Why Your Burned CDs Don't Work in Your Car

burned cd
Burned CDs are great for making long road trip mixes, but there are a handful of reasons they might not work in your car. Image courtesy of Vox Efx, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

Question: Why won’t my car stereo play the CDs I burned?

I burned a bunch of CDs in preparation for a road trip, but when I tried to play them, nothing happened. What gives? They work just fine in my computer. Do you know of any reason burned CDs won't play in a car?

Answer:

There are a handful of reasons that a burned CD might not work in your car CD player, and they’re all related to the type of media (i.e. CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-R) you use, the format of the music, the method you use to burn the CD, and the capabilities of your head unit.

Some head units are just touchier than others, and some head units only recognize a limited set of file types. Depending on your head unit, you may be able to burn CDs that actually play in your car by switching the type of media you use, the brand of CDs, or the file type.

Choosing the Right Burnable Media

The first factor that can affect whether your burned CDs work in your car is the type of burnable media you use. The two main types of burnable CDs are CD-Rs, which can be written to one time, and CD-RWs, which can be written to multiple times. If your head unit is touchy, you may have to use CD-Rs. This was a bigger issue in the past than it is today, and it’s more likely to be the root cause of your problem if your head unit is older.

In addition to basic CD-R and CD-RW data discs, you can also find special CD-R music discs. These discs include a special “disc application flag” that allows you to use them in standalone CD recorders.

They aren’t necessary if you’re burning music with a computer, and in some cases, manufacturers have actually put a “for music” label on lower quality discs, which may introduce additional issues.

Choosing the Right Burning Method

There are two ways to burn the music files on your computer to a CD: as an audio CD, or as a data CD.

The first method involves converting the audio files into the native CDA format. If you choose this method, the result is similar to an audio CD that you might buy from a store, and you are limited to roughly the same play time.

The other method involves transferring the files to the CD untouched. This is usually referred to as burning a data CD, and the result will be a CD that contains MP3s, WMAs, AACs, or whatever other formats your songs were in, to begin with. Since the files are unchanged, you can fit a lot more songs on a data CD than an audio CD.

Head Unit Limitations

Today, most head units can play a variety of digital music formats, but that wasn’t always the case. If you have an older CD player, it may only be able to play audio CDs, and even if it can play digital music files, it may be limited to MP3s. The issue is that in order to play music from a data CD that contains digital music files, the head unit has to include an appropriate DAC, and car audio DACs are not universal.

While many CD car stereos throughout the years have included the ability to decode and play digital music, even the latest CD head units often have limits, so it’s important to check the literature that came with your stereo before you burn data CDs to play on it.

In most cases, the files that a head unit supports will be listed on the box, and they are sometimes also printed right on the head unit itself.

If your head unit says that it can play MP3 and WMA, for instance, you'll have to make sure that the songs you burn to CD are one of those formats.

Inferior and Defective CD-R Media

If everything else checks out (i.e. you’ve used the right burning method for your head unit), then you might have gotten ahold of a bad batch of CD-Rs. This can happen from time to time, so you might want to try the CDs that you burned in a couple different head units. The media is probably fine if it works on your computer, but if it doesn’t work in multiple head units that all have the right specs, that might be the problem.