18th Sep 2001

MP3s for the Road

Sick of fumbling around with compact discs and jewel cases while you’re driving? If you’ve already got an extensive collection of digital music on your computer, you might consider upgrading your car stereo so it can play MP3 tracks too.

I’m not talking about plugging a portable MP3 player into the cassette deck with a Radio Shack adapter. I mean an in-dash car stereo that can play regular music CDs as well as CDs carrying MP3 songs that you copied yourself or downloaded from Napster (or wherever). The advantage of adding this capability is simple: a recordable CD can pack more than 10 hours’ worth of music in the MP3 format (MP3s are less than a tenth the size of normal CD tracks, so they take up less room). Think of it: 150 songs on one disc. Pop a CD with MP3s into one of these players, hit shuffle and you’ve got an instant jukebox with enough tunes to last you from New York to Chicago.

Most MP3 players designed for your car look just like in-dash CD players, with CD slots or trays. My favorite of these is the Sony Xplod CDX-MP450X, which sells for $399.95. Aiwa, Kenwood and Visteon make some decent models too, for about the same price. But the Sony is the easiest to use; up and down arrows scroll through song directories, while the right and left choose a particular track. And it seems to think faster on its feet, taking the least time of the players I tested to recognize an MP3 disc and jump to any given song. You can also forward or rewind within tracks, something you can’t do on the Aiwa CDC-MP3 ($350) or the Visteon MACH MP3 ($369).

Now, plenty of people who love to listen to music in their cars are turned off by the thought of burning their own CDs. (For those of you who do want to do this, see box.) The upcoming PhatNoise Car Audio System — which stores music on removable drives instead of CDs — comes with everything you’ll need to lift MP3s off your PC. The game console?size unit, due out this fall for around $600, has a separate docking station that plugs into your PC, so you can download MP3 files directly onto its specially designed storage cartridges (think Nintendo 64). The PhatNoise component mounts in the trunk.

If you’re willing to spend even more money, I recommend the Rio Car. It’s not a CD player, and it doesn’t use cartridges; rather, it stores MP3s on its own internal hard drive, and you transfer songs from your PC or laptop through a cable. The unit, designed to slide in and out of your car’s dash, can do double duty as a plug-and-play component for your home stereo. The $1,300 version offers 10GB of storage space, enough room for around 2,500 songs; the $2,200 version packs 60GB, enough for 15,000 songs.

So how does an MP3 song sound on car stereo speakers? It depends on the sample rate, which, suffice it to say, is a measure of an audio file’s richness and range. For near-CD quality, I recommend a minimum of 128 Kbps. Of course, only a true audiophile would be able to tell the difference. Other passengers will be looking around the car for the jewel cases.

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