The Alpine CDE-102 CD receiver is about as entry level as car stereos come these days. It plays CDs and that's about it...or is it?
As it turns out, even an entry-level car stereo can hide a few tricks up its sleeve. For example, the Alpine can playback digital media from its optical drive and a USB port on the faceplate.
As a single-DIN car stereo receiver, the Alpine CDE-102 doesn't have very much faceplate real estate to work with and, as a result, its interface emphasizes efficiency over aesthetics.
The Alpine has the bulk of its controls on the left end of the faceplate, nearest to the driver. A bank of four blue buttons for source/power, band (AM/FM), skip forward, and skip backward highlight the most commonly used functions.
Next, a metallic knob with a rubber grip twists to control the volume and can be pressed like a button to cycle through basic audio adjustments for bass, treble, balance, and fader.
To the right of the volume knob are two buttons: a telephone/voice dial button that does nothing out of the box and a sound/setup button. Below the volume knob are three buttons for mute, search, and play/pause. Pressing the search button changes these three buttons' functions to back, escape, and enter, respectively, and changes the volume button into a scroll wheel.
Beneath the exposed CD slot, a monochromatic single-line LCD screen occupies the bulk of the faceplate. Users can alternate between displaying artist, title, album, file name, or folder name, but not at the same time. The display can only show 10 characters at a time, so long titles will have to scroll.
To the far right of the screen is a USB port with a rubber cover and a 1/8-inch analog auxiliary input. Many people may like the front USB port for easy access and simpler installation, but we're not fans of cables hanging around the cabin or having our USB thumbdrive sticking out into the air where it could be accidentally smacked and broken off. A USB pigtail that could be hidden in the center console or glove compartment would be a much more elegant solution.
Lining the bottom of the display are secondary function buttons for radio presets, repeat, shuffle, and a view button that cycles through display information.
The faceplate is detachable for security and stores in a hard plastic case. On the rear of the unit, you will find a standard wiring harness, an antenna connection, Alpine's proprietary Bluetooth module connection cable, and a pair of stereo RCA preamp outputs. The first output is a full-range front channel; the second output can be switched between full-range rear channel or low-pass filter subwoofer output.
The Alpine CDE-102 starts with playback of AM/FM radio and Red Book audio CDs then adds MP3/WMA/AAC playback to the mix. Users are also able to feed their media to the unit via USB port.
MP3 CDs and USB devices can be browsed using the CDE-102's search mode to navigate files and subfolders. You can jump quickly through large lists of digital audio files using the unit's percentage search function.
Although Alpine has slapped the "Made for iPod" and "Works with iPhone" badges all over the CDE-102's box, the unit doesn't actually support Apple's digital media player out of the box. You have to purchase a $30 KCE-433iV full-speed iPod connection cable to use iPods and iPhones with the head unit.
Alpine left its Ai-NET digital bus off of the CDE-102, so there can be no adding HD radio or satellite radio receivers to this head unit. However, the Bluetooth module connection means that hands-free calling and A2DP audio streaming can be added and controlled using the CDE-102's interface.
We ran into issues getting the unit to read from our 8GB USB drive, but our smaller drives were recognized without issue. Browsing through files and folders happens quickly whether we used the USB port or MP3 CDs.
Pressing and holding the volume knob for 2 seconds toggles the Loudness mode, which boosts the audio output of smaller OEM speakers. With only a two-band EQ (bass and treble), you have surprisingly little control over the sound quality. And without the Ai-NET connection, there's no way to add Alpine's Imprint audio processor to the mix.
Power output is rated at 50 watts x 4 channels max, with an average (RMS) output of 18 watts per channel, which is quite respectable for an entry-level stereo.
By not giving the CDE-102 a dedicated subwoofer output, you lose in-dash fader control if you choose to use a subwoofer. However, you are given the opportunity to disable the internal amplifier to reduce line noise while using the preamp output to power an external amplifier, a feature that we usually only see on high-end audiophile receivers.
We wouldn't say that the CDE-102 is the best system to start building an audiophile system. While the unit has some high-end features, it ultimately lacks the expandability that we've come to demand from our car stereos.
However, we do think that the Alpine CDE-102 would be an excellent OEM replacement stereo for older vehicles, as it offers more power, features, and flexibility than the average factory radio.