It does seem rather pointless to have a raft of features built into a car stereo when they are also built into a smart phone which is, as often as not, attached to the system. For a class of smart phone users, Apple has come to the rescue with something called ‘CarPlay’. And to use CarPlay, in addition to a compatible iPhone you need a head unit that works with CarPlay. This is the core of the Alpine iLX-007E head unit.
We’ll get to all the details of CarPlay in a moment, but it must first be noted that with the iLX-007E CarPlay is not just a nice extra, it is a fundamental part of the system. In standard form, unless you have a compatible iPhone, its functionality is limited to AM/FM radio. Add that iPhone, though, and you have an excellent music player, a fine navigation system, and a hands free telephone and text tool that’s wonderfully easy to use (one caveat: those of us who like to keep our music on iPods instead of our iPhones are out of luck).
I should add that the unit is also compatible with Alpine’s add-on CD/DVD changer and its TV tuner, so with the application of more dollars you can include old school video and music disc entertainment in your system. In addition, the system supports Alpine’s reversing camera as an option. Since there’s no disc spinner built in, the unit is quite compact: only 76mm deep. Just about the entire face it presents to the interior of your car is the screen. This is nominally 7-inches (175mm by my measure) and is a full colour capacitive touch screen with a resolution of 800 pixels across by 480 vertically. Underneath this are two ‘hard’ buttons and four ‘soft’ control keys. The two soft keys to the left are up and down arrows for adjusting the volume (hold for mute). On the right side are left and right arrows, mostly for track and station preset skipping. The main ‘hard’ button is a key which protrudes very slightly and operates as ‘Stop’, power on and, if held for five seconds, power off. The other is labelled ‘Siri’ and in CarPlay mode invokes the voice assistant mode – Siri – on the plugged in iPhone.
All connections are at the back. The main wiring loom includes, in addition to the usual power and speaker connections, cables for the power antenna, parking brake, reversing, and to trigger the power on for an external amp. A second loom provides for connecting an optional reversing camera or plugging in Alpine’s CD/DVD changer. There are also USB and microphone sockets. The microphone is provided along with a mounting clip and long cable. Also provided is a USB extension cable. It’s up to you to provide the USB to Lightning cable needed to use your phone. The USB input does not support other music devices or USB memory.
Alpine rates the output of the system as four times 50 watts. Using the much tighter CEA-2006 measurement standards, it rates the amp at 4 x 18 watts (which just goes to show the limited usefulness of the headline power ratings specified with many systems). Under the same standard it rates the signal to noise ratio at 80dB (A-weighted).
The unit has extensive sound tuning facilities. To fully use these you need to employ the unit’s own interface and also install the free Alpine TuneIt app onto a connected iPhone.
Essentially you set parameters in the app, and then select presets from the unit’s own interface (or from the app). So, for example, you can choose from the unit one of several pre-programmed EQ settings. But to actually adjust the equaliser for the ‘User’ setting, you need to use the app. Likewise, you can switch the subwoofer on or off, set its level and flip its phase using the head unit’s interface, but to adjust the crossover – both high-pass and low-pass with one-third octave intervals from 20 to 200 Hertz, with user definable slopes of up to 24dB/octave – you need the app. The unit offers basic bass/mid/treble tone controls, but also includes a 9-band parametric equaliser, with bands able to be centred as low as 20 Hz and as high as 20,000 Hz. In addition to the level of each the ‘Q’ (ie, range of effect) can be set. You can dial numbers into the app for these, or drag an on-screen icon around to make the level and frequency settings. And, of course, you can adjust the time alignment of the speakers in the app.
Using the app, there’s a system for setting up ‘BassEngine SQ’ for tuning the bass performance for, as Alpine says, “different types of music”. The nifty thing about this is that if your system is using Alpine speakers and subwoofers you can select the models from lists so that the tuning system knows their characteristics. Five presets can be loaded into the unit for the variety of music. The less nice thing about this is that using BassEngine SQ precludes the use of most of the other settings.
It is difficult to convey how easy this head unit is to use via CarPlay. If you can use your iPhone, you will take seconds only to master CarPlay. This is in part due to the excellent performance of the touch screen. It was highly responsive to touches and swipes; indeed, almost as good as the screen on an iPhone itself. If you’ve used Siri on your iPhone you’ll be even more at home, and if you haven’t you’ll likely want to use it with this system since you can do almost anything the system’s capable of doing with one press of the ‘Siri’ key and then simply talking.
Now let’s back up a bit. CarPlay is a kind of combined interface and communications protocol. The interface is what appears on the touch screen of the head unit. The protocol ensures that the unit and telephone talk to each other effectively and without delay. The result is that when you’re using things like Siri, or poking away at on-screen icons on the soft controls across the bottom of the screen there is a smooth interaction as though you’re dealing directly with the phone, rather than your words and button presses being interpreted or mediated by the head unit, before being passed on. Press the ‘Siri’ key and she’s instantly waiting for you to ask for something. The only delays are those brief ones in the phone as routes are determined and so forth.
There’s nothing wireless about the connection: you plug your iPhone’s USB/Lightning cable into the supplied USB extension cable which is plugged into the back of the head unit. Insert its little plug into your iPhone and, if necessary, enter the password to unlock the phone. And that’s all it takes. No apps need to be downloaded to your phone because CarPlay is built in (to iOS 7.1 or later). CarPlay only works with the iPhone 5 and later (ie. those with Lightning connectors). Once plugged in, the CarPlay display instantly fires up on the head unit’s screen. The system isn’t locked to any particular phone. You can unplug your iPhone and plug in a travelling companion’s and enjoy its content. Of course it charges up your phone as well.
The CarPlay screen display is clean and pretty. At the left is the time, phone signal strength and connection type (3G, 4G, or the WiFi signal strength if the phone’s connected that way), along with a ‘Home’ key. Up to eight large icons are displayed: Phone, Music, Maps, Messages, Now Playing and ‘Main Menu’. The first four are apps. The fifth also takes you to the Music app, the section showing, well, what’s playing. ‘Main Menu’ takes you back to the Alpine unit’s main screen where you can select the radio or the CD/DVD/TV tuner if installed and also adjust audio and system settings. Some apps that you may have installed in your phone also come across. In the case of the phone I was using two additional apps were up on the front screen: Podcasts and Spotify. The main apps provide a significant subset of the functions of their phone versions and their features can be readily navigated using the responsive touch screen. Scrolling through artist or contact lists has that same style of physical movement, complete with momentum, familiar from regular iPhone use.
But most of what you want to do can be done via Siri. This employs the supplied microphone which you will have plugged into the appropriate socket at the rear and positioned conveniently using the supplied spring clip. A touch on the button had it waiting eagerly for my voice, which it understood with unnerving accuracy on every single occasion. I was able to call people by name, or send texts, or have Siri read newly received texts back to me, or to set a destination and ask for directions on the Maps app. The display was always clear. Of course, I could also ask Siri to play songs by name or artist or albums.
And the Alpine iLX-007E proved to be a fine sounding system. I used it both with a set of component speakers, and for a bit more fun with some quite expensive hi-fi home speakers. Even with the latter the performance was strong, with clean sound that didn’t seem anywhere near as loud as it actually was. I realised this when I stepped out of my office and found that with the closed door the sound was still loud enough to potentially trouble neighbours. Being louder than it seems is a marker of clean, undistorted performance.
The bass control was good on loudspeakers that go solidly down to 50 Hertz. I added a powered subwoofer and made the appropriate settings, and that left the system with even more reserves of comfortable power since the sub was taking over the load for the bass frequencies.
In my last review I concluded with: “As always with modern head units with their extraordinary range of features, mastery takes a bit of time as you work out the wrinkles in how your phone interacts with the unit.” Wrong! The Alpine iLX-007E shows that so long as you have the right kind of phone, a head unit can be dreamily easy to use. With fine performance as well, Alpine is on a winner.
Type: Double-DIN head unit
FOR: Brilliant integration with up-to-date iPhones, Highly intuitive in use, Good audio performance
AGAINST: Radio only available source in absence of iPhone
Features: 7-inch TFT Active Matrix touch screen display, GPS/Music/Phone/Voice command via Apple CarPlay compatible iPhone, Mic supplied, USB playback (MP3, AAC), AM/FM, rear inputs (AV, USB with 30 pin iPod/iPhone adaptor), Steering Wheel Control ready, Reversing camera input, pre-outs including subwoofer
Power: 4 x 50 watts into 4 ohms
Product page: Alpine Electronics Australia