Listening to Your Cassette Collection in a Car

Bringing Legacy Audio Tech Into the 21st Century

car cassette player and alternatives
Car cassette players are becoming fewer and further between, but that doesn't mean you have to ditch your mixtape collection just yet!. Baturay Tungur / EyeEm / Getty

Question: How can I listen to my cassette collection in my car?

Call me a luddite if you must, but I have a huge collection of cassette tapes that I still listen to. I have CDs too, but I have a lot of cassettes that I just don’t want to get rid of. The problem is that the new (used) car I bought recently doesn’t have a cassette deck, and I haven’t been able to find any aftermarket decks that I really like (it’s the skinner kind.) How can I go on listening to my cassette tapes in my car?

Answer:

There are a few different ways you can listen to the music on your cassette tapes in a modern car audio system, but none of them are particularly elegant. The easiest option is probably going to involve a portable tape player, like a Walkman, connected to your head unit via an auxiliary input, FM modulator, or an FM transmitter. These same methods are used to connect new tech like CD players and MP3 players to older head units, but they work just as well the other way around.

Another viable option is to digitize your cassette collection and upgrade your head unit to a model that has built-in storage or a USB connection that can be used with a thumb drive. This is a labor intensive way to go, but it’s cheaper than repurchasing your entire collection on CD or in a digital format.

Cassette Head Unit Availability (Or the Lack Thereof)

Although the last vehicle equipped with an OEM cassette deck rolled off the line a few years ago, the format isn’t completely dead yet.

You can still find brand new aftermarket cassette decks, and some of them even include CD players, MP3 playback, and other modern features. Of course, you’re not going to find a head unit that plays both cassettes and CDs if you’re locked into the single DIN form factor. If your head unit is “the skinnier kind,” or about two inches tall, then that’s what you have.

Auxiliary Inputs and FM Transmitters

When cassette decks were still ubiquitous, and CDs were just starting to make large gains in market share, a whole range of different options popped up to provide backward compatibility. Auxiliary inputs, FM transmitters, cassette tape adapters, and other options all provided the ability to play CDs on tape decks, and all of them—sans the cassette adapters, of course—will also work the other way around.

The easiest way to play your cassettes in a car that doesn’t have a cassette deck involves an auxiliary input, which is a feature that not every head unit offers. This input looks like a headphone jack, and you can connect it to the headphone jack on a portable tape player with a male-to-male TRS cable. If your existing head unit doesn’t have one, then you may want to look for a replacement that does.

FM transmitters are also pretty easy to use, although they can be a little touchier. For instance, they don’t work all that well in urban areas where the FM dial is full of high-powered stations. In those cases, you’ll have trouble finding an open frequency, and you’ll end up experiencing interference.

If your head unit lacks an aux input, and you get too much interference with an FM transmitter, and buying a new head unit is outside your price range, an FM modulator will do the trick.

Modulators are similar to transmitters, but they effectively allow you to install an auxiliary input by tapping into your car radio's antenna.

Digitizing Your Cassette Collection

If you have a high-quality tape deck at home and some time on your hands, then you might want to think about digitizing your collection. This method involves hooking your tape deck up to your computer, recording your tapes, and then compressing the files into MP3s. You can then transfer the MP3s to a USB thumb drive, which can be connected to the USB port of a compatible head unit. A decently sized thumb drive can hold thousands of songs, so the main drawback of this method is that it is pretty time-consuming.

Of course, digitizing your cassette collection also has a huge benefit, in that cassettes tend to wear out through use and the simple passage of time. By digitizing your collection for use in your car, you can freeze that degradation and continue listening to your music pretty much indefinitely.