It’s a couple of years since we did a deep dive on an Alpine head unit devoted to Apple CarPlay. But here we have Alpine’s latest, the iLX-107 head unit, which is indeed imbued with that devotion.
Picking the platform
Indeed, it’s so devoted that apart from the built-in AM/FM radio, it is pretty much CarPlay and nothing but CarPlay all the way. To be precise, beyond CarPlay (to which we shall return) there are three entertainment options: AM radio, FM radio and the analogue A/V input. The last of these is only going to work when your handbrake is applied, assuming you’ve wired up the system the way you’re supposed to and not simply attached the ‘Park Brake’ cable to the earth. If properly wired you’ll still get sound when moving but the video will be blocked.
The USB, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi functions are all limited solely to supporting CarPlay. I’m stressing this because while these functions will suit many very nicely indeed, they do make the unit so dedicated to your Apple device that the only way to play music for someone without an iPhone, apart from the radio, is via the analogue input. All the great hands-free functions and voice control won’t be available to those with an Android phone. So if you’re later selling your car, this might have the effect of restricting your market to those who are Apple-orientated (or who simply don’t care about car sound systems).
So with those caveats, let’s put all that behind us and dive in.
The Alpine iLX-107 presents a double-DIN sized frontage but is built on a single-DIN chassis to present its 7-inch LED-backlit LCD display. It is of course a touch-screen (and a fine one, as we’ll see). The physical controls are across the bottom. The volume control uses two touch-sensitive buttons to the left — clearly a bias towards left-hand-drive cars here. Next is a dedicated ‘Siri’ button to invoke you-know-who. Then a Stop button which doubles as a home button to bring up the main menu. Finally, left and right arrows to do things like skip tracks and adjust the radio tuning.
The four-channel amplifier is rated at 50 watts per channel. It comes with several wiring looms, one of which provides line outputs for the four main channels and two subwoofers. Another is for connecting a reversing camera and the A/V device. Another covers the steering wheel controls and the hands-free microphone. The USB extension cable plugs into a recessed socket. A cooling fan is at the right-hand rear, and the amplifier heat-sinks appear to be on the left side. They got pretty warm after running the unit for a while with loud music (I originally mistyped ‘lout music’; there was some of that too).
The first thing to remember with CarPlay is that it is an Apple system, and Apple is always very particular about which of its products will work with which of its systems. Yoi might think it would be fine to expect a 4G-fitted iPad to work with CarPlay, but no, it does not permit that. So no iPads. No iPod touches either. You can only use it with an iPhone — specifically an iPhone 5 or later.
I confess to being more an Android guy, though I keep an iPad Mini 4 on hand to assess iOS things. Since there was no go with that here, I had to borrow my wife’s iPhone during this test to check it out.
Except it didn’t work initially. Every time I plugged the phone into the head unit’s USB cable it showed the message ‘CarPlay Not Available — to use CarPlay, enable Siri in the Settings app on your iPhone’. I dutifully checked that Siri was in fact on in the phone, as indeed it was. I went through and made sure every aspect of Siri was enabled, including when the phone was locked. All to no avail, despite reboots and multiple full switches on and off of the head unit.
So off to Google Search (slightly ironically of course) to ask what to do about the situation. Check the cable, it said. I was using a new cable with which the phone synced fine with my computer.
And make sure iOS is up to date, it said.Well, the iPhone was running iOS 10.3.3, the last version prior to 11.0.x, which was released only a couple of months ago. But I reluctantly upgraded the phone to the new version and, at last, it worked.
A problem with CarPlay on previous versions of iOS? Or was there some bug or installation problem on my wife’s phone that the iOS update fixed? Who knows. To be on the safe side, I’d suggest taking your phone in with you to your car stereo retailer and ask permission to plug it into their demo unit to make sure all’s working fine.
Because with it all working fine, even with me being an Android guy, I must say that if anything was going to get me to jump over to the iPhone, it’d be Apple CarPlay running on the Alpine iLX-107. Once it was working, it was a delight. The unit’s own microphone captured my voice without error, with a ‘Hey Siri’ allowing all functions to work. That is, within the limitations of Siri being aware that it’s in a car. For example, when I asked Siri to “show me the way” to the nearby shopping mall, he (he has a British male voice on my wife’s phone, which I guess says something) refused because I was in a car. So I had to ask him to “give me directions to” the mall, and he was happy to oblige.
The standard items on the main CarPlay screen were Phone, Music, Maps, Messages, Now Playing, Main Menu (that takes you back to Alpine’s main screen), Podcasts and Audiobooks. Each of those just hooks into the matching apps on the iPhone. There are several other audio apps that also work with CarPlay, such as Stitcher for Podcasts, Audible for one of the largest collection of purchasable audio books, and VOX for higher quality audio playback, including support for the FLAC audio format.
But the standard Music app is what most people will use, and that worked fine. And it worked well with Siri, playing music to my voice commands.
CarPlay does not necessarily require a wired connection, although that’s going to help your phone’s battery of course. You can pair the phone so it communicates via Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. That way you can release the USB cable for charging your companion’s phone.
Touch and tuning
The touch-screens on some head units are an iffy proposition. With some examples I’ve spent a lot of time repeatedly stabbing a ‘button’ on the screen with it only occasionally responding. There’s none of that here: the screen was very nearly as responsive as that of an iPad or iPhone, both with selections and with scrolling. Which is all the more important given safety considerations.
There are a bunch of basic audio controls, including the ability to switch on the subwoofer, using the audio set-up menu on the head unit proper, but for any serious tuning you really ought to install the Alpine TuneIt App on your iPhone. Rather than basic bass and treble controls, or a choice of a bunch of preset EQ curves (‘Flat’, ‘Rock’ etc) you then get a nine-band parametric equaliser, with three bands each in the bass, midrange and treble. Remember, a parametric equaliser isn’t locked into specific frequencies, but can be set to different frequencies, and with a different ‘Q’ for each. That’s the scope of the frequencies affected by the adjustment.
There’s also a cool combined balance and fader control which you adjust simply by dragging a dot around a map of the car.
Time correction is available in the app (so you can delay the channels closest to you in order to get a more realistic stereo/front-back image). This is adjusted individually for each of the six channels (two are for the subwoofer line outputs) via arrows. The time delays can be entered in inches or centimetres, rather than you having to calculate milliseconds. Each tap of the arrow adds a delay equivalent to around one and a third inches, or around 3.4cm.
Finally, unlike the car’s interface, the TuneIt app permits proper adjustments for a subwoofer. There are both low-pass filters for the subwoofer channel/s, and separate high-pass filters for the front and rear speakers. You can choose the crossover frequency and the slope in 6dB increments from zero to 24dB per octave. The filters can be set to as high as 200 hertz.
But don’t ignore the head unit’s own interface entirely. Scroll down its audio menu and you’ll find a nifty feature allowing you to adjust the relative volume levels of CarPlay, the radio and the A/V inputs. Fun as touch-button volume controls might be, they are not as responsive as knobs, so having everything roughly match in level is a good idea.
One of the great things about Alpine is the quality of amplifiers it builds into its head units. No doubt you can choose to go louder with an external amp, but you’re unlikely to get smoother sound.
I did about half the listening of the modest collection of music on my wife’s iPhone using CarPlay, and most using the analogue A/V input from the far more extensive collection of music on my equipment. Van Morrison and Frank Sinatra sounded very nice via CarPlay. The latter, particularly, was mostly recorded in the days before audio gating and compression, so the big band backing was full and dynamic. The iLX-107 had the headroom to deliver this without notable limitation.
Switching over to Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, a bit of progressive bluegrass with a high quality recording is normally pretty revealing of weakness in the audio chain. There was none. Nine Inch Nails — the track Piggy from ‘The Downward Spiral’ — tends to be pretty demanding on any audio system, from bass through to dynamics in the drums. Again, these were delivered beautifully, with no limitation to the complex, interwoven drumming, and strong bass delivery from the full-range speakers I used.
Clearly the Alpine iLX-107 head unit is only for iPhone people. But if you’re one of them,
it ought to thoroughly please you. Do make sure your iOS is up to date, though, to be on the safe side.
Alpine iLX-107 CarPlay head unit
+ Full implementation of CarPlay
+ High quality power & sound
+ Versatile adjustment with appType: Double-DIN head unit
+ High quality power & sound
+ Versatile adjustment with appType: Double-DIN head unit
- CarPlay picky on iOS device type
Features: 7 inch LED touch screen display, GPS/Glonass, GPS/Music/Phone/Voice command via Apple CarPlay compatible iPhone, Mic supplied, USB charging, AM/FM, Steering Wheel Remote ready, Reversing camera input, pre-outs including subwoofer
POWER: 4 x 50W into 4 ohms; CEA-2006 rating: 4 x 18W