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Playing music in a car without an aux-in

08/31/07 | by Adam | Categories: Technology, Music

While planning my photo trip around western Canada, high up on the priority list was what to listen to and how I was going to listen to it. I've moved on from tape and CD so try to use line-in where I can. Compared to every other method outside of playing an actual CD, this is about as good as it gets. The source material for this trip was my MacBook running off an inverter with an awful lot of MP3s. I'm trying to be responsible, so it wouldn't be sitting on the passenger seat next to me but in the back where I couldn't look at it! Fortunately the MacBook comes with the little remote allowing tracks to be changed without taking one's eyes of the road.

Having now spent the last fortnight driving around western Canada in a borrowed 2000 VW Passat, I have to say it's a very nice car. Comfortable, relatively economical, lots of oomph and doesn't look half bad either.

However, the Monsoon stereo? The Passat's stereo has no line-in but it does have a cassette deck. I plugged in my old tape adapter only to have the car refuse to use it. As far as I can see, the cassette deck actually checks to see if the folding door closes after the tape is inserted, and if it isn't then it eject the tape as unplayable. This renders the adaptor useless. Truly a case of gross over-engineering to solve a problem that isn't there.

So I hit plan B: use an FM transmitter. I tried two, both from Griffin.

The first was a Griffin RocketFM USB device I plugged into the laptop. This works great in a static environment like a house but it's rather less impressive on the road. The car generates a fair amount of hiss, the output volume of the device is pretty low and one hits clipping noise from overdriving the music source with remarkable ease. You're therefore left with a large amount of FM hiss if the music plays cleanly or a lot of fuzz and pop if the volume is overdriven. Plus the location of the transmitter needs to be close to the aerial in order to produce the best results; much funny wiring results leaving the car looking suspiciously like the back of my computer desk. Changing the FM frequency on the fly is impossible as you need to stop the car to change the setting on the computer.

The second was a more traditional FM broadcaster, the Griffin iTrip Auto Universal Plus. It plugs into the headphone jack and draws its power directly from the cigarette lighter. It also has a built-in USB connector for recharging MP3 players. Compared to the RocketFM it appears to have a higher broadcast volume. The iTrip also was less sensitive to location in the car. However, it shared the problem with the source material overdriving. The iTrip has the additional bonus of being able to easily change the FM channel when your preferred FM band gets co-opted by a local radio station.

I'd have to say, go for the latter. I had tried an earlier version of the Belkin TuneCast II but thought the quality was pretty weak. The iTrip (and the RocketFM for that matter) is far better.

As far as music selection goes, rock/pop works best. It's mastered loud and the fuzz from FM transmission has little effect. Jazz/blues isn't bad. Classical and audiobooks are a total write-off as the dynamic range renders it inaudible for much of the time.

One thing that's really missing from all of them though is any support for RDS (Radio Data System.) Admittedly this would be tough to implement with a line-in system but it would be great on the RocketFM. So, Griffin, please?


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