Pros: Ergonomically fairly well-designed. The 7874 sounds great with the BBE processor
Cons: Relatively expensive. The display is hard to read in bright sunlight.
Background to this purchase
I replaced the stock stereo/cassette player in my 1988 Ford Bronco II 4x4 years ago with a $300 Sony CDX-4090 FM/AM/CD player. I liked the Sony, even with its quirks. The Sony was prone to stop playing CDs when I drove over bumps (this *is* in a Bronco). Then the CD player began to malfunction so it was time to look for a new player.
I was looking for an FM/AM/CD replacement that was ergonomically as well-designed as the Sony. Its astonishing that a better player now costs half the price. I toyed with the idea of getting a player with MP3 playback capability, but decided it wasnt worth paying the extra $100 or so that the manufacturers want you to pony up. I wasnt absolutely fixated on sound quality since a moving car isnt the best listening environment, especially a truck/SUV without air-conditioning. Furthermore, I didnt want to install a player that would attract theft so I didnt want anything too fancy on that count too. Im most concerned with ergonomics and a CD player that wont skip when I drive over rocks and bumps or when I let the clutch out a little too quickly. I didn't say that!
Over the years Ive heard a buzz that Alpine is one of the better car audio makers. I suspect its because Alpine is heavily advertised. Nevertheless, being a mountaineer of sorts I like the name "Alpine". I leaned towards the Alpine models mostly on the basis of their appearance.
I was torn between two of the low end Alpine models, the 7870 and the 7874. There wasnt a huge difference in price or features. The most obvious difference is that the volume control on the 7874 is rotary while that on the 7870 and 7872 is digital. An analog dial is a more natural implementation, its quicker to adjust and less likely to beep. The other significant difference, as far as I am concerned, is that the 7874 offers a BBE processor (more on this below).
I bought the first 7874 on eBay, from HookedOnTronics in Florida, for a total price of $174 that included tax ($0) and shipping ($15). The recommended retail price is $220 plus tax, so this was a good deal. The radio was delivered by UPS one week after the order was placed. Id use HookedOnTronics again. However, I so liked this radio and I was in such a hurry to install another one in my Buick Regal that I paid $180 (no tax or shipping) from the Miramar MCAS PX.
Mechanics and Installation
The Alpine 7874 is a standard DIN player so it is easily installed in most dash boards. I installed the radios myself. It was easy to splice into Fords wiring harness. The front surround of the radio protruded a bit too far forward in the Bronco and prevented the dashboards fascia from sitting flush so I replaced this with a piece of 5.10 climbing shoe rubber that I had lying around.
The Buick was another matter as this still had the factory Delco 3 piece of garbage radio/cassette player. I had to buy a wiring connector and dash mount for the radio from Circuit City for another $38 and then a further $10 worth of connectors from Radio Shack to extend the antenna coax.
The faceplate, like that of all Alpine players, is detachable. I dont much care for detachable faceplates as I figure the odds of my losing or breaking the faceplate when it is out of the vehicle are significantly higher than the odds of a thief breaking into my car. At least I have the choice.
I like the fact that, unlike many car CD players, you dont have to swing the faceplate down to insert and remove CDs. There is no remote control which I cant see much use for other than to annoy the driver.
The manual is common to the 7870, 7872 and 7874 radios. It is terse, misleading and, in places, erroneous. It is available on-line on Alpines web site at http://ecominet2.alpine-usa.com/html/asb/owner/cdm-7874_om.pdf. Nowhere does it tell you that the "BBE button" is the same as the volume dial. The information on changing the audio level display pattern is wrong. The manual says to press the SETUP button for 3 second and then the UP or DOWN buttons to cycle between the three display modes. In fact you have to press the BAND button to cycle between the display modes. The UP and DOWN buttons toggle display of the optional sub-woofer and CD changer functions.
Display and Buttons
The display is an attractive green and orange with a rather superfluous red power LED.
The display looks good in a showroom, but is lacking in actual use. In bright sunlight its almost impossible to read, especially when youre wearing sunglasses. At least it isnt polarized so you can still almost read the display when youre wearing polarized sunglasses. At night, the display is overly bright (brighter than any other light on the dashboard). Its so bright at night that you can plainly see the non-illuminated components of the display. Unfortunately, theres no facility to adjust either brightness or contrast. It really should have a light-sensitive diode automatically adjust the display brightness.
You can toggle between three different display modes, "off" displays basic station or track and time info. Mode 1 adds volume and peak music level readouts. Mode 2 adds Bass Engine readouts to mode 1. Curiously, though, even when you set the mode to "off" the display reverts to mode 1 for several seconds each time you change the volume.
I find the buttons white lettering on green background easy to read during the day, but rather more difficult at night despite their bright illumination. Fortunately, the buttons are fairly intuitively arranged so youll quickly learn to find the one you want simply on the basis of its location.
The clock doesnt automatically adjust for daylight savings time, but its not too difficult to set the time. The clock display is lit with the ignition on, even when the radio is turned off.
When you get down to the nuts and bolts the 7874 offers all the standard features you would expect to find in a car FM/AM/CD player. There are the usual volume, bass, treble, balance and fade controls and these are all fairly easy to operate. However, to turn the player off you have to hold the power button for 3 seconds. Alpine clearly means for this radio never to be turned off. The on/off switch should have been incorporated in the volume control as a pushbutton, but this function was reserved for turning on and off the BBE processor even though this should always be turned on (see below).
Alpine advertises the 7874 as having 50W per (4) channel power, but thats nonsense. The RMS (i.e., the honest root mean square) power output is 22W per channel. The ability to sustain peak power is important, however, because the amplifier will clip (i.e., grossly distort) at peak output unless it has good peak output power handling capability. Such distortion could also be caused by poor quality loudspeakers. A 2-fold increase in peak power handling capability over RMS power isnt impressive at all. Fortunately I never have the volume anywhere close to max.
Unlike the 7870 and the 7872, there is no loudness switch. Instead, the 7874 sports a BBE (Barcus-Berry Electronics) processor that can be switched in and out. The BBE processor is said, in the manual, to correct the phase distortion inherent in loudspeaker designs and augment the low and high frequencies. Thats deliciously nebulous! After searching the Internet for further edification, I couldn't find much beyond advertisement, e.g., http://www.bbesound.com/lic/BBE _licensing_brochure.pdf. Barcus-Berry Electronics seems to be best known for their electric guitar pickups. In practice the BBE processors most noticeable effect is to increase the volume. It also boosts the bass and treble a couple of notches. It sounds like a loudness control, doesnt it?. In fact you can simulate 80% of the effect of turning on the BBE processor simply by increasing the volume, bass and treble, each by a couple of notches. There are indeed phase irregularities in loudspeakers. The mass of the treble element is significantly less than the mass of the midrange/bass component so these respond at different speeds to electrical impulses. Moreover, because these elements have mass they cant respond instantly to electrical impulses. The crossovers (that send the high frequencies to the treble and the low frequencies to the midrange/bass elements) arent perfect either. Finally, harmonics will be distributed across both speaker elements no matter how good the crossover is. The BBE processor attempts to fix one or more of these problems. The BBE processor likely does offer significant sound improvement above and beyond that provided by a simple loudness switch.
There's no reason to turn the BBE processor off.
The Bass Engine replaces regular bass and treble controls. I think (its not clearly described) that it allows you to emphasize or attenuate the bass starting at frequencies around 60, 80, 100 or 200 Hz and change the slew rate (dB vs. frequency) of the emphasis onset in four steps from shallow to steep. Presumably the tangent to this curve is near the aforementioned frequencies. This feature also covers the treble, allowing you to emphasize or attenuate the treble in steps centered around frequencies of 10, 12.5, 15 or 17.5 kHz. Ive only seen these kind of controls on my British QUAD stereo equipment. This provides a lot of customization potential.
Theres no spectrum equalizer.
Theres a mute switch that decreases the volume by 10 dB or so (my guess), that is useful for taking phone calls in the car or for turning down the volume when a "peace" officer pulls you over.
In the back of the player there is one DIN auxiliary input for a CD changer and two pairs of RCA (left and right) preamplifier outputs for amplifiers together with control facilities. The 7870 has only one pair for a rear amp., whereas the 7872 and the 7874 have two pairs of RCA outputs for both front and rear external amps.
There are 12 FM (arranged in two groups of 6) and 6 AM presets. So thats FM1, FM2 and AM. Switching between manual and automatic tuning (with the additional option of choosing between strong or strong and weak, i.e., DX, signals) isnt easy.
There is no mono switch. This is a very useful feature when you want to listen to a weak FM station as the signal requirement for mono reception is 12 dB less than for stereo, which makes all the difference between being able to listen to a weak station and not listen at all. Since there isnt a mono switch, you will probably want to stick to using the presets along with automatic tuning for strong stations. The six frequency preset buttons are conveniently arranged along the bottom of the player, but rather annoyingly displayed as F1, F2, etc.
There is no facility to listen to satellite radio.
The CD player offers the usual pause, fast forward and reverse, skip forward and backward, random play and preview (plays the first ten seconds of each track) modes. Along with commercial CDs, it will also play home-brewed CD-R and CD-RW audio disks.
There is no built-in MP3 playback facility. However, there is control for an Alpine CD changer. The CHA-S634 changer holds 6 disks and will play MP3s. Thus, for "only" an additional $250, you can store something up to 45 hours of music in your car. Im not very excited by the prospect of converting 45 hours worth of music to MP3 files, nor of shelling out another $250 on my car stereo. Id prefer to keep the CDs up front in a folder and choose whatever music suits my mood, or my passengers mood, at the time.
The CD player remembers to pick up where it left off after you stop the car. Unfortunately, the player has to be turned on in order to insert or remove a CD.
Most importantly I havent had the CD player skip yet. I havent driven it off-road either, but the Bronco isnt the smoothest ride even on pavement, or perhaps thats just my driving.
The sound quality is very good with the BBS processor switched on. Im still using the stock speakers too.
1 year parts and labor.
The most annoying quirks
The display is by far the weakest aspect of this player. You should be able to turn it off more easily and be able to insert or remove CDs without the ignition turned on or in the accessory position. Some operations, e.g., switching in or out the BBE processor or changing Bass Engine settings, interrupt the sound for a couple of seconds. Even ejecting a CD when you're listening to FM radio causes the sound to disappear for a couple of seconds.
Value for money
Since all players sound pretty good nowadays, manufacturers have to compete for your money on the basis of gimmicks. In the case of the 7874 this is the BBE processor, the only real advantage over the 7870. I think its worth paying the extra $40, the cost of about 3 CDs, for the improved sound quality.
A remote control, satellite radio, MP3 player capability, text display of radio stations names and track names, are all neat features, but the best add-on to rack up the dollars is CD changer control capability since this represents an opportunity to sell you an additional piece of branded equipment. Alpine hopes you want one or more of these features because youll have to buy a significantly more expensive model if you do.
There always comes a point when added features are no longer worth the extra cost. For me this point was the Alpine 7874.
Addendum Dec. 19, 2002
I've now driven over some really bumpy dirt roads and the 7874 has yet to skip a beat when playing CDs. This is really impressive. I also installed Alpine speakers in the Bronco II to complement the 7874 head unit, SPS-1329S up front and SPS-6939S in the rear. The BBE processor now makes much less of a difference than it did before. With the BBE processor active, the sound improvement from installing the new speakers is marginal. It really wasn't worth upgrading the speakers as the BBE processor must have been doing an excellent job of masking the imperfections of the old speakers.
This head unit has gone up a couple of notches in my estimation.