Review: Dension ICE-Link Auto Integration Kit
Pros: Does exactly what is advertised, and handles its task with aplomb. Reduces perceived distances between destinations because you’re rocking out in style.
Cons: Pricey (when you don’t add-up all of the unit’s strengths). Might require a custom installation, which can run you another $100 or so. Might result in additional traffic violations due to head-banging or in-car break dancing.
Pure iPod Audio Through Car Speakers
Ahh, the wonders of technology. Whether you’re on an airplane, in the library, or walking the dog, the iPod lets your ears easily access your entire music library with a few mere button-taps.
Unless, of course, you’re in your car. It’s a pity that most automobiles and iPods don’t play together so well, and certainly you’ll get nowhere without peripherals. There have been creative solutions from FM transmitters to tape adapters and auxiliary-input additions, each with its consequences- none of them, for example, delivers audio quality that fully satisfies true audiophiles.
One of the newest contenders is Dension’s ICE-Link, a clever device that uses the pre-wired CD-changer ports in most modern-day vehicles to directly jack your iPod into your vehicle’s audio system. And we think ICE-Link’s long overdue.
The ICE-Link ships in a nondescript white box, including only the hardware and a basic set of textless installation instructions. This is a fancy enough device that Dension assumes either that you know what you’re doing when it comes to installing, or that you’ll be getting it installed professionally (more on that later).
As Dension’s web site explains the device contents “vary from kit to kit.” Every ICE-Link order is customized by vehicle year, make, and model, as well as the version of your iPod. The delivered kit will thereby, in theory, work with the pre-existing cabling found within your car, as well as with your specific model of iPod.
Suffice to say, you won’t open the box to find something simple and basic; ICE-Link looks like it was built from parts that were previously laying about at Al & Ed’s Autosound. That isn’t to say the thing isn’t of the highest quality - it absolutely is. But it has a slight feeling of having been thrown together by hand, albeit skilled, gentle hands that knew exactly what they were doing.
No matter what vehicle you specify in your order, you will get something that interfaces either with the CD-Changer ports in the trunk of your vehicle, or that can be installed in a behind-the-radio configuration. If you have a question of which you will be receiving, or have a preference, ring Dension’s knowledgeable phone or email-support department before you order.
The main part of each ICE-Link is a cigar-sized plastic bundle containing a black cable that ends with a special jack and electronics that allow you to connect your iPod with a standard Firewire cable. The jack will vary depending on your iPod type, but for 3G iPods this jack will plug into your headphone and remote control ports using the same wire. It’s a very slick interface, and makes plug-and-play use of the iPod a breeze.
Properly Customized the First Time
The specific ICE-Link tested was for a 2002 BMW X5 3.0, a tricky system to jack into both because of unique wiring, and DSP (Digital Signal Processing) audio components that require audio conversions to be made by the car’s head unit. Yet Dension properly identified the components that would work with my system, based on the year, make, and model of our test car. Thumbs up for their sales and support teams.
Installation will be the stage of the ICE-Link process where your mileage may vary. Some autos will make for an easier installation than others. The X5 is an extremely large machine, making a trunk-based installation out of the question - enough wiring to extend from the trunk to the main cabin would be ridiculously expensive, as well as impractical. Dension advised a behind-the-radio install.
This has its consequences, specifically making a professional installation necessary. BMW’s audio system is delicate and integrated heavily with the on-board computer. Most sane car owners would be nervous to remove their in-dash head units and computer systems to install after-market parts, and so a pricey custom installation might be your only option. It was ours.
This, again, is disclosed in advance on their Web site, and thus it is highly recommended that you consider all options before purchasing the device. Do you have the skills to do a behind-the-wheel installation yourself? Or, if you install the device using the trunk connection, do you mind a wire running from your trunk to the main cabin? Or, do you have cash set aside for a professional installation, which can run upwards of $100 bucks? Make sure you answer these questions before making a purchase.
Once the device is installed in your machine, the fun begins. Serious fun.
We had a professional-level custom installation performed by the ingenious folks at Paris Audio in Beverly Hills. Their behind-the-radio installation was finished in under an hour, with cabling running through the ash tray of the car without modifying the actual vehicle in any way. The result is one wire that runs from the ash tray to the main cabin, with the Firewire charger portion of the ICE-Link velcroed to the ash tray itself. (The X5 has a small access door for the ash tray which can be safely closed with the wires tucked comfortably inside, or running loosely out.)
Connecting the ICE-Link’s main wire to the iPod’s headphone and remote control ports is a snap, and then it’s a matter of firing up the car. This is where the ICE-Link starts to prove its muscle: with the turn of the key, the iPod powers up and resumes play on whatever song was queued up before you entered the car. Belkin auto adapter users take note: only the ICE-Link works like your CD Changer would, and it even turns the iPod off when the car is turned off. Magic? Not really: the ICE-Link is simply converting the macros that the car would send to the CD Changer to your iPod. But it sure feels like magic. And it has even more tricks up its plastic sleeve:
When we pressed the Skip-Forward button on our test car’s head unit, the iPod skipped to the next track. Pressing the Skip-Backwards button let us hear the previous song. Fast forward worked exactly as it should, as well as rewind: we heard snippets of the song as the iPod shuttled through each track at high speed. It’s so simple, but truly a wonder to behold.
Does your auto have steering wheel-mounted navigation of your audio system? If so, you’re likely in for another treat: this too worked flawlessly in our test unit. Skipping and searching through songs from the steering wheel is a blast, and could not be integrated better. Changing the mode of the audio system works exactly as it should. Toggle between the ICE-Link, the AM/FM radio, or an in-dash CD player at your leisure, and everything will perform great.
Also, it should be noted that pressing the volume up/down on the head unit or steering wheel remote adjusts the volume of the car’s audio system, not of the iPod. This is important, so users can adjust both volumes individually so as to optimize their listening levels.
There’s not much to say about the charging feature, except that it works perfectly. Run a Firewire cable from the iPod into the ICE-Link and you can enjoy your tunes without battery loss. (Yes, the iPod can be played while it’s charging.)
Or, turn off the car with the iPod still plugged into the Firewire input of the ICE-Link. The iPod will power down, but you’ll see the “Charging” message on the iPod’s display. This is extremely handy: the iPod can charge while you’re away from your vehicle.
This brings up a question: will ICE-Link kill your car’s battery? In our experience, it didn’t, but it’s possible in the same way as a lone lightbulb in the car left on overnight could do it. All documentation on Apple’s Web site indicates that the iPod stops taking a charge once the battery is full. We wouldn’t leave an iPod plugged into the ICE-Link while away on a month-long vacation, but our test car’s batteries are alive and well as of this writing.
Performance: Audio Quality
The most important question of all: How does it sound? In a word: excellent.
Audiophiles may complain that the device uses the headphone port for its audio out. This means the ICE-Link doesn’t utilize the iPod’s “line out” feature to ensure a perfect signal comes from the dock port of the iPod. Yet this does not hurt the audio quality pumping from the iPod through the ICE-Link into a car’s audio system.
As with FM modulators and tape adapters, the iPod’s volume should be set between 75% and 90% for optimum performance when using the ICE-Link. Once the “sweet spot” is found (which is amazingly easy, compared to other products), you’ll be enjoying the high-highs and low-lows of your entire music collection.
We tested the device with a variety of music styles. Starting with Outkast’s “Stankonia,” we savored the thumping beats of “B.O.B.” and the record scratches of “Ms. Jackson.” However, we initially thought we heard some digital artifacting, and some strange high-end pops from our test system.
To be sure, we switched to the simple guitar playing and sparse sounds of Jack Johnson’s “Brushfire Fairytales.” Sure enough, the audio pops and artifacting were the fault of a scratched-disc rip of our Outkast CD, as the Jack Johnson album sounded pristine. There’s a testament to the quality of the ICE-Link: you’ll notice things in your music you may have previously overlooked.
Since Jack Johnson’s album has a touch of hiss in its production, we tried one last album: the self-titled “Tenacious D.” This album has extremely high production values, and seemed a good test of the noise generated by the ICE-Link and iPod.
Even when cranked to the highest decibel levels local law enforcement allows, the ICE-Link transitioned the music into our car’s audio system magnificently. Any hiss from the iPod’s output was only noticeable if the system was cranked up to its peak while the music was paused. Otherwise, everything from hip-hop to rock performed with the utmost quality.
First of all, it should be noted that in hours of testing, the ICE-Link failed to perform one of its functions once: it stopped skipping forwards/backwards or shuttling through the song in the midst of Weezer’s “El Scorcho.” Maybe the ICE-Link has a love for Rivers Cuomo, or maybe it was just a hiccup with the iPod. But a simple press of the menu button and navigation back to the “Now Playing” screen was all it took to get the device back on track. A bit weird.
Some car makes aren’t yet supported by Dension, either, though most manufacturers are represented or planned to be represented soon. We noted that a number of luxury cars aren’t on the official list, and neither are brands such as Buick, Mazda, or Oldsmobile, to name a few.
Other than that, the only things missing are additional features that we’d love to see. Track information displayed on the car’s head-unit would be an amazing addition, but the engineering just might not be possible. Mounting solutions are available from Dension’s web site, but aren’t included for the price. Also, to please the audiophiles, a dock connection-based line-out would be a gimmie. Not to mention the joy of having a one-wire link from the iPod to the ICE-Link, which could handle audio-out as well as charging…
ICE-Link is one cool kit, and for some users may be the only way to make the iPod play through car speakers. The X5 for example does not have an auxiliary line-in, does not come standard with a tape-deck, has fiber-optic antenna wiring which resists spliced-in audio components, and has an external antenna that makes FM modulators perform with substandard results. For automotive conditions such as these, the ICE-Link is the obvious (and only) choice.
Good thing, then, the device performs better than any other solution that exists on the market. While some may knock the unit’s price (upwards of $149, depending on the model of automobile), don’t forget the device’s strengths. Skipping tracks remotely, stellar audio performance, and an integrated charger are some of the benefits to this classy audio device.