Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How to Connect an iPod or Other Digital Music Player to Your Car Stereo

SUMMARY: Do you want to take your iPod or other digital music player with you in the car? Check out this article summarizing everything you need to know!

I recently "sold out" and bought myself an iPod. Here's a pro's guide to hooking it up to your head unit!

But first...

Unless you've been living in a cave for the past few years, you have heard of the iPod; Apple's wonderfully designed portable music player. The iPod allows you to carry the music of hundreds or thousands of CDs in a small box that fits easily in your pocket or bag. It is capable of much more, but the focus of this article is on the music. Because of the extreme portability of the iPod, many people want to bring it with them in the car. This is a problem because most cars don't offer iPod connectivity, with few exceptions. Fortunately, there are solutions for people who want to use their iPod in the car.

Direct connection:
Pros: Control iPod with stereo and remote controls, automatically charges iPod, perfect sound quality, easy to install, cheap
Cons: None that I know of!

This option is only available to owners of radios that support a direct connection to the iPod. Basically, all you need is a cable that connects to your iPod, then to the radio. Alpine is one brand I know that offers this feature. Some new vehicles also offer a direct connection to the iPod.

How to connect via an interface:
Pros: Control iPod with stereo and remote controls, automatically charges iPod, perfect sound quality
Cons: Expensive, more complicated to install

This option is available to owners of more up-to-date aftermarket radios and some newer factory radios.

Aftermarket radios:
You'll need a brand specific ipod interface. For example, if you have an Alpine head unit, you'll need to get an Alpine ipod interface. Usually, this interface is a small box that has an output to your radio, and an input that connects to to your ipod. Basically, you'll need to find an appropriate mounting location for the box. From there, find a good place to route the ipod cable. Some good locations are inside the glove box, or if you have a pocket in your dash, route it through there.

Factory radios:
You'll need a vehicle specific ipod interface. The one company I know of that manufactures these interfaces is Peripheral. Check out their website to see if your vehicle is supported. If yes, you're set! Hook up the interface similar to how you would above.

How to connect via a phono to RCA cable:
Pros: Excellent sound quality, easy installation, super cheap
Cons: Can't control ipod with stereo, ipod won't automatically charge

You will need a head unit that has an auxillary input for this to work. If your head unit does not have an aux in, you're probably better off looking for another alternative.

How to connect an iPod through FM modulation:
Pros: Very easy to setup and install, device is widely available, most devices charge the iPod
Cons: Not the cheapest, poorer sound quality, ipod can't be controlled by radio

This is the easiest way to hook up an iPod to your radio. Basically, your ipod connects to a device that broadcasts the music to a radio station frequency. Tune your radio to that frequency, and your music will play through the radio. There are a variety of products available that do this.

Other digital music solutions:
Kenwood makes a "music keg", which is basically a portable hard drive that interfaces with the Kenwood receiver. This is a great alternative to bringing an iPod with you in the car. Just load up the music keg, and your songs are good to go.

Alpine makes a digital music player. This device contains a hard drive that you can load up with your songs. It works very similarly to a CD changer in that it is controled by the head unit.

A brief word about other digital music players:
The iPod is not the only digital music player available. Creative Labs has the Zen, and Microsoft just released the Zune. There are many other devices available as well. If you have one of these other digital music players, you can still use some of these techniques to connect your player to your head unit.

Unfortunately, the iPod has been embraced much more than its competitors, so as far as I know, there are no interfacing options available for the other digital music players. You can still connect the device to your head unit through a mini phono to RCA cable. You can also find FM modulators that are not iPod specific which will allow you to connect to your head unit through the radio.

A brief word about digital music formats, compression, and sound quality:
So, back in the ice ages, like 10 years ago, a new digital format known as MP3 began to take the internet by storm. Basically, it allowed a full CD of music to take up minimum space on a person's hard drive. Before MP3, the main format available to most people was PCM (aka WAV). PCM is basically an exact replica of the information stored on CDs. Anyway, MP3 changed that. It was now possible to compress the music to a significantly smaller file size. In general, you could fit 10x the data in the same space. Where a typical WAV file of a song might take up 50 Mb, an MP3 file of the same song might take up 5 Mb, without a severe loss of sound quality. The songs could now be transferred very easily between people. This of course resulted in a whole lot of controversy...Remember the original Napster?

Yeah, yeah. Who cares?

Here's why it matters. In order to fit a lot of data in a small space, you have to take some stuff out. In other words, you lose sound quality. MP3 files allow for higher or lower amounts of compression, and usually this is expressed by bit rate. Basically, the higher the bit rate, the higher the sound quality.

Yeah, yeah. Who cares?

When playing music in the car, especially LOUD, sound quality matters a great deal. So, you'll want to be sure that when you play MP3s (or other digital music formats) in your vehicle, you use higher quality sound files. If you use poorly encoded music files, you'll definitely regret it!

Poorly encoded files tend to sound "tinny", or like they are being played through a can. Also, high frequency sounds such as cymbals and voice (especially when vocalists use words that contain the letter "S") sound "swishy". Bass tends to sound muddy and sloppy. When you play this stuff loud, it gets very annoying.

Anyway, if you plan to play digital music in your vehicle, be sure you are using high quality sound files. For MP3, the files should ALWAYS by 44.1 kHz. The bit rate should be at least 160, but preferably higher. I personally encode all of my files at 256.

Anyway, now you know about digital music in the vehicle!

By Alan Bayer

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