Review: Harman Kardon Drive + Play 2 Mobile Media Manager
Pros: A beautifully designed deluxe iPod car integration kit, complete with a quality 3.5” color LCD screen, tactile wireless control knob, and easy to install power and data hub, as well as additional components for more clandestine, professional installations. Best iPod in-car interface we’ve yet seen emulates and improves upon the iPod’s UI with multiple in-car day and night-skinnable menus, and limited-click genre/album filtering features; fast scrolling is permitted. Charges iPod and provides your choice of three types of audio output—wired, wired FM, and wireless FM transmission. Great software gain adjustments enable compatibility with cassette adapters, as well. iPod cable is highly case compatible.
Cons: Twice the price of earlier, functionally similar predecessor, and around the same cost as a full car stereo replacement with nice iPod integration. Substantially better wired audio performance than wireless FM, requiring either easy access to a stereo line-in port or additional cost professional installation to make the most of its sound. Optional expansion modules and firmware updates have not yet materialized; lacks iPod video out, and not capable of fully replacing or integrating into existing car GPS or A/V systems.
If you’ve purchased a car, computer, or iPod over the past five or more years, you’re probably aware already that Harman Kardon and its sub-brands Infinity and JBL make speakers that consistently range from good to excellent—we’ve reviewed a lot of them. But you mightn’t be aware that the company also develops other sorts of electronics, most pertinently car kits and portable navigation systems, which have continued to impress us ever since we started looking at them a couple of years ago.
Harman’s latest product, the Drive + Play 2 Mobile Media Manager ($400), is essentially the world’s best iPod car integration kit, and designed to be compatible with any car stereo. Like several of its other recent iPod accessories, it’s about $100 too expensive—the only reason it narrowly misses our high recommendation—and unlike them, it hasn’t come down significantly in street price since it was unveiled two months ago. But thanks to a nice color screen, a wireless control knob, a small but powerful connection hub, and an easy-to-use interface, it’s undeniably one of the most impressive ways we’ve seen to integrate your iPod into a car. Other than its price, it’s a considerably superior alternative to the company’s earlier Drive + Play (iLounge rating: A-).
The Big Picture: What Does D+P2 Do, and Include in the Box?
Drive + Play 2 begins with a premise that made a little more sense before the release of Apple’s iPhone, but still has value today: whether you’re using a nano with a 1.5” screen, a slightly larger-screened iPod 4G or mini, or a 2.5”-screened 5G iPod, you’d benefit from having a larger, better screen and correspondingly bigger fonts to access your music library while driving. Preferably, it would be on or near your dashboard so that you wouldn’t have to look away from the road to see it. By contrast, you’d want to have your controls near your hand, rather than the dashboard, and not grafted to that screen. And of course, you’d want to have a way to keep your iPod charged while it’s outputting music to your car stereo, without a bunch of cables wrapping around your steering wheel, gearbox, and passenger compartment.
Harman has addressed all of these concerns, and then some, with Drive + Play 2. If you’re going to integrate your iPod into your car’s audio system with a new screen and controller, wouldn’t you also want to use the same kit to work with your Bluetooth cell phone, satellite radio, and other devices? Wouldn’t you want to have the ability to customize the interface, at least a little, to match the interior of your car or your other color preferences? And what if something changes with the iPod family—wouldn’t you like to be able to update the unit’s software to address it?
Drive + Play 2’s box either includes or enables you to optionally expand your way through any of these scenarios. It starts with a user-mountable 3.5” color LCD screen that’s not only readable in bright sunlight, but also equipped with a light sensor that changes its color palette for easier nighttime viewing. Rather than forcing you to reach for the iPod’s Click Wheel, it includes a battery-powered, wireless 2.4GHz ratcheting tuning knob with buttons, capable of being mounted near your hand, wherever your car has the space. These parts connect to a central power and data hub that’s only slightly larger than a standard cigarette lighter adapter, and capable of being mounted either conspicuously in your car’s lighter port, or hidden away by a professional installer.
As a buyer, your only question is how complicated you want the installation process to become: Drive + Play 2 can be dropped into any car with an FM radio and use an integrated FM transmitter to do a decent job without any professional involvement, or, thanks to a smaller included second car power adapter, and your choice of in-line FM modulator or line-in cabling, it can be professionally hard-wired into your car stereo, with its wires covertly tucked away from public view. Harman ships Drive + Play 2 with a huge assortment of connection hardware and mounting gear, including metal screw-ready mounting rings or adhesive pads for the screen and control knob, plus cable ties and screws to help mount and manage the rest of the cables and components.
Harman’s Hub is small and reconfigurable. An integrated cigarette lighter charger detaches to let you mount the included, separate cabled charger based on your car’s mounting needs and your visual preferences. The Hub also has ports to connect your iPod cable and other add-ons; included caps cover the FM modulator and accessory ports if you don’t want to use them.
As far as audio output from the Hub to your car is concerned, you have three included choices: a built-in FM transmitter designed to wirelessly overwhelm an empty station on your radio, a wired FM modulator that more powerfully takes over an FM station, or a line-out port with an included cable to connect to existing hardware in some car stereos.
Unusually but wonderfully, Harman also lets you change both the Hub’s line-out level and the iPod’s line-in level to fine-tune the audio for any integration you attempt; with these settings, we were able to successfully connect D+P2 to a separately sold cassette adapter to use with a tape deck-equipped car stereo. As always, your best audio quality will come from wired solutions, with every step towards wireless FM diminishing the sound quality further.
The good news about FM in Drive + Play 2 is that Harman includes an FM modulator unit in the package, enabling you to connect your car’s FM antenna to the system and get better-than-FM transmitter-quality clarity via a wired connection if your car stereo doesn’t have line-in capabilities. Unfortunately, neither the FM modulator nor the transmitter is ideal; we found the transmitter to be relatively underpowered and highly dependent upon both Drive + Play 2’s cable and your car’s antenna locations, and the modulator doesn’t provide a totally clear audio signal, either. We’re not giving the unit a pass on either of these issues, which Harman should really fix, but given the inherent issues with FM radio solutions and the type of users who will be capable of affording this car kit, our gut feeling is that most D+P2 buyers will find a way to use the line output port instead.
The included wireless control knob comes with a user-replaceable battery that’s supposed to last for extended periods of time—six months, if not longer. We’ve had ours for two months at this point, and even though it’s been exposed to the continuous Southern California sun and typical car or garage heat, it’s still working just fine. There were no problems getting the knob to work wirelessly in our test vehicles; it was responsive and provided satisfying clicks as we spun it around, or pressed buttons, emulating the layout of the Click Wheel but with more tactile controls.
Harman also packs-in a Dock Connector to USB adapter so that you can use the included iPod-ready cable with other USB devices. We haven’t tested this particular feature, as we have no great need to know how Drive + Play 2 works with a Zune, but the company offers it as a future-proof solution. It also has announced plans to offer Drive + Play 2-specific cables for non-iPod devices, should they be popular enough to warrant something better than connecting their own USB cables to the included adapter.
How Does D+P2 Work?
Once you’ve mounted the screen on your dashboard, the control knob near your hand, and the power and audio hub such that it’s connected to your car, you have only one concern: attaching your iPod to Drive + Play 2. That’s easy, thanks to the included Dock Connector cable, which is thin enough to be highly case-compatible, and neutral black in color. Once the iPod’s connected, its screen shifts to the checkmarked “OK to Disconnect” display that means you’ve surrendered use of its on-screen displays and Click Wheel controls. Currently, when in iPod mode, iPhones react in a similar way, with a more-or-less permanent “iPod Accessory Connected” screen that similarly prevents you from touching your way to song playback.
Thankfully, Harman’s alternative on-screen menuing system is impressive, and heavily based upon Apple’s classic iPod interface, only with a few car- and expansion-related tweaks. It quickly downloads your iPod’s database after connection, and begins to give you access before it’s finished downloading, so you can start scrolling through the As and Bs before it gets to the Zs. With the control knob, you can achieve fast scrolling through your collection—a common competitors’ omission that’s one of our biggest pet peeves with most aftermarket iPod kits—and when you’re accessing an iPod’s content, the menus essentially duplicate Apple’s originals.
Album art is displayed if it’s been stored with your color iPod’s files, though it takes a couple of seconds to load, and at present, there’s no art when music is played back from an iPhone. Similarly, videos are not viewable on Drive + Play 2’s integrated screen, an issue which many car accessory companies attribute to concerns over lawsuits. The only way around this appears to be to mount an iPod or iPhone directly on your dashboard, or to add a separate screen to your car, coupled with an accessory such as DLO’s most recent TransDock that’s agnostic about the display it’s connected to.
New and of some utility to certain users are added automatic music sorting modes that will filter your collection into somewhat similar categories, rather than just randomly shuffling everything together. An automatic mix feature groups together several genres of music (say, Dance, Disco, and Funk), taking a minute or so to cobble their contents together if you’ve connected a large iPod, and a “more/less like this” system helps you quickly access a deeper or shallower pool of related songs without lots of fidgeting.
A simplified iPod Settings menu offers control over standard iPod shuffle and repeat modes, tweaks to the iPod’s music menu sorting options, as well as an Auto Resume feature which enables you to instantly resume playback of the last song from your iPod upon re-connection. Though you shouldn’t expect the feature to work an hour or two after your last disconnection, it does work properly on the iPod and iPhone if you briefly unplug and re-plug them. Additionally, to customize the unit’s interface, you can call up a System Settings menu, which offers control over everything from scrolling speed to language, the screensaver, and menu options. The screensaver is basically a features slideshow for the unit, one of several parts of the device for which Harman has promised firmware updates to enhance D+P2’s performance in the future. As yet, we’ve neither seen them nor know where to download them if they’re available.
Another nice touch is that Drive + Play 2’s interface is skinnable, with five included color swapped skins, with the prospect that additional options could be developed by users. As noted above, an ambient light level sensor built into the screen can activate night mode, displaying an alternate, less bright version of the interface. These features emulate ones we’ve seen in even more expensive car integration kits, and go well beyond the iPod’s own interface in looks and features.
Beyond its ability to connect with other USB devices via the separate USB-to-Dock Connector adapter, Harman has promised to sell separately both an adapter for Bluetooth hands-free calling, and a separate Sirius Satellite Radio module to decode and play back Sirius content through the Drive + Play 2 interface.
As with the firmware updates we heard about, we’ve heard nothing about actual availability of either of these modules since Drive + Play 2 was launched, and can’t find them at any of the retailers who stock the main kit online. Assuming they’re released, we’re interested to see whether and how Harman handles iPhone call integration, and whether it can simplify tuning of Sirius channels, which we’ve found less than easy on competing, more expensive car integration kits we’ve tested.
Additional Performance Notes, Limitations, and Conclusions
Beyond the specific FM and line-out audio and iPod interface performance characteristics detailed above, several other elements of the Drive + Play 2 experience were also worth highlighting. First, beyond noting that Harman Kardon has done a great job with the system’s modern aesthetics, we feel compelled to point out that the overall user experience we’ve had with Drive + Play 2 is substantially impressive, given what it sets out to do. Once it’s connected in your car, it does in fact make iPod content navigation and playback extremely easy, and more pleasant than trying to accomplish the same feats with even a well-mounted iPod. Thanks to its screen, control knob, and high-quality interface, Harman has again gone beyond other companies in creating an in-car iPod experience we are comfortable using ourselves, and suggesting to others. With only three exceptions, which may or may not apply to you, this would be the very first car kit we would recommend to people looking for a deluxe, no-hassle way to bring iPod music into their cars.
Those exceptions are, specifically, price, your existing car stereo, and your desire for an even more deluxe screen. At $400, Drive + Play 2 can be viewed in two ways: it’s either a comparatively inexpensive alternative to a complete kit to swap out your existing car stereo, or a very expensive alternative to just connecting a simple charger and FM transmitter or line-out cable to your existing iPod and using its own screen/control combination. For half the price, the original Drive + Play was also great at the time it was released, and with very similar features to this model, accomplishes almost the same functionality without quite as attractive a veneer; we’d pick Drive + Play 2 instead, but depending on your needs, the earlier model might make more sense.
Price aside, you might be confounded somewhat by your existing car stereo. As previously noted, Drive + Play 2 does best when it makes a direct line-in connection to your audio system, and also does a great job if you have a tape deck and a $15-20 cassette adapter. But if you’re using a stereo with an FM radio and no line-in functionality, you may well find that professional installation work is necessary to achieve decent sound quality, and even then, that you’re not getting the sort of premium, clear sound you’d get from swapping your stereo with even a low-end, iPod-ready model.
Alternately, if you already have a GPS navigation or alternate A/V system installed in your car, you might find—as we did—that Drive + Play 2’s interface, power, and control features are so good that you don’t want to tie them to Harman’s 3.5” display. Unfortunately, the company has used a proprietary connector that supplies power and communicates with the included screen to determine ambient light levels, so for better or worse, you’re stuck adding the 3.5” monitor to your dashboard no matter what. Since no GPS feature is available for Drive + Play 2, those desiring both GPS and iPod integration into their cars will necessarily have to have twin screens. As esoteric of a concern as this might seem, at this sort of price level, and as more cars come equipped with their own monitors and GPS features, additional flexibility or GPS features would only help Drive + Play 2 to appeal to more people.
Overall, when used with the best of its included components, and the right car stereo, Harman Kardon’s Drive + Play 2 delivers an excellent iPod-to-car integration experience that’s limited in appeal mostly by its high price. If you don’t already have an in-dash monitor, and do have both line-in capability and the desire to have a truly impressive iPod music integration experience, you owe it to yourself to check this out as an intermediate solution. But if you’re using an FM radio-only stereo, or are in need of a car kit with more than the as-yet-unfulfilled Bluetooth and Sirius expandability D+P2 offers, there are other solutions that will produce better results in all respects save interface.