The trickle of HD Radio-capable aftermarket car stereos is starting to turn into a stream. Following the launch of JVC's KD-HDR1 and Sony's CDX-GT520, Alpine brings us the CDA-9885, a single-DIN in-dash CD player with the ability to act as an HD Radio tuner.
Like the Sony HD stereos we've seen to date, the CDA-9885 requires the addition of a large, unwieldy external module to pick up digital broadcasts, which makes it a challenge to install cleanly behind a small car's dashboard (we know from bitter experience, as our test car is a Chevy Aveo).
Other than its headline feature, the stylish CDA-9885 provides drivers with a range of disc playback options, a delightful digital-audio navigation interface, and a good selection of expandability in the form of Bluetooth hands-free calling, and compatibility with iPods and satellite radio tuners.
Design and features
Alpine makes some of the most attractive car stereos on the market (see the iDA-X001), and the CDA-9885 is no exception. Its colorful bank of backlit buttons on the right side of the volume dial can be set to either red or blue, depending on your mood or the car's interior.
For other buttons, such as the six presets and the navigation buttons to the left of the dial, a muted red backlighting gives the system a uniform color scheme and makes it easy to use at night. With the choice of four background visual (BGV) animations, the system's green-on-black monochrome LCD screen can be as busy as your tastes desire. Personally, we preferred to turn the graphics off to get a clearer view of the screen's text information for HD Radio programming and disc-based digital-audio tracks.
In contrast to some stereos with a similar amount of screen real estate, the CDA-9885's display shows a relatively large number of text characters, making it easy to navigate radio stations and audio libraries at a glance. For HD Radio stations, the display shows artist and song information (where available) and other details on station frequency, time, and date, which can be cycled through by pressing the Title button to the right of the display.
With an MP3/ WMA/AAC disc inserted in the single slot behind the stereo's mechanical drop-down faceplate, the display can be set to show information for artist and track names, or folder and file names. For text tags that are longer than the allocated 15 characters, the display can be set to scroll information automatically, which is a useful feature.
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.