The Harman Kardon Drive + Play offers a fully integrated solution for listening to your iPod in the car--it even borrows its intuitive control scheme from the iPod's scrollwheel.
The Drive + Play consists of three main components done up in a dark gray metallic finish: a 2.5-inch (diagonal), five-line monochrome display, a small rotary control knob, and a 5-by-2.5-by-1-inch electronics box (the brain) that connects everything together. The display and control knob assembly come with mounting hardware for permanent installation on your vehicle's dashboard or center console, and the electronics enclosure can be mounted under a seat or the dashboard or in a glove compartment. Harman Kardon recommends having the Drive + Play installed by professionals, and we agree, since there are lots of wires to run, and you'll need to drill holes to mount the components. However, if you have previous experience with car stereo installations, the written instructions do a good job of walking you through the entire wiring and installation process. Included in the box is a 12-volt cigarette adapter, a 12-volt wiring harness for connecting directly to the vehicle's electrical system, a cable for connecting the iPod to the brain, and various cable ties to keep everything neat and tidy. You also get a line-out stereo cable for plugging directly into your existing CD/radio unit.
The Harman Kardon Drive + Play can be connected to your car stereo one of three ways. The easiest option is to use the 12-volt adapter to bring power to the unit and select the wireless FM method of transmission. The brain has a built-in FM transmitter that will tune in to one of five predetermined frequencies to transmit iPod audio through the car radio. However, this method provides the least optimal sound quality and is subject to outside interference. You can also use a wired FM hookup, which produces better sound but requires a special wiring harness, which is not included in the package. The ideal connection involves wiring the unit to your vehicle's auxiliary input jack, but if you don't have an auxiliary jack on the front of your radio, you'll have to partially remove the radio to make the connection from the rear of the unit--you see what we mean about getting professional help.
Once connected, the Harman Kardon Drive + Play screen looks very much like the iPod screen, displaying the familiar menu of Playlists, Artists, Albums, Songs, Genres, and Composers. There's also a Settings menu for selecting the FM frequency; toggling the Shuffle function; and setting display attributes such as brightness, contrast, and font size. The control knob is lit by a blue LED and has four buttons for play/pause, selecting options, repeating tracks, and moving forward through the songs list. A spring-loaded outer ring rotates 90 degrees to the left and right, letting you scroll through menu items one selection at a time, or you can jump through several choices by rotating and holding the ring.
We tested the Harman Kardon Drive + Play both with the wireless FM connection and with the unit directly to our audio jacks. With the unit in wireless FM mode, we could use only one frequency (88.1MHz) to play our tunes, and the audio quality was severely lacking. It must be said, however, that we tested this in an urban setting, which is never ideal for FM transmitters. The presence of static hum and other background noise was overwhelming at times, and even when it was minimal, it was annoying. However, audio quality with a direct connection was clean as a whistle and provided a full, robust wall of sound. If you're going to shell out the 200 bucks to buy this thing, definitely go with a direct connection.
The screen was easy to read, displaying clear, legible text, and we had no problem viewing it in direct sunlight, although it lost some luster when viewed from an angle. The control knob took a little getting used to, but after playing with it for five minutes, we found it fairly easy to navigate through the various iPod menus. Even so, we think it's a good idea to set up your tunes before you get behind the wheel in order to avoid unnecessary distractions.