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How can I listen to my iPod in my car without a new head unit?

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iPod in car

While an auxiliary input is a great way to listen to an iPod in your car, there are other options if your head unit doesn't have that feature.

Image courtesy of andrewarchy, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)
Question: How can I listen to my iPod in my car without a new head unit?

I want to be able to listen to my iPod in my car, but I don’t want to replace the radio. I know some new car radios are really designed to work with iPods, but I don’t want to replace mine. I like my radio just fine, but it doesn’t have anything I can plug the iPod into, so what are my options?

Answer:

The easiest ways to listen to an iPod in a car are an auxiliary input or iPod direct controls, but if you don’t want to buy a new head unit, then you can forget about those. Depending on the current head unit you have, there are three different options you can look at: a car cassette adapter, an FM broadcaster, or an FM modulator. These are all viable options, but the best one for your particular situation will depend on a couple different factors.

1) Car Cassette Adapter (The Cheapest Option)

The easiest, least expensive option is a car cassette adapter. While these adapters were originally designed with CD players in mind, they’ll also work just fine with your iPod or any other MP3 player that has a 3.5mm audio jack. They work by basically tricking the heads in your tape deck into thinking that they’re reading a tape, so the audio signal is transmitted directly from the adapter to the tape heads. That provides decent audio quality, especially for the price.

Car cassette adapters are also easy to use. There’s no installation involved, since you literally just have to stick a tape in your tape deck and plug it into the audio jack on your iPod. Of course, a car cassette adapter is only an option if your head unit has a tape player, and that’s becoming increasingly uncommon in new head units.

2) FM Transmitter (The Universal Option)

If you have a head unit that was built in the last 20 odd years, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll be able to use an FM broadcaster to listen to your iPod in your car. In the rare occurance that your car (or truck) has an AM-only head unit, and it doesn’t include a tape deck, then you really might want to think about upgrading.

FM transmitters are like pint-sized radio stations in that they broadcast on the same frequency range that your FM radio is designed to pick up. They’re also pretty easy to use, although they don’t work as well in big cities as they do in rural areas. In order to set an FM transmitter up, you have to hook it up to your iPod (usually via Bluetooth pairing or the earbud jack) and then tune it to an open FM frequency. You then tune your radio to that same frequency, and the music on your iPod will come through the head unit just like a radio station.

3) FM Modulator (The Sort-of-Permanent Option)

Of the three options outlined here, an FM modulator is the only one that requires you to pull out your head unit and do some wiring. These gadgets work sort of like FM transmitters, but they skip the whole wireless transmission thing. Instead, you actually wire an FM modulator up in between your head unit and antenna. That typically results in better audio quality than you see from an FM transmitter with less chance of interference. It’s also a little bit cleaner of an installation, since the modulator can be installed under or behind the dash, and you can even tuck the audio input out of the way.

So What’s the Best Option for Listening to an Ipod in a Car?

There’s no single best option for anyone with an iPod and a head unit that lacks an auxiliary input, but it is relatively easy to pick out the best one based on your particular situation. If you head unit has a tape deck, and you want a quick and dirty solution that just works, then a car cassette adapter is what you’re looking for. If you don’t have a tape deck, and you don’t want to mess around with any (semi) permanent wiring, then you should go for an FM transmitter. On the other hand, an FM modulator is the best choice if you live in an area with a crowded FM dial or you want a cleaner, more permanent solution to your problem.

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