The CDA-9885's principal attraction is the intuitiveness of its controls for navigating its various supported sources. With HD Radio set as the source, drivers can skip from one HD station to another by simply pressing the forward-skip buttons. It takes about two to three seconds for the system to lock on to the digital signal, after which you can search through the available text tags or search for multicast content (other HD channels broadcast over the same FM frequency), by using the forward-search buttons. Navigation of files and folders on compressed digital-audio discs (such as MP3 and WMA) is even easier to use.
Using the search buttons (denoted by a magnifying glass), users can navigate folders and files on a disc in one of two ways: pressing the buttons once brings up the root menu structure for folders and files, which can be selected and searched though by name, using a combination of the enter button and the rotary dial; and for those who know the order of tracks on a disc, a quick search function enables you to skip straight to a desired track. For those less interested in search, there are also a number of shuffle playback options for folders, tracks, and discs (for attached changers).
Like the HD Radio-enabled Sony CDX-GT520 and XAV-W1, the CDA-9885 must be connected to a bulky, separately sold external module in order to get HD Radio reception. In contrast to the neat layout of the faceplate, we found this necessity an inelegant solution, especially during installation. We were unable to fit the HD module (which measures 7 13/16 inches wide by 1 3/8 inches tall by 7 7/8 inches deep) in the dash behind our stereo and found that we had to either stick it in the glove box--thereby taking up most of the space in the latter--or attach it to the underside of the cowl, which is not an attractive proposition.
As we have (predictably) found in the past, HD radio sounds a lot better than regular FM signal radio, and the output of the CDA-9885 is no exception. Drivers are given a good sense of the contrast between regular FM and HD while waiting the few seconds for the digital signal to kick in, at which point the faint fuzzy static interference associated with even the clearest of FM signals disappears, giving the audio a crisp, unimpeded quality.
For our test of the audio output and the CDA-9885's EQ settings, we explored the full breadth of the local HD Radio spectrum, finding everything from PM Dawn to Telemann. In addition to the standard EQ settings (bass, treble, loud), the system has an option for setting the bandwidth of the bass output (narrow to wide over four increments); Defeat (which disables all other signal processing); and a separate bass-level control for a standalone subwoofer.
With its $200 HD Radio tuner and a base price of about $250, the Alpine CDA-9885 is by no means a cheap option for bringing HD Radio on the road. If you have room to hide the enormous external module, however, it is a stylish and easy-to-use device with a great sound and one of the most intuitive audio navigation interfaces we've seen in this class.