Digital Music in Your Car
Prior to writing for Crutchfield, Tim Sprinkle was a small-town journalist covering fascinating events like school board meetings, power outages, and vegetables that look like celebrities. He is a graduate of the College of William & Mary and an avid runner, hiker, and all-around outdoorsy-type guy. He wrote for Crutchfield for several years before life took him away from Virginia to Colorado, where he continues to write about consumer electronics.
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The beauty of a digital music collection is having the ability to carry an entire library of tunes around in your pocket. These days it's easier than ever to bring your digital music files into the car, too. Whether you store your tunes on your iPhone® or Android smartphone, keep them on a portable music player like an iPod®, burn them to discs, or rip them to a USB thumb drive, there are a variety of adapters and connection solutions available to help you enjoy your music on your car stereo.
Consider the options:
- Play MP3, WMA, or AAC-encoded discs directly on the stereo
- Connect an iPod to a compatible receiver and get full control over your tunes and playlists right on the receiver's display, using the receiver's controls
- Connect another type of portable music player to your car stereo via a wired adapter or Bluetooth® connection, listening through your car speakers and often even controlling playback with the radio
- Use a removable storage device like an SD Card or a thumb drive to play your files on a compatible car stereo
- Take advantage of stereos with built-in memory that let you store songs directly onto a hard drive or flash memory
Digital media receivers
Have you digitized your entire music collection? If you're CD-free, check out our selection of digital media receivers. These in-dash receivers are totally geared toward digital music, with no CD slot. Instead, they have USB inputs, auxiliary jacks, built-in hard drives, or SD™-card slots — or a combination of those features. Many offer built-in iPod control and Bluetooth® connectivity. They're a great option if you know you won't be needing a CD player.
Be sure to check out the Peripherals Installation Guide for tips on how to connect many of these adapters and external players to your car stereo system.
MP3/WMA-compatible car stereos
If you prefer to store your digital music files on CD-R/RW discs, a compatible stereo might be your best bet. It'll play your files back directly — letting you to store up to 10 hours of music on a single disc — and let you shuffle through various tracks and folders on the fly. On the downside, you'll likely be limited by the file formats that your stereo can play back. Most car stereos are compatible with MP3 and WMA, and many can also handle AAC files. A few can even play lossless formats like WAV or Apple Lossless.
What to look for in a car stereo with digital music compatibility
- Search functions: With up to 250 songs on any one CD-R/RW disc — or well over 1000 on a DVD — intuitive file navigation is crucial. You'll want to be able to jump quickly between files and folders to find what you want to hear. Some stereos offer rotary knobs that allow you to spin through titles quickly, while others use buttons.
- Display: Depending on your stereo's capabilities, a large, readable display will show off file and track names as well as artist and album information, making it easy to quickly see what you're listening to. Look for a stereo that can handle CD and MP3 text information (ID3 tags) and offers multiple lines of display text. Big double-DIN (4" tall) receivers with in-dash monitors obviously offer the best display capabilities — some even feature touch-screen controls.
- File format support: Make sure you choose a stereo that can play the music file format (e.g. MP3, WMA, AAC, etc.) that dominates your collection. Remember, most car stereos will not play the protected music files that you buy from online stores like iTunes and Napster.
- Sound shaping controls: Due to the "lossy" nature of compressed digital audio (which results in the omission of certain audio information deemed unimportant or inaudible), the sound-shaping capabilities of your in-dash stereo can play a big role in getting the best sound from your files. All in-dash receivers feature some form of tone shaping, starting with simple bass and treble controls. Many offer other features like:
a USB 2.0 connection that bypasses your iPod's digital-to-analog converter (DAC) for superior sound
processing tools that revitalize your compressed tunes
a "loudness" setting for fuller sound at low volumes
bass boost or a bass enhancer for punchy low-end performance
multi-band equalizers for precision fine-tuning
What are the options for portables?
USB input: Most new brand-name car stereos have a USB input, so you can connect a portable player with a USB connection directly to your car system. USB inputs are also perfect for thumbdrives. USB inputs will usually charge portable devices, too. Most stereos also have built-in iPod control, so you can control your iPod on the stereo's face while keeping the iPod's battery charged. Give us a call or check your receiver's documentation to see if your stereo's USB input allows for full iPod control.
Aux-In: If your stereo has an auxiliary input jack, you can easily connect your portable player directly to your car system. Just run a cable between your player's headphone or line-out jack and the stereo's Aux-In, and you're all set. You won't be able to control playback from the radio, but you'll be able to listen to your tunes through the car speakers and enjoy the best possible sound.
Bluetooth® wireless connection: Using Bluetooth technology, several car audio makers now let you stream files directly into your stereo via a wireless digital connection. You still won't be able to control playback from the stereo, but the sound quality is as good as you'll get from a wired Aux-In connection, with the convenience and flexibility of a wireless set-up.
Wired FM modulator: If your stereo doesn't have an auxiliary input, you can still set up a wired connection that will give you reasonably good sound quality. A wired FM modulator installs between your factory antenna and your radio, allowing you to listen to the music on your player by tuning your radio to a specific frequency. Sound quality isn't as good as a full wired connection.
Wireless FM transmitter: Using the same technology as a wired FM modulator but offering "installation-free" convenience, a wireless transmitter will let you connect a portable player to any FM radio. Sound quality is less than ideal, but the convenience factor is high.
Cassette adapter: If you have a cassette player in your car, a cassette adapter offers a quick-and-dirty connection option that will let you listen to any external source through your stereo. The adapter connects to your portable player's headphone jack.
Using removable media
When it comes to convenience, nothing beats the size and storage capacity of flash memory cards or USB thumb drives. They may not offer as much storage space as some portable players, but they make it easy to move a lot of music from place to place.
USB input: A lot of car stereos have USB inputs, either on the faceplate or mounted to the back of the stereo. If you have a thumb drive, a front-mounted input is an easy way to listen on the road. All you have to do is connect the drive, select the song you want, and go. Most USB connections will even recognize file information and ID3 tags, so you can scroll through song titles and artist names as you would on your computer. You can also use the USB input to connect a compatible portable player or even a portable hard drive.
Memory card input: Some stereos have an SD™ card slot for playing digital files. An SD card is the size of a postage stamp and can hold hours worth of music, just like a thumb drive.
Using a hard-drive stereo
Built-in hard drives seem like they would be have a natural place in the car stereo world. A stereo with a built-in hard drive will occasionally show up in the market, but these stereos have never been very popular with consumers. When we already store our music in a portable form (like a thumb drive or iPod), going the extra step to move those music files into the stereo is unnecessary. If you find a stereo with built-in memory, make sure it will let you rip CDs quickly and offers file navigation features so you can find your tunes again.