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For IPod Fans, Here's Wheel Satisfaction

By Seth Hamblin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

IPod fanatics might find inspiration in the upcoming season of MTV's "Pimp My Ride," the show where old junkers are transformed into flashy, over-the-top bling-mobiles.

The show will incorporate iPods into more than a third of its transformations, including a 1990 Toyota Celica outfitted with an iPod hookup that includes a ridiculously capacious two-terabyte hard drive -- enough space to play music for more than a year without repeating a song.

Few consumers will go to such extremes to pump the music on their iPods through a car's stereo system. But ordinary folks do have options when it comes to bringing their rides into the iPod era, without breaking the bank or going through major installation hassles.

The gold standard for converting a car into a two-ton iPod accessory is what Apple Computer refers to as "iPod connectivity," which means that a single, tangle-free dashboard jack simultaneously pumps high-quality audio out of the iPod and keeps it juiced up while allowing tracks to be selected directly from the car stereo or controls on the steering wheel. The iPod, itself, can hide in the glove compartment or nestle into a convenient holster on the dashboard.

Achieving true connectivity takes varying levels of effort, though, depending on whether the car is a fusty old hand-me-down from Dad or a stylish new whip.

Many carmakers are starting to offer iPod integration jacks straight off the lot as an optional accessory. [See the Car Culture column, Page G2.] More than 40 percent of all cars sold in the United States in 2006 will offer integration, Apple said. The list includes the Honda Accord, Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Sebring and all Toyota Scions. (For a full list, check http://www.apple.com/ipod/ipodyourcar .)

BMW began the integration trend in 2004, with several foreign manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and Nissan, joining them the next year. This January, Chrysler Group became the first American manufacturer to announce it would offer integration.

For cars that were not produced with connectivity in mind, full iPod integration often involves installing an after-market adapter -- sold by companies such as Monster and Peripheral for about $200 -- into the little cavern of wires behind the dashboard.

One prong sprouts from a hidden adapter box and goes into the back of the stereo while another snakes its way to a strategically placed iPod holder near the front seats. The adapter tricks the stereo into thinking the iPod is a CD changer and enables the track buttons on the stereo faceplate or steering wheel controls to select songs. Electrical current is sucked from the wiring to feed the iPod.

For car tinkerers with a good set of tools and the confidence to yank the stereo from the front of a dashboard, installing an iPod adapter would probably make for a fun Sunday afternoon project. The mechanically impaired masses will probably want someone to do it for them.

The procedure is child's play for a trained mechanic, and electronics megastores like Best Buy even welcome walk-ins. For about $250, music lovers can pump their iPod tracks through the car stereo in a matter of hours.

Here's the catch, though: Factory-installed radios in older cars -- older than the mid-1990s, mostly -- may be too crotchety for this level of iPod integration. The alternative might be a new stereo from iPod-friendly manufacturers like Alpine, Pioneer and Kenwood.

Crutchfield, a catalogue and online retailer that specializes in car audio, has a handy tool at http://www.crutchfield.com/ipodcar that lets customers plug in the year and model of their car to find out what sort of iPod integration is available.

Of course, there are always iPod cassette adapters and wireless FM transmitters, but the sound quality is not as good, and generally they don't recharge the iPod's battery.

Another option that's halfway between an external adapter and full iPod integration is called a wired FM modulator. These types of adapters also hide behind the dash, but they plug into the antenna jack in the back of the radio. They sound better than wireless FM transmitters and power the iPod, but don't allow control directly from the radio or steering wheel.

For those who can't satisfy their iPod lust with streamlined car integration, they can keep watching "Pimp My Ride" for more ideas. In another episode, an ice cream truck is transformed into a mobile DJ's dream machine, with A Numark iDJ mixer and two docked iPods wired into the speaker system, allowing the vendor to spin a set of music for his customers.

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