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Articles: The iPod Interface for Your Car that Works

I have been on an exhaustive search for an iPod connection for my 1998 Toyota that actually works. Over the years, I've meet many other people on the same quest for true iPod / car harmony. Years went by: my iPod changed but my search continued. Last week I found my perfect solution and I got to keep my original Toyota stereo. USA Spec makes a line of quality iPod interface kits that attach to the factory stereo in your car. Installing it took only minutes and it gave me every feature I could expect.

There were many stops along the road I took to get here. First I bought several FM radio transceivers that broadcast an iPod's audio to an "unused" FM channel. If you have ever used them you will know that they just don't work that well. Even though you may find an open FM frequency on your radio, there's no guarantee that down the road you will have the same situation. Most often you can bet that no one FM frequency is unoccupied every place you travel. Not only do you have to that keep re-tuning the transceiver to a new channel, but you also pick up random static that detracts from the clean sound of the iPod.

My next solution was the classic standby of iPod to car upgrades: the tape deck adapter. This is actually a decent solution if you have a car stereo with a cassette tape deck. It looks like a regular cassette but has a cord coming out of the backside. The cassette goes in the deck and the cable plugs into the headphone jack of the iPod. The sound quality is good, but the volume on the iPod and the stereo can both be adjusted. This can make for a sound-leveling disaster. I have nearly blown out my speakers connecting my iPod to this thing with both volumes set at maximum. Then there is the added risk of having a tape adapter in your car stereo. I have always liked the fact that my factory-standard stereo is "undesirable" in the criminal world, but with a tape adapter a new target is identified. The iPod is quick cash to a thief, and nothing says "come steal my iPod" like a cable running from the tape deck to the glove box. For that reason alone, I always took my iPod with me and left the empty plug in plain sight. This is how I lived for years and nether of the two options charged my iPod nor paused it when I turned off my radio. It was okay for me but my wife didn't like it.

My wife's Honda came with a CD player, so the tape adapter wasn't an option. She is a fan of Sci-Fi and gadgets (I married her for a reason), and wanted a fancy new stereo that could interface with the iPod. We went with an Alpine head unit and the optional iPod interface. This was a nice solution, but also cost us around $500. Plus, my wife now has to take the stereo faceplate with her everywhere. When the option came up for me to do the same upgrade to my vehicle, I was put off with the idea of having to take a bulky stereo faceplate with me just to leave my much smaller nano in the car. Also the iPod controls on the Alpine were terrible. Scrolling through artist searches on the stereo took half the ride. In my wife's car, we usually just listen to the same playlist over and over again. I wanted something better and cheaper than what we found for my wife's Honda.

USA Spec's iPod interface succeeded everywhere the other solutions failed. The connection to the stereo is hard-wired for optimum sound quality. I get to keep my unwanted theft deterrent factory stereo with no visible indication of an iPod's presence. When I turn off the radio, the iPod pauses and it charges whenever it's plugged in. I can use the stereo's function keys to control the playback or use the built in, and vastly superior, iPod controls to select the playback. Best of all, the stereo sets the volume so I don't have any speaker explosions.

The iPod interface works by pretending to be a CD changer. If you already have a CD changer then you will have to disconnect it, but really... who needs a CD changer when you can use an iPod? All your available music and Podcasts show up on Disc 5 or 6 depending on how you set it up. The other disks in the "changer" are reserved for your playlists. The skip, fast-forward, rewind, and scan buttons work as if the iPod was one long-playing CD. The iPod is connected through a dock connecter cable that connects to the USA Spec box. The cable is long enough so you can run it behind the dash into the glove box and still pull it out far enough to change songs on the iPod (just make sure you're not distracted by your iPod when driving). When you change sources to the radio or CD it will pause your iPod. In some models, track info will even display on the stereo. This is the best of all worlds for iPod control.

Installation can be tricky if you are unfamiliar with your car. I would always recommend buying a Haynes repair manual for your vehicle. This will show you how to open your dashboard and remove your factory stereo. It's also good to own a detailed repair manual for you car, even if you don't want to work on it. When you get to the removal of your stereo, don't unplug the cables from the back of the unit unless you must. Many new car stereos will not work after being disconnected from the car. You have to enter a special code to get it to work again. Leaving the stereo plugged in will save you the pain of tracking down that code. There is one big cable that will plug into the back of your stereo. USA Speck includes all the harnesses and adapters to connect to the stock stereo without any wiring or cutting. The next step is to feed the wire down the center console close to the glove box. You will have to find a safe place to put the interface box, but it's a small 2" X 2" X 1" brick and fits in many paces, even in the glove box itself. Connect the cable from the stereo to the interface box and then connect the iPod dock connector cable to the other side of the interface box. Put your dashboard together and secure the loose cables. After you figure out how to open your dashboard, it's an easy install that keeps your car in stock condition. The last step is flipping some switches to select the mode of operation.

It amazes me that after my long search that I found a solution that not only works but also requires so little thought in its use. Much like the iPod, the iPod stereo interface functions so well that you don't even notice its presence. All you are aware of is its function. Where the USA Speck iPod interface really earns its keep is in its long-term usability. Through the dock connector cable it will work with third, fourth, and fifth generation iPods, and when Apple changes its cables, the Interface box has RCA inputs to connect to whatever else you will be listening to in the future. It works!
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