Imagine for a moment that you owned a radio station. It would play all your favorite music, all the time. And knowing your preferences, it would cleverly play new music that it thinks you might like and never play music that you don't. That would be pretty cool. More specifically, that would be Pandora Radio.
After establishing an account on the Internet-based service, you specify the kind of music you like via personalized "stations" and Pandora plays that music, along with tunes that are similar. If you like Pink Floyd, for example, and create a station based on the band, you'll hear lots of their songs as well as other classic rock.
You can also specify whether you like what's playing with a simple "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" control, and the more you use them, the better Pandora learns your tastes and fine-tunes the music it plays. The service is free for the first 40 hours per month with limited commercial interruptions. Fee-based subscriptions are also available.
Pandora has become the favorite for millions of desk jockeys, and the service also has a mobile app for most smartphones. You can also use a smartphone to connect to Pandora in the car and send the signal to the stereo via an aux-in cable or Bluetooth wireless streaming. But since it's awkward and unsafe to use the phone to control playback while you're behind the wheel, safer integrated solutions are being rolled out. So far, there are three: Ford's Sync provides an OEM solution, while Alpine and Pioneer offer aftermarket approaches. We'll consider each of these, including road tests of the latter two.
Ford's Sync system provides a wealth of infotainment features: integration and voice control of portable media players and Bluetooth phones as well as navigation, 911 Assist, Vehicle Health Reports and other good stuff. And when the 2011 Fiesta becomes available this summer, its Sync system will include Pandora controls for Bluetooth-connected Blackberry and Android devices (with the iPhone to follow).
As with other Sync smartphone applications, the driver will be able to control Pandora via voice commands and with steering-wheel buttons. This will include selecting channels, rating songs, pausing and skipping songs and creating new stations from a currently playing artist or song.
Unfortunately, the only way to get Sync with Pandora is to purchase a vehicle with a blue oval. Unless that's part of your plan, you can also access Pandora by buying a new aftermarket radio, provided you own an iPhone. Both aftermarket solutions are iPhone-specific and Alpine offers a basic setup, while Pioneer opts for a more high-end approach.
Pros: Easy to use, low-cost way to access Pandora, iPhone cable included
Cons: Basic features only, Pandora only works with iPhone
The Alpine iDA-X305S isn't a conventional in-dash receiver. For starters, it's "mechless," meaning it omits any kind of disc playback. Otherwise, it has the usual car stereo features, including an AM/FM tuner. It's also HD Radio- and satellite radio-ready, Bluetooth-ready and plays MP3/WMA/AAC music files from USB memory devices.
Using the supplied Apple-to-USB cable, you can plug in an iPod or iPhone and use them as your sound source. In fact, the iDA-X305S is similar to the mechless iDA-X303 we recently reviewed. But what really distinguishes the iDA-X305S is its Pandora features, and for that it relies on your iPhone.
The setup is pretty simple. First, download the free Pandora app and PandoraLink for Alpine app from the iTunes App Store and install them on your iPhone. Plug your iPhone into the head unit using the supplied cable, launch the PandoraLink app and you're ready to rock.
Using the front panel controls, you operate and navigate Pandora like any other audio source. You can play and pause, and the rotary control lets you choose "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down" songs. You can also bookmark a song or an artist and search for a desired Pandora station (by alphabet or date added). To add and edit stations, you have to use the Pandora app on your iPhone and, of course, the iPhone charges when it's plugged in.
On the road, the iDA-X305S performed quite well. The display and other buttons are brightly illuminated, and the large rotary control is easy to grab onto. The receiver makes it easy to find content in large iTunes libraries and iPod/iPhone artwork looked great.
The head's real appeal is Pandora integration. When Alpine advertises this as "seamless," it's not kidding. Pandora stations come up like a radio station or any other source, and sound quality is good, although subject to the usual interruptions when streaming audio over a cellular network. Best of all, there's no need to interact with your iPhone.
Pros: Feature-laden, visually awesome touchscreen, intuitive operation
Cons: Pricey; Pandora only works with iPhone; iPhone cable not included
The Pioneer AVIC-X920BT is a deluxe receiver and has everything but the kitchen sink. (Actually, if you read the 228-page owner's manual carefully, you may find one in there.) This is a double-DIN head unit with enough features to fill a quadruple-DIN space: CD/DVD drive, AM/FM tuner, 6.1-inch touchscreen, navigation and Bluetooth for hands-free calling and audio streaming, as well as voice activation for navigation, hands-free calling and iPod/iPhone. The receiver also plays MP3/WMA/AAC music files on discs and from memory devices.
The AVIC-X920BT has Pioneer's unique MusicSphere interface for easily creating playlists and it is HD Radio- and satellite radio-ready. There's also a micro SD card slot and a back-up camera input. It comes with a 7-foot extension cable for USB and aux inputs. Unfortunately, to connect an iPod or iPhone you have to purchase the CD-IU50V cable ($50) with an Apple connector on one end and USB and audio jacks on the other.
As with the Alpine unit, the Pioneer head communicates with Pandora through your iPhone. Same drill: Download and install the Pandora app and the free PandoraLink for Pioneer to your iPhone. And then to access Pandora, you connect the iPhone, select Pandora as your audio source and launch the Pandora app on your iPhone.
Afterward, the AVIC-X920BT is used to control operation, and you can play, pause, bookmark, thumbs-up/thumbs-down songs and view and select stations. To add and edit stations, you use the Pandora app on your iPhone. As expected, the receiver charges the iPhone.
The AVIC-X920BT was impressive on the road. The capabilities of its comprehensive features make the learning curve worth it, but it's actually quite easy to use. The display is spectacular and album art looks tremendous on the high-resolution screen. Of particular note is the ability to customize the main menu by dragging and dropping function icons there, making them easy to find. A unique touch-slide control makes it simple to select sources, and it's easy to search for content.
Pandora came in loud and clear, with good sound quality. It operates like any other source, and is easily controlled by the Pioneer's buttons and touchscreen. Of course, as with any cellular communication, network glitches can cause interruptions in music streaming. But at least in the test locale (Miami) the reliability was more than acceptable.
Never Hear a Bad Song Again
From a technical standpoint, Pandora isn't all that functionally different from an HD digital radio station. However, unlike regular radio stations, Pandora plays only the music you like. Couple that with the music stored in your iPhone and there's no reason to ever listen to bad tunes in the car again.