Livio Bluetooth Internet Radio Car Kit Review

By Blake Z. Rong | September 11, 2012
First they came for the cassette player,
And I didn't speak out because I couldn't find my Bob Seger tapes.
Then they came for the CDs,
And I didn't speak out because nobody burned me a mix CD.
Then they came for the auxillary inputs,
And I didn't speak out because I couldn't afford a head unit.
Then they came for the Bluetooth,
And there was no one left to speak on the other end of the line.
Apologies to Niemoeller, but such is the onward, relentless march of progress. It seems that with every passing generation of automotive gee-wizardly, it becomes even harder and more complicated to get our music from out of our heads and into our Sony Xplods. Remember trunk-mounted CD changers? Magnetic heads? Tape adapters? Cassingles? How about jury-rigging a iPod Nano to a loose and possibly sparking aux input in some cheap RadioShack amplifier screwed into a sheet of plywood balancing precariously on the rear parcel shelf of a 1995 Aspire? I do, and I have. It's a dark, soul-destroying game in trying to listen to our music in our cars, but it's a necessary evil. I mean, what's the alternative -- listening to used-car ads on FM radio? Livio is the latest company to offer a remedy. Its Bluetooth Internet Radio Car Kit ($75, Amazon) links up your smart phone to your car's audio system isn't new enough to offer Bluetooth or an auxiliary input. It plugs into the cigarette lighter and transmits Bluetooth audio from your phone through your car speakers, including playlists, music apps like Pandora, and incoming phone calls. Sounds promising -- a budget Bluetooth kit for those whose cars were built before the Bush administration. The Livio device sure comes with its alternative features, in case it was too embarrassed to its own primary functions. There's a USB port on the bottom for charging phones. There are line in and line out ports on top, to attach MP3 players and maybe microphones, for impromptu in-car karaoke sessions? The unit is well-built, with a metal goose neck that looks like it will hold up to years of Cheeto-stained abuse. Large circular buttons around the knob are convenient for controlling playback, and the digital readout is clear and bright red. Years ago I had an FM transmitter for my parents' car, a Griffin iTrip, that was wonderfully simple to use but so filled with cursed static that I threw it out of the window on the New York Thruway somewhere in a fit of frustration. That's how maddening static can be. FM transmitters, it turns out, haven't evolved much from this. They work by transmitting a low-power signal on an empty airwave, in essence creating a miniature radio station within your own car. But in sunny Southern California, our airwaves are crowded and fighting for room, and it becomes difficult to find a clear station. The Livio can only scan stations in one direction -- and rather slowly at that -- but it does offer an auto scan function that picks up on the nearest empty band. Unfortunately, these bands usually aren't anything close to clear. We imagine that the Livio will fare better on cross-country road trips, where having any sort of music could mean the difference between Beach Party and The Hills Have Eyes, and radio stations are fewer and farther between. The functionality of the Livio app for the iPhone is dubious. It's clean, quick to load, and well-designed, but while the kit manual seems to make a huge deal out of it -- the unit even has its own dedicated button to supposedly launch the app on your phone, though it never worked on mine -- the app merely holds a set of six station presets, and little else. Why not make a button on the unit itself to scroll through presets? Livio claims that the app's biggest draw is having over 45,000 Internet radio stations at your fingertips. Most of these don't have anything to do with Pandora, Stitcher, or any of the more notable (read: successful) Internet radio stations. Instead, these are all independently sourced with tender loving care, from ominous-sounding corporations. Citadel Broadcasting, for example, holds a number of diverse stations, but with a name like that you'd think it broadcasts reruns of The 700 Club. I was able to find the Maine Blues Project on there, because I like to sometimes close my eyes and imagine I'm piloting a '67 Fleetwood Brougham towards Clarksdale. The audio quality was poor, on multiple levels. No surprise there. Think about it -- the CD recording had to be compressed from the broadcasting equipment in Maine for the Internet, then compressed for the 3G network, then compressed when it was picked up by my phone, then compressed for Bluetooth, then played back over tinny speakers on an FM transmitter that's still picking up scrambled Garth Brooks from Rancho Cucamonga like a SETI telescope. It's a miracle I was able to make out anything Howlin' Wolf was going on about. I called my friend Keqing via Bluetooth audio. The iPhone connected to the Livio system quickly and easily, without the need for a PIN. But "it sounds like you're shouting to me from across the room," Keqing said. Overall, the Livio is a good solution to bringing your car into the 21st Century. Alas, it still suffers from all the drawbacks of FM transmitters that make them the solution of last resort for so many. If you're dying to get Bluetooth, then the Livio's version works wonderfully, it has some nice features like USB charging and a line in plug, and hands-free calling is a necessity in ticket-eager states like California. But it ain't cheap. And there are cheaper alternatives out there, like a competing Bluetooth FM transmitter, or yes -- even buying a Sony Xplod. Rip one out of a junkyard Aspire if you need to.

The Good:

Bluetooth was very simple to connect to smart phones, USB charging is a welcome necessity.

The Bad:

More static than recommended by the surgeon general. Audio quality is lacking. iPhone app not terribly useful.

The Ugly:

Our aux cable broke -- actually, the shielding came off one of the ends. We know it's a $2 RadioShack cable, but couldn't Livio upgrade to Fry's?

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