Article: Revisiting Car Audio

by on May 22, 2012

At SchwarzTech, we review a number of accessories for iPods and iPhones, and one that we feel is near and dear to our hearts are ways to connect such devices to your car stereo. Just a few years back, most auto manufacturers didn’t include an auxiliary jack, requiring people to look to an FM transmitter or cassette adapter to pump the tunes into their vehicle of choice. We even took a look at ways to connect an iPod to your car.

These days, most cars include an auxiliary jack, but now it seems the accessory manufacturers are behind. More often than not, I see people connecting their iDevices to their stereo with a simple 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable into the headphone jack. While it works, and arguably a lot better than FM transmitters or cassette adapters, it bypasses the holy grail of crisp, clean audio—the line-level output found on the Dock Connector. To make matters worse, a lot of people are already using the Dock Connector for charging.

What’s Ideal

Some newer cars can connect to your iPhone or iPod with a USB connector in the dashboard, providing charging, control, and line-level audio. Others will pair directly via Bluetooth, which allows the use of any Dock Connector car charger.

Auxiliary Only

If you have a recent car that only features an auxiliary input, this is where things get inconvenient. Most people will use the aforementioned 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable and a charger in the cigarette lighter/power outlet. Some might get fancy and use a Dock Connector-to-line-out adapter. None of these offer the perfect mix of charging, control, and quality audio. I’m using a slightly-newer-than-what-we-reviewed Griffin AutoPilot I picked up in 2009, and it allows me to use my iPhone for music (I can play/pause and skip tracks in Music, Pandora, and other audio players), while charging my iPhone, and having a jack for line out audio. From a technology standpoint, it’s perfect, but they’ve all but disappeared off of store shelves, and none of the other accessory manufacturers seem to make something as simple.

It seems that a lot of options also now have to use the headphone jack because people want to route calls through their car’s speakers. A lot of these are rather expensive (more than $50, too), and often include gimmicks like docks/stands/microphones.

Furthermore, there are cheap Bluetooth receivers that are often powered via USB, look like a USB flash drive, and have a 3.5mm jack at the end. You can use an extra or dual-port iPhone/iPod charger, which would provide power for both the receiver and the iPhone/iPod and then the 3.5mm jack connects with your stereo. I’m actually playing around with one, but it lacks in two areas: controlling music (there are no controls, so you have to use the tiny buttons on the iPhone screen), and there’s a ground loop hum. A lot products have their own circuitry to prevent this, but it’s the same phenomena that happens when you have a guitar amp and something else plugged into the same power source, and connecting them produces an annoying hum. This is similar,but the two devices would be the car stereo and then whatever the audio source is (in this case, the Bluetooth receiver).

Perfecting a Setup

What would be even better is something like the AutoPilot mixed with something like Apple’s steering wheel remote idea. In fact, that, along with the widely available Dock Connector to line-out/USB Y-cables would be the best solution out there. Controls anywhere you want, no stress on the power outlet.

I’m not the only one who’d love to see this, especially since my upgraded-as-a-factory-option stereo is pretty good otherwise (Bluetooth for speakerphone, external amplifier). Of course, if I’m completely unaware of a product that exists (and hey, nobody’s perfect), feel free to get in touch. If not, if someone from Apple is listening, please bring that remote to market.

Update: Apparently Satechi just released a product that might fulfill this requirement…

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