capsule review

Review: SoundLinQ Model SLI

At a Glance
  • Vais Technology SoundLinQ Model SLI

    Macworld Rating

You’ve heard the pundits’ pontification—there’s no better way to listen to your iPod in a car than a direct connection to your car’s audio head unit. It’s true. A direct connection means no more dealing with FM transmitters and the vagaries of competing radio stations and an end to sometimes-they-work-sometimes-they-don’t cassette adapters. Just the purest sound your car’s sound system is capable of producing.

But which one to get? Ideally, one that takes advantage of your car’s audio controls—both those on the head unit and, if available, embedded in the steering wheel. We looked at one such interface for recent Lexus, Scion, and Toyota automobiles, Vais Technology’s $329 SoundLinQ SLI. The SoundLinQ is compatible with all dock-connector iPods (iPod Update 2004-04-28 or later is required), sounds great, and offers a number of convenient options. But in terms of displaying album, artist, and track information, it’s only as capable as your car’s head unit allows.

The unit

Like similar iPod interfaces, the SoundLinQ SLI is a plain metal box that you (or your installer) tuck away behind the car’s dashboard. On one side it features connectors for linking the SoundLinQ to the car’s head unit and the iPod and on the other you find two RCA inputs dedicated to the iPod and another two RCA jacks that can be used for an auxiliary device—a third-party satellite radio or minidisc player, for example. Next to the RCA jacks are two small switches used for programming the unit. Bundled with the unit are all the cables you need—one set for Lexus automobiles and another for Toyotas. (That includes the Scion, which falls under the Toyota brand.) The cable that attaches to the iPod’s dock connector is long enough that you have plenty of options for storing the iPod—in the glove compartment, for example, or mounted somewhere on your dashboard (mounting materials not included).

SoundLinQ Model SLI

The unit also includes a service port for upgrading the SoundLinQ. Upgrading the unit requires a special adapter cable soon to be sold by Vais (Vais says the cable will be priced at under $50) and a Windows laptop (the unit is upgraded while installed, which is why you need a portable computer).

The manual offers thorough instructions on how to connect the various devices and cables as well as how to program the unit, but includes no information on how to access your car’s sound system. That’s up to you or a qualified installer. As I’m not the handiest soul around, I took the family 2005 Toyota Sienna to a local auto stereo dealer who installed the SoundLinQ in under an hour. The installation cost $90.

The modes

The SoundLinQ supports a variety of modes including MD Changer Emulation Mode, CD Changer Emulation Mode, and CD-MP3 Emulation Mode. Which you choose depends on the capabilities of the car’s head unit. When set up properly, each of these modes allows you to control the iPod’s operation from the head unit and steering wheel controls. The SoundLinkQ also includes a Simple Mode that lets you operate the iPod from its scroll wheel, providing complete access to the iPod’s menus. The manual includes a breakdown of which mode works best with which supported cars and head units (those with or without navigation units, for example).

This chart turned out to be more useful than I imagined. It clearly stated that my Sienna’s OEM head unit could display text from my iPod, yet the unit was installed in MD Changer Emulation Mode, which doesn’t support text on this head unit. I dug around behind the dashboard, reset the unit for CD Changer Emulation Mode, and lo, when I pressed the Text button on the head unit, the LCD displayed 12 characters of the playlist’s title along with a right-pointing triangle. Pressing and holding the Text button revealed the remainder of the text on the LCD. Press Text again and 12 characters of the song’s title appeared (with the same right-pointing-triangle option). One more press and the LCD displayed playlists and tracks as numbers—for example,

9 - 14
, meaning track 14 of the ninth playlist on the iPod’s Playlist screen.

Devices plugged into the auxiliary RCA input are not controlled from the car’s head unit or steering wheel controls. Such devices must be operated by their own controls.

Vais suggests that in order to avoid improper track number display, you should create playlists that contain no more than 99 tracks each. This is fine advice if you’re running in CD Changer Emulation Mode, as in this mode the unit can properly display only 99 track numbers. MD Changer Emulation Mode, however, can display 999 track numbers. Each mode can display a maximum of 99 playlist numbers.

Operation

When you turn the car’s key into the On or Acc position, the iPod switches on and charges. It remains paused until you choose the iPod as an audio source with the head unit or steering wheel controls. When you switch to another source, the iPod stays awake for two minutes and then drifts into Sleep mode until called upon to play again. When powered by the car the iPod displays the Vais logo and the words “OK to Disconnect.” The buttons and scroll wheel do nothing when the iPod’s in this mode.

With the SoundLinQ installed the iPod becomes just another audio source, controlled much like any other audio source from the head unit and steering wheel. On my Sienna, pressing the Disc button brought up CD Changer Emulation Mode and, after a short pause, the iPod began playing the first track in the first playlist. I didn’t lose the ability to use the built-in CD player. Once I shoved an audio CD into the player it began playing. Pressing the head unit’s Disc button toggled between the CD and the iPod.

When playing in MD or CD Changer Emulation Mode, pressing the Disc + button advanced to the next playlist while Disc - played the previous playlist. The Track + and Track - buttons similarly moved to the next or previous track in the current playlist. Holding down the fast-forward or rewind button did exactly what you’d expect—scanning forward or back through the currently playing track.

The SoundLinQ is a little slow to respond. There’s a distinct pause of about two seconds between the time you press a button and the iPod responds. And rapidly moving through a playlist isn’t easy as you can’t simply hold down a button and expect the tracks to fly by. Instead you must rapidly press the Track + or Track - button to move quickly from track to track.

The SoundLinQ offers a couple of repeat and random modes. Briefly press the random button on the head unit and the iPod plays random tracks in the currently selected playlist (while skipping audiobooks). Hold down the random button, and the iPod will randomly play complete albums within the currently selected playlist (mirroring the iPod’s Shuffle Album function). To play audiobooks you must create a playlist that contains them and not switch on random play.

Finally, you can configure the volume output of the SoundLinQ. Just switch the unit into Simple Mode by pressing the head unit’s Scan button eight times rapidly, wait for a beep that tells you that you’ve entered Simple Mode, press the Scan button again, and use the Scan Up and Scan down buttons to increase or decrease the unit’s volume.

Performance

The SoundLinkQ sounds as good as any other audio source your head unit plays. The default volume setting was a little low for my tastes so I followed the manual’s instructions for boosting it to a few notches below its peak volume, switched on the iPod’s Sound Check feature (as recommended in the manual), and the iPod sounded great—neither too loud nor too soft when compared to CD and radio playback. As I stated earlier, its response to playlist and track changes is a little sluggish, but it gets the job done.

I encountered a couple of quirks in my testing. First, when I was playing the first track of a playlist and pressed the Track - button in order to cycle around to the last track of that playlist, the text readout got confused. The head unit refused to display the title, and after a few seconds of playing the selected track, the iPod began playing the first track in the playlist (showing its title correctly). This behavior was consistent. It happened every time I tried to leap to the end of a playlist from the beginning of that playlist by rewinding backwards through the playlist.

The head unit also refused to display the title of some of my playlists—correctly displaying the playlist title in the iPod nano’s first 10 playlists but then displaying NO TITLE for subsequent playlists. This wasn’t always consistent. A Rolling Stones playlist title that appeared in the No. 10 position showed sometimes and not others. A check with the folks at Vais revealed that this is a known issue with some Toyota head units. When you operate the SoundLinQ in CD Changer Emulation Mode on some stock Toyota head units the titles won’t display because Toyota couldn’t imagine a scenario where someone would have more than 10 CDs in their CD changer and so didn’t build this capability into these head units. Vais assured me that the optional JBL head units and those that are part of a navigation system correctly display the titles of up to 99 playlists.

The biggest problem I had was locating the exact tracks I wanted to play. With my Sienna’s limited display, I could view either the playlist or track text. There’s no overview that allows you to see a list of all the tracks in the playlist. Although navigation systems, with their larger displays, allow you to see both playlist and track names, they don’t appear to offer an overview either. This means that you could spend a lot of time pressing the Track + button trying to find a particular track.

And because tracks aren’t easy to navigate to it forces you to take more care about how you assemble your playlists. Although you can pack a playlist with 999 tracks when the SoundLinQ is setup in MD Changer Emulation Mode, woe is you if you want to quickly zip to Track 638. Those who want this kind of control can always flip the unit into Simple Mode and then navigate via the iPod’s screen, but it does take much of the convenience out of the SoundLinQ.

The lowdown

The viability and desirability of the SoundLinQ becomes more apparent the more you consider the alternatives. Yes, you could get an FM transmitter or tape adapter for less money, but you lose the sound quality that comes with a direct connection. Yes, if your head unit supports such a thing, you could find a CD Changer adapter that works with the iPod, but with some of these adapters you lose the ability to use your CD changer. Yes, you could buy a more responsive head unit designed to work with the iPod that makes it easier to navigate through your playlists, but they don’t come cheap.

That doesn’t mean the SoundLinQ is the only game in town for Toyota and Lexus owners who want to play their iPod through their car’s head unit. Dice Electronics will soon offer its similar iPod Integration Kit for Toyota/Lexus/Scion for $160. It doesn’t offer an MD Changer Emulation Mode, but for Sienna owners like me who’d use the CD Changer Emulation Mode anyway, it’s easy to ignore this kit’s less flexible nature and concentrate, instead, on its lower price.

The SoundLinQ SLI is a solid solution for those willing to put the time into creating playlists designed specifically for their driving pleasure. The ideal user won’t need to dash from one particular track to another (or will have the foresight that allows them to place those tracks next to each other in a playlist). It takes good advantage of even the most limited Toyota and Lexus head units and, best of all, puts an end to concerns about static from an FM transmitter.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Good sound
    • Multiple configuration modes
    • Auxiliary input
    • Text display through compatible head units
    • Upgradable

    Cons

    • No track overview
    • No press-and-hold command for quickly scrolling through tracks
    • Somewhat unresponsive to track and playlist changes
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