Harman Kardon Drive + Play 2 iPod Control System review: Harman Kardon Drive + Play 2 iPod Control System

Harman Kardon Drive + Play 2 iPod Control System

6 min read

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The first Drive + Play from Harman Kardon gave drivers a useful, basic means of controlling their iPods while on the road. With its limited range of features, monochrome display, and clunky electronics box, however, the original device was beginning to look dated, and it was only a matter of time before it was updated with something a bit snazzier.


Harman Kardon Drive + Play 2 iPod Control System

The Good

A crisp display, an intuitive menu structure, and some advanced search and playlist-refinement functions make the Harman Kardon Drive + Play 2 a great standalone in-car iPod interface.

The Bad

The device could use a faster processor at times, especially for rendering album art, and audio playback via its FM transmitter can be sketchy.

The Bottom Line

The Harman Kardon Drive + Play 2 is a stylish and functional aid for playing digital music in the car. Its iPod compatibility and dynamic channel creation function really separate it from the pack, although you pay for what you get.

The Drive + Play 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, adding a stylish interface and a host of new features into the bargain. Gone is the black-on-gray screen of the previous model, replaced by a 3.5-inch full color screen, hooked up to a small digital-audio hub. The device transfers all iPod information (including album art) to the display, where it is presented in crisply rendered and intuitively designed menus. All controls are made via a sleek wireless knob. The Drive + Play 2 relies on an FM signal (either via a wireless transmitter or a car's wired antenna) or a line-in connection to play audio via a car's speakers.

In contrast to its predecessor, the Drive + Play 2 is a good-looking piece of gadgetry. Black lacquer-effect plastic and matte silver trim for the hub and the control knob give them a high-tech feel, while the theme (i.e., color) of the display menus can be configured to one of five bright hues. For those who really want to personalize their Drive + Play 2, screensavers can be downloaded from the Harman Kardon Web site.

The Drive + Play 2's digital-audio/expansion hub is the brains of the device's operations, and connects the iPod (or other storage device), the display, and the power source. The hub can be either plugged into a cigarette lighter adapter, or hardwired into the car's 12-volt circuit. Despite the relatively small size of its components, with the hub stuck into the cigarette lighter port, the three-piece Drive + Play 2 can dominate most of the available surface area in a car. With the hub hardwired and hidden away, the screen and the control knob can be positioned according to the driver's preference, taking up less space and displaying only the system's essential components.

For affixing the display module to a car's dashboard (or A-pillar), Harman provides a mounting plate and a hex screw mechanism that requires users to twist the module into place each time they get in the car. We found this system surprisingly hard to use, and we found ourselves twisting and jimmying the screen module around for a while before we could get it to lock into place on the base. With practice, this might be accomplished more easily, but our first impressions were not wholly satisfactory.

The Drive + Play 2's wireless control knob was designed around the theme of the iPod control wheel, and while this is not unusual--many car stereo interfaces have attempted a similar thing--the Drive + Play 2 actually succeeds in transferring much of the legendary iPod functionality to the driver. Each of the four buttons around the rim of the control knob corresponds to the buttons on the iPod faceplate and the central dome can be pressed in to make a selection.

The Drive + Play 2 is primarily an iPod interface. Right down to the fonts used for its menus, the system mimics the experience of an iPod, with menu structures and categories (playlists, artists, albums, songs, podcasts, etc.) exactly the same as those found on the player itself.

Similar to newer iPod models, the Drive + Play 2 features an alphabet search function that enables users to quickly navigate their digital music libraries. The function is enabled when searching alphabetically sorted lists such as artist, album, or track lists by holding down the top button, which opens a box on the screen showing a letter. By turning the ring, clockwise, users can search for entries by letter. We really like this feature, as it gives drivers a quick and easy-to-use option for getting through vast iPod libraries. The Drive + Play 2 even has an option in its settings menu that allows users to calibrate the control knob acceleration, depending on how quickly they like to zip through their iPod menus.

The Drive + Play 2 features a very useful alphabet search function for navigating digital-audio libraries.

In addition to its advanced iPod compatibility, the Drive + Play 2 also can be used to play tunes from other MP3 players, including the Microsoft Zune, as well as from generic USB storage devices. Even with generic USB devices connected, the Drive + Play 2 indexes audio tracks and presents them in the iPod menu structure, making it very easy to navigate and select music.

The most advanced feature of the Drive + Play 2 is its Automatic Mix feature, which enables drivers to create and refine unique playlists from their digital music libraries on the fly. Automatic Mix makes use of a dynamic channel creation system, which categorizes iPod tracks into "channels" based on their acoustic properties. Having selected a channel, users can then customize it by entering feedback by holding down the top button. This brings up three options: More like this; Less like this; and Play something else. With the use of such feedback, the Drive + Play 2 refines your playlist to give you more of what you want to hear (in much the same way as the Music Genome Project on Pandora.com).

Drivers can customize and refine their music channels by entering feedback to particular songs.

In addition to its port for connecting portable audio devices, the hub has a port for the Harman/ Net interface, which enables the connection of satellite radio and Bluetooth hands-free calling modules.

In general, we are very impressed with the Drive + Play 2. Its color display presents menus and album graphics with crisp definition, and the device has a good range of visual customization options. For music selection, the device takes much of its inspiration from Apple's renowned easy-to-use iPod menu structure. The LCD screen displays graphics and menus with startling clarity, and with an iPod or USB device plugged in, its music is instantly accessible, and menu screens take less than a second to populate. We did, however, find ourselves waiting around for the screen to render album art for tracks that had it: in some instances, it takes up to seven seconds for the screen to finish loading a particular album cover. This can be particularly frustrating as users are obligated to wait until the art is rendered before skipping forward or back--something that is likely to prove annoying in those precious few seconds at the stoplight when trying to find your favorite song.

We like the fact that the Drive + Play 2 can index and arrange tracks from generic mass storage devices.

In our experience, playback via the line-in cable is a lot clearer than via the FM transmitter, which delivered a fuzzy signal at times. However, users will need a car stereo with a 1/8-inch auxiliary input jack to take advantage of the line-in option. For those who do connect via the aux jack, the Drive + Play 2 has settings for adjusting line-out gain and iPod-in gain, giving another level of customization.

One thing that is conspicuously absent when using the Drive + Play 2 to play music via a car stereo is the device's ability to control the audio volume level. Instead, users have to turn volume up and down using the car stereo's controls, which adds a level of inconvenience into the music playback. One other minor niggle is that, unlike with the iPod control interface, the left and right buttons on the control knob cannot be used to search within tracks, which is not too much of a problem for audio tracks, but might prove to be a frustration with podcasts or e-books.

In sum
Despite its few usability glitches, the Drive + Play 2 is a great option for those wanting enhanced control over their portable digital-audio libraries while on the road. At $400, it is not cheap, particularly considering that it still requires a car stereo to work (the Alpine IDA-X001 can perform many of the same functions and give a decent car stereo thrown in for the same price), but for design and ease of use--particularly for iPod playback--the Drive + Play 2 is hard to beat.


Harman Kardon Drive + Play 2 iPod Control System

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 7