Whether you're commuting to work or headingacross country, nothing beats music for passing the time. Until a few years ago, audio CDs were the only way to get digital sound in your car. But now, thanks to portable audio players, satellite radios, and MP3-compatible CD gear, it's easier than ever to listen to clean, digital music on the road (see "MP3s for the Road” for tips on burning MP3 discs).
For a fee, satellite radio receivers let you tap into 24-7 digital programming. If you'd rather listen to your own tunes and playlists -- and many more songs than a CD can hold -- an iPod is the way to go. Mobile installations range from basic dashboard mounts to stealthy setups that conceal the iPod and let you control it remotely. There's a system for just about any car.
Before you install anything, take all the components to your car for a dry run. That's a good time to discover that your power cable is six inches too short -- you don't want to find this out when your dash is in pieces on the garage floor. A dry run can also help you decide whether you really want to do the job yourself. If you're uncomfortable around auto sound systems, you're better off paying an expert to do the work, especially if you have to remove your stereo.
Choose a Location
Whether you want your iPod in the open or hidden away, install it near the front of your car's interior so it'll be easy to grab when you want to load new songs. Although the trunk is a popular spot for installing amplifiers and CD changers, its inaccessibility and temperature fluctuations make it an impractical place for an iPod.
Open Installations Open installations let you position the iPod close to the driver's seat, where you can reach the controls and see the screen. Many brackets for PDAs and cell phones can mount your iPod to the dash, floor, seats, or console. If you don't want to permanently mount anything in your car, check out the removable TuneDok, from Belkin (877/523-5546, www.belkin.com), which fits in your car's cup holders. If you're handy, you can integrate your iPod's docking station into a cubbyhole or an ashtray. For examples of customized iPod installations, look to online forums, such as the one at iPodlounge (www.ipodlounge.com).
You can use dash and vent mounts to hide the cables that power the iPod and connect it to the sound system, but cold air blasting from the air conditioner may cause harmful condensation inside the iPod on hot, humid days.
Hidden Installations If your iPod is out in the open and you forget to take it with you when you leave the car, it's a tempting target for thieves. A good alternative is to install the iPod where it's out of view (and, incidentally, protected from water, grime, and fast food).
Center storage compartments are ideal, since they're often equipped with 12-volt power outlets, and they're close enough to the stereo to keep audio cables short. The glove compartment is another option, as long as there's a nearby power source.
Make the Right Connection
More than any other factor, the way you connect the iPod to the stereo determines how good the sound quality will be. Not surprisingly, you'll get better results with higher-end systems. Connection options vary widely, depending on your budget and your stereo setup.
Auxiliary Inputs Newer original equipment and aftermarket head units (the part of the stereo you see in the dash) often include jacks for extra components, such as satellite receivers and digital-music players. These jacks let you feed an audio signal directly into the stereo for the best possible sound.
Auxiliary input jacks, often labeled AUX IN, usually accept either RCA or miniature audio plugs. Either way, you connect them to the iPod with a patch cable ($10 to $25), which you can get from an electronics supplier such as Radio Shack (800/843-7422, www.radioshack.com). The jacks are often at the rear of the head unit, so you may have to remove it to connect the audio cord. If you're lucky, they'll be on the front panel.
Auxiliary Adapters For stereos without an auxiliary jack, BlitzSafe (201/569-5000, www.blitzsafe.com), Pacific Accessory Corporation (800/854-3133, www.pac-audio.com), AutoToys (www.autotoys.com), and other companies sell $50 to $100 adapters that add the jack.
Auxiliary adapters can hook up to satellite radio inputs, CD-changer inputs, or proprietary inputs. Go to the companies' Web sites to see which adapters are compatible with your car's stereo.
CD-changer inputs require extra consideration. In most cases, an auxiliary adapter disables your existing CD player, so you'll have to decide whether you want that trade-off. And some adapters connect to the CD-changer inputs at the back of the head unit, while others hook up in the trunk. If your vehicle requires a trunk connection, you must route an audio cable back to wherever you've installed the iPod.
Cassette Adapters These cassette look-alikes transfer signals directly from the iPod's headphone jack to the heads in your tape player. Although car-stereo buffs criticize them, cassette adapters often sound better than real tapes, and you can pick one up for less than $20. But cassette adapters leave a wire dangling from the tape slot, so they're not a good choice for hidden installations.
FM Modulators FM modulators are an option for head units without auxiliary inputs or available adapters. Modulators connect to the iPod's audio jack and play music over open frequencies on your FM radio. Because they connect directly to the radio's antenna input, their signals are usually much stronger and less prone to interference than another connection option, FM transmitters. The best models use phase-locked loop circuits that remain fixed on one frequency, and they're designed to not disrupt normal radio reception when you turn them off. You can purchase FM modulators from a retailer such as Crutchfield (888/955-6000, www.crutchfield.com) for around $50.
Even at their best, though, FM modulators are limited by the FM signal's bandwidth, so they can't handle as wide a range of frequencies as, say, CDs can. I tried an FM modulator with my iPod for six months -- although the sound was consistently better than that of the FM transmitters I've tried, I was happier using an inexpensive cassette adapter. (For another firsthand account of FM modulators and cassette adapters in action, see "Have iPod, Will Travel,” Mobile Mac, November 2003.)
Unless you don't mind your iPod quitting in the middle of your favorite song, you must get an external charger. One end of the car charger plugs into the 12-volt cigarette-lighter receptacle; the other end attaches either to the iPod's dock or to a FireWire connector, depending on the model.
SiK's imp external charger ($30; 925/820-1745, www.sik.com), which is compatible only with iPods that have a dock connector, also includes a line-level output jack. Unlike the headphone jack, the output jack isn't affected by the iPod's volume control, and it provides the best audio signal for your car stereo. If you have an earlier-generation iPod, XtremeMac (866/392-9800, www.xtrememac.com) sells a $20 iPod Car Charger that connects to the FireWire port.
Put Yourself in Control
A remote control is essential for hidden iPod installations. And because operating the iPod's controls while you're driving is dangerous, a remote control is a worthwhile accessory even if your iPod is accessible.
Some people are satisfied with Apple's remote ($39; http://store.apple.com). I've had better success with Engineered Audio's $40 RemoteRemote (636/273-6029, www.engineeredaudio.com), which has two components: a compact receiver that connects to the iPod's headphone and remote jacks; and a battery-operated key fob with play/pause, forward, reverse, and volume buttons. (The receiver also sports a headphone jack.) I used double-sided tape to attach the key fob to my center console, where it's easy to operate by touch.
You'll probably have to tweak your installation -- tighten a connection or move a mounting bracket -- before you're happy with it. One common problem deserves special mention: if you hear a humming or whining sound when the iPod is playing, install a ground loop isolator between the iPod and the head unit. You can buy one from Radio Shack (part number 270-054) for less than $20.
The Digital Highway
Auto sound systems are rapidly becoming more digital-friendly. For example, in January 2004, Alpine Electronics (310/326-8000, www.alpine.com) announced a line of iPod-compatible in-dash receivers that let you control the iPod and display playlists on the head unit, and more car makers are offering built-in satellite radio. But even without these cutting-edge products, your car stereo and iPod or portable satellite receiver can still make beautiful music together.
MP3s for the Road
Although no current car CD players work with Apple's AAC format, many handle MP3 songs just fine. You can burn discs on any Mac running OS X via the Finder or iTunes. If the songs are already MP3 files, drag them onto a blank CD-R disc in the Finder and burn it. (Many players balk at CD-RW discs, so test yours before burning your entire library.)
Apple's digital-rights management prevents you from directly converting protected AAC songs from the iTunes Music Store -- you have to burn them onto a standard audio CD first. Open iTunes' Preferences window, and make sure that Audio CD and MP3 Encoder are selected under Burning and Importing, respectively. Create a new playlist, add the songs you want to convert, and burn the playlist to a blank disc to create an audio CD. Finally, import the songs back into iTunes to convert them to MP3 format and then burn them onto a new CD.