How to Listen to Pandora in Your Car

You can get Pandora on virtually any car stereo

Whether you're new to the world of internet radio, or you've been listening on your computer for years, getting Pandora on your car radio is easy. Some cars now come with Pandora functionality. You can also buy aftermarket car radios that include Pandora, or you can use a smartphone to add Pandora to any car stereo system.

The method you use to listen to Pandora in your car depends on the hardware you're working with and whether you want to spend money. Depending on how your mobile data plan is structured, you may also have to take bandwidth and audio quality into consideration.

A smartphone playing Pandora connected to a car stereo's AUX jack via USB
Lifewire / Daniel Fishel

What Is Pandora Radio?

Pandora is an internet radio service that uses an algorithm to create custom stations that are personalized to your tastes. You select one or more songs to act as seeds for a new station, and the algorithm automatically picks other songs that it thinks you will like. You are then able to provide feedback on whether a song is a good fit, which allows the algorithm to fine-tune the station.

While the basic Pandora service is free, limitations are placed on free accounts. For instance, a free Pandora account can only stream a limited number of hours of music each month. Free accounts are also limited in other ways, such as only allowing you to skip a handful of songs each hour.

If you opt to pay a monthly subscription fee, Pandora will allow you to skip any track that you don't want to listen to without any limits. The paid subscription also does away with the advertising that free accounts are subject to.

Pandora is available as a desktop app, as well as on iOS and Android. You can access your desktop playlists via your smartphone or a compatible Pandora car stereo.

How Does Pandora Work on a Car Radio?

The two main ways that Pandora works on car radios are via a baked-in car radio app or through a smartphone and an auxiliary jack of some sort. In both cases, the services rely on a smartphone with an active data connection to stream the music.

Car radios with integrated Pandora functionality work by connecting an app on the radio to an app on a smartphone. Depending on the smartphone, this connection may be via USB (that is, a physical wire) or Bluetooth. In any case, the connection allows you to control Pandora via your car stereo and by steering wheel controls or voice commands in some cases.

When a car radio doesn't have integrated Pandora functionality, the process is a little different. You still use a smartphone with a Pandora app to stream your stations, but you aren't able to control playback via the head unit, voice commands, or steering wheel controls. You also need an auxiliary jack or USB connection, Bluetooth, or some other means to transmit audio from your phone to your car stereo.

How to Listen to Pandora in Your Car Radio

While the number of car radios that come with an integrated Pandora app is limited, Pandora states that the functionality is available across more than 170 vehicle models. So if you bought your car recently, there's a chance that you have built-in Pandora functionality.

If you aren't sure whether your car has a Pandora app, you should be able to find out through your owner's manual. Pandora also maintains a list of vehicle models and aftermarket radios that include integration.

The process of setting up your car radio so that you can listen to Pandora stations on the road will be a bit different depending on whether your car radio has an integrated app. If your radio has an integrated Pandora app, all you do is open that app, download the corresponding app on your smartphone, and sign in to your account.

At a minimum, connecting the app on your radio to the app on your phone allows you to stream music and control playback via the head unit controls. If your car supports it, you can also skip tracks, give a thumbs up or thumbs down to individual songs, change stations, and more.

If your car radio doesn't have an integrated app, you can still listen to Pandora in your car, but it may be more complicated. Depending on how your car radio is set up, you may be able to use an auxiliary jack, USB, or a Bluetooth connection. If your head unit doesn't work with any of those options, use an FM transmitter or FM modulator to use Pandora with any car radio.

Regardless of the way you choose to connect your phone to your car stereo, this method of listening to Pandora on your car radio requires you to control the app via your phone. Since there is no integration with your car radio, you'll have to skip tracks, select stations, and do everything else on your phone.

How Much Data Does Pandora Car Radio Use?

Since listening to Pandora on your car radio requires a phone with a data connection, mobile data usage can be a concern. Whether your car has Pandora integration, or you choose to connect your phone to your stereo via an auxiliary jack, your phone will still use data when music is playing.

Some services, like Spotify, allow paid accounts to download music at home for offline use. Pandora doesn't currently offer an option like that, but the mobile app takes data into consideration when you're away from Wi-Fi.

That basically means that Pandora defaults to lower audio quality, and smaller file sizes, when you're on a mobile data network. You can also choose to use a slightly higher quality setting of 64 Kbps.

This is still lightweight in the world of digital music, to the point where listening to one hour of Pandora would only use about 28.8 MB of data. At that rate, you could listen to more than an hour each day all month before cracking a 1 GB data plan.

If mobile data use is a concern, some carriers offer data plans where content streamed from certain providers doesn't count against your limit. So, if your provider offers a plan like that or you're willing to switch, you can listen to as much Pandora radio in your car as you like without worrying about going over your data limit.

How Does Pandora Sound on a Car Radio?

While Pandora's lightweight bitrate means you can listen to a lot of music without burning through your mobile data, a lower bitrate means lower quality audio. HD Radio FM broadcasts use a bitrate of between 96 and 144 Kbps, and MP3 files typically range between 128 and 256 Kbps. In both cases, even Pandora's 64 Kbps option pales in comparison.

What that means is that Pandora is more likely to suffer from compression artifacts or sound tinny. Whether you notice any of this, in practice, depends on your sound system and the listening environment in your car.

If you have a high-end car audio system, and your vehicle is insulated against road noise, you're more likely to hear the difference between music streamed from Pandora and high-quality MP3s burned to a CD or loaded on a USB stick. However, that difference can evaporate quickly if you're using a factory audio system and deal with a lot of road noise.

Since there is no upfront cost associated with listening to Pandora in your car, the good news is that you can make the decision for yourself as to whether or not it sounds good to your ears. If you decide that a 64 Kbps audio stream doesn't sound good enough in your car, opt for a higher fidelity option. Remember that you'll have to either bump up your data plan or forgo streaming in favor of a service that offers an option to download music for offline listening.

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