What's the best way to play my iPod in the car?

If you want to listen to your iPod in the car, what's the best way to listen to it through your car's speakers?
(Creative Commons/Flickr/Kolin Toney)

­There's no question about it, one of the biggest draws for MP3 players like the iPod is portability. The convenience of having your entire music library in one handheld device and being able to bring it with you -- on walks, on runs, on long plane rides and study sessions -- helps drive the ubiquitous MP3 player's popularity.

According to Apple, the company that makes the iPod, more than 90 percent of all new cars sold in the United States come with iPod connectivity, right there and ready to go. The specifics vary among car manufacturers, but it's usually in the simplest form -- a built-in cable with an iPod-specific connector, which allows the iPod to be controlled through the car's stereo. Apple helps with this design, to an extent; after all, car integration contributes to the idea that iPods, iPads and iPhones are ubiquitous, can't-live-without devices, so Apple wants to ensure anything that gets the brand's endorsement will work properly. But the specifics are left up to the car manufacturer and to the company that manufactures the actual stereo components. A lot of car manufacturers have even started designing the audio interface to be similar to the iPod's, making it easy to find songs and artists, specific playlists and other content, like audiobooks. The car's audio system screen might not look exactly like iTunes -- Apple wouldn't like that very much -- but it should be just as easy to use the menus and options to control your iPod. Some car manufacturers, such as Audi, even have controls that feel like the click wheel control on iPods that don't have a touch screen. Other carmakers, like Ford, have controls built into the steering wheel, so you can flip through songs without letting your hands stray from prime driving position. Built-in iPhone charging docks are another perk found in certain vehicles, and many cars have designated iPod holders in the armrest or glove box. At one time it was a little inconvenient to do that, back when iPods weren't truly integrated, because scrolling through your iPod to skip a song or select a new playlist meant you needed constant access to the iPod itself. But now, it's much easier to stash the iPod out of the way and go.

Bluetooth, a wireless integration technology, has been around for some time, but Bluetooth-ready iPods, smartphones, and car stereos are really gaining popularity -- and it's definitely a feature worth looking for if you're shopping around. If your car stereo and your phone are both equipped with Bluetooth, follow your car's owner's manual to pair the two wirelessly, and you're good to go. (This solution can drain your device's battery quickly, though, and if your car is Bluetooth-enabled, chances are it's also iPod-ready, so you might just want to plug the iPod in anyway.)

Of course, it's only that easy if you have a car that was built in the last few years. If you own an iPod, but your car isn't quite iPod-ready, and you're still wondering about the best way to play your favorite tunes through your car's speakers, there are several options. Some of them are a little outdated, and most of these are gradually being replaced by newer, more seamless technology, but they're still worth discussing. You have some choices to make, but they're based mostly on the age of your car, and somewhat on the age of your iPod. Having a new car and a new iPod is the best option, but if life just isn't that simple for you, keep reading.

Is your iPod AUX in, or AUX out?

If you're worried about your iPod sliding around your car and getting scratched, it might be a good idea to get a mount to keep it in place.
If you're worried about your iPod sliding around your car and getting scratched, it might be a good idea to get a mount to keep it in place.
(Creative Commons/Flickr/tsurutakoji)

It might be tempting to buy one of those cassette adapters or a radio transmitter kit, just to avoid doing a lot of research. The cassette adapter consists of a cassette with a cable that plugs into your iPod, but you still have to pick up and hold the iPod to control it -- and it doesn't sound all that great. An FM or radio transmitter uses a connector on the iPod to send a radio frequency to your car's radio. There are several of these devices available through third-party developers, including the Griffin iTrip, the iCarPlay and the Roadmaster. Similar to the cassette adapter option, if you use an FM transmitter, you still have to control the iPod manually, and it'll probably sound even worse than the cassette adapter due to interference from other radio signals. FM modulators, on the other hand, have an advantage over transmitters. Instead of relying on surrounding radio frequencies, a modulator plugs directly into the back of your car radio, using its signal to play music directly through your car stereo. This eliminates static and makes the sound much clearer. The only issue casual iPod fans might have with this option is that you have to remove the radio unit entirely to install an FM modulator -- so it's definitely not the simplest solution for playing your iPod in the car.

Aftermarket or third-party adapters are generally sorted into two categories: vehicle-specific or stereo-specific. If your car has an aftermarket stereo (one that you installed yourself or paid a car audio company to install), begin by figuring out the brand and model and then look for accessories to match it. If your car still has the original factory installed stereo, then you should look for aftermarket connectors that are compatible with the brand of vehicle you have. Further complicating matters is that not every accessory is compatible with every model of iPod, so double-check before buying anything.

If you have an aftermarket stereo, especially an older one, you have a few good options. However, while newer aftermarket stereos are a lot more likely to have iPod functionality built right in, an older one will probably take a little research and perhaps some wiring skills. Check first to see if your car stereo has a USB input. If so, simply connect your iPod's charging cord to the iPod and then to the USB slot on your stereo, and you're done. Most car stereos, especially those with CD players, also have an auxiliary input jack, which works in a similar way, except you use the iPod's headphone jack instead of the charging jack. However, you'll probably need to buy a specific cable (it'll look like it has the headphone "male" end at both ends), and it'll probably drain the iPod's battery pretty quickly. These head units are usually designed so that once they sense an iPod is connected, you'll be able to control the iPod using the stereo's buttons and dials. Both of these options are simple to accomplish and will provide the best sound.

Another possibility is that you have a car stereo with neither an auxiliary input jack nor a USB port, in which case, you can install an external control box. This little module is installed on your car's stereo and it reads the iPod's signals and sends them to the unit. Once it's installed, you hook up your iPod as if you were using the auxiliary input jack described above, and then you're good to go. But you might need to end up buying extra wiring harnesses or other parts, and it's probably better if you have some experience with this kind of thing. It may even involve taking apart your car's dashboard.

While some options, like an iPod dock, allow you to charge the iPod while you listen, a patch cable only does the job of sending the audio signal to the player. If your vehicle is equipped with a cigarette lighter or a power port, both Apple and third-party developers offer chargers that allow you to recharge your iPod in your car. And if you're worried about your iPod sliding around your car and getting scratched, it might be a good idea to get a mount to keep it in place.

Author's Note: What's the best way to play my iPod in the car?

Assuming you made it through the main article and are now reading this, you know there are a lot of ways to connect your iPod to your car, and unless you have a fairly new iPod and a fairly new car, connecting one to the other is probably going to cost you money. In fact, it seems almost certain that the integration was designed specifically to support aftermarket products. I couldn't even do research without the companies trying to sell me something. When you search for some combination of the terms "iPod" and "car" and "integrate" or "play" (really, there are a lot of possibilities) it's likely that Apple's webpage will be one of your first results. Fair enough. But when I clicked the link to what looked like a general landing page for iPod integration, I was instead whisked away to a page about hooking up an iPod to a new Mercedes-Benz. Of all the car brands that were listed on that page, what makes Apple think I own a Mercedes? Not that it matters, in my particular case. My scooter is too old to have an iPod jack (although some newer scooter models do offer this feature ... yikes). But if Apple was checking the browser cookies on my iPhone or my two MacBooks, hoping to sell me something else lovely yet expensive, they were definitely on the wrong track.

Related Articles


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  • Apple. "Your new car and your iPod get along so well." Apple.com. (Jan. 9, 2014) http://www.apple.com/ipod/car-integration/
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