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Road Test of Four "Mechless" Car Stereos Made for iPod

The latest buzzword in aftermarket car stereo is "mechless." The term isn't particularly attractive, but it aptly describes the new breed of in-dash receivers that omit mechanical playback methods. These head units cannot play discs, but instead are optimized for iPods and can also use other MP3 players and USB flash drives as their primary music sources.

Mechless heads, also known as digital media receivers, share features that are found in traditional car radios, such as an AM/FM tuner and multi-channel power, and also add tech like Bluetooth and HD Radio. But they have no moving parts.

Since this category is growing in terms of available models and in sales, we decided to test four of the latest mechless heads. Before you buy one, make sure it supports your particular iPod. And while they can handle content from other players and media, control is much less convenient than with an iPod.

Alpine iDA-X303
Price: $250
Pros: Low price, easy to use, iPod cable supplied
Cons: Basic features only, no video playback
Rated Power Output: 16 watts x 4 channels into 4 ohms
Grade: B

While this budget-priced Alpine iDA-X303 doesn't skimp on key features, some are only available by purchasing additional equipment. The unit has an AM/FM tuner and is Sirius/XM-, HD Radio- and Bluetooth-ready, but to add these you need to purchase add-on equipment.

The front panel features a large rotary knob surrounded by a variety of diversely shaped buttons, and the entire faceplate is removable to provide security. As with other mechless units, this one has an all-important USB port to allow plugging in an iPod or iPhone and controlling it from the head unit. The USB port is on the back and Alpine provides an almost 7-foot extension cable that lets you route the USB connection to wherever you want it. An analog aux input is also located on the rear of the unit.

Alpine provides a USB-to-30-pin adapter cable. This is nice because it means you don't have to remember to bring your Apple-supplied cable into the car every time; leave this one in the car and you're all set.

The iDA-X303 lets you search an iPod's content alphabetically or use a percent-skip function that breaks large libraries into smaller segments. iPod video playback is not supported, but you can use the USB port to also plug in flash drives or other non-iPod music players.

When a device other than an iPod is plugged in, the head unit performs a "banking" function that may take several minutes before the contents can be searched and played. The unit can decode MP3, WMA and AAC files, and it also supports iTunes tagging so that you can mark a song for subsequent purchase. But the feature is only available with the optional HD Radio tuner added.

The iDA-X303 was intuitive to use and its excellent owner's manual makes the learning curve even easier. The diversity of button shapes helps you operate the unit by feel instead of having to take your eyes off the road — a major plus for driving safety. Of course, you'll still need to look at the unit's display to find a particular song on your iPod. If you don't need lots of bells and whistles, this is a terrific unit that is affordable and easy to use.

Clarion FZ409
Price: $230
Pros: Lowest priced, sleek front panel
Cons: Basic features only, no tactile feedback
Rated Power Output: 18 watts x 4 channels into 4 ohms
Grade: B-

The lowest priced of this foursome, the Clarion FZ409 still offers all the essential features you need in a mechless unit as well as a few pleasant perks. The non-removable face is sleek, with no buttons or protrusions on its surface. Instead, lighted controls and "soft" buttons are operated by capacitance — just touch them.

The surface isn't entirely smooth, and different horizontal textures give some tactile feedback. An electroluminescent display provides visual information and the various labels that are shown indicate the function of nearby buttons, which can change according to mode.

The USB port is at the end of a 3.5-foot cable at the rear of the unit. You might need an extension cable to get the business end of the port back your center console or wherever it's most convenient to access. There is also an analog aux input on the rear of the unit.

When an iPod is plugged in, you can find music using the typical categories of playlists, artists, albums, songs, genres and composers. Or you can search alphabetically. The unit cannot directly display iPod video, but if you connect an accessory video cable you can send the signal to an external monitor. You can also use the USB port to connect other music players and flash drives so that the unit can play MP3, WMA and AAC files. The FZ409 is Sirius/XM- and Bluetooth-ready and a remote control is included.

You'll either love or hate the capacitance controls on this unit. They look cool, but because there is very little tactile feedback, you can't operate the unit by feel. The electroluminescent display is certainly functional, but has a low-tech look. Still, if you're on a budget, this unit will get the job done.

Kenwood KIV-BT900
Price: $500
Pros: Full featured, built-in Bluetooth, video playback, excellent onscreen menu
Cons: Pricey, no front panel USB
Rated Power Output: 22 watts x 4 channels into 4 ohms
Grade: A+

If you think that "mechless" means you're getting "less" of a head unit, then you haven't seen the Kenwood KIV-BT900. While it's the most expensive model in this group, it has the deluxe features to justify its higher price.

The non-removable faceplate has a 3-inch TFT display that shows iPod-specific info such as menus, song data and album artwork in addition to information on radio stations, volume and the like. The display can also be used for slideshows and video (when parked) or output video to an external monitor. As the "BT" in its name suggests, it has built-in Bluetooth for hands-free calling and uses an included microphone. (The less expensive KIV-700 priced at $450, omits Bluetooth.)

This unit controls iPod audio and video playback, as well as Zune audio playback. Songs can be selected by all the usual iPod categories, and you can search alphabetically as well. An iPod is connected via a 5-foot cable that plugs into a USB port on the end of a 3-foot cable at the back of the unit. The cable also has two aux-in jacks for inputting analog audio and video signals from an iPod.

When you plug in a USB device, the unit can decode MP3, WMA, AAC and WAV files, as well as read JPEG, BMP images, and play MPEG4, WMV and H.264 video. There's also an aux input for analog signals. In case you forget your portable media, the KIV-BT900 has a small (512 MB) flash internal memory for holding pre-loaded content. The unit is Sirius/XM- and HD Radio-ready, can iTunes tag and a remote is included.

The KIV-BT900's onscreen menu system is fast and highly graphical, making it easy to use. Displayed iPod artwork is small and blurry, but the text is sharp and easy to read at a glance. The user controls are very intuitive; however, because of its many features, there is a learning curve. Of these four units, the Kenwood seemed to be the fastest to sync with players, and it also recognized all the various media and flash drives that we threw at it.

Pioneer MVH-P8200BT
Price: $369
Pros: Full-featured, built-in Bluetooth, front panel USB
Cons: Confusing front panel layout, steep learning curve to use
Rated Power Output: 14 watts x 4 channels into 4 ohms
Grade: A

The upper-priced Pioneer MVH-P8200BT provides a plethora of features and adds a bit of dashboard style. Its 3-inch TFT display shows all the information you need and can also be used for still-image slideshows and videos (when using a video-compatible cable and with the parking brake engaged). The left portion of the face also detaches as a theft-deterrent and a remote control is included.

The MVH-P8200BT tunes in AM, FM and HD stations and is also Sirius/XM-ready. Naturally, the head is fully in tune with iPods when plugged into the USB port located behind a retractable cover on the faceplate. The display shows full text information on what's playing, as well as any loaded album artwork. You can search iPod content alphabetically, and the unit supports iTunes tagging.

Pioneer's P8200BT also has Bluetooth onboard for hands-free calling (the $299 MVH-P8200 doesn't). Flash drives and non-iPod MP3 players can be plugged into the USB port, and there's also an analog aux-in jack just below it and an SD card slot tucked behind the removable face for even more access to music files. The unit can decode MP3, WMA and AAC files.

On the road, the MVH-P8200BT performed all of its functions nearly flawlessly. Sound quality was very good, and there was no feature that we missed having. However, the almost button-less front panel means you must spend more time stepping through menus, which means more time glancing down. You get used to this, but it's not the safest thing to do while driving.

The MVH-P8200BT provides all the features and performance most people will ever want, with no add-on accessories needed. But its sophistication also makes it somewhat harder to use.