The iDA-X001 is the first car stereo we have seen that has no internal moving parts. Designed primarily as an iPod interface, the single-DIN-size stereo comes with a range of features that gives drivers direct control over the songs in their iPod libraries via well-structured menus and a novel, if fidgety, selection interface. Owners of fifth-generation iPods and later will get the most benefit from the iDA-X001, which provides a high-speed digital connection between the player and car stereo via a USB 2.0 connection. The USB port can also be used to play MP3, WMA, and AAC audio files from generic USB mass storage devices such as thumbdrives or pocket hard drives.
The iDA-X001 confirms that it is a child of the MP3 age through its conspicuous lack of any slot for CDs or any other disc-based media. Those who want to play old-fashioned discs can opt for a six-disc changer, sold separately. Other optional add-ons for the iDA-X001 include modules for Bluetooth hands-free calling, satellite radio, and HD radio.
Many car stereos come with the ability to play music from an iPod, whether via a generic auxiliary input jack, or using a dedicated iPod dock connector and a touch screen interface (such as those we have seen on the Clarion MAX675VD, the Pioneer Avic D3, and the Dual XDVD8182), which give the car stereo control of the search and playback functions for the iPod library. The Alpine iDA-X001 takes iPod connectivity a step further by transferring audio--and image--data via a high-speed digital USB connection.
In terms of data transfer rates, the difference between USB and a regular digital-to-analog dock connector cable is vast: according to Alpine, the iDA-X001's USB connection transfers data at 480 Mbps, more than 25,000 times the rate of a regular intelligent iPod-connector cable. This might seem like a big deal, but it really makes very little difference in the transfer of regular compressed digital audio files. Where drivers will notice a difference will be with CDs ripped losslessly to iPods, and higher-resolution compressed audio files, such as the 256 Kbps AAC files that EMI soon will make available on iTunes.
The increased bandwidth and pure digital connection between the iPod and the stereo also enables the iDA-X001 to transfer album art from fifth-generation iPods, and to provide a better signal-to-noise ratio than regular digital-to-analog connectors. For the majority of iPod owners who will be using the iDA-X001 to stream compressed audio files, the system features a Media Extender (MX) function for restoring lost audio quality. The MX can be customized to one of three levels depending on what kind of audio output you want. Other EQ controls include settings for bass, treble, and fade, as well as a separate setting for subwoofer volume. For those who want to customize the visual appearance of the faceplate, there is also an option to change the background color from blue to red.
Apart from the absence of a CD slot, the faceplate design of the iDA-X001 is not dissimilar to other single-DIN units. A cluster of buttons on the left of the unit lets you select sources, skip between tracks and radio stations, and mute the audio output, while a dedicated Phone button gives drivers a useful one-touch gateway to the optional Bluetooth hands-free calling feature. The iDA-X001's Skip and Search buttons work well for navigating within a particular menu list, and the Pause/Play button and Mute button are useful for stopping the music in a hurry.
The center of the faceplate is dominated by a spring-loaded jog wheel, which is the main interface for browsing through iPod libraries. In a clever design touch, this dial enables variable search modes depending on how far it is turned, in homage to the variable search speeds of the iPod wheel. For skipping thorough songs one at a time, turn the wheel through 10 degrees; for faster searching, turn the dial to its maximum limit. In practice, we found using the dial less intuitive than we expected. To launch the search function, you have to press the large button on the front of the wheel itself (so far, so good), but then to make a selection of a particular category/album/artist etc, you have to press a separate ENT button to the left of the wheel. Having become accustomed to using the wheel in the center of our iPod to make selections, we found the necessity for this extra button a little cumbersome. Secondly, while the dial's variable-speed searching does speed up the process of navigating lists of songs, it is nowhere near as effective as the iPod wheel upon which it is based. For example, it took us more than a minute holding the wheel at the higher search speed to get from the top to the bottom of the songs on our iPod.
Searching through long lists of songs, albums, and artists is made easier by the inclusion of an alphabet search function (a feature inspired by newer iPods), which can be turned on by pressing and holding the center search button while in a submenu. While we like the idea of this function, its execution is less than ideal. The alphabet search function gets confused by upper and lower cases of letters as well as prefixes to artist names (instead of going from the top of the list of artists beginning with "K" to the top of the list of artist beginning with "J", the system stops at The Kinks, seeing the "T" as a separate letter.) This has the effect of significantly slowing down--and therefore limiting the usefulness--of the alphabet search feature.
Having said that, we do like the memory function of the iDA-X001, which enables users to back up one level and return to the same point in the previous menu that they navigated from. For example, if you select a track from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, you can press the Back button to take you back to the other songs in the album, instead of having to go back to the root level menu. A very useful feature in the setup menu allows drivers to customize which iPod categories (playlists/artists/albums/podcasts/audiobooks/songs, and so on) will appear when a player is connected.
All menus and information is displayed on the system's bright 320x240-pixel TFT screen. Alpine has put a lot of effort into ensuring that the menus on the display mimic those on the iPod itself: the screen is configured in the same aspect ratio as that of an iPod display, and even the text fonts are based closely on those used by Apple.
When tabbing through menus, there are only around 12 characters that are displayed for each track/album/artist name. Although the title can be set to automatically scroll across, this process takes about 10 seconds to commence and the scrolling is a little too slow for our liking.
Perhaps the most visually impressive feature of the iDA-x001 is its ability to show album art from suitably equipped iPods. In the default view, CD artwork is shown as a thumbnail graphic, with the track name, album, and artist information shown alongside. In this view, the album art is small, but crisply reproduced. In the full screen view, in which the artwork is blown up to a size of 200x200 pixels, the image loses some of its resolution, becoming fuzzy, though still legible from the distance of the driver's seat.
The stylish Alpine iDA-X001 is a useful interface for making your iPod library accessible in the car. We like its advanced digital connectivity that enables the transfer of album art and lossless playback, as well as its clean faceplate design and its well structured menus. However, its main jog-wheel interface is still a good way behind the simple functionality offered by the iPod itself.