By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 4:44 pm
I’ve been making noises about the idea of retiring my XM satellite radio receiver, canceling my account, and using my iPhone as an audio device in my car for a while now. The more XM charges and the less I like its programming, the more tempting the idea becomes. Now I’ve finally gone and taken a necessary step: figured out a workable way to pump my iPhone’s audio through my car stereo.
This was surprisingly difficult, which one reason why I’ve dawdled as long as I have. My car is a 2004 Mazda3, dating from an era in which cars didn’t come with iPhone integration and even mundane AUX ports were rare. (I did pay extra for a six-CD changer…which I ended up using maybe four times.) I went through an array of wireless FM transmitters for both my various iPods and my various satellite radios, and even the best ones were staticky hassles. I also spent more than $100 and a considerable amount of time on a fancy-schmancy kit that connected my iPod to my Mazda stereo system–it sounded greated, but caused the iPod to have some sort of digital nervous breakdown that rendered it unusable.
Eventually, I gave up on the iPod front and ended up installing something called an FM Direct for my XM radio–an FM modulator that connects directly to the car’s antenna so it can overpower real radio stations. If I were an audiophile I might be disgruntled with the sound quality, but it’s not bad, and never crackles.
When I decided to get serious about hooking my iPhone up to the Mazda sound system, I visited a local car stereo shop. The owner looked doubtful about the proposition, but eventually recommended a $225 setup. Which he warned me involved the wrong type of cables (I’d need a converter) and would not charge my phone. I thanked him and said I thought I’d do some more research.
I ended up with a $90 device from iSimple which is, essentially, a more elaborate version of the FM Direct box. It’s got a Dock Connector cable that charges the phone and pumps sound to the speakers via a wired FM modulator, and sounds pretty good. I’m not sure why my iPhone keeps asking me if I want to divert its display to a TV–sounds dangerous!–but I’m happy. And I left the FM Direct in for the time being, letting me listen to the phone or the XM receiver.
While I was having the iSimple installed, I checked out pricey car mounts–ones that sit it in a cupholder, ones that fasten to air vents, and ones that stick to the windshield. Then I realized that I could lean the iPhone against the car’s ashtray lid, behind the shifter. It looks like it belongs there, seems reasonably secure, and is easy to remove when I exit the vehicle. Cost: $0.
Next, I started driving around and listening to the iPhone, and I gained new appreciation for the Audiovox Xpress satellite radio I’ve been using (which, actually, I liked all along). The Xpress displays song titles and other info in big type and has buttons I could find with my eyes closed–not that I’d try while driving. The iPhone 3GS, as amazing as it is…isn’t a car radio. I’m excited about having the phone’s iPod features, Pandora, Slacker, AOL Radio, MLB AtBat, and various other audio apps all on one device, but none of them are designed to be used while driving. Sirius XM’s own iPhone app, which replicates only part of the satellite service, clearly isn’t meant for use as a substitute for an in-car XM receiver. And the iPhone’s hardware has issues, too-the screen auto-dims even when the phone’s plugged into power, for instance.
I did pay $3.99 for an app called Tunin.fm that says it’s specifically designed for use in the car. But I shoulda listened to the reviews–despite claiming that it’s designed to work well over iffy data connections, Tunin.fm spends more time losing its place and buffering than any other iPhone music app I’ve encountered. And the interface, while more car-friendly than most, still isn’t something I’d want to use at 60mph.
What would be neat would be a remote control that worked in all of the iPhone’s music-related apps, so I could cycle through stations or songs without ever touching the thing. Apple makes a clever piece of software that lets an iPhone replace the company’s little white remote, but there’s no way to use the little white remote with an iPhone. And this doesn’t look like what I need, either.
I need to give this experiment more time before I make any rash decisions, and I will. I may dump XM; I might use both it and the iPhone in the car; a Twitterfriend suggests that calling to dump XM might get me a steep discount. Any other thoughts or advice?