iPod Gizmos For The Car

You can spend a lot -- or very little -- to mate your music player with your wheels

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The real revolution of the iPod is that it liberates music from your home. You can take thousands of tunes -- not just a CD's worth -- to the gym, the ski slopes, or the park. But the one setting that has always been iPod-challenged is that other place you want music the most: in your car. Using your earphones while you drive isn't an option. It's dangerous and, in most places, illegal.

Now a couple of new types of gadgets make it easy to listen to your iPod at 60 mph. The expensive way lets you plug an iPod directly into a car stereo and get crystal-clear sound. The cheaper alternative -- a much improved version of a product that has been around for a while -- turns the iPod into a miniature radio station that broadcasts an FM signal to your car's radio antenna.

If you're prepared to spend some cash, car-stereo adapters are the way to go. They use the dock connector on the bottom of dockable iPods and iPod minis. The sound is better than a connection that uses the iPod's headphone jack, and it lets the car stereo take over the controls. That way, you can put the iPod in the glove box and use the stereo's knobs and buttons to navigate your music library.

The drawback is that, in most cases, the adapters work only with audio systems from the same company, and only the newest ones at that. So you can plan on buying a new stereo to go with your adapter.

I looked at adapters from Clarion and Pioneer that plug only into a stereo of the same brand, and tried out an interesting adapter from Monster Cable that hooks the iPod to the radio that came with your car. None of them quite matches the iPod's elegance in appearance or ease of use. But Clarion's comes pretty close.

Press a button on the Clarion VRX755VD car stereo, and out pops a 7-inch touch-screen that mimics much of the iPod's interface. Instead of running your finger around in a circle to scroll through the music library, you press up and down buttons that move quickly though long lists of songs and artists. The damage? The adapter is $60. But the car stereo, or "head unit" as the industry calls it, that you'll need to get to use it will set you back $1,600.


You'll spend a bit less on Pioneer's system and get nearly as good an experience. Like the Clarion, the Pioneer $1,200 AVH-P5700DVD (the matching adapter is $140) has a pop-up, touch-screen display. It doesn't try to look like an iPod. Instead, you touch buttons on the screen to navigate by artist or song. But you can scroll through only six artists or songs at a time. So if you're looking for that favorite from Lyle Lovett somewhere in the middle of your artist list, you have to push the down button a bunch of times to get there.

Monster has come up with the cheapest way to iPod-ize your current car stereo. Its iCruze adapter works with more than 650 factory-installed models, but only those with connections for a multiple-disc CD changer. (The iCruze replaces the CD changer.) A big limitation: You can play only your music from your play lists, so you can't choose songs or artists outside your playlist. The system costs $250, and the cables it needs, depending on the stereo, will run $30 to $100 extra. You can add a dash-mounted display to show the current song and artist for another $100.

There are other ways to listen to your iPod on the road. The cheapest and easiest solution is a low-cost, low-tech cassette adapter. It looks like a tape cassette and plugs into the cassette player, but there's a wire poking out that you stick into the headphone jack of your iPod. Inelegant? Yes. And piping the sound from the headphone jack can cause a bit of distortion. But for $20, it's hard to complain.

Most new cars, unfortunately, don't come with cassette players. So, if your car is much newer than my 2001 Saab, you'll need to get an FM transmitter to play your songs over the radio. Early models typically let you choose from four FM frequencies. All too often, especially in big cities, your tiny signal would be overwhelmed by a more powerful one, resulting in interference and static.

With the latest generation, you can pick any frequency on the FM dial, and most of the new gizmos include chargers that plug into the lighter socket to keep your iPod juiced up while you're on the go. For me, Griffin's RoadTrip ($80) worked the best. It's a bit Rube Goldberg, with an arm that plugs into the lighter and extends up to a cradle that holds your iPod within easy reach. There's an on-off button and up and down arrows to scan the dial to find an open frequency. It's not attractive, but it gave me the most powerful, static-free signal of the batch I tested.

Belkin had the same idea, but a far better design, for its $80 TuneBase FM. The arm that plugs into the lighter is a flexible steel gooseneck that can be positioned where you want, and it has preset buttons to store the four frequencies that work best for you. But the FM signal slipped into static occasionally, and it works only with iPod minis.

Sonnet Technologies' $100 PodFreq is more portable: It comes with a charger but also can run on the iPod's battery -- useful for beaming the music to a portable radio at a picnic, say. Its signal strength is O.K., but it doesn't come with a car mount to keep it within your line of sight. (Sonnet recommends using a mount from another company.)

It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to marry the iPod to the automobile. Finally, there are lots of ways to tune out those obnoxious deejays and Top 40 drivel and tune in to thousands of your own personally selected songs, the music that you really like.

By Jay Greene

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