can be said of most after market car stereos. My instrument panel is all black and the original OEM radio was actually made by Alpine for Honda and fit right in. This new unit is silver and styled to look like it came out of a science fiction movie. Worse, it opts for a removable faceplate and no code protection. My original code protected factory stereo was practically immune to theft, but I think this new unit is going to require removal of the faceplate on a regular basis. I hate this anti-theft solution, which has been adopted by most manufacturers of after market units. Worse, the radio is not illuminated at all when off, so finding the power button is done by feel at night. Once turned on I would have to characterize the illumination as insanely bright, even with the auto dimming feature it is still distracting and obnoxiously bright.
I consider myself pretty tech savvy and I figured out which of the nearly identical buttons turned on the unit with little trouble. I was at a loss to turn it off and had to break out the dreaded manual. Much like a mobile phone, turning the unit off requires that you push and hold the on button for at least two seconds. This very same button at other times changes the source from Tuner to iPod to Disc.
The Alpine interface for controlling the iPod is nasty when compared to the controls on the iPod itself. Here is your wonderfully intuitive iPod connected by a cable to a poorly thought out MP3 player. In order to access the songs in your iPod, you are forced to use the counter-intuitive controls of the Alpine with the added little delays that come from communication through the cable.
Showing this to my spouse was an eye opener. Navigating through the iPod menu I was asked to lower the volume, well the knob that controls the volume becomes a jog dial in that mode, so you have no volume control while searching. Ah! That is why there is a mute button. After about a minute I was told that she would simply use the other car and not this one. I explained that it was not too terribly difficult to change the source back to the tuner and once there it worked much like the old radio.
Obviously, Apple does not need to get into the car radio business, but some manufacturer would do well to pay Apple for industrial design services. I decided to try my hand at a quick design for a head unit that would be far friendlier than this Alpine:
colorRadio.jpg

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One Response to “Alpine iPod Interface”

  1. I just switched from the 9855/420i combo to a 9857/422i setup.
    In general, it is very nice to have ONE interface for CD/radio/Sirius/iPOD, vs a bunch of different devices and things to hook up everytime you get in the car. I like that simplicity. I think iPod users can appreciate that.
    Obviously, the sound quality of an Alpine is excellent.
    But the 9855/420i was SOOO slow that it was essentially unusable, especially with that horrible GlideTouch which would scroll anywhere from 3 to 15 items depending on how it interpreted your “glide”. I hated it. In addition to the iPod interface being slow, the Sirius interface was also s-l-o-w, taking 10-15 seconds to show what was playing.
    I must say that the 9857/422i has improved on these interface issues dramatically.
    Using the iPod is very fast…about as fast as you can manage while driving anyway. The 3-line display makes it pretty easy to find what you are looking for. Overall, the menuing system is setup like the iPod’s. Importantly, the 9857 does not start playing the song as soon as it enters a playlist as it did with the 9855. However, there is still no way to menu back up one level if you go into the wrong playlist or album. You have to start from scratch.
    While it’s not perfect, this is significantly improved from the last iteration and is usable. In some ways, it is more usable than the iPod itself. The iPod’s touch wheel is so sensitive and the screen so small that I feel it’s a bit dangerous while driving. I like the Alpine knob.
    In addition, the Sirius interface is MUCH MUCH faster, and the song names show up immediately instead of delayed like in the 9855. I am still using the same Sirius box I had before.
    Overall, the build quality and appearance of the 9857 is LOWER than that of the 9855. The 9855 had a great motorized faceplate, while the 9857 has a cheap push button detachable face plate. The sound quality options on the 9855 were also much more granular and tunable than they are on the 9857, although I would have to say that the 9857 still sounds great anyway.
    Using MP3 CDs with the 9857 is also much improved compared to the 9855, and I believe this is mainly due to Alpine ditching the GlideTouch.
    Both have great screens. At first, I thought that the 9857 had goofier crappy 1983 bitmapped fonts and graphics, but it turns out that in actual use, the icons and graphics look really good, are easy to read, and are quite sensible. The 9855 was also visually good. I’m glad Alpine hasn’t gone the way of showing some dumb car driving off over and over again, or some surfer catching a wave, etc.
    BBE (9857) is supposed to be better than MediaXpander (9855). I think that is the case, but I haven’t done a critical listening test. And actually, I can hardly tell the difference between BBE on and BBE off. Again, both units sound great.
    On interface issues, like all manufacturers, there is a TON of room for improvement. Stuff is just confusing and non-intuitive. It just feels like some stuff is put in there as a gimmick. The 9857 has a Volume knob that pushes in to be flush with the dash, but serves NO other purpose…why????? It could have been an ‘OK’/’Select’ push button..that’s how it was in the 9855. That is a useless “feature”.
    Well, I was going to make this a blog post in my own blog (www.veshman.com), but now I’ve put in all the major stuff here..!
    Overall build quality, sound features, and ‘premium’feel: 9855
    Usability and overall ability to enjoy your music: 9857 hands-down
    I wish Alpine came out with a 9857 that had the overall stylings and quality of the 9855, with the interface speed ups and enhancements that it did get (although it needs more work).
    Ideally, I’d like Alpine to have to me design a the interface for them 🙂
    While a previous poster had said that Alpine shouldn’t change since that is “alpine”, I would disagree. I think the market could bear a nice appearing quality radio that does not look “aftermarket” so that they can upgrade their sound without attracting thieves. Also, people who have cars that came with Becker like the overall look of the Becker, but the sound quality and features of those are not good. They would buy a classy upgrade, at a premium.