First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit

First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 1

We weren’t sure what to expect from Harman Kardon’s Drive + Play Car Kit ($199.99), but with an early production unit in hand, we’re generally liking what we’re seeing. As with most of the premium car kits we’ve looked at, Drive + Play gives you – actually, a professional installer – the tools necessary to connect your iPod directly into your car’s speakers, eliminating the noise and interference associated with FM transmitters and cassette adapters. But as the pictures suggest, it’s much more than that, too.

First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 2

Designed to eliminate your need to fidget uncomfortably with your iPod in a car, Drive + Play includes its own backlit 128 x 64 pixel LCD screen, a highly attractive metallic control knob, and a breakout box that connects these devices to your iPod and car. The complete kit also includes extra cabling (for cigarette lighter or direct car power, and audio input), and an auxiliary input port to let you connect one non-iPod device with RCA-style left and right audio ports.

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The most interesting part of Drive + Play is its screen. You mount this part in your field of vision, and use it instead of the iPod’s display.

First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 4

The included iPod controller is a knob with five buttons and a blue glowing light. You mount this near your free hand, turn it like you’re touching a Click Wheel, and use the four silver buttons like the iPod’s menu, back, forward, and play/pause buttons. The center surface is also a button.

First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 5

Those two parts are connected to this breakout box, along with a cigarette lighter adapter and a black cable that connects to your iPod. Additional ports on the box’s back are for audio out and an antenna; an auxiliary input’s on its side.

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First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 7


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Once installed, the display is highly versatile. You can, for example, pick from two font sizes – either very readable. Regular has a four-line display. The Large font size gives you three lines of huge, thick characters, and you can enable line scrolling so that menus and song details aren’t abbreviated.

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First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 10


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You can also invert the screen if you prefer the way that it looks. All menus and screens then have a black background with white text.

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First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 13

There are many additional settings, including ones for the yes, surprise – integrated FM transmitter. If you don’t want to have a professional installer connect the system directly into your car’s stereo system – an option that guarantees superb audio quality – you can tune the FM transmitter from 88.1 to 107.9FM. Remember the antenna port, above? That’s there so you can wire the transmitter in-line with your car’s antenna, so that you are guaranteed to really overwhelm any station you pick. One issue: the wire for this is sold separately. This mightn’t sound as good as a professional, direct connection, but in quick testing, the FM transmitter seems quite robust.

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First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 15

Used normally, the unit does a good job of replicating the iPod’s standard screens, pulling the details from your iPod while it’s connected. The screens aren’t quite as nice as they are on the iPod, but this is a significant visual step up from the confusing and otherwise challenging car integration solutions that many auto manufacturers have been developing.

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First Looks: Harman Kardon Drive + Play Car Kit 17


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Our only major potential issue with Drive + Play at the moment is practicality. In addition to the fact that we’re finding it difficult to mount in our primary test vehicle – a fact attributable almost entirely to the vehicle’s interior layout rather than Drive + Play – we aren’t 100% sure that a second screen and second controller are more useful than just mounting the iPod at a visible and generally hand-accessible level. We’ll be testing and mulling, and have more to say on the subject in our complete review. Click here for more information.

  1. Other than the inordinate amount of cabling, which I would not like to see even a remote hint of in my vehicle, this is certainly a nice solution to iPod usage in a vehicle. This lends itself to a custom installation whereby the HK components are modified and used accordingly to blend in a bit more with a vehicle’s interior.

  2. I’m confused about this ‘plugging directly into your car’s speakers’ comment. If that’s really the case, where’s the amplification coming from? I’d TRULY love to see an iPod try to drive my woefully inefficient (i.e., power-hungry) Focal 165W front stage…er, no I wouldn’t…trying that would certainly end the life of the iPod, and probably the life of the Focals as well.

    Looking at the JPG showing the rear panel of the breakout box, I see what appears to be a stereo line out jack (miniplug?); I very much assume this H/K creation still very much requires the user/installer to plug it into the H/U or controller module of any car stereo setup.

    I admit I like the concept behind this product. But I wish H/K could’ve done the screen design better; it looks like some retro throwback to a ’60s James Bond-inspired TV set. The LCD display appears dull in the pictures; a bright white background (like the iPod) I think would looke cleaner. And couldn’t the font have been a simplier, less-cluttered san serif type (particularly the large font type), again much like the iPod’s? And it would’ve been much cooler if something other than plain monochrome-colored plastics were used for the finished product. Automakers are constantly being slammed for using bland material finishes; now our pricier aftermarket accessories are going to do the SAME THING as well? For instance, carbon fiber would’ve been a nice, visually rich departure. Instead, the Drive+Play’s appearance in picture and vidio invokes IMO a sense of cheapness. The controller knob itself is pretty neat and interesting to look at, but the rest of the exposed pieces seems so out of place in any richly or well appointed car interior.

  3. Hello, I am really interested in this product but am a bit confused about the connection and am wondering if you could clarify the wiring. I have a Mazda Tribute that has a stock radio and wasn’t sure if the Harman Kardon comes with a wiring harness/diagram to connecto to stock radios or if I would need the radio to have an aux input? I believe there are aftermarket adapters which will allow me to add an aux line via the SAT option but am unsure if this is needed or not.

  4. i agree with the worries of flatline response, pertaining to the direct hardwiring of the system to your vehicles HeadUnit. it is possible, but still would require you to buy an auxillary input adapter for the Ipod’s audio to reach your HU, via what looks to be an additional 3.5mm stereo jack on the HK output to male RCA’s cable, to integrate with the aftermarket aux input adapter.

    and where do you mount not only the screen but the oversized nipple controller? inside a Mercedes or a BMW it just seems out of place. you may hide the Ipod, but now you’ve got two new pieces of hardware to attach to the inside cabin where they will somehow flow.

    if you’re willing to put out the money to have a custom installer remove your dash components and fit these parts into empty cavities of your interior, or better yet, create from scratch areas for their existence, it seems possible to enjoy the system, but now you’re talking a thousand $’s easy.

    i am biased. i have installed many Dension Ipod interfaces into upper and mid-priced cars, and the kits come with everything to hardwire the Ipod audio directly into the factory HU, this kit gets you only half way there.

    I can see the screen working well inside a car that has a sunglass holder cavity in the upper center dash, there you can make possible a mounting solution for the screen that makes it rise out forth from the car, and therefore would be in your eye-line for viewing while driving, but if your dash is a sloping or flat surface, you just double-side tape it to that surface?

  5. Here’s the problem with all these aftermarket adapters:
    1. They are f’in expensive. $200 will get you a new, cooler-than-cool iPod nano. Or a couple of shuffles. (‘Course, you still have the problem of connecting them to your car. But that’s not the point).

    2. They don’t work for all factory HU’s (Subaru Forester XT for me). Although it looks like HK has that one solved (however, I’m still not clear exactly how it connects).

    2. I spent $400 on an iPod photo because I wanted an ultra cool-looking screen that would display album art and photos in brilliant color. Now I’m going to drop another $200 (see point #1) so that I can throw it in the glove box and not enjoy that wonderful color screen and be relegated to looking at a blah, non-color LCD screen? I don’t think so. And, furthermore, now I have to use a clunky-looking navigation device (where the heck am I going to put that?) when the best navigation device ever invented (for digital music players, anyway) is right there on the iPod. Oh. Right. It’s in the glove box.

    Sheesh. Just give me an adapter that will give me a direct connection from my iPod to my factory or aftermarket HU for about $50 or so, AND LET ME CONTROL AND VIEW MY iPOD WITH MY iPOD! Is it really that difficult?

  6. I realize that when you connect your ipod with the Drive and play, the artists names and song titles come on the screen. Is this the same case with an ipod shuffle, or any other mp3 player that you would have to use the aux input?

  7. I’m not sure HOW this gets an A- when there are a FEW GLARING issues with this setup. Number one: Let’s say that you have a rather large music collection on your iPod. Let’s say it includes a band like U2, or Weezer or some other band at the end of the alphabet. So you press menu/artists/ and you scroll to Weezer. You then select an album/song/play. THEN, after the song starts to play and the screen reveals the song title/band you want to choose another song from Weezer. In the native iPod navigation you press the menu button and you are back to where you left off. With the Drive+Play it takes you back to the “home” screen and you have to start the whole process ALL OVER AGAIN! This is a GRAVE OVERSIGHT.

    Number 2: Everyone knows there are TWO types of shuffle on the iPod, the one on the main menu which shuffles the ENTIRE iPod and then the shuffle burried in the settings to shuffle an artist by song/album. The whole reason Apple even introduced the iPode shuffle was because a great number of users shuffle the ENTIRE collection. That option is NOT available with the Drive+Play. The only shuffle that is available is the one burried in the settings. DEAL BREAKER FOR ME!!

    oh yeah…one more, the screen does NOT display the album title, just song/artist. These, to me, are some huge holes and VERY disappointing oversights.

  8. I’ve had the Drive+Play for a couple of days now. Pretty much every review has stated the drawbacks, including the way the system scrolls through large lists, the display not showing how far through a song you are with a graph, like the iPod does, etc.

    However, the one pro that many of them fail to mention is that I’ve found it to be extremely dangerous to try and operate an iPod while driving. Much more dangerous than talking on a cell phone.

    With the Drive+Play, you can easily keep your eyes on the road, and one hand on the wheel while still adjusting the output of your iPod.

    What is important here is the safety issue, and in my mind, this easily trumps any of the drawbacks in this system.

    It’s not perfect, but when compared to the alternative, I’m loving it.

  9. i would like to have or order just one part of the harman kardon kit , i do have the screen and i need the breake out box with the cigaret lighter cable , how can i orther just those parts???

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