5 Ways to Get the Most out of Your FM Transmitter

Fix your FM transmitter reception woes with these tips

An FM transmitter can be a great, low-cost way to breath new life into a flagging car audio system because they're pretty easy to use. Instead of upgrading your head unit, or installing expensive equipment like an FM modulator, an FM transmitter allows you to open up a whole new world of listening options for a relatively low cost and almost no effort.

The problem is that FM transmitters aren't foolproof, and they don't always work right. If you're trying to use an FM transmitter in your car, and you're mostly hearing static or interference from real radio stations, we have five tips you can use to help improve your listening experience.

Why Choose an FM Transmitter?

When MP3 players were first introduced, they represented a sea change in how people listened to music in their cars. If you invested in an MP3 player, even with the storage limitations of the day, you could suddenly bring hundreds or thousands of songs along with you without fumbling with dozens of cassettes or CDs.

With the massive adoption of smartphones across the board, you don't even need a dedicated smartphone. If you have an iPhone or an Android, you also have an MP3 player and a way to listen to internet radio in your car. The problem is that older car radios don't always include a way to plug in a phone or MP3 player, which is where FM transmitters come in.

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. Instead of creating a permanent wired connection, an FM transmitter essentially creates a personal radio station that broadcasts wirelessly to the radio in your car's head unit.

If you're already on board with this whole FM transmitter thing, but you're not satisfied with the audio quality experience, check out these five tips to smooth things out:

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Know What Features to Look For: Research Before Buying

An FM transmitter with an audio plug and adjustable frequency

 vlabo / istock / 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 affordable, there are some pretty important features that you need to look out. Cheap out at the expense of features, and you're begging for a poor listening experience.

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, and others don’t allow you to change the broadcast frequency at all. Choose one of those FM transmitters, and you're stuck with what they give you.

Input options are another extremely important feature to keep your eye out for. 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. All of these features provide superior sound to a simple audio jack.

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Set the Right Frequency: Start at the Ends

man holding radio dial up to his ear
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 choose an FM frequency, then you’ll want to start off by checking the extremes of the FM dial. These are the places you're most likely to find some free space.

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

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Try Other Frequencies: Avoid Interference From Bad Neighbors

radio towers

 Image Source / Getty

Although finding an empty frequency is imperative, you might still experience interference if a powerful station is using a frequency that’s right next door.

For instance, you find that 87.9 MHz is free and clear, but still have interference problems. The reason behind that type of interference is usually a station that's so close, or so powerful, that it bleeds over into nearby frequencies.

For example, there might be a nearby station using 88.1 MHz that's so powerful it creates experience down at 87.9 MHz.

To avoid this type of interference, try to find an empty space on the dial that has neighboring stations that are at least 0.2 MHz above and below. If you are unable to find that large a block, which is entirely possible in many large metro areas, experiment to identify the block with the least amount of interference.

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Use Outside Resources: Look For Empty Bandwith

internet resources
Takamitsu GALALA Kato / Image Source / Getty

The airwaves are crowded, 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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Tear It All Down: Should You Be Using An FM Transmitter At All?

Supercar at the beach - Sunset sky copyspace

 marcoventuriniautieri / Getty Images

Sometimes, nothing you do works. The hard reality is that if you live in a large metropolitan area, the radio dial may just be too crowded to effectively use an FM transmitter. In that case, all you can do is 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 a chance that an FM transmitter isn’t going to cut it. Try the lookup tools in the previous tip first. If it says that the entire FM band is crammed full, you can save yourself some money and frustration by just going in a different direction.

Whether that direction is an FM modulator, a new head unit, or physically removing your antenna to keep those pesky radio stations from interfering with your transmitter is up to you.

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