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The iDA-X001 is the first car stereo we have seen that has no internal moving parts. Designed primarily as an iPod interface, the single-DIN-size stereo comes with a range of features that gives drivers direct control over the songs in their iPod libraries via well-structured menus and a novel, if fidgety, selection interface. Owners of fifth-generation iPods and later will get the most benefit from the iDA-X001, which provides a high-speed digital connection between the player and car stereo via a USB 2.0 connection. The USB port can also be used to play MP3, WMA, and AAC audio files from generic USB mass storage devices such as thumbdrives or pocket hard drives.
The iDA-X001 confirms that it is a child of the MP3 age through its conspicuous lack of any slot for CDs or any other disc-based media. Those who want to play old-fashioned discs can opt for a six-disc changer, sold separately. Other optional add-ons for the iDA-X001 include modules for Bluetooth hands-free calling, satellite radio, and HD radio.
Many car stereos come with the ability to play music from an iPod, whether via a generic auxiliary input jack, or using a dedicated iPod dock connector and a touch screen interface (such as those we have seen on the Clarion MAX675VD, the Pioneer Avic D3, and the Dual XDVD8182), which give the car stereo control of the search and playback functions for the iPod library. The Alpine iDA-X001 takes iPod connectivity a step further by transferring audio--and image--data via a high-speed digital USB connection.
In terms of data transfer rates, the difference between USB and a regular digital-to-analog dock connector cable is vast: according to Alpine, the iDA-X001's USB connection transfers data at 480 Mbps, more than 25,000 times the rate of a regular intelligent iPod-connector cable. This might seem like a big deal, but it really makes very little difference in the transfer of regular compressed digital audio files. Where drivers will notice a difference will be with CDs ripped losslessly to iPods, and higher-resolution compressed audio files, such as the 256 Kbps AAC files that EMI soon will make available on iTunes.
The increased bandwidth and pure digital connection between the iPod and the stereo also enables the iDA-X001 to transfer album art from fifth-generation iPods, and to provide a better signal-to-noise ratio than regular digital-to-analog connectors. For the majority of iPod owners who will be using the iDA-X001 to stream compressed audio files, the system features a Media Extender (MX) function for restoring lost audio quality. The MX can be customized to one of three levels depending on what kind of audio output you want. Other EQ controls include settings for bass, treble, and fade, as well as a separate setting for subwoofer volume. For those who want to customize the visual appearance of the faceplate, there is also an option to change the background color from blue to red.
Apart from the absence of a CD slot, the faceplate design of the iDA-X001 is not dissimilar to other single-DIN units. A cluster of buttons on the left of the unit lets you select sources, skip between tracks and radio stations, and mute the audio output, while a dedicated Phone button gives drivers a useful one-touch gateway to the optional Bluetooth hands-free calling feature. The iDA-X001's Skip and Search buttons work well for navigating within a particular menu list, and the Pause/Play button and Mute button are useful for stopping the music in a hurry.
The center of the faceplate is dominated by a spring-loaded jog wheel, which is the main interface for browsing through iPod libraries. In a clever design touch, this dial enables variable search modes depending on how far it is turned, in homage to the variable search speeds of the iPod wheel. For skipping thorough songs one at a time, turn the wheel through 10 degrees; for faster searching, turn the dial to its maximum limit. In practice, we found using the dial less intuitive than we expected. To launch the search function, you have to press the large button on the front of the wheel itself (so far, so good), but then to make a selection of a particular category/album/artist etc, you have to press a separate ENT button to the left of the wheel. Having become accustomed to using the wheel in the center of our iPod to make selections, we found the necessity for this extra button a little cumbersome. Secondly, while the dial's variable-speed searching does speed up the process of navigating lists of songs, it is nowhere near as effective as the iPod wheel upon which it is based. For example, it took us more than a minute holding the wheel at the higher search speed to get from the top to the bottom of the songs on our iPod.