Imagine this: You have all your music loaded up on your iPhone for a road trip, you jump in your car and then realise you don't have any means of playing it through your car stereo. What can you do if you don’t have a car radio with USB or AUX port?
So what should you do if your old banger doesn't work with your iPhone? We have the answers.
Can your car connect to your iPhone?
It’s hard to find a modern car radio that doesn’t come with an AUX port, or, even better, a USB port to connect physically to your iPhone. You may even have a Bluetooth connection so you can do the same wirelessly (although this removes the added advantage of being able to charge your phone at the same time, and bluetooth does drain your battery).
However, what do you do if you don’t have a fancy new stereo in your old car? Are you stuck listening to the radio, CDs, or heaven forbid, cassettes, on your long journeys? Thankfully, no. Some enterprising developers have a handful of easy options for you to connect your high end gadget onto an old car radio so you can listen to your favourite songs.
Which iPhone connectors do you have?
There is one other consideration. You need to make sure that the solution for playing music in your car will actually work with the iPhone you own. While it's unlikely that you are still using an iPhone with a 30-pin connection as opposed to the Lightning connector, it is possible that your iPhone doesn't have a stereo jack - in which case some of the options won't be available to you unless you also purchase a lightning to 3.5mm jack adapter, like this one from Apple.
How to connect an iPhone to a car stereo via AUX
If your car is relatively modern it may feature a 3.5mm auxiliary jack, either on the stereo unit or near it (sometimes it’s located in the glove box).
You could get a 3.5mm to 3.5mm auxiliary cable - connect it from your phone's headphone jack to the car stereo's aux input, such as the Syncwire SW-SC017 Aux Cable 3.5mm Audio Cable for Car iPhone Headphone, which costs £5.99. It’s 1m, but a 2m version is available for £7.99. You can buy it here.
As we noted above, if you have an iPhone 7 or newer you’ll need to look for a AUX to Lighting connector as your phone won’t have the necessary 3.5mm port. One option is Belkin’s 3ft, 3.5mm Audio Aux Cable with Lightning Connector, which costs £24.99 (cheaper options are available though). If you need a longer cable there is a 6ft option available too for £29.99. You can buy it here.
Cassette adapters for iPhones
Let’s start with the oldest of the bunch. Some of us undoubtably still use radios equipped with cassettes players. Even though cassettes are no longer manufactured, the hardware is still around, so what can we do with them? Well, it turns out that an ingenious device designed to convert the sound coming from a stereo mini-jack to a modified cassette has been in existence for years.
Amazingly, you can still purchase them from numerous different companies. A quick look through Amazon for “cassette adapter” will reveal page after page or similar devices ranging in price from £1.99 to upwards of £20.
One option on Amazon is the Griffin iTrip DirectDeck Cassette Adapter which costs £7.99 (currently reduced to £5.65). You can buy it here. Note that it connect to your iPhone via an audio jack - so if you have an iPhone 7 or newer you won’t be able use it without an adapter.
The way it works is as simple as can be: slot the cassette into the tape deck, connect the mini-jack to your iPhone, choose your song, press play on both the iPhone and your car stereo, and out comes the music. The quality won’t be pristine of course, but it’s much better than the alternative, which would be listening through your tiny iPhone speaker - hardly an immersive experience!
The age of the cassette tape may have passed, but you can still play them in your car via your iPhone
Can you use an iPhone with a CD player?
If you have a car stereo with a CD-player you may be wondering whether anyone has invented a similar solution for you. Unfortunately you can’t put a fake CD connected to a stereo cable in your CD-player: since discs spin, the results would be potentially messy. Which explains why such products don’t actually exist! Luckily there are some other options.
iPhone FM transmitters
Instead, you need to look for a clever alternative, one which would also work on those old stereo cassette players: an FM transmitter. These are unsurprisingly more expensive, but they can work very well. The idea is simple: you connect your iPhone (or any other compatible iOS device) to it, and it starts broadcasting your iPhone’s audio on a particular radio frequency. Tune your car radio to that frequency and eh presto, you can hear your music wirelessly.
Again, there are lots of options on Amazon, but we think the Belkin In Car Tunecast 6 Universal FM Transmitted is a good buy. It’s normally £31.31, but is reduced to £26,88 at the time of writing (you can buy it here). The benefit here is you can choose between a model with an audio jack and one with a Lightning Connection, for those newer phones that lack the audio jack. It also comes with a charger that fits in the car cigarette lighter/power socket, and via this you can also charge your iPhone.
This Belkin FM Transmitted allows you to broadcast your iPad or iPhone music to your car stereo.
FM transmitters work by broadcasting the music playing on your iPhone on a frequency that can be picked up by your radio. If you are in an area where there are a lot of radio stations it can be tricky to find a gap in the radio waves. Belkin’s Tunecast will scan and choose the best frequency for you, you can also save the blank stations you find so that you can tune to them quickly next time you want to play music in your car.
This is the main problem with the FM transmitter solution - there are many radio stations out there so you could hit some interference even if the device usually broadcasts in little used frequencies. You can of course change that frequency manually, but you might end up taking some time finding the perfect one, only to move to another geographical location on your travels and have to do the process all over again.
Get a new car stereo
But to be honest, unless there’s a specific reason why you don’t wish to part with your car’s old stereo, the absolute best option would be to fit a new one. Halfords, for instance, offers a great many models, all with USB ports and fancy modern features. You need to be careful however: just because it has a USB port doesn’t mean that it will necessarily work with your iPhone; you might be able to hear your music, but your iPhone may not charge, for instance.
It’s therefore important to make sure you get one with a ‘made for iPhone’ or MFi sticker. Alternatively, if you can go into a showroom with your iPhone and its cable, the best way to be absolutely sure your potential new car stereo will work as expected is to hook it up to the ones on display and try them out for yourself.
Of course, this would be a more expensive solution than those mentioned above, but what you’ll get is much better clearer sound (beating the cassette stereos hands down), no interference from radio stations (take that, FM transmitters), plus your phone will be charging while playing, saving you from having to buy a 12v charger. Yes, car stereos can cost upwards of £300, but some iPhone-compatible models will only set you back by as much as £45, and at that price, it may well be worth leaving the past behind and embracing the iPhone-music-enabled future.
But there's one more option that might make you consider forking out even more for a new car stereo, as we'll discuss next.
Install CarPlay in your car
Back in 2014 Apple launched CarPlay, a iOS connected system that provides direct access to your iPhone allowing you to use certain apps, respond to text messages and play music. Essentially, Car Play lets you access certain apps via the dashboard in a safe way.
Initially CarPlay was only available as an integrated display system provided as an optional extra when you bought a new car. Various car manufacturers have integrated this system in their new cars, but we don't all have new cars do we. Read: What is Apple's CarPlay
If you aren't about to buy a new Mercedes then the Pioneer CarPlay system might be a solution for you. We look at the original Pioneer Car Play system in the video below.
There are now a number of Pioneer car stereos that integrate Car Play on the market. One of the newest is the AVH-Z3100DAB 6.2-Inch 2-Din Car Clear Type Touchscreen Multimedia Receiver (£378.45 currently, RRP £449.99), you can buy it here.
The touchscreen display on the Pioneer replaces the existing radio or CD player in your car. It displays information and uses Siri so that your attention is focused on driving. You just say "Hey Siri" to use the assistant hands-free.
There are a limited number of apps available in CarPlay (for safety reasons more than anything), but along with Phone, Messages and Apple Maps you also get Music and Podcasts - so you will be able to play the music on yout iPhone through your car stereo. For more information, we have an article about getting CarPlay in your car.
Note you may also need to budget for converter cables if your car doesn't have standard ISO connectors (most don't) and also a special cable or adaptor if your car has an existing USB port, since it's unlikely to connect directly to the back of the head unit.
Charging your iPhone in your car
One last thing to mention. Don’t forget though that playing music will drain your battery so getting yourself a 12V charger for your iPhone would be a useful addition to your car. Again, you’ll find a long list of available options through Amazon, but consider choosing one that can handle enough power to charge up an iPad. Even if you don’t yet own a tablet, more power means your iPhone will charge up faster. Also, should you ever get yourself an iPad, you won’t need another charger for it - you’ll be able to swap between the two devices.
And, while you are at it, an iPhone car holder might be a useful investment too: we detail the best iPhone car holders here.