Bluetooth hands-free kit: not a collection of words that inspires much excitement. But mess about with it a bit – an amplifier here, an output stage there – and you've got a wireless music streaming kit. That's better, isn’t it?
The iO Play does Bluetooth hands-free, but Bluetooth A2DP music streaming is what it's all about. Stick one in your car and your A2DP equipped mobile, your iPod and anything else with a 3.5mm headphone jack (via optional accessories) will be able to stream music through your speakers.
Rather than equipping your existing head unit with Bluetooth capabilities, the iO Play is a head unit in its own right. Its own 60W digital amplifier and control unit sits slap bang in the middle of the system you have in place.
Thanks to its unique connections, it's compatible with any car stereo out there – whether you've installed some serious third-party ICE yourself or opted to go with your chosen marque's proprietary system. Installation is quite an involved process, so it’s worth getting a trained engineer to sort it out for you.
The only part of the iO Play you'll actually see in your car (aside from the discreet microphone) is the rubberised control unit. This attractive little interface consists of a central clickable knob with a backlit button on either side. All feel well made and have a reassuring action.
Present the iO Play with a Bluetooth music source and it will connect to it very straightforwardly in the normal manner – a couple of button presses here, a passcode entry there and you’re away. Better still, it’ll remember up to five different devices for instant connection next time.
Click the knob and music will start playing through all of your car's speakers. Click the skip buttons and you'll navigate through your playlist. Easy.
An optional dongle equips your iPod (including iPhone and Touch) with Bluetooth A2DP connectivity, too. Sadly, it draws power from your iPod's battery – an in-car power adapter would have been nice. A self-powered 3.5mm Bluetooth adapter is also available separately.
iO Play's makers claim it's compatible with any A2DP source. We couldn't get it to talk to a prototype Bluetooth Sony Walkman, but we blame that on the Sony – everything else worked flawlessly.
The iO Play's simplicity is both a benefit and a curse. Sure, it's easy to get the music going, but you can't navigate menus. It works best when set up with a playlist. However, it's brilliant to be able to clamber into your car and have all of your phone's music immediately at your disposal.
The simplicity extends to other elements of the design. It's not possible to change the balance – so if you prefer music louder in the back, bad luck.
From our experience the iO Play's performance seems very good. It definitely puts a good fight up against the Pioneer CD head unit we compared it to – extremely detailed, though a little less rich. The lack of loudness and tone controls means you can't change the sound even if you want to.
What's most impressive about the iO Play is the value for money it represents. It doubles as a fully-featured handsfree – make a call and the person you're speaking to is audible through your car's speakers. Music is temporarily interrupted till you're done chatting.
A few button presses and you'll be on the line to the last person who called, while any voice dialling you have set up on your phone will work on the iO Play. The fact that it does this and the music playback, yet costs significantly less than any manufacturer’s built-in Bluetooth handsfree, means it's money extremely well spent.