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Alpine Head Unit and iPod Adapter Review

Sent in by MotoringFile reader Brian Shearon:

When contemplating stereo options for my 2005 MCS Convertible, I knew the increased road noise (both with the top up as well as down) from the soft top would be something I would need to overcome. I also knew I wanted to take my Ipod Mini (fitting, isn’t it) along with me to listen to in the car.

I’d tried the Griffin iTrip wireless FM modulator, and was less than pleased with the sound quality and the amount of static in it. I also looked into using the ‘official’ MINI Ipod adapter, but was concerned that no display information for song artist or title would show on the factory head unit.

Using the factory stereo to me wasn’t an option as the ICE link does allow you to control an Ipod from the factory stereo, but you have no display information which (to me, at least) defeats the purpose of having thousands of songs on tap.

So what was an Ipod fan to do? Well I’ve always been a fan of Alpine head units, and heading over to their website a few months ago, I noticed they had introduced a perfect solution for my problem. The KCA-420i Ipod interface with many of their 2004 and 2005 head units, and gives not only a direct link to the Ipod, increasing sound quality over a FM modulated unit, but it also shows the display information from the Ipod. It also allows complete control of the Ipod, pulling playlist information, and allowing you to search by playlist, artist, etc. Not only is this very handy, but this adapter charges the Ipod as well. So you can drive around all day in your MINI, and when you’re done, the Ipod is still fully charged. When you turn the key off, your Ipod is turned off as well.

The head unit I chose was the Alpine CDA-9855 and a nice 4-channel Alpine amplifier to go along with it, and used the factory speakers. I also installed a XM satellite radio module to go along with the system.

First, there is concern about where to install a satellite radio antenna. I installed mine on the dash as the antenna is very small and doesn’t stand out much at all. I ran the wires for the Ipod adapter in the glove box, which is perfect as it locks, keeping the Ipod safe and sound. The CD player went in place of the factor, and the amplifier installed in the trunk. A very nice thing as well with the amplifier installation is that the battery is in the trunk, meaning the installation time for the whole ball of wax was only about 3 hours.

From top to bottom I paid about $1000 for the CD player, Ipod adapter, amplifier, satellite radio module, parts and cabling. The H/K system with Ipod adapter costs $700. To me, the $300 additional is well worth it for the great increase in sound quality, satellite radio functionality, and having the Ipod display in the head unit.

You can seea demo of the headunit here.

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Written By: MF Reader

  • http://www.gbmini.net/ Ian

    Surprising to go so far, and not upgrade the speakers

  • Gianni

    Very cool. Can you control the head unit through the multi function steering wheel?

  • The Blue Canary

    When the iPod is connect, it turns off fucntion from the unit right? (Like if you had it in the Mini iPod setup.)

  • Kurt Gillespie

    Very cool… nice choice staying away from Ice Link Plus, cause I bought it for the text and I still don’t have those abilities…

  • blynch

    In comparison to the H/K system, just a headunit upgrade can’t really compare since it is also a speaker upgrade. Definetley a nice iPod setup though.

  • rustyb

    Do you have any pics of the installation?

  • jared

    Gianni,

    I believe you can’t which is why I went with the Ice Link. The display on my iPod is fine, to see which track is playing.

  • RB

    You gave an Alpine description that says it can do all that stuff but you never did say if it did or how well it worked.

    Are you happy with all? It sounds as if there is no multi function steering wheel connection.

    I’m with Ian on the speakers,

    I have to agree with you on the itrip piece of junk, I sent it back to Griffin with a tersely worded note.

    I love my ICE Link. I wish I could see the artist on my HK receiver or I wish Dension would display bigger fonts so I could see artists on my mini ipod.

    RB

  • Edge

    The Griffin IS terrible, but obviously FM transmission is going to be limited no matter what you go with…

    That being said, in a pinch, I can recommend the XtremeMac AirPlay… very simple and very effective for what it does. Nice too that you don’t have to install any special software on the iPod to use it.

    XtremeMac AirPlay

  • ChrisW

    Nice setup.

    FYI, some of us are getting head-unit text from our iPods via the IceLink Plus. Factor in the steering wheel control and it makes for a pretty nice package. There are some kinks with the IceLink that I’m not pleased about, but overall I’m happy with the sound quality and functionality of my IceLink Plus.

    I didn’t consider aftermarket options as I hate the bling-bling look of aftermarket decks these days (even old-reliable Blaupunkt has converted to full neon assault mode, and that makes me sad…).

    Still yearning for the day when auto manufacturers offer real iPod integration from the factory.

    Now if I could just get rid of all the horrific buzzing from the speakers in my cabrio (with H/K upgrade)…

  • Morris Dami

    My 2 cents on alpine and stereo upgrade:

    I went (somewhat) wild and here’s what I have:

    Alpine CDA-9855 (same one) with Sirius radio adapter; Rockford Fosgate amp, 4 channel (forgot model); Focal 6.5″ Polyglass components front; Alpine 5×7 (forgot model) rear; Infinity basslink sub. It’s about $1000 give or take – no iPod / iPod adapter (yet).

    Installation was a bitch. All those custom mounting plates for front/rear speakers, plenty of wires to pull, etc.

    While I used to love Alpines this one is not so good. My experience is mainly with Sirius radio, so judge accordingly. I have this setup for about half a year.

    Problem No 1. That glide touch sucks, because you can’t really tell which button you’re pressing while driving – it’s OK when you not moving, but driving is hard. It only has little raised dots to tell which one you’re pressing, same ones you have on phone keypads, etc. More so, driving in a MINI over potholes makes it even harder, because your finger slips from that bar. And stupid thing they did is that whole bar is like a big button. If your finger not on that white strip while pressing it, it presses “function”, which switches modes on display. More on that later.

    Problem No. 2: to switch preset on radio, you have to press glide touchbar twice. Yes, twice. First time to “activate” glide touch bar and show 1-6 presets, and then actually change it. “Activation” goes off in about 10 secs, so practically you have to press twice every time. So let’s say you’re trying to switch from Ch 5 to Ch 4. Accidentally your finger slips from white strip (pothole or something), and you press whole bar. It switches to “source” view. Since you have to press twice, you press it again. Of course you don’t see what it’s doing, so you end up switching source to FM radio, or CD or what-not. Then you do have to look down and see it’s in completely wrong place. SUCKS!

    Problem No. 3: very nice 2-line display, called “Biolite” or something. Supposedly is much brighter than regular displays, blah-blah-blah. Well it might be brighter, but the clear plastic window is very reflective and rounded, so you do get a lot of glare on that plastic, rendering whole display hard to see.

    Problem No. 4: Getting info from Sirius like artist / song sucks also. First, info shows up in about 5-7 secs. Song starts, you wait this much, you get the name. On top of that ,In all the configuration you have, you can’t config the stupid display not to scroll the info – only thing you can do is configure to scroll once or all the time. Well the problem is that Alpine’s Sirius implementation doesn’t get all the info from satellite, I believe it’s about 10-15 characters, so everything after that gets cut out. It’s info 1-2 characters too short for display, meaning the display could fit more. So there’s no logical reason to scroll,because there’s no mo info, but it does it anyway. Really annoying – first the song starts, you want to know who’s playing, can’t see it, wait 5-7 secs. Then as soon as info comes up, in about 1 sec artist info starts scrolling, disappears for about 2 secs, comes back. Then the song info. So basically you don’t have artist/song info for about 20 secs to glance over and see who’s playing. It’s even worse if you’re jumping channels trying to see what’s playing, it’s simply takes too long – you switch preset by double-clicking the bar (can’t do it too fast either), then you get the song info, decide not to listen, then double-click on bar again. So on, so forth.

    All-in-all, setup is good, I like the sound, although I heard better – something’s not right but I can’t put my finger on it. This head unit model is compatible with “OEM remote”, which supposedly will enable steering wheel controls. I’m not sure if it’s out yet.

    Any questions, drop me an email or post here.

    Morris

  • Morris Dami

    Forgot to mention that this alpine is very “stealth” look and by configuring it’s illumination options you can match MINI’s amber light pretty darn close. The display is black/white, buttons are amber, pretty good. If anyone interested, I can take pictures (although my camera is broke so I can do it with phone camera, which sucks, but you can get the idea)

  • The Blue Canary

    The link to the iTrip is broken. Give this link a shot:

    http://www.griffintechnology.com/products/itrip/

  • RB

    Why would anyone want to link to itripped?

    Maybe they improved them from the one I had but I doubt it.

  • Mykl Milligan

    I have an iTrip and several of Griffin Technologies products and they have always worked great for me. Obviously you are dealing with FM quality but i currently dont have the option of a interface so the iTrip (i also use the RoadTrip which is the same but with a charging base and transmitter) is great until i can get a plug in interface

  • http://dale.us/ Dale

    Does anyone have a recommendation for a headunit to replace the factory unit in a March 05 MCS with Nav & H/K? None of the information I can find says it’ll work with Nav or H/K or MFSW, or at least none work with all 3 together.

    Thanks

  • Brian

    Thanks for the comments.

    I can’t speak to the times it takes for the Sirius display to show up, as I have XM, and it’s only a couple of seconds.

    Yes, you have to push the button twice to call up a station preset, but it’s not THAT big a deal. Hey, we have to open the door handle twice to get out of the car. How much more difficult is it?

    Why didn’t I upgrade the speakers? Because after adding in a good head unit and great amplifier, realistically, they didn’t need to be upgraded. Throwing good power and a clean source unit behind good speakers will always make them perform like great ones.

    You can add in MFSW functionality through a IR blaster type piece, but it was something that honestly, I didn’t even care for. You get volume up and down, and station preset/CD track up and down. Not worth it to me, though for some it might be. If I want that, I’ll use the remote control that came with the Alpine deck.

    Feel free to email me if you want to see photos:

    Axtell2k3@yahoo.com

  • http://www.gbmini.net/ Ian

    Dale, MikeyTheMINI on MINI2 is great for answering questions like yours – he is UK based, but has no problems shipping overseas.

    For example, I got my upgrade from him, and it even included a WIRED interface from the steering wheel buttons, much easier to install than the IR blaster type.

  • Brian Shearon

    As far as if I like it or not?

    I love it. I have had countless stereo systems, and this is by far my favorite. Not only (as was mentioned) can you customize the head unit’s buttons to exactly match the amber illumination of the dash, but to have CD, XM, and Ipod control all through one unit is amazing. I was about to add in the Alpine MP3 CD changer, but figured that was overkill :)

    The sound quality is great. I am not sure why the above poster had such a difficult time with installation (maybe it was replacing the speakers…I don’t know), but replacing the head unit, adding in the XM and 4 channel amplifier was about a 4 hour installation. Having the battery in the trunk made the amp installation very quick.

    As far as the MFSW control, even if I had access to a hard-wired type control, I probably wouldn’t have done it just for the fact that the cost to have volume control and track/station up and down. To each their own.

    As far as comparison to the HK system, I’ve never heard it, but for $550, I can’t help but feel you can do better in the aftermarket area. If you want to make any changes to am amplified system like the HK, typically it involves changing everything…and I’ve never been big on factory systems, as they are always blown away by items available aftermarket.

  • SF

    Adapters are available for a wide variety of aftermarket head units that allow them to be controlled from the steering wheel. Click Here

    Now if I could just get rid of all the horrific buzzing from the speakers in my cabrio (with H/K upgrade)…
    It is caused by loose components in the door panel and remedied by applying padding. See: http://www.jwardell.com/mini/hkdoor.html

  • http://dale.us/ Dale

    Ian,

    Thanks for the info… I already asked Mike and he said the UK Nav doesn’t work with aftermarkets as far as he knows so I’m looking for anyone with US experience on replacing the headunit in a MINI with Nav.

  • Morris Dami

    To answer Brian’s and everyone’s questions:

    MFSW wasn’t such a big deal to me either, so I don’t have the setup yet. Yes, Install was a bitch because I replaced all speakers. As being a car audio nut I believe that speakers and their placement are 90% of the sound and everything else is 10%. While can’t play around too much on placement, I went with best speakers I could afford. Whole install took me about 10 hours, main problem of pulling new wires to doors, making custom mounting, etc. I also have bluetooth SonyEricsson handsfree, which connect to amplifier through speaker-level inputs to put out sound through stereo, louder that way and no speaker to mount. Also I hardwired my rada detector next to rearview mirror. I also put sat antenna next to radio antenna, so another wire to pull.

    As far as “doubleclick” on preset change – well, first, I have convenience unlock, second, you only do it once per trip anyway and on radio I do about 10 times (I drive a lot, usually 30-60 mins at a time).

    Time for info to show up on sirius is also couple of secs, but then it starts scrolling and stuff. Any other XM or Sirius radio module does it instantly. In fact, it always keeps it up to date, so you can scroll up and down not changing the actual channel and see what’s on. The Sirius radio module was $80 and you can get Sirius starmate with display and everyting for same money, so it’s not like alpine had to cheap out this way – I believe they thought it’s “cool” in some way, to have scrolling display and stuff. Kind of same way people develop heavy flash-loaded websites with a lot of animation, which looks cool for first couple of times but gets really annoying later on because it’s slow. I mean really, who uses “screensaver” on head unit? Someone not distracted enough?

    And as far as sound goes, it’s OK. Not great, better than H/K, obviously better than standard stereo, but I had better and way better systems. Of course none of those systems were $1000 (meaning it was way more), so I guess you get what you pay for. One thing you can tell right away, i original CD plays waaay better than 192 or 256k MP3 and way-way better than sat. radio.

    Besides Brian, people usually go the other way around, first they replace speakers, then head unit, then if extra power needed – add amp and sub. Have you taken a look at those speakers? and compared to some nice ones like Focal or MB Quart or Boston Accoustics? Then again, it is a PITA to change those, especially if you changing wires also.

  • Morris Dami

    Dale:

    I think you’re screwed. First, I thought about buying H/K and I was told by various people in forums that H/K is all or nothing (meaning, keep it factory or replace all), and on top of that you have Nav, which I heard people have plenty of problems with aftermarket H/Us.

  • Morris Dami

    Let me rephrase about the double-click: It’s not such a big deal to double-click, as you can’t really feel what are you pressing, especially on bumpy roads.

    I just think that was totally unnecessary to implement “hiding” preset screen. Same goes for scrolling and waiting 3 secs to scroll to the side – try to do it on bumpy road, always slips.

  • RB

    Mykl,

    Glad it works for you, I tried it with several diff level of radios never did work very on any of them. Maybe it has improved in the two years since I bought and sent mine back. Also, I called the Griffin lads and got no help, at all. I actually found the RoadTrip worked better, for me they all have nothing on the ICE-Link-Plus.

  • http://motoringfile.com Gabe

    RB – I agree 100% Although I would go so far as to say that every FM transmitter I’ve ever used as been a piece of junk. Some more than others!

  • Brian Shearon

    I found the griffin FM modulator works great with an analog tuner…being able to fine tune the frequency works wonders.

    But how many of us have an analog tuner? I have it only on a cd alarm clock next to my bed.

    As far as speakers go, I think there’s a commom misconception that they need to be changed first. When in fact, you will notice sound quality improvements by adding an amplifier or source unit first.

    If I add in speakers, I have already decided it is going to be the Polk Momo 6.5″ seperates. They are easily the best speakers I have heard.

  • Morris Dami

    Brian:

    Does display cut out info in XM also, or is it just Sirius? Meaning, artist/song name are only so many characters, and it gets cut.

    I’ll call Alpine today to find out if there’s firmware or something.

  • http://www.moltmodels.com James Good

    These head units all look very nice, but I must say I’m quite happy with my factory H/K unit, and the aux input connector. My MP3 player (Treo phone) sounds great though it, and volume is obiously adjustable OK through the MFSW.

    FM transmitters could in theory be very good quality, but usually in large cities with full FM spectrum, they work very poorly. I wouldn’t bother even trying another one.

    -James.

  • paco

    For those interested, here is a link to my very simple and crappy-looking tutorial of a KCA-420i installation in my ’02 Cooper:

    http://www.pacostudio.com/KCA-420i/index.html

    I’ve been using the system for about a year (since it came out) and so far my experience has been mixed. My head unit is a CDA-9833 (2004 model), I think the interface has been refined in 2005 models with the “glidetouch” feature and new UI.

    Searching songs with the current (2004) interface sucks bigtime. I have to quickly roll the volume knob at a red light (I search by Artists since the other modes are unusable) and often don’t have time to select the artist I’d like to hear. If you select an Artist, it’ll take you to Album selection mode. If you go back to Artist selection mode, you’ll lose your Artist selection even though the artist is currently playing.

    Shuffle was great, until it stopped working for no reasons. I didn’t bother re-formatting/flashing my iPod and re-copying all my songs.

    The feature I really miss is my MFSW. European Alpine head units can connect right through to the MINI’s MFSW with a special adaptor, but American models are left in the cold. For 2005 models, there is an option called “OEM Steering Remote Ready” in several American models like the CDA-9853. Apparently Alpine will release special Alpine branded adaptors to connect to several models of MFSW.

    My last gripe would be about the lack of FM Station and Program display on this head unit. The stock MINI system supports it, and I’m disappointed to see a higher-end 3rd party head unit does not. I wonder if other Alpine HU’s support that feature ?

    On a positive note (finally! :), I purchased the CDA-9831 and used it’s internal amp with the standard speakers. It is a solid upgrade in terms of sound when compared to the base MINI Wave CD system (which happens to be built by Alpine).

    Let me know if you have questions!

    – paco

  • Brian Shearon

    “Does display cut out info in XM also, or is it just Sirius? Meaning, artist/song name are only so many characters, and it gets cut.

    I’ll call Alpine today to find out if there’s firmware or something.”

    On XM I think the song and artist each can be 15 characters long…and I think it’s a limitation they set up to minimize bandwidth needed from the satellite to the radio.

    I don’t think that a firmware upgrade would do it, as I am nearly certain it’s a limitation from XM/Sirius. I’ve had 4 different XM units and they have all done the same thing.

    Paco-

    Do you use playlists on your ipod? I’ve found (even before hooking it up to my head unit) that it’s the best way for sorting songs….having one big folder with all my music in it was too complicated.

  • Melanie

    After much hemming and hawing about what to do re: my iPod connection, I decided on the AUX cable… It was only about 38 dollars at the dealer, the Belkin auto-charger (not a must-have but nice if you want to keep your iPod charged as you use it) was 38 dollars at Walmart, and a Radio Shack patch cable was about 5 bucks.
    I installed it today and it works great!

    Upsides: Cost is relatively cheap (about $82 for everything), easy DIY install, ability to select songs or playlists from the iPod directly, charge iPod, and operate the volume by either the HU control or the MFSW control (the latter was a pleasant surprise!)

    Downsides are: Have to take eyes off the road to select songs, inability to scroll forward or backward in the song lists using the MFSW. To have these functions, you have to spend at least $40 -50 more for the factory iPod adaptor, PLUS have it installed. Or, get an ICElink.

    Since I have a November 2004 build 2005 car, I don’t have the ability to see ID3 tags on my headunit. So for others like me, I think the advantages (and cost) of the AUX setup outweigh the other choices. If you have a later build 2005 car and can see ID3 tags, then the ICElink definitely has some nice features, provided it works OK and you don’t have any problems. But it’s more expensive and is not an easy of a DIY installation since it taps into the wiring harness, and it has caused problems for some users with their car’s electrical system. Customer service for some users has also been a problem.

    There is another unit being touted as an alternative to the ICElink, yet costing less ($120). It sounds like a cross between the adaptor and AUX, and provides a box with a switch allowing one to go choose using the iPod interface or the HU, but this switch cannot be done “on the run” – the power must be off. Nevertheless, for $82 I am getting the same features that they are selling, except for the additional ability to totally control the iPod via the MFSW. But for me, other than controlling volume by the MFSW (which you can do with the setup I have) this is pretty much a useless feature unless you can see the ID3 tags to see what’s playing – scrolling from “song #1″ to “song #4 is meaningless to me, considering I have over 400 songs on my iPod! I’d rather just read it off the iPod and see what I’m choosing…

  • http://finewine@ptd.net Hugh

    Brian: I’m mostly interested in your decision to retain factory speakers. You felt Alpline hu was not enough to power them, but how many watts are you pumping into them with your amp? Which model Alpine amp did you add?

    Hugh

  • http://bravo5.org/blog blalor

    Crutchfield is hawking a new ipod interface box that looks like this iWonder thing I saw mentioned on NAM.

    I’ve got the ice>Link: Plus in my April-build ’05 and it displays text on the head unit. I’ve now got the ‘pod stuffed into the glove box An organized glovebox is a happy glovebox. The Dension unit’s ok, but I still toy with the idea of going back to an AUX input. I’ve already got a pretty nice Panavise setup for my cell phone, and I originally used the mounting bracket for the ice>Link cradle. The first 100

  • http://bravo5.org/blog blalor

    yay markdown! :-)

  • http://motoringfile.com Gabe

    Congrats ;-)

  • Brian Shearon

    The amplifier I chose was a 2004 model..the model number is MRVF-540. It’s their biggest 4-channel amplifier (or was, not sure about the new models). It’s rated at 75 watts by 4 channels at 4 ohms and 12 volts (but typically in the 85 watt range).

    With the top down at 75 mph, I am able to overcome all the wind and road noise easily while still attaining very, very good sound quality.

  • paco

    Brian: I usually navigate on the iPod/iTunes using Genres to quickly go to the Artists. Since I have to sync our audio library to two different iPods, I don’t really use Playlists.

    How do you like the UI and glidetouch on your 2005 head unit ?

    Hugh: On my Cooper (not the convertible), the head unit’s built-in amp has enough juice to power the original speakers. It’s actually rated higher than the orignal MINI head unit, so I never drived them to it’s maximum volume in fear of blowing them up. Brian: Aren’t you affraid to blow your original speakers with your separate amp ?

    – paco

  • Brian Shearon

    I like the UI actually better than the Ipod one…the only downside is that with the top down, it’s difficult to see (as it would with any head unit…so that’s not that disappointing to me).

    And power will never blow a speaker…distortion will. You can have a speaker rated to handle say 100 watts, and you can run 500 watts of clean power to it, and won’t blow it up.

    But if you run 100 watts of dirty (or high distortion) power, then you’ll kill that speaker fast.

    I have the amplifier crossed over so the front speakers don’t see any frequencies below 80 Hz (they couldn’t play them anyways), and the rear ones the same way. The amplifier is tuned as such that I can turn the head unit to nearly full (volume 30 of 35) before any distortion can be heard.

  • Chris deZ

    Will the “glide touch” quickly scroll through info (song/artist/ect.) on the ipod?

    As my CDA-9835 was swiped yesterday (they left the ipod) it is time to purchase a new unit. I used the remote to channel surf Sirius stations and preset but was forced to use the clunky knob to slowly search the ipod. Every time I tried to find an artist or album I regretted having as many songs as I did.

  • Greg

    The glide touch is incredibly slow to scroll through artists/songs on the 9855. I think it would be great to have the volume knob act as the scroller but it does not let you. It takes some time to get to the bottom, or even the middle because there is no acceleration when you scroll like there is with an ipod. You can go backwards from z-a so getting to m is about as long as it takes, which is still way too long when ur driving. Apart from that, i love the unit… i might just need to program some playlists though (on the go) before i start driving and just play them. Also if you are playing a song before you connect the ipod to the adapter, it continues playing when the deck turns on, a handy feature which will at least make selecting the first artist easy!

  • Bill Britton

    There are some in-depth experiences listed over at the iPod Lounge on this setup. I have had my system for a week now and am very frustrated with the scrolling speed. I keep trying to find a way to do playlists that bypass the limitations but no luck yet. I had hoped that by having playlists for artist name ranges that I could select a playlist and then scroll through by artist. Nope. Once you land on a playlist, pressing search again searches by song. Phooey.

    http://www.ilounge.com/index.php/news/comments/alpine-ships-interface-adapter-for-ipod/

    Bill


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Autocrossing the MINI Range


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