Using your Android phone with your car stereo (How To)

In a world populated with "Works with iPhone" devices, the uninformed Android phone owner might feel neglected and confused by the lack of Android-specific solutions for listening to their music on the road. Fret not, ye Android-loyal.

The Motorola Droid with the CNET Aveo
Antuan Goodwin/CNET

In a world populated with devices that are "Made for iPod" and that "Work with iPhone," the uninformed Android phone owner might mistakenly feel neglected and confused by the lack of Android-specific solutions for using their handsets in their vehicles--specifically for listening to music on the road. Fret not, ye Android loyal. Thanks to the magic of standards, there is no need for a "Made for Android" badge, because chances are that the technology is already there for you to utilize.

In this How-To Guide, we'll be outlining three ways to play music stored on your Android handset (and in some cases, on the cloud) through your car stereo. We'll be using the Motorola Droid running Android OS 2.0.1 and a variety of aftermarket and OEM car stereos, but these instructions should work with any Android phone and any stereo that meets the requirements listed below.

Analog auxiliary input

Requirements: 3.5mm male-to-male audio patch cable, stereo with auxiliary input

Setup: The analog auxiliary input is the connection method with which most users are familiar. Simply pick up a 3.5mm mini jack male-to-male audio patch cable (although for some Mitsubishi vehicles, you may need a 3.5mm mini jack-to-RCA patch cable), plug one end into your Android's headphone jack and the other into your car's stereo. Now any audio that you'd normally hear through your headphones will be played through your car's speakers, including your Internet streaming audio services, such as Pandora Radio.

Pros: The advantages of using the auxiliary input are its simplicity and its relative ubiquity. With only one cable to connect and no software to contend with, this is the easiest way to use your Android phone in the car. Audio patch cables are cheap and easy to find and nearly every new vehicle we've tested in the past few years has at least been equipped with some sort of auxiliary audio input.

Cons: There are a few drawbacks to this method. Though the analog audio is passable, it isn't the best. Audiophiles will definitely notice. Ultimate audio quality is highly dependent on a number of factors, ranging from your handset's digital to audio converter to quality of the patch cable. Plus, users will have to use a separate car charger to keep their batteries juiced--which means twice the number of cables--and there are now two volume settings to contend with: the volume on your handset and the volume of the car stereo. (A good rule of thumb is to leave your handset's volume at 50-80 percent and make adjustments with the stereo.)

Bluetooth audio streaming

Requirements: Stereo with Bluetooth A2DP audio streaming capability

Setup: The Bluetooth connection process varies from stereo to stereo, but usually it starts with initiating the pairing mode on your car stereo. This could mean finding an option in a menu or giving the system the right voice commands. (Hint: Try "setup" or "help.") The system may ask you a few questions, and then prompt you to complete the setup process on your handset.

Next on your Android phone, head into the Settings menu and select Wireless & Networks. Make sure that the Bluetooth antenna is powered on by checking the box next to Bluetooth, then select Bluetooth Settings submenu. At the bottom of the next screen, you'll find a list of available Bluetooth devices. Locate your stereo in the list and select it. You'll be prompted for a pin (which may will vary from stereo to stereo, but is usually 0000) and the pairing process will be complete. The entry in the Bluetooth devices list should read "Connected to phone and media audio." If not, then press and hold on the stereo's name until the contextual menu appears, then select Options and manually enable audio streaming by checking the box next to Media.

Pros: Bluetooth pairing is usually a one-time deal, so subsequent pairings should happen automatically anytime you get into your car with your phone (as long a Bluetooth is active). Wireless audio streaming is a raw digital audio output, so Internet radio services and turn-by-turn directions will also work with this connection type. Audio quality is on par with (and occasionally superior to) that of the auxiliary input. Most car stereos will also give users rudimentary pause and skip controls, so drivers will be able to keep their hands on the steering wheel and off of the phone. Additionally, almost every system that supports Bluetooth audio also supports Bluetooth calling, so you'll be able to seamlessly transition between making calls and listening to music.

Cons: Maintaining a wireless connection to your vehicle makes Bluetooth audio streaming the most battery intensive connection type. Users will want to connect their phones to a charger for long trips, which sort of negates the wireless advantage. Although the Bluetooth profile gives users limited in-dash control, there is usually no track metadata (title, artist, album, etc.) displayed on the car stereo. Advanced controls, such as choosing a new playlist or selecting a different Pandora Radio station, will still require interaction with the handset, which is illegal while the vehicle is in motion in many states.

USB data connection

Requirements: Mini-USB sync cable (such as the one that came with your phone), car stereo that supports USB mass-storage devices

Setup: Locate your car stereo's USB port and connect your phone to it using the Mini-USB sync cable. On your Android phone, you should notice a tiny USB icon in your notification bar. Pull down the notification bar and select the USB connected notification. You'll be asked if you want to mount your SD card, so select Mount.

If your car stereo hasn't automatically done so, select USB as the source. The stereo should then search your SD card for audio files and begin playing them back.

Pros: Connecting via USB is a completely digital connection that bypasses your handset and allows your car stereo's often superior digital/analog converter to process the audio. This most often results in the best possible sound quality. Users are able to browse their files from the dashboard, which is less distracting (not to mention legal in all states) and utilize systems, such as Ford's Sync for voice command, if present. Finally, you'll arrive at your destination with a fully charged battery, thanks to your vehicle's powered USB port.

Cons: The only types of audio that can be played over USB are the locally stored types that your car stereo supports. This often means MP3, WMA, AAC, or WAV files. Internet radio streaming is out, as are turn-by-turn directions, if you're using your phone for navigation.

Combo-mode

We stated that there are only three ways to connect most Android phones to your car stereo, but if you meet the requirements, there's nothing stopping you from using more than one of these methods. For example, during our testing of the 2010 Acura TSX V-6, we were able to pair our Motorola Droid via Bluetooth for phone calls and Pandora Radio while using the USB port for charging. When we wanted to listen to locally stored audio, we simply mounted the USB connection and used the AcuraLink receiver to browse our folders. Likewise, a user could do the same thing with a vehicle that has an auxiliary input and a USB connection, but no Bluetooth.

Get creative and find the right combination of modes that meets your needs.

 

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