Sunday, December 20, 2009

How to Choose The iPod Adapter That's Right For You

Stereo Adapter

These days, we can integrate iPod control with almost any vehicle's stereo by using vehicle- or stereo-specific adapters. Sometimes, you'll have more than one adapter to choose from, and it's not always easy to know which adapter will do the best job.

What does an iPod adapter do?

iPod control adapters make it easier than ever to listen to your iPod in the car. In fact, a control adapter can make your whole in-car iPod experience better: better sound due to the direct audio connection, your iPod's battery stays charged, and it's safer because you don't have to play with the iPod. Different adapters offer different degrees of control. In the end, it comes down to the specific combination of stereo and adapter, but here's the lowdown on what you can expect from an iPod control adapter.

Basic features you gain from using an iPod adapter in the car

  • Music controls — Use the stereo's controls to play, pause, stop, forward, and reverse the music.
  • Access to playlists — You'll have access to playlists, but some adapters, especially those for factory stereos, limit the number of playlists you can get to. Many adapters allow song searching.
  • Power — The iPod is powered by the adapter and the battery charges while connected.
  • Locked iPod — In most cases, the iPod's controls are locked out — you have to use your stereo's controls, so you can tuck the iPod safely away in your console or glovebox.

Speed: How fast do the stereo and iPod communicate?

Speed of control mostly depends on the type of adapter you have.

  • USB connection — Stereos that have built-in iPod controls and connect to the iPod via USB input are the fastest at relaying information between the iPod and stereo. You shouldn't see any lag time. This style of interface is found on a lot of aftermarket stereos, like the Kenwood Excelon KDC-X493. In many cases, you can use the cable that came with your iPod to connect and control it from the stereo. But, shop carefully — some USB inputs are not compatible with iPods. They only work with other USB devices and thumb drives.
Kenwood Excelon KDC-X493
Use the cable that came with your iPod to control it with the Kenwood Excelon KDC-X493 CD receiver.
  • Built-in iPod controls — Some stereos have the iPod controls built in and only require an adapter cable to connect to the iPod. These internal controls tend to result in fast communication between the devices, though not quite as fast as USB. The cable pictured here is all you need to control an iPod with most newer Alpine stereos.
The KCE-422i cable connects an iPod to most Alpines.
  • External control boxes — Often, the iPod controls are housed in an outboard box that connects to the stereo and iPod. This creates an extra step in the processing chain, and tends to have some lag time between song selection at the stereo and playback from the iPod. This is the most common option for aftermarket stereos and the usual method of controlling an iPod with a factory stereo.
USA Spec iPod adapter
USA Spec makes iPod adapters for factory stereos.

Functionality: How easy is it to control your iPod from the stereo?

Functionality refers to how easy it is to manipulate the iPod's functions from your car stereo. This factor is usually more dependent on the stereo than the iPod adapter, but, as mentioned above, adapters vary in how much access they grant to the iPod's features.

  • The stereo's display: Consider a basic display with a single line of text, limited to 8 or 10 characters visible at a time. Song text might scroll across the display. You probably have to switch view settings to see artist name, song title, and playlist, or there might be only numeric designations for playlists. Factory stereos usually fall into this category.

    Compare that display to one with three lines of text that shows you all of the song information at once. Searching for songs and folders is going to be much easier on a display that shows this much detail.

Kenwood Excelon KDC-X493
The large wheel mimics the iPod's click wheel on the Alpine iDA-X305 digital media receiver.
  • The stereo controls: Just as the display is important for being able to see what you're doing, having radio controls that are suited for searching and accessing a song library affects iPod control too.

    When it comes to controlling an iPod, newer Alpine head units are among the easiest to use. Their "Percentage Search" feature uses the radio preset buttons to jump through playlists.

iPod compatibility and shopping for a new stereo

To help figure out what level of control a new car stereo is capable of, we added an iPod compatibility filter to the car stereo section of our web site. On the left nav bar, you'll see the following section:

iPod Connection

  • Built-in audio/video
  • Built-in audio only
  • Optional audio/video
  • Optional audio only
  • Optional audio only (no iPod controls)

The first two options are the best solution: these stereos have iPod connections built in; you don't need to buy any optional adapters and they tend to give you the best level of control.

The next two options represent the bulk of the car stereos. These are the stereos that require some form of optional adapter in order to connect your iPod. If the adapter is just a cable, iPod controls are built into the stereo, and control tends to be at full speed, so you get fast song-retrieval on par with the first two categories above. If the adapter is an outboard control box, communication can be a little slower, since the box is acting as a "middle man" between the iPod and stereo.

The fifth category consists of a small group of stereos that don't have control capability, but do have an adapter that offers audio input and also charges the iPod's battery.

Almost all stereos offer some for of iPod control, but you don't always know if the stereo does it in a way that's satisfying to YOU. By separating the stereos according to iPod compatibility, we hope that you'll have an easier time finding the right stereo.

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