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How to connect an iPod to your car stereo

Auxiliary input jacks like this one make it possible for drivers to listen to their iPods while they're driving. See more pictures of car gadgets.
Chevrolet/AP

Back in the day, having a car meant constantly having to organize its interior, or, more specifically, reuniting errant cassette tapes with their matching plastic cases. As time marched on, cassettes gave way to compact discs. Multi-disc magazines helped reduce the clutter, but the musical selection in your car was still limited to a few hundred songs, at most.

Then MP3 players like the iPod came along, and the inner space of music lovers everywhere was forever transformed. By donning a pair of white earbuds, people can drown out the outside world to a personally customized soundtrack. Wouldn't you know it -- that's what we do when we get in the car and crank up the stereo! It was inevitable that iPod lovers would figure out ways to connect their beloved gadget to their vehicles' sound system.

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For many, spending lots of time in transit is a fact of life: Whether you're an on-the-go student, a commuting office worker or a salesperson with lots of territory to cove­r, it's easy to spend huge chunks of time behind the wheel. If this is the case, wouldn't it be great to have access to thousands of your favorite songs, rec­orded talks and archived broadcasts? Wouldn't it be great to stop worrying about burning these selections permanently to compact disc just so that you could ferry that CD to your car? Wouldn't you like to stop hoping your burned CDs don't somehow get lost, scratched or rejected by your car CD player as unreadable?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then keep reading. This article will examine the various ways to hook up an iPod to your car's sound system -- from the quick and cheap to the pricey and highly engineered.

­To learn about the different types of iPod in-car connection methods, go to the next page.

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You have three basic options to consider when connecting your iPod to your car's sound system:

  • Cassette adapter
  • FM radio frequency within your car
  • Hardwire or plug directly into your car's stereo system

Let's take a look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of each system. First, let's explore the cassette option. For cars that still have cassette decks, this may be the easiest and cheapest method. Unfortunately, that low price comes at a cost -- you'd get much lower sound quality than you would with a more expensive option. Luckily for you, it's very simple to use: The cassette converts the iPod's audio signals into magnetic signals that can be read by the car's cassette player. As we mentioned earlier, it's also relatively cheap. Expect to pay around $25.

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Next on the quality and price scale are wired and wireless FM modulators. That's just a fancy way of saying the adapter becomes a miniature FM radio station inside your car. Instead of beaming Top 40 hits to your car stereo, the adapter sends the song that's currently playing on your iPod out through your speakers. Today's adapters allow you to choose the FM station you want to use to transmit the signal to your car stereo. Ideally, you want a station that has a pretty weak or nonexistent local signal to avoid interference from live radio broadcasts.

­Finally, you have the option of connecting your iPod directly to your car's stereo. Many major auto manufacturers now offer a factory option for an iPod stereo interface, but you'll be glad to know you've other options if buying a new car for this feature just isn't feasible. There are numerous adapter kits available to retrofit your factory-issued radio to play your iPod. Many makers of aftermarket car stereos include a jack for auxiliary devices right on the front faceplate. We'll explain these in greater detail later in this article. Be warned that you'll have to shell out a pretty penny for this kit -- anywhere from $150 to $700.

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We're going to explore what goes in to hooking up iPod adapters to your car stereo. Levels of required expertise vary, but careful attention and patience on your part can get the job done. Here's how to connect each type of iPod car adapter:

  • Cassette Adapters: For the price, these are about as quick and easy as adapters come. Plug the mini-jack cord from your iPod to the cassette, and pop the cassette into your car's tape player. It's as simple as that.
  • FM Transmitters: These come in two varieties: wired and wireless. The wired versions offer somewhat better sound quality since they use your car's own antenna input. They are also more complicated to install since they require you to tap into a source of switched power and for you to attach a ground wire from the modulator to your vehicle. Basically, the modulator sits between your car antenna and your car stereo. Using a mini-jack-to-RCA-input connector, you hook up your iPod to the wired FM modulator. Wireless FM modulators actually fool your car stereo into thinking your iPod is a radio station. All you have to do is set the modulator to a station without any broadcasting and tune in to that station on your car radio.
  • Direct-to-stereo Systems: You can buy kits that will connect to your factory stereo or to your store-bought, aftermarket stereo. They require you to remove the stereo head-unit from the dash and connect a cable and adapter to the CD changer port. Another cable goes from the adapter to your iPod. To button everything up, re-install the stereo, secure the adapter with screws or zip ties in an inconspicuous place, and plug in your iPod.

These systems let you control your iPod and view track and artist data through the car stereo. They also keep the iPod charged. Some models also have a pass-through feature that allows you to retain the use of your CD changer.

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A lower-maintenance direct-to-stereo method uses the auxiliary input jack on an aftermarket stereo. With these, you simply connect a wire from your iPod's headphone jack to the stereo's input jack. Keep in mind that this will not keep your iPod charged, so you might want to buy a cigarette lighter power adapter if you go this route.

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Pioneer iPod adapter
This Pioneer iPod adapter, as seen at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show, allows users to connect their iPods directly to a car's sound system.
Joe Cavaretta/AP

Which iPod car adapter should you choose? As we've seen, there are a lot of different adapters out there, and this variety will likely grow along with the soaring popularity of iPods and iPhones. Consider what's most important to you -- whether it's convenience and ease-of-use, price, durability, features, or design.

Here are some questions potential buyers should ask themselves prior to purchase:

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  • ­Does the adapter provide power to your iPod while in use? After all, an uncharged iPod is a useless iPod -- some adapter kits are even smart enough to turn off your iPod when you turn off the car's ignition.
  • Does it come with some type of mounting arm or cradle to keep your iPod from lurching or flying around when the car is in motion? This is important because sudden stops and starts could send your iPod flying and cause it significant damage.
  • Can you control audio playback from your normal stereo controls, or will you have to change selections using the iPod controls? This could become a safety issue while you're driving, especially if your iPod is not easily accessible.
  • What are other users saying about the adapter kit that you're considering? Review sites can be a good source of learning about a product's advantages and disadvantages before plunking down your hard-earned cash.

Smart stereo manufacturers have caught onto the iPod craze and are creating products tailored to accommodate the demands of iPod Nation. Expect automakers and aftermarket companies alike to make it easier to play your iPod behind the wheel.

To learn more about the iPod and ways to add it to your auto entertainment system, check out the links that follow.­

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Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Cabell, Todd. "iPod Installation Guide." Crutchfield. June 20, 2008. (Accessed Jan. 14, 2009) http://www.crutchfield.com/learn/learningcenter/car/ipod/ipod_installation.html
  • Cohen, Peter. CES: Pioneer offers iPod car adapter. Macworld.com. Jan. 5, 2005. (Accessed Jan. 12, 2009)
  • http://www.macworld.com/article/41861/2005/01/pioneer.html
  • "Definition of: iPod car adapter." Pcmag.com. (Accessed Jan. 15, 2009) http://www.pcmag.com/encyclopedia_term/0,2542,t=iPod+car+adapter&i=56784,00.asp
  • Levy, Steven. "The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture and Coolness." Simon & Schuster. New York. 2006.
  • Nail, Ken. "The Peripheral Electronics iPod2Car Adapter." Crutchfield. Jan. 31, 2006. (Accessed Jan. 13, 2009) http://www.crutchfield.com/learn/reviews/2006/0131/digitalmusic/ipod_adapter.html
  • Newcomb, Doug. "No iPod Connection in Your Car? No Problem." Edmunds.com. Nov. 20, 2008. (Accessed Jan. 16, 2009) http://www.edmunds.com/ownership/audio/articles/136206/article.html

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