My car has more of those tunes

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 at 11:17 pm

Over the past year I have had occasion to be driving for moderate distances. This includes a weekend away with the camera club down to Phillip Island, another weekend up to Mansfield and a variety of Sunday outings.

While the stock stereo in my car does feature a six CD changer, once radio reception fades away (or there is nothing good on) there is only so much music that six discs can contain. So I started investigating MP3 options, where I first looked at options that replaced the stock stereo with an aftermarket unit, ideally one that could play MP3 files, ideally from USB.

I started my reasearch online and concluded it by visiting a number of stores with both a USB stick and an iPod to experience the interfaces first hand. I found that:

  • A front USB port is very common, but irrelevant to me as I do not was a USB drive or cable hanging out the front of the head unit all of the time.
  • A rear USB port is much less common, but what I wanted as it would allow the cabling to be routed into the glovebox to keep it all neat.
  • On current units the USB port can be used for an iPod with a simple USB to dock connector cable
  • Some units only have front USB, but may include a rear connection for an iPod
  • Support for USB drives appears to be universally sucky. In my price range I didn’t find a single unit that could scan the USB drive and read the ID3 tags. Instead you might be able to browse directories, but otherwise you accessed the music from track number 1 and on. Their implementations are so minimal that the files are not even sorted by name, they are listed by the order they appear in the file allocation table.
  • Support for iPods is much better, you can browse by artist, album, song, genre, etc. Offloading the processing to the iPod which already does all that does seem to make some sense.
  • Display of the current time (because my car doesn’t have a standalone clock) was generally pretty poor and the buttons are harder to use, but my stock unit does have nice large buttons.

I did decide on a unit and went so far as ordering one, a fascia kit (because the stock unit is double din) and almost booking in a time for installation. That is, before I was reminded by a co-worker about the no-name kits that connect via the CD changer port on the rear of the stock unit. Further investigation along this path did indicate it should work in my car (even though intended for newer Mazdas) and there was actually an official Mazda version that gave me more confidence that it might work.

These cheaper units are much more limited. You can use any player you want with an AUX input, but that doesn’t give you control via the stereo or power to the player. Otherwise you have to use an iPod that does have basic track control, but still no information displayed as the stock stereo cannot display text.

After verifying that my stereo has the port for the external CD changer, I decided that it would be a worthwhile experiment to get the cheapest kit I could find on eBay. This was shortly before Christmas and I also bought an iPod, one that played music fine, but had a broken backlight for the screen. Cost of this was less than $100, while aftermarket unit and fascia was over $300.

The kit arrived today and it took less than half an hour to install, where most of this time was deciding where to route the cable and to experiment with the interface. It isn’t the best, but I expect that on my next big drive (out to Ballarat for Linux conf later in the month) it should prove useful.

The co-worker who reminded me about these kits also bought one, but a “better” one that he also got with a bluetooth kit for his phone. His also arrived this week, but he hasn’t installed it yet (the install in an RX-8 is more involved than in the 323) so I might borrow it to see if there is any benefits.

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