Newer cars are making it harder than ever to upgrade the in-car entertainment experience. The traditional DIN head unit is slowly disappearing, replaced by sweeping new dash designs that require serious overhauling to alter. Thankfully, systems like the Pure Highway 300Di offer a twist on the entertainment upgrade, delivering a small mountable interface that separates your new equipment from any specific dashboard compatibility requirements. Three years on since digital entered the Australian radio market, DAB+ radios are still a rarity in cars rolling out of dealerships today, and the Highway 300Di is going to give many drivers the good stuff with only a little fuss.
Looking at the main promo pics and you might think that the Highway 300Di is an off-the-shelf DAB+ transmitter for your car. That was the case with the original Pure Highway unit, but this time, looks are deceiving. The system is set apart from more basic options by an active aerial that is mounted on your car windscreen, and the brains of the system is hidden away behind the dash or glovebox. The external aerial is removable, should you be worried about vandals, and the interface unit is also detachable.
The system also offers a USB input that can be used for an iDevice, any other USB device or even just a USB stick with music.
You can use the system either by direct input into an auxiliary, if your stereo supports such input, or by tuning it in over FM transmission like you would any simple FM transmitter attached to a phone or digital music player.
The interface unit sits on a fixed bracket, but it can be adjusted quite freely to get it pointing just where you want it. The control system revolves around a large dial and four simple buttons up front, plus menu and favourites buttons on top. The two line OLED display is crisp and clear at any time of day, and the buttons are backlit for similarly comfortable use, day or night.
First and foremost, you're buying the Highway 300Di to deliver DAB+ to your car. To that end, the 300Di offers not one, but two digital tuners alongside that big active aerial. The second tuner gives a great experience while browsing for something else to tune into. Not only do DAB+ broadcasts include a data stream, showing a mixture of news and weather updates, as well as track information, but it's quite common for secondary stations to change their names to coincide with a special event broadcast. The second tuner makes sure that this information is all up to date while you explore your options, where a single tuner would only deliver a saved piece of information from the last time that station was scanned.
The Highway 300Di controls point to its smart listening features, giving you some DVR-style pause and rewind functions to enhance the radio experience. You can skip back in short jumps, or pause while chatting with a passenger or taking a call. The pause feature also lets you hit pause while switching off the car, so you can come back and pick up right where you left off. The buffer will last about eight to 15 minutes, depending on the bitrate of the station you're listening to.
The Highway 300Di also offers "Picnic" mode, which lets you run the unit and keep listening with the car switched off for up to one hour. Just wind down the windows and enjoy.
The input of USB devices can also be controlled on screen, with the forward, play/pause, and back buttons, giving direct control over music libraries and iDevices. The universal nature of the straight USB port, rather than an iDock of some kind, is clearly an advantage during Apple's transition to its new connector. We tested the port with the iPhone 5, and it performed exactly as you would want it to.
We did a few drives between North Sydney and the Southern Highlands with the Highway 300Di, along both the M5 and M7 routes, and found that the unit rarely skipped a beat. We discovered that there is currently no support for DAB+ in the motorway tunnels around Sydney, but apart from those blackouts, the listening experience was silky smooth. The single area it had any trouble with signal was actually driving the Gore Hill Freeway near the TV towers for Channel 9 and the ABC, where television broadcast towers might be the cause of some interference for digital systems.
Stations do take a little while to come to life when you select them, but once tuned in, the performance is bang on.
The biggest problem with the 300Di is station management. The interface is too simple to be able to easily take advantage of the wealth of new radio options that it could deliver to your car. For example, in our playing with the system, we found 16 digital stations that we thought we would enjoy from time to time (you can favourite up to 30 stations). To bring up a favourite you, twist the knob to get to the preset you're looking for, or you tap the favourite button the number of times that corresponds with the preset position. That means either glancing down at the Highway quite a lot over an uncomfortable number of seconds while twiddling for what you want, or tapping the button up top and being careful to keep count.
This is thankfully not so bad as to discount the entire system. In this case though, it is really the one factor that stops it short of winning our Editors Choice award. It's simply something that has a lot of room for improvement, and a factor caused by suddenly having more radio stations than ever to choose from. Our suggestion would be a strip of preset buttons above the screen to let you have key stations ready for one-touch access.
There are cheaper head units available that include DAB+ tuners, so if you just want something entirely integrated, that might be a better place to look. But the Highway 300Di fills an important gap in the market for those that are happy with their current set-up and want to add DAB+ as an extra, or those who can't alter their dashboard entertainment system without serious reconstructive surgery.
By balancing simplicity with solid installation, the Highway 300Di is a very smart choice for anyone looking for a great in-car digital radio experience.