The Apple iPod made it convenient to carry thousands of music files, liberating us from all those CDs and cassette tapes that used to clutter up the backseat. It's no wonder the iPod has become the dominant portable music player for the car. In fact, the term "iPod integration" could easily be swapped for "music player integration" as far as car people are concerned.
While the iPod is the de facto standard in car audio, the way it's controlled by the driver varies from car to car, even though there's some consistency among automakers in terms of how the device is physically connected to the vehicle. So what we'll do here is lay out the basics of music player integration, so you'll know what to look for when you start shopping for a car.
When you're ready to visit a dealer, check out our "How To Test Drive Music Player Integration" so that you can determine whether a system operates in the way you prefer and has the features you're looking for. We also put together a Music Player Integration Checklist, as well as tips to help you avoid the hassle you might get from a car dealership when you're testing audio tech in a car on the showroom floor.
Music Player Connections
There are four ways to connect an iPod or other music player to a vehicle: 1) aux-in connection; 2) USB port; 3) proprietary connections; or 4) Bluetooth audio. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, although we believe a USB connection is often the best option.
Aux-in connection: This is a common feature in most new cars. You plug an auxiliary cable (readily available at most electronics stores) into a car's aux-in jack on one end and the music player's headphone jack on the other. The "aux" music source typically has to be selected on a car's stereo and you hear the sound from the music player through the speakers.
The upside of an aux-in connection is that it comes standard in most cars and doesn't cost extra. An aux accessory cable is also inexpensive, and you use the familiar controls on the music player itself, not controls in the car. But the last point is also a downside, because fussing with a music player while you're driving is distracting.
USB port: Most carmakers now offer this computer-style connection. The port is often located side by side with the aux-in jack. You just plug in your iPod, using the computer-sync cable that comes with the device.
The advantage of the USB connection is that you can control the iPod through the car's stereo and charge the device's battery at the same time. There's almost no disadvantage to this setup, except that many systems lock out the controls of a connected device so you can't use them while you're driving.
Another advantage of a USB port is that it can accommodate a USB thumb-style memory drive that will store digital music files. The system will play these just as if they were on an iPod or another USB-based music player. A 4GB USB thumb drive that can hold about 1,000 songs sells for under $20 — far less than a pricey music player. Also, you can load the drives with tunes and leave them in a car without fear of having them stolen.
Proprietary connections: You'll also find these connections in some vehicles. They rely on a cable supplied by the automaker that plugs into the iPod's 30-pin connector on one end, just as a USB cable does. The other end plugs into a connection that's unique to the vehicle. Another connection setup uses a two-pronged cable that has to plug into both the aux-in jack and a USB port.
Bluetooth audio: The same technology that allows you to transfer a conversation from a mobile phone to a car's stereo can also let you wirelessly stream music between compatible devices. Though Bluetooth audio was an esoteric feature just a few years ago, it has quickly become a widespread feature in cars from all price categories. But the features available with in-car Bluetooth audio are limited compared with most music players. Typically, the only features available are play/pause and track-skip forward/back. Such information as the name of the artist and the title of the song isn't displayed. For more on this topic, check out the story Wireless Audio Streaming: Bluetooth's Second Act.
Music Player Interface
The physical connection that determines how your music gets from the player to the car's stereo is really a set-it-and-forget-it feature, something that you'll have to establish just once. The music player's interface is what you'll be using every day, however. And it can make accessing your music effortless or frustrating.
Every automaker has its own preferred interface for operating a music player, and the design is not always consistent, even across the same make and model of a car. Some automakers place media player controls in the dashboard near the radio. Some put them in a touchscreen display. Some house them in a controller mounted on the center console. And some put them on the steering wheel. Even more perplexing, a car can offer some combination of all of these.
Some vehicles add voice activation to the interface, so you can access the contents of a media player or files stored on a USB drive just by pressing a button and saying a specific command. Ford's Sync system, for example, allows the driver to call up music simply by saying the name of a song, an artist, an album, playlist or genre. It also has a "Play Similar" command that automatically creates playlists based on the music that's currently playing.
Because media player interfaces differ from car to car, it's important that you bring your device with you to try the controls firsthand on the car that you're planning to buy. If you prefer, bring a USB drive loaded with music files. Get a feel for how you'll access the content on the device or USB drive while you're behind the wheel. If the vehicle has voice recognition, see how well it works with your devices and your voice.
Vehicles also vary in how they present the information from a music player or USB drive. Some display the information on the large in-dash monitor that's also used for navigation. Others employ a smaller dash display for the radio or a display in the instrument panel. Make sure that the information is easy to comprehend at a glance and that it can be seen even in harsh sunlight.
Music Player Control Features
Fortunately, the control features for your music player do not vary much between vehicles. All systems have the basic features of track skip forward/back and fast-forward/back. Most also have the functions you find on an iPod, such as Repeat, Shuffle and Play All. A few of the latest systems also can display album artwork.
There's another commonality among most premium systems for in-car audio: All use the familiar iPod menu structure of playlists, artists, albums and songs. The best systems also include the additional categories of genres, composers, audio books and podcasts.
If you have a large amount of music on your player, some systems force you to scroll through menus one item at a time to get to the one you want. At the same time, some players have features that let you quickly go from Abba to ZZ Top. Some GM vehicles with touchscreens also have a feature called Music Navigator, which uses a slider and arrows on one side to speed up scrolling. The List Jump feature found in various Chryslers allows you to access items by typing in the first letters on a touchscreen. Of course, with accurate voice control, you can get to the music selection you want just by pushing a button and speaking a command.
It's also important to think about the features that you use most on your iPod. For example, if you regularly listen to podcasts and audio books, find out how their titles and chapters are displayed. See if they're easy to access. Also see if they'll pick up where you left off when you shut down the car or unplug your device. And if your music player doubles as your phone, consider where it's stored. If it needs to tuck into a glovebox or center console because that's where the USB port is located, it could be a pain to dig out each time the phone rings. Of course, if the phone is connected by Bluetooth, this shouldn't be a problem.
Many of these features work the same way for a USB thumb-style memory drive. The primary difference is that most in-car systems show the music files on a USB drive according to the folders where the music is stored. But once you open a folder, a system will usually organize it by the familiar iPod-like menu structure.
Mixed Musical Blessings
The advent of the iPod and other media storage devices has been both a blessing and a curse for drivers. You can carry more music in your car than ever before, but the process of figuring out how to best integrate devices and manage their music while you're driving can be maddening. That's why it's best to consider the issues before you buy a car and test your music player with your vehicle choice right on the showroom floor. With any luck, this article and the others in Car Tech 101 can help prevent buyer's remorse.
To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.