Going Auto-MP3

Are you tired of swapping CDs all the time and lugging around that huge case? If you aleady download, play, and manage MP3 music on your PC and burn normal audio CDs to listen to in the car, there's no reason why you shouldn't be going digital in the car, too. New systems make it easy to play MP3s in the car.

Why go MP3?

MP3 is a compressed format, but as long as the file has a bitrate (sample rate) of at least 128kbps (kilobits per second) and was converted properly it will be difficult to tell the difference from the original CD. Higher bitrates are even closer in sound to that of the original, while at 96kbps and below, most people can hear the difference. The format reduces audio files to a small fraction of their original size, allowing more of them to be stored on ordinary digital storage media like CDs, hard drives, and memory chips. For car-audio applications, compactness is desirable and the smaller MP3 format helps achieve that.

There really aren't any standards yet for in-car MP3 players, but most systems have gone in one of two ways:

CD-based systems. With these systems, you use the CD burning features on your computer to write your MP3 files to ordinary CD-R discs. Each CD-R can normally fit 150 or more songs, or up to eight hours (or more) of music, depending on the bitrate. Within the CDs, you can organize the files in directories and subdirectories however you like - by artist, album title, type of music, time period, or a combination of everything. It can be structured just as you would structure directories on a computer. Or if you wish you can just throw all of the files in at once, together, without worrying about directories.

Sony, Aiwa, Jensen, JVC, Kenwood, Panasonic, Rockford Fosgate, and Visteon all have these types of aftermarket players available now. As original equipment, the Kenwood model is already featured on the Mazda MP3, a special edition of the Protégé, and the Visteon unit is available on some Ford vehicles.

Hardware-based systems. These are more expensive systems that don't use any CDs, but rather use computing power and storage methods borrowed from notebook computers and game systems.

One of these, the PhatNoise system, uses rewritable cartridges - similar in appearance to game console cartridges. They behave like portable hard drives - to transfer music from your personal computer (via a mounting cradle) to the PhatBox, a unit that mounts in the trunk and looks similar to a CD changer. The Phatbox simply hooks up to your existing stereo (if it's the right model) and also operates much like a CD changer. With up to 30 GB of storage in a cartridge, you'll probably be able to store your entire music collection on one. The company is supplying similar products for Kenwood and Visteon.

Another company, Rio, has made and sold an in-dash system that stores MP3 files on notebook computer hard drives and plays them via a special microprocessor. Rio has since withdrawn from the market, but expect similar systems from other companies in the near future.

What to look for in an MP3 system:

Ease of navigation. How easy is it to navigate through the directories? Is it logical and intuitive? If you can't figure it out in the showroom, how much trouble are you going to have on the road?

Access speed. How long does the system take to recognize directories and tracks and start playing them? For some of the newer systems, it's almost instantaneous, but for some of the first ones it was more than ten seconds. Burn a test CD at home and take it to the showroom to compare each model and how long each model takes to find the same tracks.

Cueing features. Can you scan fast-forward and reverse, and can you pause while playing without having to start the track over? And does the unit remember what track you're playing and where you are in the track when you turn the ignition off and back on?

Versatility. Look for equipment that can accept the widest range of bitrates possible (most MP3s range from 64 to 320 kbps).

Display features. MP3 files have the built-in capacity to have information attached to them such as the name of the song, the artist, the album it came from, and additional comments. Filenames aren't always so revealing, so look for players that can display this information, called an ID3 tag.

How to start

Before you go MP3 in your car, you should already be comfortable manipulating and playing MP3 files on your computer, and be able to burn them onto a CD (your CD burner should have come with this software - common ones are the Easy CD Creator, Click 'N' Burn, and SimpliCD). This does require you to be slightly computer literate, but not really much more than it took to read this article. If you can figure out how to drag and drop song titles software, you're well on the way.

If you haven't already, in order to take advantage of the small size of MP3s, you'll have to 'rip' all of the music from your existing CD collection. MusicMatch (or many other utilities) will easily convert a CD of music to MP3s with a few mouse clicks. This isn't difficult, just time consuming. But you should only have to do it once, and it will pay off later on.

Without a doubt, MP3 is quickly becoming more than just a sea change in the way music is distributed but also a standard format for new music. New storage options in the near future will take advantage of the increased capacity of DVD discs, and flash memory solutions may eliminate moving parts altogether. So go MP3, and take advantage of this revolution in music.

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