Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
Harman Kardon Drive + Play
- Interface, Sound quality, Multiple connection options, Convenience
- Installation, Some issues with control knob
If you want to play your iPod in the car, this is by far the best option on the market. It’s not perfect, but it’s the closest you’ll get and the integration and sound quality is excellent.
Price$ 299.95 (AUD)
The Harman Kardon Drive + Play is an excellent device that allows you to control and listen to your iPod in the car. Although it's not without its faults, it does a very good job of emulating the controls and display of your iPod - and best of all it sounds excellent.
The Drive + Play is a three-piece unit: an LCD screen, a control knob and an electronics enclosure box. It is recommended that a professional car audio technician install this product, as there is plenty of wiring involved. Expect to pay anywhere between $100 and $200, depending on the make of your vehicle and the method of installation. The Drive + Play can be powered in two ways, either through your vehicles standard 12 volt power or via a 12 volt accessory power cable (cigarette lighter adapter). Installation can be a little tricky and time consuming, so it's best left to the professionals.
If you choose to install the Drive + Play yourself, Harman Kardon offers three different installation methods - via Auxiliary input jack, CD changer connector (using an optional adapter) or through the unit's built-in FM transmitter. The audio quality of the latter isn't as reliable as directly connecting to your car head unit. We were fortunate to have a car stereo with a rear auxiliary input but if you don't have this option, you'll have to purchase a CD changer connector or use the built-in FM transmission. Alternatively, you can also wire your car antenna into the Drive + Play, and then plug it into the antenna port at the back of your head unit. This is a better option than using the built in FM transmitter, since it uses the built-in antenna and you will receive less FM interference.
The enclosure box should be mounted out of sight - ours was tucked away behind the stereo deck. From this, the three metre cable connecting your iPod to the Drive + Play is routed to a convenient place in your car. Ours was installed to a small compartment underneath the steering wheel, but it can go to a glove box, ashtray or accessories console should you wish.
Performance and Features
The Drive + Play interface is very similar to the iPod's, with menus for FM Settings, Now Playing, Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, Genres, Composers, Settings and Songs. You can customise this to your liking by removing any of these from the main menu screen. The display is monochrome but it has a bright, adjustable white backlight so it's very easy to read, even at night. Its optimum position is on top of the dashboard so you don't have to take your eyes off the road to change your tunes. Furthermore, the screens base can be swiveled and adjusted to a number of positions. Although the screen works well, we would have been delighted with a colour display - just like the iPod itself.
Although Harman Kardon has done a relatively good job with the Drive + Play controls, there is still room for improvement. It's not as responsive as a regular iPod and the biggest downfall is speed - it just doesn't scroll as quickly as we are used to on our iPod. The control knob can be mounted to your car by using supplied the screws and base plate or by adhesive tape - whichever you prefer. We found its optimum position was next to the handbrake, so you can control the tunes while you are driving - without taking your eyes off the road.
The knob emulates the iPod click wheel controls with five buttons: select, top menu, left and right skip tracks and the bottom play/pause. Scrolling through your songs is pretty smooth, even if it still isn't as effective or speedy as we are used to on the iPod. This is because the control knob doesn't scroll 360 degrees; instead it rotates just 90 degrees. Once you let go it springs back into its normal position but if you hold the knob down it scrolls - how quickly this operates can be adjusted in the settings menu. Overall it's hard to replicate the excellent click-wheel system, so Harman Kardon deserve some credit for their implementation - even if it isn't perfect.
Sound quality is where this unit really impresses. Although it will ultimately depend on your car stereo and speakers as well as the quality of your music files, we were still very impressed. The Drive+Play performed excellently and was without doubt the best quality sound we've been able to achieve in our car from an iPod. Tunes were rich and vibrant, and suffered none of the regular interference we are used to with FM transmitters.
There are a couple of smaller issues though. The Drive + Play only displays elapsed track time, only supports ISO8950 characters (so any accented letters in your track titles won't be shown properly) and doesn't remember what you last played when you turn it off, so you'll have to scroll all the way back to that track or playlist again. For the convenience it offers though, these faults are very minor.
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