Wednesday, August 24th, 2011
If you keep most of your music on your phone these days, you might have given up on trying to get that music playing on your car’s speakers. There’s no ‘smartphone slot’ you can just slide your music into like you could a CD or cassette. With the right accessories though, playing your smartphone’s music on your car stereo can become just as easy.
We’ll have a look at the different options available, including some that you may already have.
Bluetooth Streaming: Convenient, Requires Bluetooth-capable Car Stereo
Probably the nicest solution is that of Bluetooth streaming. Originally designed for hands-free calling, car stereo manufacturers quickly included music streaming too. With this solution, you just need to have a car stereo with Bluetooth connectivity.
Once you’ve paired your phone and the stereo, you can typically use the stereo’s controls (including those integrated into the steering wheel, if available) to control your phone’s music player and accept or reject incoming calls. Any music you play or calls that you accept will be streamed over the car’s speakers.
This is one of the easiest methods, but does require that you have a fairly expensive Bluetooth-capable car stereo. One problem is that Bluetooth streaming will take up addition juice, so it’s best to invest in a mobile phone charger.
In many cases, you can achieve much of the same results using much cheaper accessories, which we’ll expand upon in later sections.
iPod Integration: Stream and Charge Your iPhone or iPod
Another easy win if you have it installed, iPod integration is now found in many vehicles sold in Western markets. While you do have to pay extra for the privilege, if you’re a proud iPhone or iPod user, it makes a lot of sense.
The system works similarly to Bluetooth, but instead of pairing wirelessly you’ll just plug your iPhone into the provided 30 pin connector, the same connection as your charging and synching cable at home. As with Bluetooth, your music will now play through the car’s speakers. This type of system also commonly charges the iPhone as well, meaning you won’t need a dedicated iPhone 4 charger.
Auxiliary Input: Universal Device Compatibility, No Control
Auxiliary input is the third and final type of car stereo integration, where you just plug a 3.5mm stereo cable (as used by most digital speakers) into your phone at one end, and into the car stereo at the other. You can see what the ‘aux’ input looks like on a typical car stereo:
The auxiliary input option has a few advantages: firstly, it’s often the cheapest option; even inexpensive car stereos will have this option. Another point in its favour is compatibility; anything that produces sound through a 3.5mm stereo jack will work. This includes MP3 players of all types, iPods, iPhones, Android phones, BlackBerries, and Windows phones — all except the most budget models will include a 3.5mm port. Plugging it in is simply a case of getting a double-ended 3.5mm cable, then plugging one end into the phone and the other into the auxiliary input.
One problem with auxiliary input is that you don’t gain the ability to control your music via the car’s controls. It can be quite dangerous to reach for an iPod on the seat while driving, so avoid that wherever possible. Instead, put your music on shuffle, enlist your passenger to serve as ‘iPod commander’, or invest in a mobile phone car holder.
FM Transmitter: Listen to Your Music on the Radio
The trusty FM transmitter is the first of our methods that don’t require a recent or after-market car stereo. The FM adaptor is a small box that you charge with your car’s lighter socket, which comes with a 3.5mm stereo plug for your phone. Some models also use Apple’s proprietary 30 pin dock connector. Once everything’s plugged in and turned on, the box will transmit on a FM channel which you can pick up using your car’s FM radio. Good adapters can also include a phone charger, either via Apple’s dock connector or over USB.
If you use this method, it’s important to make sure that the channel you’re transmitting on is empty; if it is close to other local stations then they will interfere. Most modern FM transmitters will allow you a choice of FM frequencies for this reason, so test each one until you find one that’s free of interference.
One downside to the FM transmitter is that the transmission isn’t perfect; you will find that you will receive better or worse quality based on where the FM transmitter is located in your car; again experimentation is the key to success here. Another is that even at the best possible transmission, you are limited to a fairly low quality signal; approximately equivalent to 48kbps in digital music. This compares unfavourably to the Bluetooth and auxiliary input methods, which typically stream as high as necessary for the source files.
Tape Adapter: Old Reliable
Tape adapters are for the most part relegated to use in older vehicles, but I thought I’d include them for the sake of completeness. Essentially, they are dummy cassette tapes with a 3.5mm stereo cable attached, which comes out of the cassette slot and into your phone.
While these adapters boast none of the complications of FM adapters, fewer vehicles still have cassette players in the first place. Another down side is the audio quality, which isn’t ideal (as you might expect for something transmitted via magnetic tape.)
Still, the tape adapter is often the solution which works best for older vehicles, and certainly deserves a mention for technological ingenuity.
Crossover Methods: A Good Compromise
In addition to the methods listed above, there are crossovers. For example, take the TrailBlazer Bluetooth Car Kit & FM Transmitter. It connects to your phone via Bluetooth, then transmits the resulting signal over FM to your car’s stereo.
This hybrid method has a few benefits, namely that you can control the phone using the transmitter itself, instead of having to change songs using the phone’s touchscreen. Another advantage is that it offers a USB port for charging your phone.
A Universal Solution: One Accessory to Rule Them All
Some accessories, instead of choosing one method of doing things and accept the tradeoffs that come with it, you can simply bundle as many options as you can into a single piece. Usually this turns into a rather cumbersome, multi-fangled monstrosity, but sometimes an unusually elegant design results. One instance of this is the Tunelink Auto from New Potato Technologies, which presents many of the same features as the TrailBlazer covered earlier but in a much neater package.
The idea of the TuneLink is to provide all of the options you’d want for an in-car connection with the absolute minimum of physical bulk. The TuneLink’s small chassis has a USB socket, 3.5mm stereo jack and plugs into the auxiliary power point. Instead of relying on physical controls, which necessitate plugging in your transmitter where you can reach it, the TuneLink instead opts for a wholly app-based approach, where you can select the FM transmission channel and access other controls through your phone itself after connecting over Bluetooth.
This means that the entire assembly can be left safely in a glove box or other niche area, oft-times next to the auxiliary power point and auxiliary stereo input. This elegant placement keeps the car clutter free, and built in features like automatic pairing whenever you turn on the engine mean you can keep it there indefinitely, instead of constantly having to plug and re-plug.
The TuneLink also features some other nice features, like a USB socket for charging and RDS capabilities so that the song title can show up on your car’s display. Of all the solutions listed, the TuneLink provides the most features in the most elegant package, making it a good choice particularly if you have a hidden-away auxiliary power supply.
Rejecting the Premise: Install Your Own Speaker
You might find that installing your own small speaker works just as well, if not better than your car’s built in speakers.
Enter Bluetooth in-car speakerphones like the Jabra Freeway that support A2DP streaming. These speakers are fitted to be slung under your sun visor, and deliver streamed music (as well as podcasts, GPS directions and calls) without needing to be connected with your car’s speaker system.
This is an excellent option if you want a very simple solution, particularly if your car’s speakers aren’t that great anyway.
So if you’re looking to stream music from your phone to your car, there are quite a few options available. Here’s the short version:
- Check to see if your car stereo supports Bluetooth, auxiliary input or a direct iPod/iPhone connection.
- If it doesn’t, what else do you have available? If you have a working radio, an FM transmitter is a good option. If you have a cassette player, then a cassette adapter works well.
- If you’d prefer a higher quality solution, then you will need to replace your car stereo or install your own Bluetooth speakers, depending on how much time and money you’re willing to invest.
Leave a comment!
So that’s it, I think. I realise it’s a fairly complex topic, so I hope that this article has proved elucidating. If you have any questions or would like advice, please feel free to send me a message via the usual channels. Thanks for reading!