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Ted Landau's User Friendly View - Road Trips with your iPod

by Ted Landau
June 14th, 2005

Taking it to the streets:
How best to play your iPod in your car

An iPod and a car are a gloriously perfect match. By connecting your iPod to your car's stereo system, your music listening is freed from the unpleasant constraints of radio stations (no more commercials, no more songs you dislike, no more losing a station as you progress on a trip). By loading up your iPod with audiobooks and podcasts, your iPod can even serve as a great alternative to "talk radio."

There is just one problem: How exactly to get your iPod to play through the speakers in your car. The best solutions are the most expensive (what else did you expect?) and the most affordable solutions often have significant drawbacks.

RoadTrip vs. iTrip. My personal quest for the ideal solution has led me to one that is almost perfect: the new RoadTrip+ from Newer Technology (distributed by OWC).

The device is essentially a cable. It connects to your car's cigarette lighter plug on one end and your iPod's Dock connector on the other end. That's it. There is no additional software to install. No settings to set. Nothing. Just turn on your radio, tune it to 87.9 and you are good to go.

Yes, the RoadTrip+ is a "wireless FM stereo transmitter." I know. Chances are you have a pretty low opinion of these devices. I certainly did. My previous experience with Griffin Technology's iTrip was pretty discouraging. It was awkward to use -- requiring frequent searching for a radio station that "worked" plus having to fiddle with settings on the iPod itself. Even worse, at least where I lived, the sound quality was abysmal even under the best conditions. The best quality I could get sounded like those AM stations that you barely manage to pick up while driving late at night.

In contrast, the sound quality of the RoadTrip+ is very, very good. I can't say it is excellent. I could still hear some background hiss and "warble" that should not have been there. And the bass dropped off a bit more than I would have liked. Some of this was due to the radio itself; that is, I could hear the noise regardless of whether or not the RoadTrip+ was connected. But these were relatively minor issues anyway. Under normal driving conditions, when you are dealing with typical road noise, you won't even notice them.

As a bonus, the RoadTrip+ also serves as an iPod charger. This means you'll never again have to worry about your iPod's batteries dying while you are driving along.

In contrast, devices like the iTrip attach directly to the iPod and have no cables at all. While some may prefer the iTrip approach, I would rather put up with the cable in order to have the charger. Plus, with the RoadTrip+, there is less chance that you will need to remove your iPod from its case (assuming you have a case) in order to make a connection.

A final asset of the RoadTrip+ is its price. It lists for only $27.99. There is an even cheaper model (RoadTrip, without the +) that does not include the charger, but I wouldn't bother with it. As long as you are going to need a cable connection anyway, you might as well have the benefit of the charger. Plus, the RoadTrip connects through the iPod's headphone jack, while the RoadTrip+ connects through the Dock connector's audio line out. I confess I am not certain how much this makes a difference in sound quality in what is ultimately a wireless connection, but one thing is certain: By using the Dock connector, the RoadTrip+ bypasses the volume setting of the iPod, using just the volume setting of the radio itself. This mean that, unlike with headphone jack connected devices, you don't have to worry about coordinating two volume settings to get the sound that you want.

The cassette alternative. Previously, I had been using a Sony cassette adapter for attaching my iPod to my car's stereo. This had been working well overall (and the sound quality was a bit better than with the RoadTrip+). But it had some significant drawbacks. The biggest one is that it only works in cars that have a cassette player. Most newer cars come with only a CD player, making a cassette adapter worthless. Even if you have a cassette player, another negative is that, after inserting the adapter into the cassette slot, you inevitably hear the player's mechanism whirring away as it attempts to "play" what it thinks is a cassette. Not a big deal, but I found it annoying. Plus cassette adapters have the aforementioned disadvantage of connecting through the iPod's headphone jack.

If you still want to use a cassette adapter anyway, I strongly suggest you get Griffin Technology's SmartDeck. Beyond filling the basic requirement of playing what's on your iPod, it uses your cassette player's Play, Stop, Pause, Fast Forward, and Rewind buttons to control the actions of the iPod. This is a very big plus. Trying to do these things while driving can be awkward at best and life-threateningly dangerous at worst. You still can't use these controls to select a playlist or a specific song, but it's much better than having no controls at all. The RoadTrip+, of course, falls into the "no controls at all" category.

Other alternatives. Yes, there are superior alternatives to both RoadTrip+ and SmartDeck. You can get even better sound quality by connecting your iPod to your car stereo's line-in (or other high quality audio) port. But this only works if your car stereo has such a port (and ideally on its front face panel). Providing this capability to a system that does not have one already (which is the case with my 1994 car!) can be expensive; it may even require that you buy an entirely new stereo.

For the ultimate in both sound quality and convenience features, you can't beat the iPod option for a BMW. Of course, unless you already own a BMW, you'll have to buy a new luxury car to obtain this option, moving the cost factor here to well beyond the ozone layer. Similar options will eventually be available for less expensive cars, but it's all very limited for now.

Even if you decide to spring for one of these "built-in" options, they all share one notable downside: they are not portable. When you rent a car for a vacation, for example, your BMW will not be of much help. The RoadTrip+, in contrast, works in almost every car. Of course, if you already have the BMW, it's not much of a financial stretch to get a RoadTrip+ as well!

Finally, there are some wireless/charger products that are similar to the RoadTrip+, such as one from Kensington. I have not tried them, so I can't give you rank-order ratings of these alternatives (although I can say that the Kensington unit costs almost three times as much as a RoadTrip+). But I am not really motivated to do more exploring. Others may be as good, but there does not seem much out there that can beat the RoadTrip+ for its combination of economical price, portability, charger, convenience of connection, and very good sound quality.

What you may lose by using an iPod in a car. Before I got my iPod, the car radio was my major source of getting exposed to new music. I first became aware of many of the artists whose music now populates my iTunes Library by hearing their songs on the radio. Yes, there are cable TV stations such as VH1 and MTV that serve somewhat the same role, but I don't listen to these much. They are not a substitute for driving music. So I worry that a shift to the iPod will result in me getting "stuck in time," -- where I limit myself to music I already know. The iTunes Music Store helps avoid this trap, as it lets me sample new music before I buy it. But I can't listen to the Music Store in my car. Something for me to think more about the next time I go cruising with my iPod and RoadTrip+.

[Note: Most of the products mentioned here require 3rd or 4th generation iPods. If you have an older iPod, make sure it is compatible before you buy any of these products.]

Ted Landau is the founder of MacFixit, and the author of Mac OS X Help Line, Tiger Edition and other Mac help books.

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