The Bluetooth-enabled Livio Radio car kit attempts to be the Holy Grail of dashboard connectivity devices, marrying smartphones with older cars that lack the hardware to fully support them.
The main idea behind the device ($120 from Livio, cheaper elsewhere) is that you can wirelessly play music from your iPhone or Android phone via your car’s speakers using an FM radio connection, so whatever’s playing on your phone gets piped through the car’s radio.
The phone and the Livio dongle (which plugs into the cigarette lighter and is about the size of a small stack of credit cards) communicate using Bluetooth. It easily syncs with your car’s radio and your phone, and has a USB port on the side to keep your handset juiced up.
Like other devices in this category, it also works as a hands-free telephone. You can answer calls with the press of a button, but dialing out must be done on the phone. The caller’s voice comes through your car’s speakers and sounds nice and clear. Of course, anybody else in the car can hear the conversation — a plus or minus depending upon one’s viewpoint.
But Livio isn’t only intent on connecting your MP3s and your phone, it’s tackling apps, as well. The company recently opened up an API for the device, allowing developers to code their apps so they can be controlled via the buttons on the unit. Some of the partners already using the API are streaming services like Rdio, NPR, Live365 and AirKast, which is a streaming platform for small radio stations, so it’s useful for listening to sports broadcasts outside your local market. In addition to the apps the are enabled through the API, Livio makes its own phone app that can access some 45,000 internet stations, which is pretty cool.
In theory, the device is the perfect accessory for vehicles without built-in smartphone capabilities, such as my 2002 Volkswagen Eurovan camper. It does work as advertised, mostly without hassle. But in my months of testing it, I encountered a few annoyances that nearly prompted me to toss it out the window several times.
There were some things I liked. After years of suffering through touchscreen menus while driving, this device let me just cue up some Beatles without ever losing sight of the road. On family trips, my 11-year-old son, sitting in the back seat, could take control of the device with his iPhone and stream from his iTunes library or his Rdio app, keeping him busy and entertained. That was pretty awesome, except when I had to bark at him to turn off the latest profanity-ridden rap song.
But the biggest travesty of the Livio is how it nearly made my ears bleed on multiple occasions, not to mention those of my black Labrador and two juvenile-delinquent sons. If you turn the device off while leaving your radio on, you’ll be greeted with an ear-frying pop. If my dog could talk, she would have yelped “WTF!” every time.
When all goes well, the device just pushes your music through a vacant FM station on your radio. However, the same maddening popping sound (sometimes accompanied by static) happens whenever the vacant slice of spectrum you are dialed into starts to get edged out by radio stations as they come into range. If you’re driving long distances, or if the radio dial is already crowded in your city, this happens quite a bit. And if you’re an audiophile, you can forget about being pleased with the sound quality. The Livio leaves a tiny hissing sound in the background, however slight. But it was a nuisance enough that it turned my session with the Discovery box set of Pink Floyd remasters into a bummer.
But don’t get me wrong; all of the Bluetooth and app connectivity functions work very well, and the audio-quality problems I experienced are par for the course with most of these devices that rely on an FM transmitter. But I have yet to see something that clears these hurdles elegantly.
So despite the damage to my family’s eardrums, the Livio has promise.