8 Ways to iPod your car – from ultra-cheap to ultra-sophisticated

September 3, 2008 at 10:05 pm | Posted in Commuting, iPhone, iPod | 31 Comments

Pioneer DEH-P400UB with direct iPod controlToday I’m going to describe various ways to connect your iPod to your car stereo, so you can blast music from your iPod through your car speakers while driving around town.

The beauty of using your iPod is you can transport a huge music collection on a very small device. There is no need to continually change CDs or tapes (does anyone still use these?).  You can clear out your glove box, center console, or boot and get rid of that CD sleeve you’ve strapped to your sunvisor. When you park, it’s easy to pickup your music collection and take it with you, eliminating one of the most common targets for thieves.

I’m going to start with the least sophisticated (read cheapest) and work up to the most sophisticated (costs more than your iPod). Feel free to skip over options you’re not interested in.

1. No Integration (free)

The cheapest way of listening to your iPod in the car is simply to place it on the seat beside you and use the earbuds. If you use the standard Apple earbuds, you’ll still be able to hear plenty of road noise, horns, sirens, etc to make this a safe option.

Pros

  • Costs nothing
  • Excellent sound quality

Cons

  • Only one occupant can listen
  • Not easy to control playback while driving
  • Earbud cable often pulls and can get tangled with the seatbelt when exiting the vehicle
  • Not convenient if you’re frequently getting in and out of the vehicle

2. Connection with an existing radio cassette player ($19.95)

If you have an old car stereo that plays tapes, you can purchase a special connector that fits into your cassette deck. It looks exactly like a regular cassette, except that it’s got an audio cable coming out one end that you can plug into your iPod or MP3 player headphone jack. Your car stereo thinks it’s playing a cassette but it’s actually receiving the audio signal from your iPod rather than magnetic tape. All control of the audio playback is done via your iPod. Don’t expect to be able to fast forward the cassette and have the iPod recognize this command.
iPod cassette adapter

Pros

  • Cheap
  • Easy Setup
  • Reliable

Cons

  • Average audio quality
  • All playback control must be done through your iPod
  • iPod in plain sight and needs to be removed every time you park your car
  • Requiring a mechanical device to playback digital audio just seems wrong

3. FM transmitters ($80-$120)

Griffin RoadTrip iPod FM TransmitterFor existing car stereos that don’t have a cassette deck, an AUX-in port (see option 4) or a CD changer port (see option 5), this is your only option short of chucking out your old car stereo and replacing it with something designed this century. These devices integrate your iPod with your car stereo using its FM tuner. They contain a very weak FM transmitter that will broadcast the sound from your iPod on a free FM channel. You tune your car radio to this channel and hey presto, you can hear your iPod. The biggest problem with these units is finding a free FM channel. This can be a real problem in some cities. There are a huge number of these devices on the market. They plug into your car cigarette lighter for power. The better ones will also charge your iPod at the same time. There are a couple of models available (Griffin RoadTrip ($29.99 on special now) pictured, MediaGate iKit for example) that include an integrated iPod holder, making for a very tidy solution. The better ones also allow you to set up to 3 channel presets. This makes it quick to find a free channel for your current location, helping overcome the problem of congested FM channels.

Pros

  • Low cost
  • Easy Setup
  • Charges your iPod

Cons

  • Average audio quality
  • All playback control must be done through your iPod
  • iPod in plain sight and needs to be removed every time you park your car

4. Connection via AUX-in ($90+)

Car stereo with Aux-in jack Most modern car stereos will offer at least an AUX-in jack on the front face designed specifically for accepting audio from an external source such as an iPod or MP3 player.

Belkin mini stereo cable To connect your iPod is dead easy. You just need a stereo audio cable ($8-$20) that runs between the AUX-in jack on your car stereo and the headphone jack on your iPod. Cables come in different lengths and some have retractable mechanisms. If you’re buying a retractable cable, make sure you get a quality one or the retractor is likely to fail very quickly. If you have a first generation iPhone you will need a mini cable like the one from Belkin pictured, as the iPhone’s headphone jack is slightly recessed (this has been fixed in the iPhone 3G so you can use any stereo cable). This method will give you very good sound quality at very low cost.

Some car stereos have an AUX-in jack but it will be located on the back, hidden out of site. For these models you will need to run a cable to the front.

With entry level car stereos sporting AUX-in jacks starting at around $90, you may be better to completely replace your existing stereo, rather than going for an FM-transmitter or cassette adapter solution. You’ll end up with much better sound quality. Just remember that the new car stereo will need to be fitted. If you’re technically adept, you can do this yourself. There are a number of sites that offer step by step instructions on removing and fitting car stereos for most makes and models of car. Some are free and others charge around $5 for the instructions. To have it professionally installed will usually set you back around $80-$100 depending on your car. Try to negotiate a reduced installation fee when purchasing your stereo.

Griffin Tuneflex AuxYour iPod obviously won’t be able to draw any power from the AUX-in jack, so you may want to invest in a car charger if you’re going to be in the car for long periods of time. The Griffin TuneFlex Aux  ($49.99) doubles as a charger and holder (very similar to their FM transmitter product but without the transmitter). Note the way the audio cable neatly plugs into the cigarette lighter connector, keeping it out of the way.

Pros

  • Good quality audio
  • Low cost if existing stereo has AUX-in

Cons

  • All playback control through the iPod
  • iPod in plain sight and needs to be removed every time you park your car

5. Connection via CD-changer port (69.98£)

Xcarlink iPod CD Changer AdapterMany stereos have a port on the back that’s used to connect an external CD-changer, located under a seat or in the boot. This is the case for both factory-fitted and after-market models. Xcarlink make an adapter that allows you to connect your iPod through this port. Not only does it provide great audio quality, but you can control your iPod through your stereo and steering wheel controls. You can select tracks, rewind, fast forward and adjust the volume. You can even select playlists using your steering wheel buttons. It does all this without disabling the controls on your iPod.

One of the things I particularly like is that it will automatically pause playback when you switch to another source. Great when you’re in the middle of a podcast and want to switch to the radio to hear the news.

Finally it charges your iPod and provides a pass-through port so you can still use your CD-changer.

The biggest drawback for iPod owners is this unit doesn’t support Apple’s AAC music format. It does support MP3 and WMA music formats but if you already have a huge collection of music in AAC format it’s something to consider.

Pros

  • Great quality audio
  • Playback control via your stereo and steering wheel buttons
  • Works with many existing stereos
  • iPod can be stored out of sight
  • Charges as you go

Cons

  • Does not support Apple’s AAC music format, only MP3 and WMA.
  • Only works with stereo’s that have a CD-changer port

6. Bluetooth-enabled car stereos ($260+)

Sony MEX-BT2600 Car Stereo with Bluetooth ConnectivityThere are a number of car stereos appearing with built-in bluetooth connectivity. Not only does bluetooth allow your to make and receive hands-free phone calls through your stereo, you can also use it to stream audio from your MP3 player.

With the iPhone’s built-in bluetooth this would seem like an ideal option for iPhone owners. Alas the iPhone doesn’t support A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile), the protocol that makes streaming audio possible. Frustratingly, Apple hasn’t rectified this limitation in the new iPhone 3G. There is a purported workaround but it’s hardly ideal – it’s a mono signal and the sound is also played through the iPhone’s external speaker at the same time.

BD-905 iPod bluetooth adapter
You can however bluetooth-enable your iPod (and iPhone) by purchasing a bluetooth adapter ($75) that plugs into the docking port of your iPod from 8bananas.com, a Sydney-based company.

This device works by converting the audio signal from your iPod to a bluetooth wireless stream that your bluetooth-enabled car stereo can receive and play. This approach has a couple of distinct advantages. Firstly it allows you to play Apple’s AAC audio format, including DRM-protected tracks. Secondly as it’s your iPod doing the playback, features such as shuffle, repeat and the ability to remember the current position in a podcast or audiobook are also supported. Sound quality is a lot better than that provided by FM transmitters as bluetooth doesn’t suffer the same interference problems. Expect to get similar audio quality to that provided by an AUX-in solution.

Finally you can also control playback wirelessly using your car stereo controls, thanks to AVRCP (Audio/Video Remote Control Protocol). You can select the next/prev song, pause/resume and start/stop playback.

Bluetooth is a good option if you’re looking for a solution that supports both hands-free phone calls and music playback. You can even use this unit with a set of wireless bluetooth headphones.

  • Supports hands-free calling and music playback
  • No cables
  • Easy setup (if bluetooth enabled stereo already installed)
  • Control playback from your car stereo

Cons

  • Moderately Expensive (if you don’t already have a bluetooth enabled stereo)
  • Can’t charge your iPod while travelling as the bluetooth adapter plugs into the iPod docking connector (in fact as the bluetooth adapter is powered from the iPod, the battery will run down quicker)

7. Car stereos with direct iPod control ($278+)

Made for iPodMost car stereo manufacturers now offer models that support direct integration with your iPod using either a standard USB cable or a dedicated iPod cable. They are designed so that all control of your iPod is done using the car stereo controls. They usually have a rotary knob that doubles as a traditional volume control and provides the equivalent of the iPod click wheel.  Using the knob you can scroll through your music library by playlist, artist, album, song, etc, just as you would on your iPod. Functions such as repeat, shuffle, fast forward, rewind, pause are also supported.

Direct control units disable your iPod controls while it’s plugged into the car stereo. However Pioneer do provide a Passenger Control Mode so that a passenger can switch control back to the iPod in order to control playback using the iPod itself.

Varying amounts of information about the currently playing track is displayed, depending on the size and sophistication of the stereo’s display. The top of the range model from Alpine (pictured below) will even display album art on it’s full colour LCD display.

Alpine iDA x001 iPod enabled car stereo

Audio quality should be excellent as information is transferred digitally to your car stereo. Pioneer even use a technology they call ‘Advanced Sound Retriever’ which they claim helps restore the high frequencies lost during digital audio compression.

These units will happily play Apple’s AAC encoded music but not DRM-protected AAC. This is the downside of running digital all the way to the head unit itself and just serves to illustrate why DRM is such a bad idea.

Like the AUX-in jack, the iPod connector may be located on the front or back of the unit. USB connectors tend to be on the front and dedicated iPod connectors on the back.

Unlike the AUX-in jack, you’re much better off having the iPod connector located on the back and having the cable running to your glove box. The glove box provides a good place to hold your iPod while travelling and also means it’s safely out of sight. Great if you’re in and out of the car all day. You don’t need to be able to reach your iPod anymore as all control is done through your car stereo. Having the connector on the front means you have an untidy cable sticking out of your stereo and you still need to find a place on the console to store your iPod. The exception to the above is when you have an iPhone. You’re going to want to take this with you whenever you leave your car, so you want it to be easy to plug in and remove.

Popular Brands with Direct iPod Control

Alpine
Kenwood
Pioneer
Sony

Pros

  • Excellent audio quality
  • Great control via your car stereo
  • Practical, tidy, out of sight solution (for models with cable running to the glove box)

Cons

  • Moderately Expensive (if you don’t already have an iPod enabled stereo)
  • Will not play DRM-protected AAC tracks

8. Cars with built-in iPod integration ($15,000+, includes car)

Car manufacturers are uniquely placed to offer thoroughly integrated iPod support. They have the power to alter the form and layout of the dash and console to give the driver easy access to playback controls and position large, well placed displays to ensure the driver’s eyes never leave the road. Sadly most have done little if any such design, while still claiming to offer full iPod integration.

Full iPod integration often ends up meaning the new car buyer has the option of purchasing an overpriced ‘integration kit’ so they can connect their iPod to the inferior model car stereo that comes factory-fitted with their new car. This kit provides nothing more than that provided by after-market stereo solutions (see 7 above).

If you’re considering purchasing an integration kit from your car manufacturer, think again. You’re almost certainly better off ripping out your existing unit and purchasing a decent after-market stereo that includes iPod integration as standard. It will be cheaper, you’ll have more choice and end up with a better sound system.

If you are looking to purchase a new car, make sure the dealer includes full iPod integration at no extra cost. It’ll cost them almost nothing and keep in mind that even to you it’s only worth $278 – $350 depending on whether you can install an after-market car stereo yourself.

Some car manufacturers have taken iPod integration seriously. Unfortunately this comes at a price. Still it’s nice to dream. Take a look at this offering from BMW to give you an idea of what can be done (click on the picture to see an interactive flash demo).

BMW iPod integration

Note the dedicated controls on the steering wheel, the rotary wheel below the gearstick and the large, eye-level display clearly showing a list of songs.

Pros

  • Excellent audio quality
  • Great control via your car stereo
  • Practical, tidy, solution

Cons

  • Inflated price if not part of the initial car purchase
  • Most manufacturers do the bare minimum. They could be so much better.

Conclusion

As you can see there are many ways to integrate  your iPod with your car stereo. The only solutions I don’t recommend are the cassette adapter and FM transmitters.

Stereos with an AUX-in jack are a very cost effective solution and provide good audio quality.

The Xcarlink adapter is worth investigating, especially if you have a factory-fitted stereo you don’t want to throw out. It’s disappointing however that this unit doesn’t support AAC encoded music.

You can’t beat a bluetooth enabled car stereo and the bluetooth adapter from 8bananas.com if you need to make hands-free calls too.

Direct iPod control units give you great sound and control and make for a very tidy solution.  Unfortunately they don’t play DRM-protected AAC tracks but hopefully DRM-protected audio is becoming a thing of the past.

Finally, please leave a comment and tell me which solution has or hasn’t worked for you.

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31 Comments

  1. Great article, exactly what I need right now as I am looking at using my iPhone 3G as an iPod in the car. Think I will go for a new head unit with AUX in, and a cradle of some kind for charging. I have a lot of DRM music so the fully digital options are not ideal for me.

  2. One scenario that isn’t considered is where you have an existing sound system with RCA audio AUX input (either directly via the head unit or via an amplifier). You can integrate your iPod using an Apple component or composite cable (http://store.apple.com/au/product/MB128X/A) normally used for connecting your iPod to a television. This only works for supported models of iPod.

    The advantages to this are that you get a great sound quality. The cable has a USB connector which can be used to charge the iPod while it’s in use using a simple cigarette lighter to USB adaptor. The other obvious advantage if you have an in car television is that you can watch videos from your iPod on it. Audio works with or without the television attached.

    Disadvantages are that controls (play, pause, skip etc) are only available through the iPod and the cable itself is ridiculously expensive, but its genuine Apple so you know it will work if your model of iPod is listed as being supported.

    This is how I’ve integrated my iPhone with my Alpine car stereo, with the addition of an Alpine AI-Net to RCA adaptor cable. AI-Net is Alpine’s proprietary interface for connecting AI-Net capable devices such as CD stackers, displays, bluetooth etc.

  3. Note to above: If you’re connecting your iPod to a display, check what inputs your display is capable of accepting before buying a cable. Component (3 video inputs Red Green Blue or Y Pr Pb) will give you better quality, composite (1 video connector) is more common, but lower quality.

  4. Good lengthy and detailed article, I read the whole passage and came to conclusion as I think that the last three options will not be of used for people who already have a decent car stereo and only want to listen for short time of traveling in their car, I think most modern car stereos will have an AUX-in jack on the front and the one which don’t have will have it on the back as stereo RCA auxiliary input connectors which can be used directly by using an RCA(stereo)to 3.5mm jack cable and connected to practically any personal music player.

  5. Great article! Mp3 players are going to be ruling car audio in the near future, if it hasn’t already happen. Everyone I know is tired of using cd’s that get scratched and easily damaged.

  6. Enjoyed your full coverage of the subject. I’m stuck with option 2 in both my vehicles for now, but I’m glad to have learned a little about the subject. I’ve got a Walkman DMP rather than an iPod, so I’m glad you covered the different formats. I am unfamiliar with the iPod side of things, but WMA and MP3 I get. Keep up the good work!

  7. I like the 1. Way:) Thanks for the tips, I wanted to buy a cassette adapter, but now I don’t want it.

  8. Great article! There are better options now since you wrote the article. But first I must say your BEST option is to get either a vehicle specific or universal integration module. They are easy to install and only cost $99-$159 and worth every penny in my experience. I’ve tried the FM modulator and cassette adapter and integration modules are the REAL DEAL. Listen to me I sound like a commercial…..Okay bottom line go to http://www.mypodcarkit.com and order a module from them. The end result is your iPod is HARD-WIRED to your car stereo which means CD quality sound. You might even get to control your ipod from your factory stereo and see album/artist text display. Woo Hoo! Have fun! Getting groceries won’t ever be as fun without your iPod hooked up in your car (the right way). Ciao!

  9. Because I have an older jeep (99), I will stick with the old cassette player method. I have an amp and 2 12″s in the back but with the stock stereo and common sense listening, no one has messed with me and I never lock up. The stock stereo throws everyone off, though I know I am missing the quality some. Good info here though. I’ll check walmart for that cassette adapter.

    • Hey I have a 99 JEEP as well. But whether I use a cassette adapter or FM transmitter, the sound only comes from the speakers on the left side… any ideas?

  10. Thank you so much for this excellent resource. I had been trying to figure out how I could listen to my iPod in my car. My Pioneer deck doesn’t have an input for audio, so that’s out. I even considered buying one of those portable speaker systems with an iPod dock. Maybe, you can include that as option 1a. It’s a viable solution but probably not on the top of anyone’s list.

    For my own personal solution, I bought a little FM transmitter device that works extraordinarily well. I live in a small city nestled in the mountains of Korea. There might be two (at best) strong FM stations, so it wasn’t hard to find an open frequency. The interference is practically negligible and the sound is superb.

    I realize that this is way off topic, but I just wondered that if I could amplify my signal from the device, whether I could have my own radio station. lol

    Anyway, thanks for your post. It’s great information.

  11. Like your website, great articles. This information really useful for me.I like individuals that spend time to add new content to their blogs and web sites thanks.

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  14. i have the abilty to connect via the multi pin port on my ipod to my vehicle but how do i provide power so that I dont run down my ipod battery. Is there a way to both provide power to the ipod and also connect so that my stereo receives the ipod music but gets power at the same time.

  15. This is just what I was looking for. I am considering buying an ipod or mp3 player for the 1st time and have been looking at what the total cost will be with speakers, chargers, and car connection. After a few online searches, I thought I might have to pay as much as the player to get the equipment to make it work in my car. After reading your article, which is very clear even to someone like me with little technical knowledge, I now understand that I only need an audio cable to connect from the headphone of the player to my aux in on my car stereo. Thanks!!

  16. very much like

  17. I use to feel bored while driving at a long distance, so was looking for something like this, so that I can enjoy the songs via iPod while move on. Some of them seems good way to stick to , finally now I will have iPod in my car.

  18. This was really useful thanks. I have a stereo with direct iPod control, but was a bit frustrated that I couldn’t control it from my iPhone, as I’m not able to scroll through playlists on it. Will go and have a look for that passenger control button!!

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  23. I just brought a 2011 Dodge Charger and my Iphone4 music does work in the UBS outlet, The music plays thru the radio with the controls showing name of song,artist, etc. Thanks for your article explaning this application it makes understanding the hookup much better since I am 62 years old and a women.

  24. I have a 2005 Ford F-150 Kings Ranch w AM/FM 6-Changer CD Player.

    Unfortunately it does not have an AUX-IN Jack Port.

    Any suggestions?

    Thanks,
    BBC

  25. Awesome Article, great ideas. Unfortunately my mom haslike a 2006 Pacifica (CRAP) and none of the above work….we have a monster FM tranmitter and it doesn’s work at ALL always staticy, and goes back to normal radio on quieter songs and in between songs. No AUX-IN Jack Port either… any ideas??

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