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 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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
MP3 player and flash drive were purchased for this review