When it comes to picking out a modern replacement for that aging source unit in your dash, there are hundreds to choose from if all you really care about is cosmetics and connecting your iPod. But if you want more than a pretty face, and demand serious audio performance, the pickings get quite a bit slimmer. There is good news, however. If you have been spending a lot of time unsuccessfully searching for a truly high performance audio-oriented single DIN source unit, your search just might be over. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I happened to find just such a product while checking out the new offerings from Alpine Electronics. The new $400 Alpine CDA-117 is designed for anyone who demands exemplary audio performance and an extensive array of built-in sound shaping adjustments. That’s right tweakophiles- read on because this one’s right up your alley. The Alpine CDA-117 is a single DIN-sized unit, incorporating an AM/FM tuner, CD/MP3/AAC/WMA playback, iPod or iPhone music control and charging, and USB drive connectivity. It’s also ready to connect to optional accessories such as a satellite radio, an HD Radio tuner, Bluetooth module and Alpine’s amazing IMPRINT processor.
The CDA-117 comes out of the box loaded with useful features and capabilities. These days it’s expected that most source units will integrate well with a wide variety of digital media sources, and this unit is no exception. But what really separates this unit from a lot of others is the high performance audio output section, featuring a 24-bit Burr-Brown DAC, true 4 volt front, rear, and independently adjustable level subwoofer RCA outputs, not to mention the powerful built-in DSP controls for equalization, time correction, and high pass crossovers. Equipped with Alpine’s popular MediaXpander circuitry that helps restore clarity to lousy files, this new Alpine
is a tweaker’s delight.
Built into the sound control functions are two different equalizers, a 7 band graphic EQ with set frequencies and fixed Q values, or a 5 band parametric style EQ that provides custom equalization settings for frequency, filter Q, and boost/cut. You can also adjust the delay of individual channels to compensate for speaker placement and pathlength differences, and the adjustment is wide enough to compensate for differences over 10 feet! Still want more?
Subwoofer level and phase are also adjustable via the DSP, and a high pass filter with three different selectable frequencies (63, 80 and 100Hz) allows you to remove low frequency information that may damage fragile midrange drivers.
And just in case all this still isn’t enough tenability for you, the CDA-117 will also control the powerful Alpine PXA-H100 IMPRINT processor which uses the Audyssey MultiEQ XT technology for a vast array of tuning possibilities.
If you’re just getting started on a killer system, and have to build it as the budget allows, the CDA-117 will still be a great choice, because it also has a defeatable built-in 18Wx4 power amplifier, and a fan-cooled heatsink! But don’t think for a minute the CDA-117 is without convenience features, with Bluetooth ready connectivity for hands-free calling (needs the optional KCE-400BT module), and it’s also ready to be connected with a TUA-T550HD HD Radio tuner module or a satellite radio tuner, both optional. The CDA-117 also supports iTunes tagging from FM stations broadcasting an RDS signal and HD Radio stations, allowing you to easily and conveniently acquire those songs for your collection the next time you synch your iPod with iTunes. And Alpine’s paying attention to the details too, because the CDA-117 even comes with locking caps to prevent the USB connections from vibrating apart over time.
CONTROLS AND ERGONOMICS
To me, the ability to control and use my source unit without becoming distracted is of paramount importance. The Alpine gets high marks in this regard, with a naturally intuitive rotary volume control, and large well placed buttons for the most commonly used functions. I have been a fan of Alpine’s excellent BioLite display technology since it was introduced in 2004. This type of display offers excellent readability from extreme angles, as well as in direct sunlight. The two-line, multi-color 156x38 resolution display on the CDA-117 is very easy to read, with white text on a simple black background. And I’m delighted to report that in addition to a selection of font styles and display patterns, the display can also be configured to completely eliminate those distracting, and generally annoying, moving backgrounds. You may call it plain, but I call it clear, and easy to read at a glance. Ever wonder why there are no dancing dolphins on the dials in an airplane cockpit?
But, for those of you who may be bored with logical, easy to read, high contrast displays, Alpine has also included 3 or 4 different animated “wallpapers” for you, should you feel the need to degrade one of the best displays in the industry.
With a bit of practice and experience, navigating the menus and controls required for sonic adjustments is all relatively simple and intuitive, although there is so much control available I’d suggest you don’t mess with it too much unless the car is standing still. Thankfully, frequently adjusted settings like subwoofer level are a one button press away, and can be done with little distraction. The CDA-117 comes with the cable to connect your iPod or iPhone for music playback. iPod control is also quite intuitive once you learn the buttons required for the various methods of navigating your iPods menus. Alpine’s selection of button placement and commands may be a bit confusing at first, but after a day or two, everything does become quite logical and intuitive to use. The iPod control interface is fast and there are several different ways to search for any artist or song. In fact, Alpine is one of my favorite brands for iPod interfacing in general, and after you understand the controls, using it will quickly become second nature.
As I always do, before making any technical measurements I like to hook the product up into my reference system and play with it and listen to it for a while. With a few CD’s in hand, I adjusted the outputs set for a flat response, and turned off all the advanced DSP settings. With CD sources I was very impressed with the sonics of the Alpine CDA-117. The unit sounded very much like my reference CD player, no doubt at least partly thanks to the 24-bit Burr Brown digital to analog convertor. Plugging in my trusty iPod Classic, once again I had nothing to complain about in terms of sonics. I messed around with the MediaXpander while listening to my iPod, but frankly my tracks are ripped at only high bitrates, so the MediaXpander had little effect. I have heard it work its magic on lower quality rips however, and it’s a useful feature, particularly when your MP3 files are ripped at lower bitrates.
The AM/FM tuner is excellent, as is generally the case with Alpine radios. Sound quality and station selectivity was very good to excellent.
ON THE BENCH
On our unforgiving test bench, the CDA-117 measured as one would expect from a serious, high performance source unit. The built in amplifier exceeded the published specifications for both power and signal to noise, and the pre-amp section is about as good as you’ll find these days, at any price. With more than 4 volts of output capability, very good signal to noise performance, and a reasonably low source impedance, the Alpine CDA-117 will be capable of driving as many amplifiers as you want to connect to it, and the signal it provides should have excellent immunity to radiated noise, and very few ground loop problems. Another nice feature I noted while making the measurements, was that when set for a flat response, the CDA-117 does not clip the preamp outputs, even at full volume with an all high-bits track playing.
Every once in a while a source unit comes along that’s designed for the audiophile or anyone looking for a true high performance musical source. The Alpine CDA-117 offers that in spades, and still provides all the connectivity capability most of us want in our daily rides. If you have been searching for a true high performance head unit or a replacement for an aging source unit that simply sounds great but lacks modern conveniences and adjustability, your search is over. Run, don’t walk to your nearest Alpine dealer, and check this one out. Your ears will thank you.
For more information, visit www.alpine-usa.com.