Alpine Electronics broke from the pack a couple of years ago and launched a new series of in-dash radios designed specifically for the iPod user. The company's studies had shown that iPod listeners rarely listened to the CD format in their vehicles, and almost exclusively used their iPods for listening to their favorite artists.
Alpine reasoned that if it dispensed with the CD mechanism and focused on features that iPod users would appreciate, it would have a hit. It was only partially right, but momentum is gaining.
These "mechless" head units were a real break from tradition, and many of the Alpine dealers ran into a mental stumbling block selling radios that could not play the CD format. Their iPod customers didn't care, though, and soon the "IDAX" series of products were some of Alpine's best sellers. They keep getting better and better each year, and recently I had the opportunity to test drive the newest unit, the IXAW404.
The Alpine IXAW404 is the company's first double-DiN offering in the iPod lineup. Most cars built today use this size of radio, and it offers a lot of advantages over the aftermarket's standard single-DIN design. Besides looking more factory-like when installed, the double-DIN format provides more physical real estate for the designers to work with, so the consumer gets the benefit of a larger display screen, larger and easier-to-use knobs and buttons, and a generally less cluttered appearance.
My overall impression of the IXAW404 was very favorable. The unit is dominated by a 4.3-inch QGVA color monitor and large control knob. The screen is used to inform the driver of the functions being performed by the deck. When in iPod mode, it will show artist, song and title information, as well as cover art (if loaded onto the iPod). The resolution is very good, and the smallest detail on the cover art is well represented. It's not necessary, but it's a nice touch that ties the user to his or her iPod experience. The screen also has an input for an optional navigation system and also a dedicated backup camera input. The IXAW404 has typical Alpine fit and finish. Everything looks well made and it "feels right" when you twist knobs or push buttons. The large center button is plastic, but it looks good. I would have preferred something in aluminum for a knob this large, but it comes off OK.
Alpine was one of the first manufacturers to work directly with Apple instead of "reverse engineering" its iPod interface. The result is an Apple-certified "Made for iPod" and "Works with iPhone" rating. All iPod and iPhone functions are supported, including video file search and playback, and you won't get the annoying "Airplane Mode?" warning with iPhones. The connection to the unit is through a supplied iPod/iPhone dock to USB, and it is superfast.
The rest of the unit is AM/FM and...well, that's it. AM/FM/iPod is all you really need, but it is fully upgradable with optional HD Radio tuners, Sirius/XM satellite radio, Bluetooth, navigation, and even a DVD/CD Changer for the die-hards who still need some plastic in their playback. One interesting feature on the HD tuner this year is iTunes Tagging. If you are listening to HD and hear a song you like, one touch on the main control knob tags that song and stores it in your iPod. The next time you hook up with iTunes, you will be asked if you want to download the song from the iTunes store.
I definitely liked this unit. If you are an iPod user, and can't remember the last time you played an actual CD in your car, don't even think twice. Good fit and finish, ease of use, great song search features, and an easy-to-see screen make this piece a winner.
John Haynes, aka Mr. Mobile of Al & Ed's Autosound, contributes articles from the shop floor about car stereo and electronics to CNET. Al & Ed's Autosound is a multistore, professional installer of car audio systems and electronics.)