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What Should Your Next Car Stereo Connect To?

I spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon wandering through the exhibits at the Washington Auto Show and looking for one thing in particular: car stereos built for digital music.

(Actually, the previous sentence is not quite accurate: I devoted more time to gawking at Corvettes than my stated research goal required.)

I'm used to seeing all sorts of bizarre electronic items crammed into cars at the Consumer Electronics Show. There, almost an entire hall of the convention center is taken up by exhibits from companies selling such high-end, aftermarket hardware as "mechless" stereos that don't include any sort of traditional playback mechanism (DVD, CD, tape, 8-track) in favor of including a memory-card slot and a USB port.

But in D.C.'s convention center -- where the floor space is pretty much limited to exhibits by vehicle manufacturers -- I could assess the state of the mass market in car stereos.

I expected upfront that every car I saw would include a simple auxiliary line-in input. That's by far the simplest, cheapest and most compatible way to allow a driver or passenger to connect a digital-music player; I don't think you can buy an aftermarket stereo without one these days.

Car makers, however, still haven't caught up to this trend. I saw numerous cars from manufacturers that ought to know better -- for example, Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes Benz -- that either left out "aux" inputs or reserved them for add-on option packages. (I suppose that some may have tucked this into some dark corner of the glove compartment or center console; if so, that itself is a major usability problem.)

On the other hand, I was surprised to see how many vehicles -- as cheap as Scions and Fords and as expensive as BMWs and Cadillacs -- included USB ports, which allow you to plug in some music players and also flash drives and hard drives. A subset of these offered direct iPod connectivity.

Only two of the vendors I checked out included memory-card slots: Mercedes, which tucked an SD Card slot into its dashboards, and Nissan, which somehow felt compelled to include a slot for the now-obsolete CompactFlash format in a 350Z on exhibit.

I only spotted one make, Acura, that featured Bluetooth stereo connectivity, which you can use to play music from a smartphone equipped with this wireless technology.

Finally, the humble CD player can itself serve as an MP3 player of sorts: Many stereo units advertised the ability to play MP3 and, in some cases, Windows Media Audio files off data CDs. (I've yet to see a car stereo anywhere that supports the AAC format used in Apple's iTunes and iPods, among other software and hardware; that seems like a major missed opportunity for the industry.)

Here's my question to you all: Which of the following do you want to see come standard in your next car stereo?

* Auxiliary input
* USB port
* iPod dock
* Memory-card slot
* Data-CD compatibility (please indicate which music formats it should support)
* Bluetooth stereo input
* All of the above

Meanwhile: Don't forget my Web chat today (we bumped it from yesterday to get around a schedule conflict). The festivities start at 2 p.m., but, as ever, you can submit a question ahead of time.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 6, 2009; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Music  
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Aux inputs and USB ports should be mandatory. iPod docks and Bluetooth inputs are nice extras for those who want to pay for them. The rest are unnecessary.

Posted by: SSMD1 | February 6, 2009 11:54 AM | Report abuse

aux in for sure, since it can be used with anything. Bluetooth for the same reason, although it's not everywhere yet (for music).

USB? Perhaps now that iTunes is removing DRM, but I'd rather an iPod dock, since USB without a way to choose songs is pretty useless.

Posted by: ah___ | February 6, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

My 2008 Audi TT has an aux input plus two SD slots, in addition to a six CD changer which can play audio or MP3 CDs. Technically, there is a 7th CD slot if I were to unload the nav system DVD. An iPod interface was optional, but I am trying to keep as Apple-free as possible.

Posted by: larrymac | February 6, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

My aftermarket stereo has an iPod dock connector that plugs into a USB cord in the glove box. I think this is the best solution...presumably if the stereo needed some firmware updates, they could go through the USB connector as well.

It also has an aux-in cord which sits on the passenger side floor. For me, the best use for this would be if I could connect my GPS to it and have the GPS voice prompts mix in with whatever's playing on the stereo. But the aux-in is entirely separate.

I can see the value of an MP3-paying CD unit, but since I use my iPod, I never play CDs. I'm not sure if my stereo has ever handled a CD, in fact.

Bluetooth is useful for many people, but not for me...I have a convertible and even with the top up, a bluetooth speakerphone option is unusable because of the road noise.

I've never used a memory card for audio. Here again, a USB cable would be more useful...I could conceivably connect a card reader to that if I needed to.

Posted by: pjgeraghty | February 6, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

On the lower end, my 09 Corolla LE has an aux input slot in the std audio system--one CD player (which does play MP3 encoded CDs as I've found out since uh, losing my iPod)...

I like the idea of a USB with an option to buy an iPod dock. I agree with pj on that.

Posted by: howardstuff | February 6, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Aux inputs and USB ports should be mandatory. iPod docks and Bluetooth inputs are nice extras for those who want to pay for them. The rest are unnecessary.

Posted by: SSMD1 | February 6, 2009 11:54 AM


What he said....

Posted by: JkR- | February 6, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse


With that and your own accessory cable/card reader you can pretty much plug in anything. It should be able to act as both a line in for all major 'mp3' players and be able to mount and play files on the drive. mp3, mp4 (i.e. AAC), and WMA should all be supported.

CD players (data and music only) should go the way of 8-tracks

Alas our 2003 Civic hybrid and 2005 MPV have no inputs and we aren't likely to replace either of those anytime soon. Another wish list item (though it would likely be out of our price range) would be a back seat video system which could be managed with an ipod docked up front.

Posted by: foxn | February 6, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

My 2005 Honda Element has a CD player that plays MP3 CDs. It also has an aux in on the passenger side dash. I velcro my iPod Nano to the dash on the left of the stereo.

Oh, and it has XM radio.

I'm thinking that CD players could be optional, but the aux input needs to be mandatory.

My dream car stereo:
iPod interface, with the iPod itself mounted in the glove box. Since the car stereo will control the iPod there's no need for the iPod to be out in the open.

A component system (and room for the components in the dash) so I can add satellite radio and HD radio if I want them. Possibly components for controlling other mp3 players.

Naturally there will be a standard hardware/software interface for all these things ;-)

Posted by: wiredog | February 6, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Since '02 i have been looking for a car with a Memory-card slot capability. Is it there yet? I vote for memory-cards over usb or aux for one simple reason that i think most be forgetting, usb and aux require you to have a seperate powered device with attachments, taking up space, seperate controls and you have to remember to take with you from/to car. A memory-card is a transportable size medium which you can leave in the car and it wont be in your way or need a new battery while driving. The car has far fewer power plugins around than a PC.

Posted by: postit2 | February 6, 2009 6:14 PM | Report abuse

I would want an iPod dock, auxiliary input and Bluetooth capability, though the iPhone doesn't have A2DP for Bluetooth yet.

Posted by: query0 | February 7, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse


Who can be bothered with a memory card? Where would you keep it? in your sirt pocket? in your purse? While driving down the road it would be problematic to handle. With bluetooth, you don't even have to know where it is. And, friends who come in your car can easily share with you.

I own a Nokia E71 and it has a micro sd slot that I have an 8gb card in. It also has every imaginable Bluetooth profile. I could jump in my car or a friends and not even have to take it out of my pocket.

Ultimately, everyone will have a cellphone with music on it and they won't be carrying around a usb thumb drive.

Posted by: chritipurr | February 7, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

Even my Hyundai Accent has a mini-plug. My brother's 78,000 Lexus does not. Boy, is he pi$$ed now that he understands the ramifications. His cd changer won't play MP3s either.

Aside from a mini-plug audio jack, and my current ability to play MP3s on CDs, if I had USB connectivity for both audio and recharging purposes, I'd feel like have it made.

Until the next latest and greatest "thing". Heck, I've been 35 years going from one latest-greatest to the next, why break the trend, right? :)

Posted by: JamesChristian | February 8, 2009 3:59 AM | Report abuse

I think an AUX in should be as standard as a CD player and tape once were. Beyond that, it's all options. A USB by itself is helpless without software behind it to interact with your peripherals. It would be helpful as hardware, and then the manufacturer could sell you the iPod, Zune, or other MP3 player control software to allow the car radio to interact with your device.

I think a person's musical tastes determine which device they're most comfortable with. I have a very diverse taste in music, plus I like to listen to podcasts in the car. That makes an iPod or other hard drive based MP3 player indispensable. Others with more limited tastes might be able to fit their tunes on an SD card.

Cars should also have Bluetooth speaker phones built standard. $300 is too much to pay for such a basic safety feature. With it built in to the car, it allows for more tie in options (i.e. mute car radio, when the phone rings. Disconnect call if hard brakes are applied. Auto call 911, if the airbags deploy).

All that being said, Folks must not forget that cars last a lot longer than gadgets. The best approach to car technology is the most generic interface possible or an easy upgrade path. Who knows what technology we'll have (and want to integrate) 10 years from now?

Posted by: dannews | February 8, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Programming a playlist while driving seems difficult. My USB player I program by using the fast-forward or skip function. Or changing the thumbdrives. A passenger willing to program on the fly is actually what's needed, if the player is capable. Or preloaded playlists. I've never taken the time, myself. I know where most of my music resides.

Posted by: Jumper1 | February 8, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

I am probably getting a little ahead, but I would like internet access or at least the ability to use smartphone technology to access the internet. Through my iPhone I listen to internet radio frequently even to get near local-market(HFS - WJZ), national and international radio, but I cannot pipe them from my phone into my stereo.

I would love to have bluetooth technology in my car that is already in my phone: when a call comes in it pauses the music while I am on the call.

I am not sure if there were interface issues, but this might be able to be accomplished through the AUX, but there would still be the issue of powering/charging the phone.

I have a USB port (aftermarket) but it only allows me to play iTunes, treating my iPhone as if it were a CD changer. This solves the power issue, but again does not fully utilize the power of the device that is being connected.

If I were really able to fully utilize the capabilities of my iPhone/smartphone the other input methods become unimportant to me, as would the anachronistic tape-player and CD player. All of my music is either purchased directly into my iPhone or I have transferred from CD to use on my iPhone.

Posted by: bcrow | February 9, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

My Infiniti G37 seemingly has every bell and whistle: CF card slot, digital iPod connector, and a big screen to show it all to you. It will even rip your CDs directly to the in-dash hard drive!

The joke comes when you try to use the iPod in real life. There is a great on-screen display mimicking the iPod interface, allowing you to select by album, artist, etc. It even shows your iPod playlists. The problem is that there is no way to select an item in the list other than scrolling through the whole list. Given that I have thousands of tracks by hundreds of artists on my iPod, this is next to useless. There is no "power scroll" or "fast scroll" capability. There is no search, despite the availability of a large touch-screen display!

So you either listen to a lot of songs near the top of the alphabet or create some playlists in advance named A1, A2, etc. that contain the songs you want to listen to.

Posted by: wmyork | February 9, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Bluetooth connectivity for smartphones, and the internet access issues of bcrow in particular ("when a call comes in it pauses the music while I am on the call"), alarm me. I don't want someone tooling down the road while futzing with their phone or browser. The literature is convincing, and growing, of the dangers of this particular new form of distracted driving. Even using a headset or speakerphone rather than finger-fumbling is distracting.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | February 9, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

iPod dock for sure.

When you have a dock, the iPod is charged when it is plugged in, when the car is turned off, the iPod stops. You use the steering wheel controls to control the iPod, and the song title/artist appear on the radio display.

An Aux in? iPod doesn't charge, and you have to play with the iPod as you drive. An *extreme* safety hazard.

If people don't think of iPod docks, it's because they understand the huge advantage of such an arrangement.

Posted by: Ombudsman1 | February 9, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Rob, you did not look at the Ford closely. My 2008 Ford Focus has Microsoft Sync, a $400 option. It includes:
- 3.5mm Aux input jack
- USB port for iPods or memory sticks
- A2DP Streaming Bluetooth stereo
- Bluetooth Cell Phone interface
- Voice commands

Although I could control and play my iPod through the USB port, I prefer to put my files on a $10 8GB USB thumb drive which I leave in the USB port. I push the button and say "Play Billy Joel" or "Play Funiculi Funicula" and it gives me all the .

With the standard CD player (data compatible) my $16,000 Ford has "all of the above" from your list.

Soon, I'm buying the option for it to send a text message via SMS with the car diagnostics and dial 911 on my cell if the air bag deploys.

I apologize if I sound like a shill for Micro$oft but I love the Sync. More information at

Posted by: BruceinFairfax | February 10, 2009 1:11 AM | Report abuse

Bluetooth Stereo!!! Everytime I get into my BMW X3, my iphone automatically connects to Bluetooth for phone calls but then I have to fiddle around with a cable to connect it to the AUX jack, so that I can play music from my iphone through my car stereo. Bluetooth Stereo would let me get rid of wires currently snaking across my center console.

Posted by: Tony411LA | February 10, 2009 5:03 PM | Report abuse

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