Cars tune in to MP3 audio

Tired of hearing the same songs on the radio while driving? Have you filled up the portable CD case in your car and still want greater variety?

Consider an MP3 player for your car.

Unfortunately, when it comes to playing computer music files, the pickings from most automakers are slim. Many new cars come with only a CD or cassette player - sometimes both. Some also have built-in CD changers, increasingly in the dashboard rather than in the trunk. But most CD players in cars can't play CDs recorded in MP3 format.

A few automakers, however, have introduced car stereos over the past few years that will play MP3 files burned onto CDs, notably Lexus, Scion (Toyota's new "youth" brand), the Mazdaspeed Protégé, and the Honda Element.

The Element not only plays MP3 CDs, it sports an external audio jack for portable MP3 players. That means you can plug in your iPod or other MP3 player during your morning commute, then unplug it and take it into the office. No other vehicle on the market today makes it so easy to play and port music in that format.

Another option is to have a computer hard drive in the car. Mazda's Protégé offers the Kenwood Audiokeg, while Volkswagen sells the PhatNoise. For about $800, both Mazda and Volkswagen will mount these hard drives in the trunk of the car. Pop out the hard drive, connect it to your home computer, and you can download thousands of songs in the MP3 format. The advantage of the Mazda and VW systems is that they work with the car's built-in stereo controls.

"For people who are into music, it's a great way to carry your music library with you," says Robert Davis, product manager for the Mazdaspeed Protégé.

The Audiokeg can hold as many as 5,000 songs in the MP3 format, which compresses audio data into a smaller sizes than a CD while retaining the clarity of digitally recorded music.

Most CD changers found in today's automobiles can hold only about six CDs, the equivalent of roughly six hours of music. New portable MP3 players hold thousands.

Yet even the most ardent music lovers aren't likely to rush out to buy a new car so they can get a factory-installed MP3 player. For them, companies offer various ways to retrofit their existing vehicles with the new technology.

The simplest solution is a cassette adapter. The adapter, which you push into the cassette player like an actual tape, has a cord that connects to the earphone plug of the MP3 player. Start the MP3 player, and the music comes out the car's speakers.

But the technology faces two challenges. First, cassette adapters tend to downgrade sound quality. Second, many car stereos today don't have cassette players.

As a result, more consumers are turning to the RF (radio frequency) antenna adapter. It's a small electronic box installed behind the dashboard, which sits between the antenna and the antenna port on the back of the radio. A wire leading to the front of the dashboard provides a jack to plug in your portable MP3 player. Since the adapter generates a low radio frequency on the FM band, users simply tune their radios to that frequency to listen to their recorded music. The advantage to RF is high-quality sound. The disadvantage: costly installation. And the proper frequency may not be available in cities that have radio stations using that frequency on the radio dial.

A cheaper alternative is an RF adapter that simply mounts onto the MP3-player, such as Griffin Technology's iTrip, for the popular Apple iPod. These adapters turn the player into a portable FM radio station broadcasting from inside the car on one of three frequencies you choose. The car's standard radio antenna picks up the signal. While these devices are more portable than other RF adapters, they're subject to frequent interference and quickly run down batteries on portable devices.

More elaborate retrofits involve mounts for the player and external power supplies that plug into the car's cigarette-lighter socket. Another alternative: a car stereo with a CD player capable of playing MP3 files. Such aftermarket stereos are priced at $200 and up, and many come with tiny buttons, making it difficult to change the station or adjust sound settings.

Many consumers have wound up using these aftermarket devices because audio technology evolves faster than car design, which typically moves on a five-year cycle.

"If you follow the progression of the CD player, this pretty much follows that pattern" says Matt Swanston, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va. "Every time you get a significant advance in audio technology, these types of adapters come around."

Already, audio technology looks poised to make another leap - even before most automakers have jumped onto the MP3 bandwagon. MP3s are steadily being eclipsed by other types of compressed music formats - such as .WMA, AAC, and .ram files - that take even less space on a hard drive and offer bigger sound.

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