Mobile Music on the Cheap


  • iPod FM Transmitter

    iPod FM Transmitter

    This is one of many types of FM transmitters available. It plugs into the car's power point and provides a headphone jack to connect your iPod (or MP3 player) to the sound system. | March 18, 2010

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Picture this: It's Sunday afternoon, and you have a long drive back to college. Or maybe it's Friday night and you want to get your groove on early. What's the one thing you need in your car no matter where you're heading? Music — nothing beats being able to play your music in your car when you want.

With today's iPods and other MP3 players you can set up a playlist for everything: relaxing music for your commute, bumpin' beats to cruise to, something fast and thrashy for a weekend of off-roading. Maybe even an audiobook for a long trip. But if your car is even a few years old, it likely doesn't have an auxiliary jack. So how can you play your music in your car?

Welcome to the world of mobile music. Certainly, you've seen new, high-tech voice-activated audio sound systems like Ford's "Sync" system by Microsoft, but for right now you just want to find an efficient, cheap way to hook up your MP3 player without having to buy a new car. Here's what you can do.

Cassette and Radio Connections If you have an old beater like mine, you might be in luck. Chances are that old car has a cassette player. If so, you can easily buy a cassette-to-headphone jack adapter. This adapter is shaped like a cassette tape, but with a wire coming out of the back and a headphone-compatible jack that fits most MP3 players. Plug it in and you're ready to go. These adapters have a great sound with almost no static. Just make sure you don't set your cell phone anywhere near the wire, or you'll occasionally hear an irritating buzz from the phone's signal. The adapters list for $10-$20 and can be found at most electronics stores, such as Radio Shack. Or you can easily order one online; Amazon.com lists a base level cassette adapter for $7.70.

For those of you not into vintage — or if your car is new enough to have a CD player — you might have to get an FM transmitter. This plugs into your car's power point and broadcasts a signal to the radio receiver. They can be powered either by your car's power outlet/cigarette lighter or by batteries.

Unfortunately, the sound quality of FM transmitters isn't generally as good as the tape adapters and the setup is not as convenient either. In most large cities, many radio stations are competing with each other for only a few spots on the dial. With a transmitter, you have to set the broadcast frequency, then reset your radio to that frequency (most transmitters give you a certain range of frequencies to choose from and others have eight or so preset frequencies). Try to look for transmitters with as many frequencies as possible, and always be careful when resetting the frequency of your transmitter — a few extra minutes of static are way better than a car crash. Transmitters cost about as much as the tape adapters; base level models such as this one cost $13 and are rather simple. Other models, like this spiffy iPod-specific one, come with a wider array of built-in features and are considerably more expensive.

Hit the Road, (Aux) Jack If you're willing to plunk down a bit more cash, you can put in a direct connection to the back of your car's sound system called an auxiliary jack. This may require you to get rid of a built-in CD player or other audio device. You can have a professional do this for just under $100, or you can try to do it yourself. If you attempt this, make sure you know what you're doing before you start snipping wires! It's helpful to note exactly how the sound system connects to the car so you can easily put it back in. Once the adapter is installed, you will have to buy a mini-RCA jack connector cable. The cable should cost about $2-$5, and you can find one at any Radio Shack or Best Buy.

Burning Discs That Actually Play If you don't have an MP3 player, you still have a few options for playing your music on the move. One way is to invest in an inexpensive portable CD player that reads MP3 files and burn your own discs. Since MP3 files are much smaller than full-quality, standard CD files, MP3 CDs generally hold 10 times as many songs as a standard disc — up to 12 full albums. You can connect this portable player through the headphones jack (as described above). A low-end portable CD player can cost as little as $25.

When you're burning an MP3 CD using a media management tool like Roxio or Nero, start the burn as a data CD and put the MP3 files directly into the data section. Don't add any folders, or the CD player won't be able to read your files. You also have to make sure the files are MP3s, or another of the file types your player lists. Right-click the files before you burn to check what type of files they are. The downside of loading up a disc with MP3 files is that remembering all of the different songs you've put on an MP3 CD may be a hassle. Also, if your car is even two years old and has a factory-installed CD player, that doesn't mean it will play MP3, WMA or AAC (iTunes) coded CDs. Replacing it with virtually any aftermarket unit will fix the problem.

Using a standard CD player is a good option, too, since standard store-bought and non-compressed burned CDs hold a respectable 80 minutes of music. Plus, the sound quality is better versus compressed files. Also, portable players that read only standard CDs sell for a bit less, with the cheapest one costing a mere $15. Of course, this method also requires you to have a CD burner on your computer, in addition to plenty of blank CDs. If your computer doesn't have a CD burner, you can pick one up (for a desktop PC) for as little as $35. And blank CDs generally cost $20 for a 50-pack.

Music in a Flash If burning CDs is too much work, you can buy an FM transmitter with a USB input. This allows you to plug in a flash drive with MP3 files and listen through your radio. USB-compatible FM transmitters will have a USB port on the bottom, and play/pause, skip ahead, and skip back buttons on top. In addition, many of them are also compatible with headphone jack inputs, so they can easily double as MP3 player adapters.

For this musical option you'll need a flash drive, which come in sizes anywhere from 256MB to 8GB — and eight gigs of music could take you from coast to coast. For MP3 files, one megabyte usually holds about one minute of music, although this can vary. So you can expect a 256MB card to hold 256 minutes (about 4 1/2 hours) of music.

Some of the rules from MP3 CD burning apply: Make sure your transmitter can read the type of files you're putting on the drive, and don't put the files in a folder or they won't play. USB FM transmitters are a bit more expensive than regular FM transmitters ($20-$40), but they have the same limitations. They're not great for densely populated urban areas, and the sound quality isn't as good as when you have a direct, mechanical connection. You will also have to buy a flash drive; 1GB drives usually cost about $20, but prices vary depending on how much memory you want. Online prices are of course cheaper, and it's worth going to manufacturer Web sites to look at different drives back-to-back. Try Kingston or Sandisk.

Armed with this info and a little bit of resourcefulness, you'll have your tunes up and running in your car in no time. Pretty soon, that drive home from school or work will be a little easier, and when Friday night rolls around you may even find yourself saying, "I'll drive."

Extra credit: If you're interested in cars that already have great audio systems but you're worried about cost, check out "Top 10 Cheap Cars With the Best Sound Systems."

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