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Easy MP3

2 minute install and then hours of MP3 music

by Julian Edgar

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They’re now common: portable MP3 players that use internal memory, memory cards or a USB flash drive as the storage media. And when equipped with earphones, all work great as portable music players. But what about in the car? How do you easily get the music into the car’s sound system? One of the easiest ways is by an MP3 player that incorporates an in-built FM radio transmitter, allowing you to pick-up the sound on your normal car radio. But how well does such a system work? We take a look.

The Player

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The player consists of a small device about the size and shape of a cigarette lighter plug - it’s therefore no surprise that it plugs into the cigarette lighter socket! On the front face there are four buttons: Channel, Rewind, Play/Stop and Fast Forward. Most of the functions are self explanatory except for Channel, which allows you to select the frequency on which the in-built FM modulator transmits. By pushing the Channel button, this can be set to one of seven different frequencies – the idea is you set it so that the transmission isn’t occurring on a frequency on which you can already hear a radio station.

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The memory storage is provided by a USB flash drive. The flash drive plugs into the lower part of the player, projecting downwards and forwards at the same angle as the front face.

A direct line-level audio input is also provided, allowing an external piece of equipment (another MP3 player, portable CD player, etc) to be plugged in and then played through the FM radio.

Costs

At the time of writing, Jaycar Electronics have the player listed at AUD$69.95, but on eBay the same device is available much more cheaply – including postage, from about AUD$45. The cost of the flash drive obviously depends on the memory size selected, but a decent amount of memory (eg 512MB) can be bought from about AUD$40.

So - and these costs are likely to come down over time - buying the MP3 player and an adequate amount of memory will cost only about $85 - $120. Cheap music!

Setting Up

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Setting up is pretty easy. Plug the flash drive into a USB port of your PC and dump a whole lot of MP3 files on it. Plug the flash drive into the MP3 player and then insert it into the cigarette lighter socket. Select 87.7 on the FM band on the radio (that’s the default transmission frequency on the player) and press the Play button.

And then listen to music!

Performance

With this sort of approach there are going to be some pretty major limitations to sound quality. Firstly, it can only ever be as good as the car’s FM radio. Secondly, it can only be as good as the signal that can be picked up by that radio. And thirdly, it will also depend on the quality of the transmitter and the MP3 decoder.

And put all those together and frankly, the quality isn’t wonderful. Or it wasn’t in any of the cars we tested it in, anyway. The most glaring absence is the bass response – at minimum, the bass control of the head unit needed to be cranked-up to get reasonable sound. Treble was OK (not brilliant, but then it can’t really be with FM radio) and distortion was acceptably low.

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But the sound quality was never as good as achieved by – say – an MP3-encoded CD.

In use, there were a few other drawbacks. Firstly, when the car is restarted, the song being played goes back to the first on the USB flash drive. Secondly, the transmission frequency always reverts back to the first of the alternative frequencies. So if you’re up to track 45 and you’re transmitting on 88.5, each time you restart the car you’ll need to press the Channel button four times and the Fast Forward button however many times it takes to get to the current track.

Of course, there’s also no LCD showing what song you’re listening to, and no way of organising the files.

Another potential difficulty is in the location of the cigarette lighter socket. Without installing another socket (which may be worthwhile in some applications), you’re limited to the physical placement of the socket. If that puts the player out of direct sight of the driver, it can be hard to operate the player, and in some cars, the player - complete with its angled flash drive – may foul part of the dashboard or centre console. In the pictured car – a Ford Falcon – the player and flash drive fitted perfectly and was easy to operate, but that’s not the case in all cars.

Conclusion

So-so quality, hard to operate – hmm, doesn’t sound like a product to recommend!

However, we can think of some applications where the player would be absolutely perfect. Say you’re far from home and have to do a long drive in a hire car. In that situation, you just take along the very compact player, pick-up the hire car and plug in. Instantly, all your own music! Or, perhaps you drive a variety of fleet cars at work and would like to be able to take your own music along. It’s also ideal if the rest of your car sound system isn’t anything great but you’d like a quick, easy and cheap way of getting MP3 music in your car.

But we wouldn’t recommend it as a source of good quality music for permanent installation.

The MP3 player and flash drive were purchased for this review

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