Uncomplicated ingenuity.

Confucius once proclaimed that “life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” I’ve found the same can be applied to car audio, especially where receivers are concerned. Many manufactures are nowadays attempting to cram so much functionality into receivers that most tend to become mired in the aforesaid abilities; bogged down to the point of functioning with all the speed of the local council.

Seldom do any emerge exactly covered in glory, and this phenomenon only grows more relevant pertaining to single-DIN chassis; whereby real estate for chip sets is an extremely sparse commodity. Pretty soon the wisdom of age becomes a mitigating factor, thus highlighted beautifully here in the new CDE-196DAB receiver from Alpine.

Expert functions
Experience has taught this Japanese behemoth not only what to include but also what to omit; in order that it may produce a single-DIN receiver which successfully marries appropriate functionality with logical simplicity. The unmentioned benefit of keeping things simple of course is cost – and to that end the CDE-196DAB tips the till at a measly $399.

Now I’m aware that $399 is far from pocket change, however before you write in chastising me allow me to paint some context around my comment. The CDE-196DAB is a single-DIN receiver that’s equipped with many ancillary features including significant ones such as Bluetooth and DAB tuning. Couple this with a serious convertor chip and an advanced digital sound processor and you’re onto a sure-fire winner. However, where these comment gain credence is that 20 years ago you’d have paid two kilo-bucks for such a receiver. Even as recently as this decade you’d still be leaning dangerously close to four figure territory. So when one considers what functionality Alpine has jammed into this new receiver versus its price tag, then you’ll find my comments somewhat justified.

I’ve touched on the actual abilities so let’s expand upon them. Starting with the disc mechanism; Alpine has integrated its latest transport and laser pickup, which are seated upon a robust suspension that eradicates skipping. Software wise, it handles all those commonly requested primary flavours including MP3, WMA, AAC and FLAC. Digital input is not limited to disc though; on the front is a full-speed version 2.0 USB input which is able to interface with most common storage devices provided they’re formatted within the standard FAT 12/16/32 protocols.

This also doubles to interface with a literal page-full of smart devices, although older 30-pin iDevices may require the KCU-445i adaptor cable. Whether it’s Android or iDevice though, this connection goes beyond simple audio and charging by allowing you a more seamless operation which includes such functionality as searching by various criteria directly from the head unit. Also included on board is Alpine’s TuneIt functionality which allows you to receive Facebook notifications via text-to-speech and in doing so provides a safer driving environment.

The radio tuner is quite adept, not only spanning the FM, AM and LW bands with 18, six and six presets respectively; but also reaching into the digital realm and offering six presets on each of the three DAB bands. If you’re still a fan of the old school analogue input don’t despair – Alpine has opted to retain the 3.5mm input jack as well. Last but not least, there’s a version 2.1+EDR Bluetooth chipset on-board, which not only handles all your telephonic duties, including your contacts, but also relays information and diligently streams all forms of entertainment to the receiver. As is commonplace these days the unit also comes equipped with both steering wheel remote input and external microphone input.

With inputs covered let’s now turn our attention to the outputs. First and foremost this can be undertaken via the unit’s 2-volts front, rear and subwoofer RCA pre-outs. However if you opt to run your system without an external amplifier Alpine has included its revised internal MOSFET amplifier providing 22 watts continuously or just over 50 maximum, and when I say maximum it’s not euphemism for ‘about to haemorrhage’. No, the internal amplifier is quite comfortable outputting its full claimed power figure and, in conjunction with an impressive total harmonic distortion and signal-to-noise ratio, it makes for a very clear and most powerful sound.

Import, export
Before exportation of your information takes place you’ll likely want to manipulate it. To assist you with this Alpine has provided quite an in-depth processing suite. Starting with a superb 24-Bit DAC and simple controls such as fader and balance, the options soon broaden to become more intricate. The equaliser offers numerous pre-set linearity curves in addition to programing your own, and when opting for the latter you’re presented with nine bands of parametric influence.

The frequency centres can be altered and overlap by an octave, their logarithm widths can be switched between 3.0/4.0/5.0 and levels can be boosted or attenuated by 7dB.

Talking crossovers; the system can operate in either two or three way mode and, aside from offering adjustable crossover points between 20Hz and 20kHz, it also allows you to choose between first through fourth order slopes with an attenuation ability of down to -12dB. Within the subwoofer section resides a 0 to 15dB boost and 0° or 180° phase switch and all channels feature digital time alignment. These fundamental tuning elements may not mean a great deal to the layman, nonetheless in the hands of an experienced tuner or an enthusiasts these spheres will make an extraordinary difference to the ensuing sound.

It doesn’t end there though; there’s also the Media Expander. This clever piece of electronic wizardry basically restores sound quality lost when music undergoes compression. Alpine claims you simply touch the button and your music will instantly sound more alive, rich and natural. Now, truth be told, it’s not quite the silver bullet proclaimed, however, Media Expander is a neat little feature well worth employing, and is a credit to the technical prowess of Alpine’s engineering team.

Physically speaking the CDE-196DAB is quite the winsome unit, and although my bias may be showing through a little you have to concur Alpine seldom produces a bad looking unit, no? Featuring a delightful blend of piano black primary colour with silver highlights, all buttons are backlit in Alpine’s traditional frosted blue although the colour can be programmed throughout the full RGB spectrum, or around 152,561 colours. Ergo

you can fine tune its appearance to perfectly match your dash lighting. Portside are the primary control buttons and rotary commander knob, while on the starboard resides the USB and analogue jack. The top portion is home to the disc slot, the bottom sees the numerous preset knobs and immediately adjacent between the two is the screen, which is a segmented single line LCD display and able to handle multiple languages.

The unit comes with supplementary extras aplenty including a colour coded and labelled loom with ISO plugs, a manual in both hardcopy and softcopy formats, an IR remote control, and of course the KAE-242DA-R digital antenna. These will ensure that the installation process is hassle free. Nevertheless one small snippet of sage advice I will impart is this: please make full use of that processor. Contrary to popular belief the laws of physics don’t care how much you spend on your components. Getting good sound is far more about tuning and far less about simply spending. So do yourself a favour and get acquainted with a real time analyser, lest this’ll quickly develop into an exercise in futility.

With the test article setup I did just that; spending the better part of an hour experimenting with various crossover settings before moving to my real time analyser and employing the parametric abilities within the equaliser to get the car as close to a Fletcher-Munson curve as possible. Once completed I got stuck into the auditioning, starting out by playing a zero noise track and smashing that volume to check for hiss. The CDE-196DAB is a fairly quiet unit, with an output mostly devoid of any external hiss and noise, so with that test passed I moved to music.

Starting out with the radio it’s quite clear on both FM and AM with only a little in the way of additional artefacts; however making the jump to DAB quickly reveals the inferior quality radio we’ve come to accept as the norm hitherto. Not any more; the DAB plays with exceptional clarity and accuracy, as is equally the case when playing any other forms of digital media too, be it from disc or USB stick. The output is very linear too, presenting little in the way of artificial boosting at either end of the spectrum. Even the phone integration is seamless with the iPhone 5 working flawlessly, for once, through everything from telephony to audio streaming.

Conclusion
It may be fair to state that those from generation Y and younger may struggle to appreciate the sheer level of achievement Alpine has demonstrated in the CDE-196DAB. Those older however are all too aware of just what a magnificent piece of audio ingenuity like this would have cost back in ‘the good old days’. Terrific value and performance. 

 

Alpine CDE-196DAB Single-DIN head unit
Price: $399

+ Very good performance, Terrific value, Good features mix & EQ options

Features: CD, MP3, WMA, AAC and FLAC. Bluetooth and DAB+ receiver, USB & AUX input. Six 2-volts pre-outs. Crossover, time alignment and parametric equaliser

Power handling: 4 x 22 watts continuous, 4 x 50 maximum