What is a CD Changer?

The Safe Way to Swap CDs on the Road

cd changer car
If you listen to CDs in your car, a CD changer can make your life easier.

Andersen Ross / Blend Images / Getty

Cars tend to lag a few years behind the general flow of consumer technology, mostly because of the lengthy design process. Newer technologies like Bluetooth and USB tend to show up in aftermarket head units long before the major automakers incorporate them, and older technologies, like cassette tapes and compact discs, stay around a lot longer in cars than they do elsewhere.

Even if you've ditched CDs in favor of a digital music collection, or even a subscription to a service like Spotify or Google Play Music, your car probably still has a CD player in it. And if you do still listen to CDs in you car, then there's a strong argument to be made in favor of investing in a CD changer, even in these days of Pandora and Spotify.

What Good Are CD Changers?

Compact disc changers are devices that overcome a couple of the major issues that are typically encountered when listening to CDs on car audio systems.

The biggest hurdle that the compact disc format suffered from initially was its tendency to skip and stutter when shaken, which was a huge stumbling block for early car CD players. Various shock protection measures have rendered that a non-issue, but a couple of glaring problems still remain.

When compared to purely digital media, traditional CDs fall short in terms of total listening time, and there are also safety issues involved in manually changing CDs when driving. Since CD changers allow you to seamlessly switch between multiple discs at the touch of a button, they deal with both of those problems.

Aside from those two main issues, a CD changer can also make up for the shortcomings of a factory head unit that doesn’t have a CD player. That can allow you to seamlessly add a CD player into your car audio system while leaving the factory equipment untouched.

The main types of CD changers are:

  • Remote CD changers - These can be installed anywhere in your car, from underneath a seat to tucked away in the trunk. Some of these units are designed to integrate seamlessly with a specific line of head units, and others are universal.
  • In-dash CD changers - Installing an in-dash CD changer requires a car radio upgrade, since these actually incorporate the changer right in to the head unit. You say goodbye to your head unit, but you don't have to dig around in your trunk or under a seat to swap out discs.

Both of these types of CD changers are available as original equipment and aftermarket upgrades.

In-Dash CD Changers

Some cars ship with in-dash CD changers from the factory, but this type of head unit is also available from the aftermarket. This type of CD changer contains a built-in magazine that is wholly contained within the head unit, so most of them fit into a double DIN form factor. They are relatively simple to operate in that you typically just feed in one CD after another until the changer is full.

The main benefits of in-dash CD changers are that they don’t involve any additional wiring, and there is no remote unit to mount in the trunk or under a seat. That means they take up less space than remotely mounted CD changers, and aftermarket units can typically be installed with very little hassle.

The main drawback of in-dash CD changers is that they typically can’t fit as many CDs as an external unit. It’s typically also harder to change which CDs you have in the unit, since you need to eject them one at a time and then replace them one at a time. External units are usually easier to deal with, and they sometimes even allow you to use multiple magazines.

Remotely Mounted CD Changers

Some cars also ship with factory-installed remote CD changers, but these units are much more commonly found in the aftermarket. If your vehicle originally had a CD changer as an option, then you can add a factory unit or use an adapter to add an aftermarket unit. Otherwise, you’re stuck with the aftermarket and a handful of different installation options.

Remote CD changers can be mounted in a variety of locations, including the trunk, glove box, and under a seat. These devices typically aren’t dash-mounted due to their relatively large sizes, but there are some exceptions.

Depending on where a remote CD changer is mounted, one drawback of this option is the level of difficulty involved in changing which CDs are installed in it. If the changer is located in the trunk, then you can only swap out discs when the vehicle is parked. However, units that are mounted in the passenger compartment are much easier to deal with.

Remote CD changers typically fit a larger number of CDs than their in-dash counterparts as well, and many of them also support removable magazines. When a changer includes a removable magazine, you can have multiple magazines that are each filled with specific CDs, which allows you to quickly swap out one set for another. Some remote CD changers even allow several magazines to be installed at once.

Important CD Changer Features

Some of the most important features to look for in a CD changer include:

  • Shock protection - This can help prevent your CDs from skipping when driving over rough terrain. If you already have a CD player in your car, but it's very old, then a new CD changer will usually be a vast improvement in this department.
  • CD-RW compatibility - Some older CD players aren't capable of playing CDs that were created with a CD writer, even when you burn the disc as an audio CD instead of a data CD. Most new CD changers are compatible with discs that you burn yourself at home.
  • Support for multiple audio codecs - Most new CD changers are also capable of reading data CDs burned with songs in popular formats like WMA, MP3, AAC, and others.
  • Disc titling - This is a helpful feature, since it allows your head unit to display the name of the song instead of the number of the track.

While these and other features are important in both in-dash and remote-mounted CD changers in terms of usability, connectivity and compatibility are also important features to consider in the case of remote-mounted units. The only way to add a CD changer to a factory head unit is typically to find an OEM unit, while cross-compatibility is a feature you are more likely to find in the aftermarket.