When was the last time you walked into a store and purchased a CD? If it takes you a few moments to come up with an answer, you've probably made the jump to digitally distributed and stored audio. If so, Alpine may have the car stereo for you, the Alpine iDA-X100 digital media receiver.
The iDA-X100 eschews physical media in favor of a purely digital approach. Music is played back over a USB pigtail that features full-speed iPod connectivity. An intuitive interface makes it easy to find the song you want, and advanced audio controls ensure that your digital music sounds as good as the day you ripped it.
The first thing you'll notice about the Alpine iDA-X100 is the huge knob in the center of the faceplate. The Double Action Encoder, as the instruction manual calls it, is twisted to adjust volume, navigate menus, and choose songs. Pushing the large select button in the knob's center makes selections in menus and enters the search mode when a digital-audio source is selected. The outer ring of the knob can be pressed and rotated for the Percent Search mode, which is used to quickly jump through long lists. If, for example, you want to quickly get to an artist beginning with the letter Q, you can press, twist, and hold the outer ring to quickly jump from A to B and so on, instead of endlessly rotating the dial and scrolling through all of the artists on the device. The Percent Search is also used to jump between radio presets and MP3 folders and playlists when not in search mode.
A full color LCD display fills the right third of the receiver's face. Here you'll find song and menu information and, if connected to an iPod, album artwork. Buttons flank the center knob and fill the left third of the front panel. The Alpine iDA-X100 cannot display video content from a connected device, but at 2.2 inches diagonal, it's probably too small for comfortable viewing anyway.
The iDA-X100 lacks an optical media player, so if you're the type of user who listens to many CDs or burns MP3s to disc, then this is not the player for you. In place of the disc slot, the iDA-X100 gains a full speed USB connection for lightning quick access to music stored on MP3 players, iPods, and other USB mass storage devices. The iDA-X100 plays back MP3, WMA, and AAC files and can even handle DRM protected digital audio.
Alpine has curiously decided to make the faceplate only partially detachable. The user is able to remove the left two-thirds of the faceplate, which includes the buttons and the center knob, but the LCD screen stays in place. The faceplate's buttons and the LCD screen feature blue edge illumination and backlighting, which can be changed to red illumination through the menu.
Outputting an average of 18 watts into four discrete channels (50 watts per channel max) the Alpine iDA-X100 represents a notable upgrade in volume and sound quality over most stock car stereos. For those wishing to further tweak the sound, the receiver features three 2-volt full-range preamp outputs with a third dedicated subwoofer preamp output with level controls for adding additional amplifiers and speakers.
An advanced equalizer and the Imprint audio processor allow users to fine tune the dynamic range, staging, and individual speaker delay to meet the needs of their unique vehicles and optimize the sound for the full vehicle or specifically for the driver's seat. So that you don't waste all of that processing power playing back compressed digital audio, the receiver also features a Media Xpander (MX) setting that helps correct information lost at time of compression. The MX can also be applied to analog sources, such as FM radio, to boost sound quality, but it sounds best with digital sources.
The iDA-X100 is also upgradable via external modules for additional functionality. Satellite radio, HD Radio, Bluetooth hands-free, and an external CD changer are among the modules that can be connected to and controlled by the iDA-X100 through its proprietary Ai-Net connection. When connected to the Bluetooth module, the iDA-X100 also gains the ability to stream music from A2DP Bluetooth-enabled devices.
When connected to Alpine's HD Radio receiver--the TUA-T550HD--and an Apple iPod, the iDA-X100 gains the ability to iTunes-tag songs. If the HD Radio broadcast contains artist/song information, holding the center select button stores the song's metadata onto the connected iPod. Later, when the iPod is reconnected to iTunes for syncing, a playlist is created under the Store heading called "Tagged." Users can then listen to a 30-second preview of the song or purchase the song for downloading.
We tested the iDA-X100 with a 16GB iPod Touch. Upon connecting the iPod, the iDA-X100 began scanning the device. After about a 10- to 15-second search, the receiver started playback. The receiver picks up playback wherever the iPod left off, so if you were listening to a song or podcast as you entered your car, the iDA-X100 would resume at the exact spot you paused.
The full-speed iPod connection allows for extremely quick navigation of artists, albums, genres, and podcasts--nearly as quick as the iPod itself. The direct connection to the iPod means that the iDA-X100 can play back any format that an iPod can, including MP3, AAC, and Apple Lossless. We're very happy about that last one, as most iPod-compatible receivers don't play the lossless format.
When connected to a USB key, we were able to browse folders full of MP3s just as quickly as with the iPod. The center knob and its Percent Search feature make it very easy to jump from folder to folder without drudging through menus.
We only ran into one consistent glitch during our test of the iDA-X100. While listening to audio stored on an iPod, if we powered the unit off while leaving the iPod connected--for example, to step away from the vehicle--upon restarting the car and the receiver, the iDA-X100 would forget that a device was attached and require that we disconnect and reconnect the cable to rerecognize. The glitch didn't occur with music stored on a USB key, so it may be more of an issue with the iPod's firmware than the iDA-X100, but it was annoying nonetheless.
Some will look at the Alpine iDA-X100 and see a receiver that won't play their CDs. These people will feel that they're not getting their money's worth by purchasing such an odd device.
Alpine lists the iDA-X100 with an MSRP of $399, but we've found it retailing for as low as $299. For a similar amount of money, one could have the Sony XPLOD CDX-GT920U, which features a fantastic-sounding CD player, but no iPod compatibility and sluggish browsing of MP3 devices over USB. The Alpine also features a more advanced audio processor that, with tweaking, makes the iDA-X100 sound better than the Sony XPLOD unit.For those ready to completely embrace the digital age, the Alpine iDA-X100 may be the perfect device. It offers everything one needs to browse digital media quickly on the road: an ultrafast USB connection, a sharp and easy-to-read screen, and a simple and intuitive interface.