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MP3s in the Car
By Jerry Flattum - 01/10/2006 - 11:46 AM EST

MP3s—being digital files—do not exist in a vacumn. For MP3s to happen in the car, a computer, the Internet, a portable device and a playback unit in the car are needed. In some cases an MP3-based audio system is as simple as Plug-and-Play or as complex as a fully integrated entertainment/navigation/security system controlled by an in-dash computer.

An integrated system includes the full range of audio (AM/FM, cassette, CD/DVD, MP3, satellite radio), combined with video (CD/DVD), TV tuner, security, cell phone and navigation. Numerous portable devices such as PDAs, laptops, iPods and other portable MP3 players, portable hard drives and flash memory serve as transfer devices between other computers and the car.

Plus, there is the sound system. This can range from a standard OEM system to a fully customized one self-installed. There’s a lot to consider in a customized audio system, starting with components: speakers, amps, preamps, crossovers, F/X (sound processing) and more. There are as many makes and models of each of these components are there are cars to install them in. Matching component and car is both an art and science.

Playing MP3s in the car is a three phase endeavor involving transporting MP3 files from a computer to the car: Computer (home, office, library), Transfer (portable device), and the Car (MP3 player and/or in-dash computer).

MP3s are downloaded from the Internet, or “ripped” and “burned” from an audio CD. MP3s can also be played from and stored on CDs, DVDs and other portable transfer/storage devices. Some of these devices are used for storage and transfer, while others also have playback capability (iPod, laptops and MP3 players). An MP3 player in a car can be a stand alone unit, combined with CD/DVD player and/or AM/FM radio, or played back from a car computer interface. An MP3 player can also be portable requiring no installation.

Understanding the world of MP3 involves understanding the world of the computer and the Internet. It requires knowledge of audio, and the various components and devices used to produce, store, transfer and playback audio.

Many independent companies have been offering home/car/boat audio installation services for years, from 8-tracks to cassettes to CD/DVD and MP3 players, to a wide range of speaker, amplifier and audio processing systems. But, a do-it-your-selfer can install any or all of such a system for only the cost of the equipment. However, no matter how tech savvy, expert advice is always recommended before removing and installing any kind of device in the car.

Home computers are becoming as common as TVs and refrigerators, but a driver-controlled computer in the car is still cutting edge (as of 2005). Transporting, storing and playback of MP3s in the car require understanding of computers and digital audio technology, whether an in-dash computer is installed or not.

The MP3 Revolution is common knowledge but auto manufacturers are slow to make the shift from CD technology to MP3 technology. However, XM Satellite Radio is now featured in over 100 cars and car makers are getting pretty savvy themselves. Sirius Radio is a top competitor. Meanwhile, playing MP3s in the car requires replacement and installation of the current receiver (head unit) with one that has MP3 playback capability. There are also cassette adapters and FM transmitters that allow MP3 playback using a car’s current head unit.

Standard OEM audio systems have gotten fairly sophisticated since the days of the old AM radio with a single speaker. Before the days of FM stereo and multiple speaker systems, hearing music meant staying in range of a radio station’s signal with total dependence on what recordings a DJ selected to play. Now, advances in digital audio technology turn the interior of a car into a concert hall on wheels with the driver as DJ.

Third party audio component manufacturers like Alpine, Kenwood, Boss, NESA, XM and Sirius satellite radio, JBL and many more offer amazing audio quality and control. In fact, there are 100s, if not 1000s of national car audio competitions featuring audio systems rivaling those used by many live performance bands. In addition, MP3s are now being developed with 5.1 Surround sound in mind, not fully realizable through a standard two-speaker stereo system. Whether it’s a portable MP3 player with adapter, in-dash MP3 player, or fully integrated entertainment/security/navigation system, the quality of sound depends on the audio system that supports it.

The bottom line is that MP3 allows complete control over music choices, and with the right sound system, how well the music sounds.

Mobile is a Way of Life
A car is not just transportation. Cars are a way of life. Most people spend a tremendous amount of time in their cars driving to and from work, school, vacations, and other places. Outside of driving and maybe conversation (passenger and phone), the activity most performed in a car is listening to music. Finding the right radio station is often hit or miss. CDs offer some independence, but if a single song is all you want to hear, swapping CDs after each song is not only inconvenient but also dangerously distracting when driving. The solution: MP3.

According to the US Census Bureau, Americans spend an average of 20-30 hours commuting to work. The average does not include the trip home, which often includes running errands and other personal drive time. Add to this the use of a car during work (many occupations), evening trips visiting friends and family, shopping, school, restaurants, clubs, live shows and much more.

Actually, an increasing number of people are living in their vehicles. People are going mobile, and it’s not just retirees. Numerous occupations require extensive travel; while at the same time do not require a physical location for business. Business can be handled through a laptop. A GPS unit will help find the nearest mobile home park. On the road or in a park overnight, a great entertainment system makes the gypsy life all the more fun.

Moods change. Passengers are often along for the ride (with contrasting music tastes). Terrestrial Radio stations are rife with DJ chatter, advertising and weather interruptions, frequently at the wrong times. In a new media technology world where “on demand” is becoming the standard, the same applies to listening to music in the car: Digital audio means hearing what you want, how you want, and when you want.

There’s a lot to consider in playing MP3s in the car, from downloading MP3s on the Internet to ripping and burning CDs, from portable “plug and play” storage and player devices to in-dash computer controlled audio systems.

The following check list provides an overview of what changes might be needed to play MP3s and improve a car’s audio system.

Why MP3? How are they created, transferred, and played back in the car?
Can MP3s be played in the car without installing an in-dash head unit?
Are there systems that play MP3, CD, DVD, AM/FM and/or satellite radio?
Is self-installation possible without destroying the interior or reducing the car’s value?
Can playlists in iPod and Windows Portable Media be synchronized with in-dash players or computers?
Can MP3s be downloaded from the Internet inside the car?
Is the car noisy?
Are all the speakers working? Do they rattle or buzz?
Is there good separation when moving the speaker balance and fader controls?
Is there a difference in the sound when driving and when parked?
Does the current system need more bass, treble, depth, volume without distortion?
Can the current speakers handle more power from an added amplifier?
How much time is spent in the car?
Do other drivers use the car or are there frequent passengers?
Does the current AM/FM receiver (head unit) have an auxiliary input?
What’s a crossover?
What tools, wires and materials are needed for installation?
Is a video, navigation, security and communication system also desired?
What’s the budget?
What about buying used or on eBay?

Select Sites is one of the best online sources for all car audio needs. Because of the interactive capability of the Internet, the site provides far more information than a book with the ability to match sound systems and individual components with specific vehicles. Customers can assemble, price and compare systems via the online shopping cart solution before purchase and order.

The Crutchfield website is well designed with excellent photos of equipment, online installation videos, numerous how-to articles, a variety of search methods (brand, style, price, category), and a “Click to Compare” function to view detailed specs on different models side by side. Most of all, Crutchfield is great for exploring audio solutions both current and future and deciding whether to make purchases gradually or all at once.
CNET Car Tech (for all things mobile)

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