Hook up an iPhone, or iPod, to your car
Most new cars support some sort of iPhone and iPod integration, but as there are plenty of cars on the road more than five years old, we present a guide for connecting an iOS device to the car's stereo.
In the past, we told you how to "iPod your car," which meant adding some sort of adapter to play music from an iPod through a car's speakers. With iPhones, you can not only play music, but also make hands-free phone calls and use navigation. In this guide, we will show you how to connect your iPhone to your car for sound, which could be music, turn-by-turn navigation, or a phone call. Of course, these solutions can also apply to iPads and iPods.
If you are looking to buy a new car, or have bought a car recently, check out our Tech Car Buying Guide. Most new cars come with Bluetooth hands-free calling systems and USB ports that work with your iOS devices for phone calls and music. In the guide, we cover the different options and how they work. Ford's Sync system is one of our favorites, as it demonstrates excellent compatibility and capabilities, while being offered in a wide range of affordable cars. It includes advanced voice control for music playback and phone calls, while also supporting integration with some apps.
We have found that iPhones can be finicky about sending an audio signal out through Bluetooth or the cabled connection to a USB port. For example, if you first plug the iPhone into a car's USB port, then turn on the car, the ensuing Bluetooth connection will take over the audio. If you switch the car's audio source to iPhone, no sound comes through the speakers, but you will get sound over the Bluetooth connection. The workaround is to unplug the iPhone's cable, then plug it back in.
We refer to the in-dash stereo in a car as the head unit, as it is the component that sends audio signals to the amp and speakers. This may come as a surprise, but often the most affordable and effective way to add iPhone and iPod support to a car with only a CD or cassette player is to replace its head unit.
Modern head units can be had with built-in Bluetooth support, which will support hands-free calls and music streaming from an iPhone. They also have USB ports, either on the front or the rear or both. You can run a USB port extension cable from the rear of the head unit to the console or glove box of your car. Plug an iPhone or iPod into the USB port, and you can select music from the head unit's interface.
A quick search at Crutchfield for in-dash receivers with Bluetooth and iPod compatibility shows units starting at $100. However, installation costs can vary widely, so make sure to get an estimate from an installer before getting the work done. Alternatively, if you are handy with tools, head units are not that difficult to install on your own. Just make sure you have the proper installation kit for your vehicle so the head unit will fit well in the dashboard.
If you do not want to replace the head unit in your car, you may find an adapter that will work with your existing in-dash head unit. Companies such as USA Spec and Grom Audio make components that plug into an existing car stereo, enabling an iPod or iPhone cabled connection, and sometimes Bluetooth. You will need to see if an adapter is available for your particular make and model of vehicle.
These adapters have the advantage of preserving the look of your dashboard. However, these kits can cost as much as a replacement stereo, and may require professional installation, adding to the cost. As your existing car stereo was not made to play music from an iPod or iPhone, you will not be able to select music by album, artist, or song. Some of these adapters trick the stereo into thinking your iPod is a CD changer, making the first six playlists appear as CDs in the changer on the interface.
Over the past decade, more and more cars have come equipped with a simple auxiliary input. If your car has one, you can plug a 1/8-inch adapter cable from an iPhone's or iPod's headphone jack directly into it. There are also a few ways of adding an auxiliary input to an older car's stereo. If your car has a cassette tape player, there are adapters that mimic the shape of a cassette, and plug directly into the player, leaving the auxiliary input cable dangling out. This solution is very inexpensive, but audio quality can be very bad. There are also adapter kits, similar to those mentioned above, that plug into the back of an existing car stereo to add an input jack, but if you are going to all that trouble, you might as well put in a full iPod-compatible adapter.
Auxiliary input adapters
Music and phone calls will come through your car's speakers, but you will have to pick up the iPhone or iPod to select or control music playback. Using this method, it works best to start a long playlist or shuffle all songs before you start driving so you won't need to touch the phone while barreling down the freeway or negotiating traffic. We would also not advise answering or making phone calls, because you wouldn't be able to keep both hands on the wheel.
Headsets and car speakerphones with Bluetooth have been available for years. Companies such as Motorola and Parrot produce units with varying feature levels, such as voice command and contact list integration. More advanced units include Bluetooth audio streaming, letting you also play music from an iPhone to the Bluetooth unit.
However, you do not want to listen to your music through a cheap speaker on a Bluetooth speakerphone. Some of these units include either an auxiliary input adapter or a radio frequency transmitter -- sometimes both -- to send the audio to your car's speakers. If your car has an auxiliary input, we recommend using a Bluetooth device with an auxiliary adapter instead of a radio frequency transmitter, as the audio quality will be better. Bluetooth audio-streaming devices with hands-free calling capability start at about $40, one of the best balances of cost and convenience. However, you will still need to use your iPhone to select music.
Radio frequency transmitter
Along with cassette adapters, radio frequency transmitters (RF transmitters) are one of the oldest ways of playing music from a portable device through a car's stereo system. RF transmitters take an audio input, usually from a headphone jack, and send out a low-power radio frequency that can be picked up by your car's radio tuner. The problem with these devices is that the signal easily gets overpowered by radio stations, and in areas with a dense population, every band on the radio tends to be occupied. These devices can be found for under $10, but we do not recommend them.