Why can't I have my music the way I want it?
February 20, 2007 7:22 AM   Subscribe

Why is there so little innovation in car audio?

It seems like car audio lags significantly behind other areas in terms of innovation. I have a few guesses as to why that is, but here we are five+ years into mainstream adoption of MP3 players and most car stereos still aren't set up to easily plug and play these devices. My understanding is the the new Civics (and perhaps other Hondas), as well as Scions allow direct AUX plugin for an iPod or similar device - but that means I still need to use the iPod's scroll wheel to select my music.

Admittedly, I haven't been looking seriously at anything after market, but why hasn't a new car been introduced (in the states) that would allow you to just pop in a SD card or a thumb drive (or a mass storage USB device!) that will allow the stereo unit to read the digital music files & ID3 tags and let you fling through them as you would on an iPod or similar device?

I can get a freakin' movie on my dashboard, but I can't get my tunes the way I want them. Why?
posted by FlamingBore to Technology (20 answers total)
I've noticed a steady improvement in sound quality, if not interface.

There's no really easy way to navigate file structure while driving, it would take some innovation to work. Some high-end brands are fooling around with it (BMW, Audi), but it seems rather hit or miss at the moment.

In my car I have the option of plugging the iPod into the glove box and navigating the first five playlists as if they are in the CD-Changer. I find it much easier to just burn mixtapes and albums.

Also keep in mind that cars have a much elongated end-of-life and are rather difficult to upgrade. SD/XD and the like change much quicker than people buy cars and having an outdated standard makes the car look and feel much older, decreasing the value. If the market would decide on a standard for MP3 playback, much like audio CDs, you'd see wider adoption much more quickly.
posted by geoff. at 7:28 AM on February 20, 2007

The Scions have an option that lets you hook directly the stereo directly into your iPod dock port. You can select artists, songs, and playlists directly through the car radio.

That said, I got that option and the interface sucks to the point of being almost unusable, unless you just want to play predetermined playlists or shuffle music. Turning a little radio knob over and over again to scroll through hundreds of items just doesn't work very well.

There are many small, stupid decisions in how that specific interface was implemented that could be easily fixed, and if they had included some kind of jog/shuttle control, it could have had the potential to be great.

Several other car manufacturers now offer direct iPod integration, but I don't know if any of those work better. Some factory stereos (including the Scion's) can also play MP3 CD's.

I think that the reason that car manufacturers are standardizing on aux input jacks or iPod inputs is because allow input from the most popular players. There aren't that many people (relatively speaking) who manage MP3 files directly and carry them around on flash drives.
posted by designbot at 7:57 AM on February 20, 2007

You're right and its odd. We were having an issue trying to read the ipod screen and not crash the FJ cruiser and when we went to talk to car audio people they really didn't seem to act like this was an issue that came up often.

We ended up getting a DVD receiver with touch screen to install in the dash its very quick and responsive and much easier to use, but we had to figure out this course of action ourselves.
posted by stormygrey at 8:17 AM on February 20, 2007

This is uglier than sin, and its double-din sized, but it will take SD cards.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:47 AM on February 20, 2007

Good question. I'm surprised that hard disk players are not built into car stereos these days. But then again, all current car stereos will probably be obsolete in a few years when cars have internet access and people receive all of their music via a streaming service like Rhapsody.
posted by gfrobe at 9:01 AM on February 20, 2007

My biggest surprise is how alike and UGLY all of the car stereos on the market are. Almost ALL of them have itty bitty buttons the size of blackberry keys. Even worse, they have entire ROWS of these tiny buttons, with very very little very low-contrast text to distinguish what they do.

I had one that basically had:

RDM | RPT | FOLDER UP | FOLDER DOWN | TRACK UP | TRACK DOWN | FF | REV | (and 6 other things).

but I had to remember that FOLDER DOWN was 4 from the left because the text was not at all possible to see while driving.

Oh, so to answer your question-- I have no idea.
posted by gregvr at 9:16 AM on February 20, 2007

I just don't understand why an audio-in jack isn't standard. Seems like that solves 80% of the problem right there.
posted by mkultra at 10:14 AM on February 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

I think for after market it is moving along faster than you think. USB input is getting common and iPod integration is as well. Support for any given storage format (MagicStick, SD, CF) seems like a bad idea given how fast those formats are shifting.

For the original equipment radios I really have no idea. My 2004 car has a 6 disc CD changer with a Sony MiniDisc option. That would be really impressive for a 1994 car.
posted by chairface at 10:19 AM on February 20, 2007

Perhaps it is because most manufacturers spend about $1.57 on a car radio. Sure I exaggerate, but the base model cars are just that. Several of the high-end or luxury liners have some sort of iPod, Satellite, or GPS integration. So for the time being at least the solution is to either buy a better car or go aftermarket. I was amazed that WallyWorld had a head unit for less than $100.00 that had USB input. However if you go to Crutchfield you'll be hard-pressed to find anything with USB or even a minijack input.
posted by Gungho at 10:30 AM on February 20, 2007

I just don't understand why an audio-in jack isn't standard. Seems like that solves 80% of the problem right there.

Agreed. I have an after-market stereo with an audio-in on the faceplate. It makes hooking up any device a cinch and will never have a car without it.
posted by jmd82 at 10:33 AM on February 20, 2007

Chevy Cobalts have an audio in jack now.
posted by rfs at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2007

The 2007 Mazda 3 is another car with an aux audio input. (Not the 2006 though. Grr.)
posted by smackfu at 10:57 AM on February 20, 2007

My theory about this is that, in car audio, there's serious lag between design and purchase. I can't recall how I came to that conclusion.
posted by Goofyy at 11:24 AM on February 20, 2007

I think the reason car stereo manufacturers don't put audio-in jacks on their equipment is because they don't want their gear to be forward-compatible- they don't want you to be able to run the Next Killer App through their gear without having to buy something, or having to buy their version of that app.
posted by baphomet at 11:56 AM on February 20, 2007

A quick search of rec.audio.car finds a few after market options with SD cards.
I think the reason you don't see these as a standard option is that; thanks to decades of bad design; most consumers have been turned off the whole idea of 'new features' in car radios, everyone expects that even the simplest car radio will be horribly complex and difficult to use.
Video and navigation devices don't yet have this history of disappointment, so people are more willing to give them a try.
posted by Lanark at 12:14 PM on February 20, 2007

I'm surprised that hard disk players are not built into car stereos these days.

I'm not. It was -30 C earlier this week.
posted by mendel at 12:15 PM on February 20, 2007

I think Gungho has it. In low (and even mid) end cars the manufacturers put in the cheapest possible unit that won't negatively affect sales.

In the after-market someone will make exactly what you want.
posted by markr at 12:22 PM on February 20, 2007

The UI of electronic devices is almost univerally horrid. Look at the current state of cell phones, car stereoes, and even TV's. Maybe its just because there hasn't been an 'ipod' to come along and show how good UI is done and how important it is.
posted by rsanheim at 12:42 PM on February 20, 2007

mendel writes "I'm not. It was -30 C earlier this week."

This is key, especially for OEMs whose radios have to work from Alert, Nunavut to Furnace Creek, California and everywhere in between.
posted by Mitheral at 1:01 PM on February 21, 2007

Cars have around 20k individual components and hundreds of subsystems. The more of these that break, the less happy the customer is. This also includes the stereo. This makes car manufacturers very conservative when it comes to change.
When a supplier to the automotive sector gets a design win, that system is pretty much frozen for the period of the design cycle. This makes car makers very poor at responding to innovation, but vastly increases reliability. For innovation, the aftermarket is definitely the way to go.
posted by Jakey at 1:50 PM on February 21, 2007

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