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A guide to iPod® and car stereo compatibility

How to get the level of iPod control that's right for you

Whether you're shopping for a new stereo and want to make sure that you'll get the best experience when using your iPod or iPhone in the car, or if you just want to add iPod controls to a stereo you already have, this article will help. Adding iPod or iPhone control to almost any vehicle's stereo can be made simple by using vehicle- or stereo-specific adapters.

Most new aftermarket stereos have iPod and iPhone controls built in, so you don't need anything more than the iPod cable for basic audio control. On the other hand, some stereos require an adapter in order to access the more advanced features of your device. And many vehicles require an adapter in order to connect your iPod at all.

Stereo Adapter

Benefits of using an iPod adapter in the car

  • Better sound — Connecting your iPod via a USB cable gives you better sound quality than running a cable from the headphone jack to the stereo's auxiliary input.
  • Music controls — Use the stereo's controls to play, pause, stop, forward, and rewind the music.
  • Song search and access to playlists — You can search for songs on your iPod from the stereo. You'll have access to your playlists, but some adapters, especially those for factory stereos, limit the number of playlists you can get to.
  • Power — The iPod is powered by the adapter and the battery charges while connected.
  • Locked iPod — In most cases, the iPod's controls are locked out — you have to use your stereo's controls, so you can tuck the iPod safely away in your console or glovebox. And of course, some stereos give you the option of switching to the iPod's controls. This is often referred to as "Passenger Mode."
  • App control — Many newer stereos let you access specialized apps on your iPod from the stereo. The most basic of these is Pandora controls that let you access your Pandora account (select your channels, rate songs, skip tracks, etc.). But other stereos have far more advanced app controls, especially if the stereo has a video screen.

Type of adapter: Will the regular iPod cable do the job?

What kind of cable or adapter you need depends on the capabilities of the stereo you have in the dash.

USB connection — Stereos that have built-in iPod controls and USB inputs usually only need the standard iPod cable for basic audio control. This is the most common situation since USB inputs are found on most new aftermarket stereos and also in most new vehicles. In many cases, you can use the cable that came with your iPod to connect and control it from the stereo. It's a good idea to purchase an extra iPod cable to leave in the car.


The Kenwood KCA-iP102 lets you leave your original iPod cable at home

iPod adapter cables — Some stereos, especially those with video screens, require a special adapter cable in order to get full iPod integration. You might be able to get basic control of the iPod with the regular iPod cable, but in order to see song titles and menus on the stereo's display, or to access music apps like Pandora or satellite radio, you need the special adapter cable.

PIE iPod cable

iPod adapter cables have one or more extra plugs for connecting to the stereo

External control boxes — Occasionally, the iPod controls are housed in an outboard box that connects to the stereo and iPod. This is the most common option for adding iPod control to a factory stereo. When this option is available, the adapter box connects to the rear of the stereo, and adds a USB connection specifically for your iPod.

USA Spec iPod adapter

Adding iPod control to a factory stereo can be done with the help of a special adapter

Functionality: How easy is it to control your iPod from the stereo?

Now let's discuss the stereo itself. Some receivers work better with iPods than others, and it's not that hard to figure out which ones. Functionality refers to how easy it is to manipulate the iPod's functions from your car stereo.

Two types of stereo displays
The stereo's display

Consider a basic display with a single line of text, limited to 8 or 10 characters visible at a time. Song text might scroll across the display. You probably have to switch view settings to see artist name, song title, and playlist, or there might be only numeric designations for playlists. Factory stereos and budget-priced aftermarket receivers usually fall into this category.

Compare that display to one with  two or three lines of text that can show you all of the song information at once. Searching for songs and folders is going to be much easier on a display that shows this much detail.

The stereo's controls

Just as the display is important for being able to see what you're doing, having radio controls that are suited for searching and accessing a song library affects iPod control too. Basic stereo controls can mean extra button pushing to make you're way through the song menu to get to the artist and album you want to hear. Stereos with more advanced controls will make it much easier to find the song you want.

Kenwood KIV-BT901

The large control knob on the Kenwood KIV-BT901 digital media receiver mimics the iPod's click wheel. Receivers like this are designed with iPod compatibility in mind.

iPod compatibility and shopping for a new stereo

To help find stereos with the right level of iPod control, we added an iPod compatibility filter to the car stereo section of our web site. On the left nav bar, you'll see the following section:

iPod filters
Pioneer AppRadio

The Pioneer AppRadio 3 is designed to integrate smartphone apps

App Compatible: These stereos give you access to one or more apps on your iPod or iPhone. On more advanced receivers, like Pioneer's AppRadio, you might get access to many apps that have been tailored to the stereo.

Audio Playback: This option refers standard audio controls. You can use the stereo to access the audio content stored on your iPod or iPhone. You usually don't need to buy any optional adapters and they tend to give you the best level of control.

iPhone 5 Compatible: These stereos are specifically compatible with the iPhone 5, which features a "Lightning" connection in lieu of the traditional 30-pin connection. Certain app and video functions that are readily accessible from older iPhones may not be available through the iPhone 5, or they may require special cables or connections.

Pandora: This is a subset of the stereos in the above iPhone categories that specifically have the ability to control Pandora Internet radio through your iPhone.

Siri Control: Some stereos let you access Siri through the stereo's Bluetooth® connection. It uses the stereo's microphone to let Siri hear you, and Siri's responses are played over the car's speakers.

Video Playback: This option means that the stereo can play video content from your iPod or iPhone. This includes streaming video content, such as YouTube and Netflix. Keep in mind that viewing videos on your car stereo's screen requires that the vehicle be stopped and the parking brake be engaged. This feature usually requires that you purchase a special adapter cable (you can use the standard iPod cable for basic audio controls, just like the "Audio Playback" category above).

Here to help

If you have any questions about how to add iPhone or iPod control to your current stereo, or want help shopping for a new stereo, send us an email, chat with us online, or give us a call. Our Crutchfield advisors are always ready to help.

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