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Posted at 11:10 AM ET, 01/28/2011

Tuning into car stereos at the Washington Auto Show

By Rob Pegoraro

The Washington Auto Show comes up about this time every year, so I try to make a point of stopping by -- not to gawk at the outside of a car, but to inspect each vehicle's dashboard.

That's how I spent most of yesterday afternoon on the show's press-preview day (it opens to the public today), using a simple routine. I sat in the driver's seat, usually starting with the cheapest car in each manufacturer's display, and looked to see how you could listen to music and how easy that might be.

(I might have overlooked some interesting optional configurations that way. You should also keep in mind that I don't drive that much in the first place, so I could also be missing out on finer points in car-stereo usability that become more apparent once you've clocked 15,000 miles in a year.)

I can report that manufacturers have yet to agree on much besides the fact that the tape deck is dead.

Start with the humble CD player (in some high-end models, also a DVD unit). Although aftermarket vendors may sell a lot of "mechless" car stereos that don't include any disc-playback mechanism, car manufacturers as a group don't seem ready for that step.

But the CD players at the center of every stereo I inspected didn't offer the same compatibility with digital-music formats. Most could play MP3 files burned to a data CD -- just like most DVD players in homes. Many of those MP3-capable models could also handle Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format. But aside from one Scion, I didn't see any CD players that supported the AAC format used in Apple's iTunes Store -- which by virtue of that alone, has to be far more widely used than WMA.

The best explanation for that oversight is probably the long lead time manufacturers face in changing standard equipment. I found no better example of that lag than Acura continuing to offer DVD-Audio playback as an option, years after the market left that format behind.

Comparable evidence appeared in the dashboard of a Mercedes-Benz C300 sedan: a PC Card slot that might have fit in well on a laptop in 2005, but which now is more likely to confuse drivers who think it's an SD Card slot (a smaller format that is far more widely used, but which remains scarce in factory-installed car stereos).

The car industry does, however, appear to have realized that many drivers will want to bring their existing MP3 player or smartphone as a music source. The auxiliary line-in jacks that were hard to find at the show two years ago have now become a near-standard feature.

USB inputs, often with iPod integration, aren't as far along. Some manufacturers are holding off -- a Mazda 2 didn't include one, nor did the VW and Audi models I inspected. In some cases, you'll need to pay extra for a step-up stereo configuration, as was the case with Chevy's Cruze and Malibu.

In others, you might have a USB input but might not realize it for months. Most of the vehicles I looked at hid their USB and, sometimes, auxiliary inputs inside the center console or the glove compartment. That keeps the dashboard cleaner and may minimize the odds that you'll leave a phone or MP3 player sitting in plain view when you park the car on the street, but it also makes for poor usability overall.

You can eliminate the need for a cable connection if your phone and car both support Bluetooth streaming audio, but many Bluetooth-enabled cars and phones only handle the lower-fidelity audio required for car-kit speakerphone use. Spending enough money on a car usually gets you this option, but I also saw it in a Toyota Corolla and in entry-level Fords with that manufacturer's Microsoft-developed Sync system (which also includes a good voice-recognition interface to control music playback).

In terms of over-the-air listening, satellite radio is an easy upgrade on most models -- though seeing either XM or Sirius receivers reminded me that, 2 1/2 years after those two firms merged, they continue to exist as separate services.

HD Radio, the digital format developed by Columbia-based iBiquity, has gained a little more support from vehicle manufacturers in recent years and now comes standard on such models as the BMW 335 and Volvo C30 I saw yesterday. But your odds of finding it in a randomly chosen new car remain low.

I didn't see too many cars touting their own hard drives to play back your music files (aside from a few Chryslers and Cadillacs), and that makes sense to me: It's easier to let drivers bring their own collections on USB flash drives.

At the end of my visit yesterday, one car-stereo issue remained a mystery to me: Will any of these fabulous vehicles remember your radio presets after its battery runs down or gets replaced?

Which of the music features I've talked about sounds worthwhile to you? Which do you not want to see in the dashboard of your next car?

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 28, 2011; 11:10 AM ET
Categories:  Car Toys, Mobile, Music  
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Comments

"HD Car Radio Investigation"

"Consumer statutes and laws protect the purchasers of products such as HD car radios. A party may be legally liable for statements, omissions or misrepresentations of material facts that should have been know to be false or misleading and promoted the sale of the product. Such laws protect innocent consumers from unlawful and deceptive practices. The victims of questionable business practices by parties such automobile manufacturers are the consumers who purchase or lease cars with HD car radios at significantly increased costs when these devices fail to function as they are represented to work. As news develops and the investigation proceeds, Keefe Bartels, LLC will carefully monitor events and research all relevant laws."

http://www.keefebartels.com/CM/Custom/HD-Car-Radio-Investigation.asp

http://www.galexwolf.com/sub/Galex-Wolf-HD-Radio.jsp

iBiquity and the automakers are now under investigation by the law firms of Keefe Bartels and Galax Wolf for forcing consumers to purchase HD Radio through standard equipment and expensive navigation systems.

HD Radio is still a farce!

http://hdradiofarce.blogspot.com

Posted by: sidwellfriends | January 28, 2011 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I was at the Detroit Auto Show last week and noticed that Audi is now offering built in in-car wi-fi. I think that's pretty cool and certainly puts them ahead of the curve. As long as a car has some type of MP3/iPhone play capability, then the rest doesn't matter to me much. As wi-fi spreads to other cars, radio will continue to become obsolete.

Posted by: mwd_11 | January 28, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

"...Will any of these fabulous vehicles remember your radio presets after its battery runs down or gets replaced?"

My experience is that the current-gen Cadillac CTS ('08-'11) with nav/hard-drive setup WILL retain all audio presets and memory seating presets upon battery jump-start/replacement. Terrific sound system and easily the absolute best all-around vehicle I've ever owned (out of 14 total!).

Posted by: zkar90 | January 28, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for your insights on the changing landscape of car stereos. Interesting to see the different approaches of automakers.

Posted by: Techtalker | January 28, 2011 3:06 PM | Report abuse

Want to see:
Aux input
3.5mm stereo input jack
USB jack for thumb drive or MP3 player computer cable
SD card jack
Good tools in the receiver to manage playing of the last two mentioned above (i.e., folder browsing up to 5 or 10 levels of folders within folders.)
Ability to start where you were when the vehicle was turned off for playing programming on either SD cards or thumb drives.

HD FM receivers that work as standard equipment.

Ability to set FM receiver in MONO mode. [I lost hearing in one ear and therefore lose half the info from stereo in a reasonably noisy vehicle environment. My Prius FM receiver only switches to MONO just before the station's signal is lost. There is no way to set the receiver to MONO mode.]

Any vehicle with an FM receiver should come with the National Weather Service VHF FM weather channels as standard fare. These should be able to be scanned or set, depending on whether one is traveling or in one's home town, where the station is not varied. The NWS alarm should override the audio program for tornado warnings. (Even if the AUX input is selected.)

Bluetooth A2DP output from the receiver as standard switchable fare.

To reduce dangerous distraction, the vehicle receiver should sense when a bluetooth headset answers the phone and 3/4 mute or full mute the audio output until the hangup signal is given or a manual button push restores the receiver audio.

DO NOT want to see:
AM HD receivers: AM HD is a technically BAD idea being foisted off on AM station owners who want to keep up with the FM Joneses.

DO NOT want to see:
Any more audiocassette players as standard equipment.

Posted by: RHMathis | January 29, 2011 1:07 AM | Report abuse

Want to see:
Aux input
3.5mm stereo input jack
USB jack for thumb drive or MP3 player computer cable
SD card jack
Good tools in the receiver to manage playing of the last two mentioned above (i.e., folder browsing up to 5 or 10 levels of folders within folders.)
Ability to start where you were when the vehicle was turned off for playing programming on either SD cards or thumb drives.

HD FM receivers that work as standard equipment.

Ability to set FM receiver in MONO mode. [I lost hearing in one ear and therefore lose half the info from stereo in a reasonably noisy vehicle environment. My Prius FM receiver only switches to MONO just before the station's signal is lost. There is no way to set the receiver to MONO mode.]

Any vehicle with an FM receiver should come with the National Weather Service VHF FM weather channels as standard fare. These should be able to be scanned or set, depending on whether one is traveling or in one's home town, where the station is not varied. The NWS alarm should override the audio program for tornado warnings. (Even if the AUX input is selected.)

Bluetooth A2DP output from the receiver as standard switchable fare.

To reduce dangerous distraction, the vehicle receiver should sense when a bluetooth headset answers the phone and 3/4 mute or full mute the audio output until the hangup signal is given or a manual button push restores the receiver audio.

DO NOT want to see:
AM HD receivers: AM HD is a technically BAD idea being foisted off on AM station owners who want to keep up with the FM Joneses.

DO NOT want to see:
Any more audiocassette players as standard equipment.

Posted by: RHMathis | January 29, 2011 1:07 AM | Report abuse

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