CAR TECH: WEEKEND PROJECT: IPod your car

IPod your car
By James Kim

Estimated time required:2 hours
Estimated cost: $60 and up


Step 1: Getting started

Most of us who own a car and an Apple iPod have at least thought about integrating the two--wearing headphones while driving doesn't count, and it's against the law. Who wouldn't want access to thousands of songs while cruising the streets? And not all of us have an iPod connector with a built-in BMW. In many cases, the $20 cassette adapter will do the trick. In others, an FM transmitter will solve the problem. But neither method can give you the best possible audio quality, and in the case of the FM transmitter, it makes your iPod sound like one of these. We're going to show you a couple of methods to plug your iPod (and in general, any MP3 player) directly into your car stereo. You'll get the best possible sound quality, added convenience, and in some instances, better access to track information and the player's controls.

Step 2: What you'll need

Before you get started with this project, we recommend that that you have some of the following:

* A car with a factory or aftermarket stereo system
* An iPod with a dock connector (Mini, third generation, and up)
* A mini (3.5mm) stereo headphone jack-to-stereo RCA cable or mini stereo-to-mini stereo cable
* Flat-head and Philips screwdriver plus head-unit tools, if necessary
* Sik Imp line-level audio output adapter or equivalent
* Belkin TuneDok or another decent in-car iPod dock
* A car stereo harness if you're installing a new head unit
* Alpine interface adapter for iPod or hardware or equivalent


Step 3: Assess your car and your car stereo

There are a few critical facts you need to know about your car stereo before you purchase your gear. Most people use an FM transmitter such as the Griffin iTrip because their stereo lacks a cassette deck and, therefore, is not compatible with the more convenient and better-sounding cassette adapter.

We're going a step further than that because a cassette adapter is so 1990s. In order to connect your iPod directly to your stereo, you'll need to know if that stereo has a line-in auxiliary input. Though common on aftermarket head units, this port is rare on factory stereos. Figure out your car stereo's make and model. If you have a factory stereo, make note of the car's make, model, and year.

Tip
Know your car stereo, as its features will determine what special hardware you'll need. In our case, we have an aftermarket Alpine stereo--the perfect test bed for an iPod, as it has both auxiliary inputs and is compatible with an iPod interface connector.

Step 4: Select an interface

Just because you don't have a fancy aftermarket Alpine stereo doesn't mean you can't connect and control your iPod. There are iPod connector kits for all types of stereos, including a long list of factory stereos. Crutchfield.com and Monstercable.com, for example, have convenient tools for helping you pinpoint your specific needs based on your car stereo or your car make and model. In most cases, these iPod connector kits will plug into your stereo's CD changer port.

If you don't need that extra control over your iPod (in other words, you don't mind using the iPod itself to control your music), then the easier and more economical method is to simply plug in to the stereo's auxiliary inputs using the aforementioned RCA-to-mini or, in some cases, mini-to-mini headphone cable.

Step 5: Remove the stereo

You may have already done this to check your stereo's inputs. In most cases, removing your car stereo is not a difficult process. But safety first: open your car's hood, and unhook the negative connector on your car's battery. This will prevent any shorts that may damage your hardware or car's circuitry. Next, you may need a special tool to remove the stereo from its DIN slot (the rectangular opening where the stereo resides). You may need to visit your car dealer to find this tool, or you could use a flat-head screwdriver or, in a pinch, a knife--but be careful not to hurt yourself. Other stereos are simply screwed into place. After pulling out the stereo, unhook any cables that are attached, such as power, antenna, or a nest of wired connections. A word of warning to those with an installed CD changer: in most cases, if you install an iPod connector, you won't be able to use the CD changer since it occupies the same port.

Step 6: Install connection or hardware

In our example, we'll use a compatible Alpine head unit (the full-featured CDA-9851), and all you'll need for it is the $99 Alpine KCA-420i iPod control interface. This piece of hardware is small enough to hide behind the stereo in the center console, but if it doesn't fit in yours, you can mount it under the dash or the seat. The first of two cables is the Ai-Net cord, which connects the interface unit to the stereo's Ai-Net port. The other cable is an iPod-style dock connector that you can snake out from under the dashboard. Depending on your car, you can easily hide this cable up to the point where your iPod will be mounted (usually in the glove compartment, directly mounted on the dash, or mounted using a third-party dock).

Plug the power and other wiring back into the stereo, and install the stereo back in the DIN slot. Basically, follow the steps for removing the stereo but in reverse. If you choose not to use an interface and go with a simple auxiliary input connection instead, plug the RCA-to-mini headphone jack cable to the auxiliary input port, and snake the other end of the cable down through the back of the dashboard and up to the area where your iPod will reside. In rare cases, the auxiliary input will be on the front of the stereo itself.

Step 7: Some useful extras

Now that your interface or auxiliary cable has been installed, you'll need some extras that will give you a seamless iPod-in-the-car experience. First, you'll need to make sure your iPod doesn't go flying in every direction when you make turns. We recommend Belkin's TuneDok, which secures your iPod and resides in your car's cup holder. You can also use a strip of Velcro and affix the iPod in a case, for example, directly onto your dashboard. Those utilizing the preferred (but more expensive) iPod interface will connect the interface cable directly to the iPod's dock connector. In addition to excellent sound quality and control over your iPod via the car stereo, the connection will also keep your iPod charged.

Those using the auxiliary input should first get a fixed line-level output adapter such as the Sik Imp. This will allow for the best-quality sound, as opposed to the inconsistent output you'd get from plugging into the iPod's headphone jack. The Imp also ships with a cigarette adapter iPod charger.

Step 8: iPod integrated

Now that your hardware is installed, you're ready to test your system. Reconnect your car battery, power up the car, and listen to your iPod over your car speakers--the way it was meant to be heard. With the Alpine interface, you can search for songs by playlist, album, artist, song, and so on, and you can control the iPod using dedicated buttons on the stereo itself. You have options such as Mix All and Mix Album, and you can even see scrolling ID3 tag information. If you use the more complicated iCruze hardware from Monster Cable, you can even add a two-line LCD screen, which mounts on your dashboard. For those using the aux-in port, you can control your iPod directly, which also has some advantages for passengers.


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