When used with a compatible Alpine Electronics head unit, Alpine's new US$100 KCA-420i iPod Interface connection kit lets you play and control your iPod through your car stereo. Unlike BMW's popular iPod kit -- which limits access to five playlists you specifically create for the system and limits navigation to skipping tracks forward and back -- Alpine's solution lets you access all of your playlists and, via its onscreen display, search for songs, albums, and artists. (And the Alpine offering can be used in any car, not just a BMW.) After evaluating the KCA-420i for a month in my Honda CR-V test vehicle, I appreciated its features, innovation, and sound quality, but at times found myself frustrated by its interface.
The KCA-420i is compatible with all 2004 (or later) Alpine Ai-NET head units, which range in price from US$200 to US$2,300. According to Alpine, the KCA-420i provides identical functionality across head units, as all but the video models feature the same control layout. The major difference with respect to the iPod Interface is in the actual display -- some units provide only a single line of text, whereas others provide three or four. (The US$2,300 top of the line head unit features a 7-inch LCD touch screen.) I tested the KCA-420i with the US$450 CDA-9833.
Installation of the KCA-420i is fairly simple. The unit is just over 7" x 6" x 1.5" in size, with two cables -- one plugs into the changer control jack on the back of your Alpine head unit whereas the other terminates in a standard iPod dock cable. The Interface box can be placed under a car seat, behind, the head unit, or even in the glove compartment -- anywhere the cable reaches. (Six-foot cables are included; extensions are also available.) If you don't want to install the KCA-420i yourself, Alpine estimates that installation should cost between US$50 and US$100, depending on the vehicle and the installer.
Plug It In
The KCA-420i is compatible with any iPod with a dock connector (including the mini), but requires that your iPod first be updated to iPod Update 2004-04-28 or later. To use the system, you simply plug the dock connector cable into the dock slot on your iPod and switch the head unit to Changer mode. (Alpine says that 2005 head units will have an improved interface that displays "iPod" instead of "Changer.") Your iPod charges as long as the radio is on, and you can disconnect the iPod at any time by pressing the pause button on the head unit or turning the radio or car off (which puts the iPod into sleep mode).
Once connected, I was greeted with impressive sound quality. Like most aftermarket products, the Alpine head unit was a significant upgrade over the car's stock stereo, even when used with the stock speakers, and the Interface provided significantly better sound than any cassette adapter or FM transmitter I've tried. I also enjoyed Alpine's MediaXpander technology, which, according to the company's literature, uses a digital signal processor to "recreate the subtleties and nuances [lost in many MP3 files] that make the music sound real." In my testing, the MediaXpander setting did indeed make compressed music files sound better, although I turned it off when listening to uncompressed tracks. Overall, the sound quality was among the best I've heard for listening to an iPod in your car, rivaled only by other line-level input devices. (Ai-NET head units also feature, at a minimum, CD players and AM/FM tuners, with more expensive models including additional features such as XM radio support and DVD players.)
Those expecting to see the iPod's famously intuitive interface on their car's display will be disappointed. When I first started using my iPod with the new system, I did so without reading the manual, assuming that since the iPod is so easy to use, the Alpine system would be similarly simple. Unfortunately, that's not the case, mainly because the Alpine head units were not created with iPods in mind; they were instead designed for CD, CD changer, and MP3 disc playback. The KCA-420i simply provides a way to use the existing functionality of these head units to control the iPod. This means that the buttons on the Alpine head unit do not directly correspond to functions on the iPod -- you need to read the manual to learn how to use your iPod with your car stereo.
Once I spent some time with the manual, I was better able to enjoy using my iPod via the KCA-420i; however, I still needed to keep the documentation handy, as I often forgot which combination of buttons achieved the desired function. For example, to choose a playlist, you must press the F1 button, then press the QuickSearch button, and then turn the rotary dial/button to scroll through playlists; pressing the dial chooses the selected playlist. (You use similar procedures to search for a particular artist or album. To search for a song title, you instead press QuickSearch twice and then scroll through the songs in the current playlist/artist/album.) Some of the terminology used on the head unit's display was also less than clear. For example, to search playlists, artists, and albums, you use File Search mode, but to search for songs you use Folder Search mode. And when using the Mix function (similar to the iPod's shuffle mode), Mix Folder shuffles albums, whereas Mix Disc shuffles songs. I found this nomenclature confusing.
For users familiar with the iPod's interface, the most glaring shortcoming of the Alpine system is likely to be its approach to scrolling. Alpine's non-touchscreen head units feature a rotary dial for searching through tracks, artists, and albums; once you've found the desired item, you push the dial to choose that item. Although this setup sounds very much like the iPod's Click Wheel and Enter button, the two are implemented much differently. One of the iPod's elegant touches is that the faster you move your finger around the Click Wheel, the faster the iPod scrolls through the current list. The Alpine's interface has a single speed -- approximately one item per second -- that makes scrolling through a large number of playlists, albums, or artists frustrating. Alpine told me that this is a limitation of its head units, which weren't designed for a device that holds thousands of songs. The company recommends first using a playlist, artist, or album search to narrow down the selection so that you don't have to scroll through as many items.
A Few Other Foibles
I also had a few other minor complaints regarding functionality. When using the skip buttons (forward and back) to change songs, it takes 3 to 4 seconds before track information appears on the display, making it difficult to scan songs in this manner. (Other search options, mentioned above, are provided that don't have this limitation.) Another quirk I found is that if you've enabled the Alpine head unit's Mix mode (which activates the iPod's Shuffle feature), you can't easily search for a song. Unlike the iPod, which allows you to scroll through songs alphabetically even when in shuffle mode, the KCA-420i's Mix mode randomly scrolls through songs in the current selection (playlist, artist, album).
The system also has a few technical glitches that, according to Alpine, are actually limitations of the head units, not the KCA-420i. For example, track titles that include unsupported characters will not be displayed, and tracks with titles over 250 characters may not play at all. Also, when using File Search to find a playlist, artist, or album, you're limited to searching the first 511 items. Similarly, when searching songs in Folder Search mode, you can only browse the first 255 songs in a particular playlist/artist/album. If, like me, you have an iPod with several thousand tracks (mine has approximately 6,000) and you frequently search for songs, it's almost a requirement that you create smaller playlists on your iPod. Granted, most people won't -- I hope -- try to search through thousands of songs while driving, but I certainly had a desire to do so on more than one occasion, either while stopped or as a passenger.
I hope the 2005 series of Alpine head units, which the company says will improve the iPod interface, corrects some of these minor deficiencies.
Lots of Potential
Alpine has done a commendable job in creating a link between the iPod and the functionality of their existing head units, and the KCA-420i provides a glimpse of the potential for good iPod-car interfaces. Despite my criticisms, once I got used to the system's interface and controls I thoroughly enjoyed using it in our test car. The improved sound quality and the convenience of being able to control an iPod through the car stereo were both welcome improvements over FM transmitters and cassette adapters. (Auxiliary input connectors provide comparable sound quality, but require you to use the iPod's own controls.) In fact, I'm considering purchasing the unit myself despite its flaws.
However, the KCA-420i also demonstrates how far car audio interfaces have to go before they catch up to the iPod. Although some might argue that it's not entirely fair to compare the interface of the KCA-420i and its compatible head units to the iPod itself, the fact remains that many people who have purchased an iPod did so because of its stellar interface and are now looking for a similarly elegant solution for their car. Right now, the only way to get that is to simply connect your iPod via a cable, cassette adapter, or FM transmitter and use the iPod's own controls.
Playlist's Buying Advice
Alpine touts the KCA-420i/head unit combination as "the Best In-Vehicle Solution for Your iPod," and it's hard to argue with that claim right now. No other product provides as much flexibility for browsing your iPod's music from your car stereo. However, the interface will leave some people wishing for the kind of elegance that makes the iPod so special. Whether or not the KCA-420i is a good value also depends on your existing audio system. If you currently have a compatible Alpine head unit, the $100 cost of the KCA-420i will be money well spent. If not, keep in mind that you'll need to first purchase (and install) a new head unit, which will run anywhere from $200 to $2,300 plus installation costs.
PC World understands that the product will become available in Australia in the next two months. No details are available yet.