How to Use an MP3 Player in a Car

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In-Car MP3 Options

using mp3 player in car
Using an MP3 player like an iPod in a car isn't limited to brand new vehicles, and there are a lot of options out there to explore. Peathegee Inc / Blend Images / Getty

Whether you have an iPhone or any other type of MP3 player, there are a few different ways to listen to all your music in your car. Your options can be limited by the specific technology you're working with, so it's important to start off by checking into the specific features of the head unit in your car and your phone or MP3 player.

Some options are only available if you have an iPhone or iPod because certain head units are specifically designed to work with those devices. Other options will work with any MP3 player. In order to determine which options are available to you, there are a few things to look for.

If your head unit is specifically designed for use with iPods or other MP3 players, it will typically have a built-in USB cable connection. Some head units even come with a cable that can plug directly into your iPhone or iPod.

The best way to use an MP3 player in your car is to hook up via this type of digital connection since it allows the higher quality car audio DAC in your head unit to do the heavy lifting. Instead of outputting an analog signal meant for headphones to your car speakers, you output digital data that the head unit converts more appropriately.

The next best option is an auxiliary input. Some head units have auxiliary inputs on the back, but those can be inconvenient to reach. If your head unit looks like it has a headphone jack on the front, that's actually an auxiliary line-in jack that you can plug your MP3 player into.

If your head unit doesn't have a USB or line-in connection, you can either use an FM transmitter or a cassette tape adapter. Neither of those methods provides the best audio, but they are viable ways to listen to an MP3 player in your car.

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Direct iPod Control

iPod in a car
Some head units are specifically designed for use with iPods. Photo courtesy osaMu, via Flickr (Creative Commons 2.0)

If you have an iPhone or iPod, the easiest way to use it in your car is to buy an aftermarket head unit that is specifically designed for use with Apple products. If you're lucky, your factory stereo may even have this type of functionality, or you can put it on your checklist for the next time you're in the market for a new car.

Car manufacturers have been including built-in iPod controls for years, but the option isn't available on every make and model. Built-in iPod controls are also available from aftermarket units, but you typically have to move beyond the budget models to find that functionality.

Some head units are capable of interfacing with an iPod via a traditional USB cable, so you'll either need a cable that has a USB plug on one end and an iPod plug on the other or an adapter. Other head units use CD changer functionality to control your iPod, in which case you'll typically need to buy a proprietary cable for that specific device.

After you've plugged an iPod into a head unit that's designed for that purpose, you'll be able to view and select songs through the head unit controls. This is the easiest way to listen to an MP3 player in your car, but you'll have to look into other options if you don't own an iPod or a compatible head unit.

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USB and Auxiliary Inputs for MP3 Players

mp3 car aux
Plugging in an MP3 player or phone via an auxiliary input is one way to go, but it may not provide the best sound. PraxisPhotography / Moment / Getty

If your MP3 player isn't an iPod, or your head unit doesn't have built-in iPod controls, the next best thing is a USB connection. Some head units have a USB connection that is designed to work with virtually any MP3 player, or even a USB flash drive because the head unit simply reads data from the device and uses a built-in MP3 player to actually play the music.

Some older MP3 players aren't capable of outputting data in this way, and head units often don't have a USB connection like this anyway. In these cases, the best way to use an MP3 player in a car is to connect via an auxiliary input jack. These inputs look just like headphone jacks, but you use them to connect an MP3 player or other audio devices.

In order to connect your MP3 player to an auxiliary line-in jack, you'll need a 3.5 m/m cable. That means you'll need a cable that has two 3.5mm male plug ends. One end plugs into your MP3 player, and the other one goes into the jack on your head unit.

After you've plugged your MP3 player into an auxiliary input, you'll have to select that audio source on the head unit. Since the line-in is a simple audio input, you'll still have to use your MP3 player to select and play songs.

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Cassette Adapters for MP3 Players

cassette tape in car with mp3
Cassette tape adapters weren't meant for use with MP3 players, but they'll do in a pinch. Baturay Tungur / EyeEm / Getty

Cassette decks are no longer available as original equipment in new cars, but they're still far more prevalent in older cars than direct iPod controls or even auxiliary inputs. If your car has a cassette deck and lacks either direct iPod controls or an auxiliary input, then you can use a cassette adapter with your MP3 player.

These adapters were originally used with portable CD players, but they work just as well with MP3 players. They look like cassette tapes, except they don't actually contain any tape. Audio is transferred via a cable to the adapter and then passed through the tape heads.

A cassette adapter won't provide the best sound quality, but it's a lot cheaper and easier than buying a brand new head unit.

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Using an MP3 Player Like Your Own Personal Radio Station

fm broadcaster mp3 player
An FM broadcaster or modulator is a sure-fire way to listen to MP3s on any car radio, but there are drawbacks. Kyu Oh / E+ / Getty

The last way to use an MP3 player in a car is to use an FM transmitter or modulator. FM transmitters are devices that broadcast a very weak FM signal that your head unit can pick up. Due to the strict regulation of radio broadcasting in most countries, these signals can't be picked up very far away from the transmitting device.

Most FM transmitters plug into an MP3 player just like a cassette adapter or the auxiliary input on a head unit. These devices then modulate the audio signal and broadcast it over a specific frequency. The best sound quality is typically achieved by selecting a frequency that doesn't already have a powerful radio station assigned to it.

Other FM transmitters use Bluetooth technology. These devices can be paired to MP3 players that also include Bluetooth functionality. That creates a completely wireless situation since the music is transferred to the device via Bluetooth, and the transmitter then sends it on to the head unit via an FM broadcast.

FM modulators do the same basic thing, but they are hard-wired. That means they are both more expensive to install and more reliable than transmitters. If your radio didn't come with an auxiliary input, though, adding an FM modulator is the next best thing to adding an auxiliary port. Although the main goal may be to use an MP3 player in a car, essentially adding an auxiliary port allows virtually any audio device to be hooked up as well.

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