5 Ways to Get the Most out of Your FM Transmitter

An FM transmitter is a great, low-cost way to breath new life into a flagging car audio system. Chances are pretty good that you’re already carrying an MP3 player that’s built right into your phone (according to Pew, more than 50 percent of adults own a smartphone), and even if you don’t have a smartphone, dedicated MP3 players are getting smaller and more inexpensive all the time. And while there are a number of ways to connect a phone to a car’s head unit, FM transmitters are, hands down, the cheapest, easiest way to do it. That doesn’t mean they’re all created equal, or that the technology is perfect, so here are five ways to get the most out of an FM transmitter.

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Do Your Research Before Buying

ipod car music
Jeffrey Coolidge / Photodisc / Getty

The key to getting the most out of an FM transmitter in your car is to start with a decent product in the first place. Although most FM transmitters are pretty affordable, it’s important not to cheap out at the expense of features. The most important feature to look for is manual tuning since that’s what allows you to avoid interference from local radio stations. Some transmitters only allow you to choose from a handful of preset frequencies or don’t allow you to change the broadcast frequency at all, which can be a huge issue down the line.

Another thing to look for is what input options the device comes with. Most transmitters come with a standard audio jack that can be connected directly to the line or headphone output of an MP3 player, but you can also find transmitters that include USB connections, SD card slots, and other options. Some transmitters can even play music from a USB stick or SD card without the need for a separate MP3 player.

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Start at the Ends

radio dial
Barbara Mauer / The Image Bank / Getty

When you tear your FM transmitter out of the package, the first thing you have to do is tune it and your head unit to the same frequency. If the transmitter allows you to freely choose a frequency, then you’ll want to start off by checking the extremes of the FM dial.

Although you may find an available frequency anywhere, the most commonly open areas of the FM band are below 90mhz and above 107mhz. Although some areas do have stations that broadcast between 87.9 and 90mhz, and between 107mhz and 107.9mhz, these are still the easiest and best places to start.

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Avoid Interference from Bad Neighbors

radio tower
Image Source / Getty

Although finding an empty frequency is absolutely imperative, you might still experience interference if a powerful station is using a frequency that’s right next door. For instance, if you find that 87.9mhz is free and clear, but a nearby station is using 88.1mhz, you could experience some unwanted interference.

In order to avoid that type of interference, you’ll want to check for stations that are .2mhz above and below the frequency that you set your transmitter to. If you are unable to find that large a block, which is entirely possible in a lot of large metro areas, you can try to identify a block with the least amount of interference.

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Use Outside Resources

internet resources
Takamitsu GALALA Kato / Image Source / Getty

The airwaves may be more crowded now than ever before, but companies that make FM transmitters have a vested interest in customer satisfaction. To that end, some of them maintain lists of FM stations by geographic area, and some even have tools that you can use to identify the least crowded portion of the FM band in your area. You can also do this same type of research yourself, but it’s a lot easier to take advantage of these tools if they are available for your geographic area. Some potentially useful lists and tools include:

Although these and similar tools are helpful, you may find that the real world doesn’t line up with their suggestions. The issue is that most of these tools rely on FCC databases, and the information they come up with can differ significantly from real-world conditions. So while you can start with a station lookup tool or even an app that performs the same function, you’re never going to get better results than you would from doing the work and looking for clear frequencies yourself.

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Burn it All Down

I don't even know
Some men just want to watch the world burn. Matthias Clamer / Stone / Getty

Sometimes, nothing you do is going to work. Sometimes all you can do is just tear it all down and start from the beginning. If you live in an area that has a particularly crowded FM landscape, then there’s always a chance that an FM transmitter just isn’t going to cut it. In that case, you may actually want to forget the advice from the last section and start with one of the lookup tools. If it says that the entire FM band is crammed full, you might save yourself some money and frustration by just going in a different direction.

Whether that direction is an FM modulator, a new head unit, setting your car on fire and enjoying a nice ice cream cone, or physically removing your antenna to keep those pesky radio stations from interfering with your transmitter is up to you.