The head unit's single slot reads normal, MP3, and WMA CDs, and the monochrome display does a good job of displaying song information. Its two lines can show artist and album or album and song with the simple push of a button. Beyond normal navigation through folders and files, the unit has a quick-search feature. Holding down the search button brings up the quick-search display, which lets the user navigate all tracks by turning the volume/selection knob. Unfortunately, this mode doesn't display song titles.
iPod navigation was generally more convenient than with CDs. With the iPod, we could navigate based on artist, album, song title, or playlist, as opposed to the file and folder navigation of MP3 and WMA CDs. The quick-search mode is also available for the iPod, and as an added tool, the radio preset buttons help navigate. The preset buttons work by dividing up the songs into six proportional sections. Pushing each button navigates to the beginning of its sixth of the iPod's library.
Along with such common features as repeat mode, the CDA-9857 has a M.I.X. mode that works the same as shuffle or random. With an MP3 or WMA CD, the M.I.X. mode can shuffle through the entire disc or a select folder.
The CDA-9857 allows for a good degree of customization. Its menu button leads to settings for sound levels, display, and date. The sound level settings allow subwoofer adjustment (if present) and simple equalizer-style control of treble and bass. The head unit features BBE, Alpine's sound-processing algorithm, which is intended to make up for deficient speaker arrangements by broadening the sound and making it more immersive. On our test-bed system, BBE did make for a considerably broader audio experience and seemed worthwhile.
The display controls let the user choose from three background videos, which aren't too impressive in the monochrome display, and select from two font types. The date and time can also be set, plus you can input your birthday, on which date, the display will show a happy birthday message. Given that it's pretty easy to input dates, Alpine should expand on this function, allowing for the input of scheduled oil changes and other important dates.
One issue we found was that search was initially inoperative on both CDs and our iPod. It seemed as if the unit needed a moment to scan the library before it would let us navigate all the tracks, although the quick-search mode worked right away. After a minute or two, we were able to navigate through our entire CD and iPod.
As a midlevel head unit, the Alpine CDA-9857's main strength is its ability to easily connect to other Alpine components that can extend its capabilities. Many of its features are fairly run-of-the-mill, but we do like its construction and navigation interface. The lack of any front-panel inputs is a drawback. Its accompanying KCE-422i iPod cable offers a seamless connection and very good iPod integration. The KCT-100BT Bluetooth module works well but is a little cumbersome and won't integrate well with many car interiors.