Carrying All Your Tunes


Bringing lots of tunes on the road with a CD changer and lots of bulky discs is now sooo twentieth century. In the late 1990s, I installed a 100-disc CD changer in the trunk of one of my cars for a cross-country trip. At the time, it was the only way to bring a ton of tunes along. But I knew something was amiss when it took an hour or so just to load up the thing. I've since taken the mega-changer out, and now I can carry 10 times as many tunes on my iPod, which is one-tenth of the size.

MP3 players such as the iPod have irreversibly changed the way people carry music into the car. The advent of the MP3 has especially been a boon to mobile-music lovers because it's now easy to take thousands of digital tunes on the road. Although disc-based head units still dominate, most now offer some way to let users have access to their large libraries of digital music files.Today more than ever, the way you carry your music files on the road - be it with an MP3 player like the iPod, burned onto a disc, loaded on a USB drive or SD card, or even on a hard-disk drive - will determine what sort of car audio head unit or system you choose. You can even have several different portals for access to your tunes within a single car audio system. These days, the digital-music options are only limited by your imagination and budget.

In this chapter, I explore ways in which you can bring your entire music collection on the road . . . without installing a dozen 100-disc CD changers in your ride. Because Apple's iPod dominates the MP3 player market, most of the ways to integrate an MP3 player into a car stereo are iPod-specific. But we'll also look at other MP3-friendly portals, such as USB drives and hard-disc drives.

Invasion of the iPod

Apple's iPod wasn't the first MP3 player. Others were around several years before it. And it wasn't the least expensive by a long shot. But the iPod was the MP3 player that captured millions of music lovers' hearts and minds, music collections, and pocketbooks. The iPod quickly became a status symbol as much as a phenomenally popular product, and, in the process, it changed the way people buy, listen to, and store music.

The iPod also changed the way people access music in the car. In just a period of a few years, it's made the CD changer virtually obsolete. Why bring a half dozen discs or more along for the ride when you can carry your entire music collection in your pocket? It didn't take long for the consumer-electronics industry, the car audio aftermarket in particular, and even some carmakers, to respond to the growing number of iPod owners who wanted to take their iTunes on the road.

Today, there's a billion-dollar industry based just around iPod accessories, and car accessories form a large chunk of this lucrative market. iPod integration has also become a driving force in the aftermarket car audio industry because the desire to use an iPod in the car has driven more consumers into car audio specialty shops and other car audio outlets.

Just as CD changer controls were popular features on car audio head units in the 1990s, now many heads have an auxiliary input for an iPod or even full iPod integration. Carmakers have also gotten into the act as consumer demand for pimpin' a ride with an iPod has increased.

Today, you can access an iPod from behind the wheel in a wide variety of ways:

  • FM modulators that send a signal to a car's FM radio
  • Aftermarket head units that have direct iPod input and controls
  • Aftermarket adaptors that can add iPod integration to factory stereos
  • Auxiliary (aux) jacks in aftermarket or stock stereo systems
  • Aftermarket amplifiers and processors with aux inputs
  • Kits available from car dealers that integrate an iPod with a factory stereo and the car's controls

FM Modulators

FM modulators have been used for years to add a CD changer to a factory stereo system, or even in aftermarket systems where a direct-connection between the head unit and the changer isn't available. The concept is simple: The audio signal from the CD changer is fed into an FM modulator, which converts it to an FM signal. The head unit's antenna lead is fed into the FM modulator and a separate antenna lead from the FM modulator - which now carries the AM and FM signals, along with that of the converted signal from the CD changer - is plugged into the head unit.The FM modulator lets you choose an FM frequency on which to tune in the CD changer, which is usually in the 88.1 to 89.5 range. When the car's FM receiver tunes to that frequency, which is hopefully empty, it picks up the signal from the FM modulator the way it would a regular radio station.

Wireless FM modulators that don't have to be hard-wired into a vehicle are now available. Instead, the FM modulator simply sends a wireless signal to the FM tuner, and it's picked up as a radio station. Wired FM modulators provide superior sound quality, however.

FM modulators offer a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to integrate an iPod into an existing car stereo, whether stock or aftermarket. A variety of aftermarket FM modulator products are available, ranging from simple to complex. Most will also charge your iPod at the same time. But FM modulators have two major drawbacks:

  • Your music will only sound as good as the best FM reception, which is way below CD quality.
  • If you live in or you're passing through an urban area, it can be hard to find an empty spot on the FM dial, and even if you do, you can easily get interference from adjacent stations.

It's a good idea to look for an FM modulator what allows you to select from a variety of FM frequencies. That way, if one FM frequency is occupied or filled with static, you can tune to another one.

Testing, Testing

Here's a good test to determine the quality of the FM modulator for your iPod (or any other MP3 player). Connect the MP3 player to the FM modulator and find a blank station on the FM dial for the signal. Then pause the iPod, turn radio all the way up, turn on the car's engine, headlights, and rev the engine and listen for noise. A high-quality FM modulator is relatively quiet, whereas a low-quality one produces more noise.

From Car Audio for Dummies, copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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