Grooveshark Bluetooth Car Kit for Android (by Livio Radio) review: Grooveshark Bluetooth Car Kit for Android (by Livio Radio)
Editors' note: Portions of this evaluation have been taken from our review of the Livio Radio Bluetooth Internet Radio Car Kit, which features identical hardware, but a different bundled smartphone app.
The Grooveshark Bluetooth Car Kit by Livio primarily acts as a bridge between your media player or smartphone and your car's stereo. After the unit is connected to your vehicle's 12-volt power, it can receive audio via Bluetooth A2DP streaming or its analog input and then output that audio through your car's speakers via its internal FM transmitter or analog audio output. However, the Grooveshark Kit also has a variety of functions and custom controls that enable it to take control of the Grooveshark app with which it shares a name on a paired smartphone. Three months of the Grooveshark Anywhere service is included with the purchase. The Grooveshark Kit can also take control of the Livio Car Internet Radio application. Roll in hands-free calling functionality and the Kit is looking like a full-featured little device.
The Kit is packaged in two parts. The first is a flexible gooseneck that terminates on one end in a 12-volt power adapter with a toggling power button and at the other end in a locking connector that snaps into the back of the second part of the Kit, the transmitter. The transmitter itself has about the same footprint as a business card and is what the user primarily interacts with.
The left third of the unit's face is home to a control knob surrounded by a bank of universal buttons for controlling the AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Profile) functions of Play, Pause, and Stop. Pressing the control knob like a button toggles between volume mode, in which you can adjust the unit's audio output volume, and tuning mode, in which you can manually tune to an FM frequency for it to broadcast on. Pressing and holding the control knob for 3 seconds triggers an autoscan that automatically finds and tunes to an empty FM frequency. To the right is a three-digit LCD that is surrounded by a second bank of buttons for skipping forward and back and answering and ending calls, plus four buttons unique to the Grooveshark app for Radio, Favorite, Shuffle, and Add to Catalog. We'll discuss those functions shortly.
The edges of the Grooveshark Kit haven't been neglected, as one edge is home to a full-size 5-volt, 1-amp USB port for charging your connected device while on the other you'll find a pair of 3.5mm analog connections, one for input and one for output.
Grooveshark app for Android
Grooveshark is an Internet music-streaming service and the Grooveshark app for Android is its gateway into your phone. You won't find the Grooveshark app in the Google Play Store for some reason, so you'll want to download it from Grooveshark's mobile site. Once it's downloaded, you can use the app to search for music to stream, build automatically generating Pandora-esque radio stations on the fly, and manually build playlists. The app will monitor your Bluetooth connection for a connected Grooveshark Kit and respond to its commands.
The Play, Pause, Stop, Skip, and Shuffle buttons behave about like you'd expect them to -- for the most part these are standard AVRCP controls. However, the proprietary Grooveshark buttons are interesting. Tapping the plus-shaped Add button saves the currently playing song to your catalog of songs for easy retrieval. Tapping the Add button for a song that's already in the catalog will remove it. Similarly, the heart-shaped Favorite button saves the currently playing song to your list of favorite songs or removes the song from your favorites if it's already present. If you designate a song as a favorite, it is automatically added to the catalog as well. The Radio button starts and stops playback of a user-preset Internet radio stations. These stations are genre-specific with categories including '80s, Bluegrass, Dubstep, Jazz, Metal, Oldies, and Reggae. Users can also create their own custom stations by seeding an song title or artist's name (for example, Talib Kweli Radio) which can then be set as the default for the Radio button.
The core desktop Grooveshark experience is free, but to get the mobile-streaming feature that is required for the app to work, you'll need to step up to the paid Grooveshark Anywhere level of service. The Kit ships with a code for three months of free access to the service, but after that you'll have to sign up for a $9-per-month or $90-per-year subscription to keep listening on the go.
However, the Grooveshark app and its Livio-powered connection to the Kit can be a bit buggy. Sometimes, the app would flatly refuse to stream despite the presence of a strong wireless or Wi-Fi signal. At other times, it would cause the phone to unpair its Bluetooth connection with the Kit and refuse to pair again until one or both devices were rebooted. It actually took me about an hour of fiddling with the app's settings to get it to work well with the Kit. Even then, once I'd gotten hardware and software to play nice, the Grooveshark app was sluggish, taking between 3 and 4 seconds to respond to, for example, a tap of the Radio or Favorite button on the Kit. The app's onscreen controls were instantaneous and lag-free, leaving me to believe that whatever software hack Livio and Grooveshark are using to get the app to work with the Kit is the issue.
Livio Car Internet Radio app
The Grooveshark Kit lacks a dedicated button to launch the Livio Car Internet Radio app, but the ability to command the app is still present in its hardware.
The Livio Car Internet Radio app is available for both the Android and iPhone platforms. Functionality is nearly identical for the two versions of the app, which can stream hundreds of Internet-only radio stations using little more than your smartphone's data connection. You can search for stations based on genre of music, but there are also talk and radio-drama stations. The app has a tiered pricing structure. The free version of the app can only access a selection of a few hundred Internet radio stations, but using the app while paired with the Livio Kit unlocks what is normally a paid premium tier with access to over 45,000 local and global AM, FM, and Internet-only stations.
With the app playing back music from your chosen station, you can tap the plus-shaped Add to Catalog button to save the currently playing song's artist and album metadata for later retrieval and possible purchase. The forward and back buttons jump between the five user-set stations saved in the app. However, the scan function can't be accessed from the Grooveshark Kit, because it lacks a proper button.
Of course, being a universal Bluetooth A2DP device, the Kit can also route audio from any app running on the paired handset through your vehicle's speakers. So, you will be able to listen to Pandora, Stitcher, or locally stored media via the Kit with AVRCP controls for Play, Pause, and Skip intact. This universality also makes the Kit useful for amplifying the turn-by-turn directions of navigation apps, which can easily be misheard in the din of road and wind noise.
The Grooveshark Kit also handles hands-free calls when paired with a compatible phone. Incoming calls can be answered or rejected with the green and red phone buttons, respectively. Tapping the green phone button at any time brings up you phone's voice dialer, if available, and double-tapping that same button will automatically redial the last outbound number.
Call audio, like music audio, is output through the FM transmitter or the host car's stereo system. The tiny pinhole microphone for voice input is hidden between the red and green phone buttons. Call quality will ultimately depend on your vehicle's acoustics and the placement of the Kit in the cabin. Because of the location of our vehicle's 12-volt power output, the Kit was seated at the base of the dashboard's center stack, down by the driver's knees, so I ended up repeating myself quite a bit to make myself understood during calls.
As a hands-free calling package, the Grooveshark Kit is merely passable. Its design will likely place the calling microphone too far away from the driver's face to make chatting while driving enjoyable. There are better hands-free calling solutions available at the Kit's $99.99 MSRP.
However, as a music bridge between your smartphone and your car's stereo, the Kit is quite flexible and functional. With analog inputs and outputs, Bluetooth A2DP connectivity and AVRCP controls, and an FM transmitter, there aren't many phones and cars that the Kit can't get working together. The Grooveshark app was a source of frustration for me, but because of tiny differences between hardware and Android software versions, it may work perfectly for you. That the Kit can command the Livio Car Internet Radio app is also a huge bonus.