How to Use an MP3 Player Like an iPod in a Car With No Head Unit

iPods, iPhones, Android phones, and MP3 players can connect to car amps

If you want to use your smartphone, iPod, MP3 player, or tablet to play music in your car without a head unit, try one of the solutions below.

iPod music player on car dash


Head Unit Replacement Method

You can essentially make your device function as a head unit using:

  • An amplifier with RCA inputs: You need an amplifier for this method to work. If you don't have an external amp in your car, you'll have to buy one. They aren't cheap.
  • An RCA adapter: Choose one that's specifically designed for your device, or try a 3.5mm-to-RCA adapter.
  • A line driver: This component boosts the signal coming out of your device. You might not need one; it depends on your amplifier.
  • An equalizer: You might be able to get away with an equalizer app on your device, but a physical equalizer component will almost always provide better sound.
  • Wires and cables: You must connect the audio components to power, and your device to the audio components.

External Speaker Method

To use this method, you'll need:

  • The speaker: Choose one that runs on 12V so you don't have to worry about batteries, and make sure it has the physical or Bluetooth connectivity that matches your device.
  • Mounting hardware: You'll need some way to mount your speaker where it won't be in the way or block your view of the road.
  • Cables: If your speaker uses a physical connection, you'll need the proper cables to connect to your device.

Using an MP3 Player Like an iPod or Smartphone Without a Head Unit

There's no easy way to bypass the head unit, connect a device directly to the speakers in a car, and have it work the way that you want it to.

While it is technically possible, there are no iPod car adapters on the market that will get the job done. You would need to build a head unit replacement, at which point, you might be better off buying a cheap head unit with an auxiliary input.

For a little more money, you'll get better sound with a new, inexpensive head unit that includes a USB port or any kind of direct iPod control.

Why Head Units Are Necessary

The problem with using an iPod without a head unit, and the reason there isn't an adapter designed to do it, is that iPods aren't designed to drive speakers.

At first glance, it seems like there shouldn't be a difference. You can plug headphones or earbuds in and it works fine, and you can plug your iPod into your car or home stereo without a problem, so what's the big deal?

The crux of the issue is that it takes more power to drive speakers than it does to drive headphones or earbuds, and your iPod or phone just isn't up to the task.

When you plug an iPod into a head unit, one of two things happens. Either the head unit passes the audio signal through an internal amplifier before sending it to the speakers, or it transmits the unamplified signal to an external power amp. If you have a stock car audio system, then it's a safe bet that you're dealing with the former.

In some cases, it's even more complicated than that. For instance, if you connect your iPod via a USB or proprietary cable, it may send digital information to your head unit instead of an audio signal.

That allows the head unit's built-in DAC to convert the digital file into an analog signal, and then either amplify it internally or forward the signal to an external amp.

So What About iPod Car Adapters?

A lot of iPod car adapters are out there, but they all do the same basic thing: pass an audio signal to a head unit so that it can be amplified and sent to the speakers. Whether you use a cassette adapter, a dock, a lightning connector to 3.5mm jack, or a specialized direct iPod control cable, that's all that's really at work.

If you want an iPod car adapter that will bypass your head unit and actually work, you need to have an amplifier somewhere in the mix. The easiest way is to install a power amp with RCA inputs. Then, use a 3.5mm TRS to RCA cable to connect your iPod or phone to the amp. You might also need a line driver or physical equalizer to achieve the sound quality you'd expect from a nice head unit.

If you have an amp with RCA inputs in your car and if you can get away without using a line driver, this is a low-cost option worth trying. Otherwise, you'll probably have better luck picking up a cheap head unit that has an auxiliary input.

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