Question of the Day: How Can I Play Music From My Phone In The Car Without Bluetooth or An Input?

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Photo: Nomad Tales via Flickr.

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Answer: There are several options that enable playing music from a smartphone in your car, from low-budget options such as external adapters, to swapping your radio with a new head unit with smartphone-like features.

Budget Adapters

For people on a budget who want easy plug-and-play music, either a cassette adapter or FM modulator will play music, says Scott Rothstein, product manager at iSimple, maker of car audio solutions.

You can still buy cassette adapters with a 3.5-mm cable that plugs into the headphone port on your phone and plays music through the stereo. For cars without a cassette player, there’s FM adapters that broadcasts the music from the phone to a blank station on the car’s FM radio.

To enable music control and hands-free phone calls, Rothstein says to look for an FM modulator or cassette adapter with a control button and microphone,.

Hard-Wired Modifications

“In most cars made after 2000 there’s no reason to replace the radio except for added feature such as a touchscreen or to control the music by the receiver,” said John Haynes senior product manager for Al & Ed’s Autosound, a mobile electronics retailer with 14 stores in Southern California.

An FM modulator interface can be wired into the radio, allowing music to be played through an added AUX input. The sound of quality will be that of an FM radio. Same goes for add-on Bluetooth adapters, which can be bolted on without replacing the entire unit.

For better audio, Rothstein suggests a satellite interface, which connects to the satellite radio port of cars, allowing for control from the unit and music titles listed on the screen.

Replacement Options

But all of the choices above have limitations — and in many cases, stepping up to a new unit won’t cost much.

“FM modulators are limited by FCC rules for power so that the signal doesn’t reach another car. Depending on the car antenna, the signal may break up. Hardwired FM interfaces are better, however, the cost is equivalent of buying a new stereo,” says Matt Vinson, senior vice president and senior technology officer at Dual Electronics.

“You can get a new audio system that connects to your smartphone without a CD player for as little as $59.99 with an auxiliary port and USB connection that is less than what you pay for a monthly wireless bill,” says Vinson, “For around $200 you can get a multimedia touchscreen stereo with Bluetooth that connects to steering wheel controls.”

It is easiest to replace radios that are standard sizes — single DIN (2-inch tall) or double DIN (4” tall) sizes. If your car has a unique opening with an infotainment system that integrates the car’s warning lights, it most likely can’t be replaced. Vehicles from BMW, Audi, Ferrari, Lexus and Mercedes-Benz usually require installations from a specialty shop, notes Vinson

Automakers such as GM started adding computer features to head units in the 1990’s, and when the radio is removed it can affect the entire car’s computer systems. Rothstein warns a radio replacement module, steering wheel controller and installation kit may be needed that will increase installation costs.

At the high end, replacement stereos not only feature Bluetooth and large displays but Apple’s CarPlay or Android Auto – making the integration with your phone as seamless as possible, albeit for a price.

Installation

Vinson notes that he’s seen many DIY customers install stereos on all sorts of cars, and in standard openings the procedures can be straightforward. However, Haynes says a professional installer may be worth the money. Most can install a system in about an hour, and avoid damage to the fragile trim pieces inside many vehicles.