Learning to Leave Satellite Radio

By  |  Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 4:44 pm

iPhone XM RadioI’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.

XM XpressNext, 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.

Apple RemoteWhat 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?


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10 Comments For This Post

  1. Backlin Says:

    When 4G comes out and has decent enough coverage to maintain insane transfer rates, that’s when I would dump XM. They may go defunct before that though based on the rate of complaints I heard about them.

    Until then, stick with XM, or rotate smart playlists on your iPhone and keep using that FM modulator.

  2. Tom Seaview Says:

    We will drop Sirius the day Howard Stern retires. (We still find his show hilarious, and my wife learned colloquial English from it).
    Until then, our surprisingly reliable satellite receiver (in service since September 2005) serves our unquenchable thirst for scatological references, either in our home or in my car.

    My current ride, a 2001 Crown Victoria Police Interceptor, needed a new radio anyway, so I installed a Kenwood KDC-MP208 CD stereo that includes a front AUX input and a CD-changer connector on the back. I bought an adapter cable to turn the changer’s multi-pin jack into another AUX input, and dropped a cable down through the dash with a male 1/8″ stereo plug for the Sirius receiver’s car dock.
    This plug would also fit handily into another device’s headphone jack. If the device lacks a standard jack, I’ll use an adapter to connect its output to the Kenwood’s front input.

    One option I have that you seem to lack in the Mazda is to play burned CDs with a hundred songs each in MP3 format. The Kenwood can handle such disks quite well, making these CDs much more useful & long-lasting than the standard offerings…

  3. Rich Says:

    Go ahead and threaten to quit XM. They’ll offer you a reduced price deal. Threaten again. They’ll give you a few months free. THEN quit.

  4. Susan Says:

    The ratio of blather to useful information is pretty high on this post. I hope you feel better after writing it – I don’t after reading it. Was lead to believe you’d be offering solutions, not telling me about your 2004 Mazda3.

    XM user

  5. Ryan Says:

    I love my XM. I cant live without it now. We have an Ipod and it does not compare in accessibility. I often find myself stumbling, while driving, to skip songs in a playlist of 15,000 songs. Xm has a professional line up, and very easy to use- especially with the XpressR and Xpress RC. I fully support XM.

  6. Kube Says:

    When I was looking for in car solutions, I found that the easiest solution was to buy an aftermarket stereo head unit that would have a 3.5mm aux jack or even rca inputs. Some will require an adapter cable that runs ~20 bucks or so. This was several years ago so I’m sure that prices are cheaper for the same functionality.

    This has allowed me to listen to anything with an out, computer, ipod and yes XM.

    As far as programing and leaving the service I am torn. I need the baseball fix and several of the stations are awesome. But after the merger, the DJs seem more annoying. And now more cash?! I’m sticking with it for now as XM and internet are my entertainment (no television).


  7. sfmitch Says:

    I left XM several years ago and now use iPhone 100% of the time. Most of the time I listen to Podcasts and I listen to music the rest of the time.

    I updated the radio in my 1999 Honda Civic to an Alpine model with RCA inputs. I use a simple Belkin adapter to charge my iPhone and get audio out.

    Actually, I need to find a new adapter since I upgraded to the iPhone 3GS. The audio still works fine but it doesn’t charge.

  8. Zoey Diaz Says:

    My dream car is the Porsche 911 or the new Nissan GTR. those cars are really great.~”

  9. Hailey Hall Says:

    i think satellite radio did not gain so much popularity these days.,`*

  10. Doug Walton Says:

    I'v just spent the last 2 hours on the phone with someone in Sri Lanka or somewhere, trying to correct the errors they made on my Sirius/XM account and still have no resolve. I understood about half of what she was saying. Finally she said to call back in an hour when a supervisor would be available to "splain" it to me. All the supervisors were on other lines with other customers complaining.
    I am going to cancel my account and go back to FM unless someone can tell me of another satellite Provider.

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