Kenwood iPod Interface Reader Review

This review comes from MotoringFile reader Nathaniel Salzman:

Kenwood, like other after-market car stereo producers has wisely offered an interface between their car stereo head units and the iPod. This $100 add-on system features the ability to control the iPod from the head unit, browse artists and playlists, and charges the iPod while connected. The unit consists of a controller box with one cable ending in an iPod dock connecter, and another cable ending in a CD-Changer plug. That end plugs straight into the CD-Changer port on the head unit, and displays track, artist, or playlist type (if type display is supported by that particular head unit). I have been using this Kenwood setup in my Acura for about a month now and if you’ve chosen a Kenwood replacement head unit in your MINI, it is at least a very straightforward option for connecting your iPod.

Firstly, the Kenwood interface is retroactive. In 2001, I installed this current Kenwood head unit and Rockford Fosgate Punch speakers in place of the OEM. Fast-forward to 2005, the off-the-shelf iPod adaptor worked as soon as I plugged it in to the four-year-old head unit. The unit is truly plug-and-play. Installation was very straightforward and took less than 45 minutes since the Kenwood head unit was already in place. The majority of the time was spent placing the actual interface control box in the glove box and running the wires behind the dash pieces.

As for the performance, unfortunately capability doesn’t always equal mastery. The browse functions of the Kenwood unit work, but work VERY slowly – in practical use, too slowly. Trying to find a specific song through the head unit can really impede your driving. I have the dock cable exiting at the base of my center console where there is a nice little nook to tuck the iPod (I listen to my iPod quite a bit outside the car, so I didn’t want to have to retrieve it from the glove box every time). I’ve found that the easiest, quickest, and ultimately safest way to pick a specific song or playlist is to use the unit’s Auto Resume function. The head unit will resume playback from whatever song or playlist was playing on the iPod before plugging it in. I disconnect the iPod, use its controls to navigate to that song or list, then plug it back in. This was a big disappointment, as the whole point of this interface was to eliminate fussing with the iPod itself while driving. I’ve found that most times I’m driving with it, I end up choosing a list before I start going, or I simply leave it in the Library list and put it on Random (done through the head unit itself, which is a nice feature). The shuffle play is like having your own radio station, but with taste. If you’re like me and have all sorts of stuff on your iPod, this can be a lot of fun because you’ll hear music you didn’t know you had.

In summary, though I can’t speak to its comparison to the Alpine or other direct interfaces, the Kenwood iPod interface, despite some shortcomings, is an acceptable at best way to control your iPod from the head unit.

Pro’s: Volume control and next/prev. track control is wonderfully convenient, and having the iPod all charged up when I get where I’m going is great. Being able to toggle Random on and off from the head unit is also convenient. The install is very easy. There is no firmware or software installation required for the iPod, and the system works retroactively with almost any Kenwood head unit. Also, any time the head unit is turned off, the car is turned off, or the iPod is unplugged from the system, the iPod is automatically paused. Likewise, if you’re listening to a song as you get in the car, you can simply pause the iPod, plug it in to the car, and it will continue through the car stereo

Con’s: Browsing between lists or searching through artists is very slow. It’s easier simply to disconnect the iPod, select your list, then plug back in. This process also errors at times and the iPod has to be reset, much to my frustration. If the iPod itself could still be controlled while plugged in, this system would work much better.

Conclusion: The Kenwood iPod interface is, in my opinion, not really cost-effective given its poor performance. In a MINI application especially, where swapping the head unit can eliminate steering-wheel volume control, I would recommend going a different route. The iPod’s functionality is so essential and cleanly designed. This system robs it of much of that ease-of-use. A good iPod-to-car integration should function as cleanly as the iPod itself and I have yet to find that 100% perfect solution. A system similar to this, with a conveniently located mounting position and the ability to access the iPod’s native controls would be a good compromise in my opinion.

Rating: 2.5 (out of five)

Postscript: For my purposes in my Acura, I’m considering fabricating an adaptor using an actual Apple dock, running signal from the dock’s line-out to a head unit line-in, then rewiring a car charger to charge the iPod in-motion through the dock. Without steering wheel controls in my Acura, reaching down to hit “next” on the iPod is no different than reaching down to hit “next” on the head unit. I’ve also considered integrating my iPod wired remote into that kind of setup. My center console is slightly off center towards the driver, so there is room to the right of the console to install the dock without invading the passenger leg room. I’m looking at fabricating a dash-matching cradle for the dock where the iPod would lay flush with the console and the materials would blend with the dash materials. The iPod would slide in and out easily and I could control it simply using the iPod controls themselves or perhaps using the wired remote (which I could then use by touch and not have to look down at all).