How to listen to MP3s in your car.

The latest gadgets and tech toys.
March 30 2004 6:48 PM

On the Road, Again?

The best ways to listen to MP3s in your car.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

It's become simple, these days, to carry 10,000 songs around in your pocket. But when it comes to the massive collection of MP3s you've acquired over the years (whether legally or illegally), it's not quite as easy to access 10,000 songs in your car. Despite the fact that over 80 percent of Americans drive to work every day and millions have MP3 players, auto manufacturers and car stereo makers have done a rather dismal job of bringing digital downloads to the (non-information) superhighway.

If you want to take your music collection on the road, you have three basic options, and none of them is particularly good. Either you must connect your portable MP3 player to your car stereo (which inevitably requires wires, gadgets, and a fair amount of fuss) or you have to buy one of the MP3-friendly car stereo systems that installs a hard drive into the vehicle itself (which requires a considerable amount of cash). The low-tech alternative—burning a bunch of CDs—takes loads of time. Every option entails some sort of compromise, whether it's inconvenience, price, or audio fidelity, so choosing the right system becomes a matter of picking the appropriate poison. Here's a rundown of the possibilities.

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Burn your MP3s onto CDs
It's easy, but time-consuming, to convert all your MP3s into good, old-fashioned audio CDs. The task becomes slightly less onerous if you're willing to spring for a car CD player that can play MP3s burned onto CD-Rs (Panasonic, Sony, Pioneer, Kenwood, and Emerson all offer models). The advantage here is that you can usually squeeze about eight to 10 hours of music onto one disc, drastically reducing the number of CDs you have to carry around. The disadvantage is that you still have to convert your collection into MP3-CDs, which you then have to carry around.

Burning CDs may also be a good option for music fans who've been racking up charges at the iTunes Music Store: There's no guarantee that you'll be able to transfer the songs you've downloaded to an in-car MP3 player. The iTunes Music Store uses AAC, a different format than MP3, which none of the in-car players we've mentioned support.

Use a cassette adapter
If you own a portable MP3 player, you can always use a cassette adapter. They work with any portable device that has a headphones jack, so if you have one for your old Discman, it should work with your iPod or any other MP3 player. The problem, of course, is that you must have a car stereo with a cassette deck for this to work, and these are becoming increasingly rare artifacts (preteens don't even know what tapes are anymore). Another simple, but all-too-rare option: If you're lucky, you'll have a stereo faceplate with a line-in jack (Aiwa has several available).

Use an FM transmitter
The best workaround, if your stereo doesn't have a cassette deck or a line-in jack and you don't want to burn CDs, is to buy an FM transmitter for your player. These are relatively cheap (they go for under $50 apiece) and easy to use. Just pop the transmitter into the headphones jack, find a frequency to broadcast on, and tune into that frequency with your car's FM radio. The biggest disadvantage: The sound quality will leave a lot to be desired, and if you live in a place where the radio band is relatively crowded (like New York) you might have trouble finding a frequency to broadcast on. Belkin and Griffin Technology make FM transmitter attachments for the iPod, and a few electronics manufacturers like Samsung and Neuros sell players that come with the transmitter built right in.

Get Alpine's iPod-ready interface kit
This kit, which marks a step up in convenience from connecting your MP3 player using a cassette adapter or an FM transmitter, only works with the iPod (no surprise there) and won't be available until the summer. Alpine will offer an in-dash receiver and faceplate system that hooks up to your iPod's FireWire port and lets you access your collection just as you would on your iPod—you can browse through artists, play lists, albums, genres, etc.—while the iPod itself sits in your glove compartment.

Spring for an in-car hard drive
Audiophiles with money to spend will want to go with an MP3 player just for the car. Considering that almost no one is buying them, there are a surprising number of alternatives available, ranging from Denison's DMP3 and SSI America's Neo Car Jukebox to MPTronix's MuzicVault and PhatNoise's PhatBox. These are all variations on the same idea: Each one has a hard drive, ranging in size from 20 to 120 gigabytes, that you load up with music (transferring it using a USB cable from your PC) and then pop into the trunk of your car (or underneath a seat). You navigate your collection from a special faceplate (though the MuzicVault can be also controlled wirelessly using a Bluetooth-enabled PDA). Most aren't cheap—prices range from $350 to $1,000, and the devices usually have to be connected to a pre-existing car stereo system. In addition, they often have to be professionally installed, though the Phatbox does come as an option in several new Volkswagens and Audis.

Though the costs are higher, the advantages are much better sound quality (since the MP3 player is part of the stereo system) and easier navigation (you can control the system from your dashboard rather than having to squint at your player's tiny screen). However, the biggest advantage to having a dedicated in-car MP3 player might simply be that you don't have to hook up a portable player to the car stereo every time you want to listen to something.

Your most future-forward option is Rockford's Omnifi Auto Digital Media Player, which, like the others, is a 20 gigabyte hard drive that you mount in your car. Unlike the others, however, the Omnifi has an optional Wi-Fi receiver so you can wirelessly transfer music from your PC. Just park your car in your garage at night, and it can automatically have all your new music on it when you leave for work in the morning. Of course, even this system has its drawback: If your garage isn't within range of your home's wireless network, you must pop out the Omnifi's hard driveand hook it up to your PC to copy files the old-fashioned way. (The wireless receiver, unfortunately, stays in the car.)

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