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Using Your iPod with Your Car’s Audio System

While car makers are starting to come around and make the integration of your [insert the name of your favorite mp3 player here but, since it’s likely an iPod, that’s what I’ll use] standard equipment, third party providers have created dozens of kludgy solutions for “integrating” an iPod into your car’s audio system. 

Some products, like FM transmitters, just suck.  Cassette player adapters (those fake cassettes with a wire hanging out of them to connect to the headphone jack of your player) work fine and are cheap but, 1. you have to have a cassette player, 2. the player can’t be hidden behind something, and 3. you have to be content with a wire hangin’ out of your dashboard.  Still other solutions require the replacement of the headunit, which is more difficult each year as car makers move away from narrow, rectangular, standardized units. 

There is also a solution that allows you to tap off the CD changer feed or aux port of the headunit.  These are available from many companies and, sometimes, from the auto maker, themselves.  These solutions let you put your iPod somewhere reasonable – like the glove box or armrest and, often, allow you to use the car’s built in controls to operate the iPod like the rest of the audio system; including dashboard and steering wheel mounted buttons. 

The problem with many of these early solutions is that the iPod often doesn’t sound the same as the rest of the audio system.  There are issues with the amount of bass (not enough), background noise (too much) and volume (not nearly enough).  I believe that the cause of this is poor impedance matching between the interface (the box that connects the aux or CD changer port to the iPod) and the iPod itself.  Of course, this is really stupid, it’s not like the manufacturer of the interface doesn’t know the input impedance of an iPod.  My kids probably know it.  Perhaps these interface units are design to be flexible – just in case you want to attach your 8-track tape player . . .

The only way I’ve found around this stupidity is to do the following: 

  • Set your iPod’s equalization settings to “Dance” or “Pop”
  • Set your iPod’s volume at what you’d listen to with headphones
  • Change the replay gain on your entire music library to 99 db (ouch!)

Yup, this last one’s tough.  If you only listen to this music in your car, it’s not a big deal.  If you only listen to the music on this one device, in the car and out, it gets a bit tougher.  If you listen to this music on several devices, it’s even tougher.

Changing the gain is not hard.  Get a copy of MP3Gain, select your entire library, set the gain to 99db and let’r rip.  MP3Gain simply writes the gain adjustment into the mp3 tag – you can always change it again at another time.  This also has the advantage of sound-leveling your entire library.  Keep in mind, though, that most music starts at about 89db, so the extra 10db makes it a lot louder.

I know, I know, you audiophiles out there (well, real audiophiles would never listen to an mp3 – you know who you are) are thinking: doesn’t that create distortion on playback?  The answer is, yes.  It’s manageable, in my opinion, though.  If you’re listening in a car in the first place, it’s not exactly a concert hall.  There’s loads of ambient noise that makes most of the distortion undetectable.  Optimal, no, but far better than having to crank your stereo to full bore and fight with background hiss and noise to hear Pink Floyd’s Money at the appropriate volume.  It also has the advantage of preventing your ears from bleeding when you forget how high you turned up the volume and accidentally switch to the radio.

 The difficulty comes in when you want to listen to these tunes outside your car.  If you listen on this same device, you’re gonna have to turn the volume down very low to keep your earbuds from catching on fire.  The high gain will also make the little rotary dial on the iPod VERY sensitive to small changes.  Again, this should be manageable.

If you use this library of music on multiple devices, though, it’s a bit more problematic.  If you’re like me, you’ll never remember to compensate for the higher gain on each device.  I recommend you make a copy of your entire library and change the gain on this new library for use in the car or in the device that you also use in the car, leaving the old library for the rest of your players.  Disk space is free, right.

I made the changes above to the music on my iPod about a month ago and listening to it in the car has become much more enjoyable.  A little distortion, yes, but the volume and bass problems are gone and it’s worth it.  I came up with 99db after lots of trials.  This may not be the gain level suitable for your vehicle, but it’s probably a good starting point.


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