October 14, 2014

Car Audio

Preamble

I can’t remember much about my first car stereo. I think it was a Goodmans, and it had a 6-CD changer which might have been in the glove box of my blue F-reg Ford Sierra, or it might have been in the boot.

My second car was a J-reg Volkswagen Golf, and for that I bought (in 2003) a Sony CDX-CA650 which served me well for a few years, and got transferred into my next car. I liked how the CD slot was behind the fascia, which meant that the LCD display could be the full height of the unit.

I used it for 7 years, and eventually only replaced it because my mum got me a Kenwood KDC-MP342U because I’d been making noises about upgrading to a car stereo with a USB port. We’ve been using that for 4 years and it’s been fantastic – my only complaints are that the CD player is slightly more prone to skipping than the Sony was (which isn’t too much of a problem because we almost never use CDs in the car anyway), and that having only a single USB port causes us problems. You see, when you turn it on, it will pick up where you left off, but when you swap the USB drive, it forgets. Since Karen and I share the car, we’re constantly having our progress reset by the other person.

Sadly, the fascia has been dropped one too many times, and the display is starting to get flaky, so it’s time for a replacement.

Amble

I did a bit of research and decided to take a punt on a unit that I found on Amazon that has no CD drive, but does have a USB port AND an SD card slot. No more conflict – one of us could use the USB drive, and the other could use an SD card. Nice.

I learned a lesson. Do not buy £20 car stereos by unknown brands.

This £20 car stereo was a piece of absolute shit. Here are the problems I had.

Installation

Firstly, the supplied wiring harness does not have ISO connectors – just bare ends. I had to buy a ISO wiring harness, cut it in half, strip the ends, and connect the two up to make a kind of frankenharness. Secondly, it doesn’t come with a metal cage, which means that it isn’t held securely in the dashboard. When I remove my USB drive, I have to brace the car stereo with my free hand to stop it sliding right out.

Design

The LCD display on the product photo on Amazon looked pretty good. Full colour, fairly high resolution. The actual device does not have this display. It has the worst LCD display you can possibly imagine. The contrast is appalling, and there’s very little room for information. Another user interface problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to skip directories on the USB drive. If you’ve got a 16GB USB stick with a folder per album, there’s no way to skip from one album to another – you have to do it track by track.

And finally…

I don’t know whether this is a design flaw or just a problem with my individual product, but there was an awful lot of interference. I was hearing a very loud whine which rises and falls in pitch with my engine revs, and underneath that there’s also a background crackling.

It has now been returned to Amazon, and I’ve got the old stereo back in for now. The new stereo is looking at me smugly, as if to say “ah, come running back, have you? Grass not greener after all, eh?”

What Now, My Love?

I’ve done some research into other car stereos, from more reputable brands, that sport both a front USB port and an SD card slot. There’s a couple of options by Pioneer, and also some great-looking offerings from a company called Soundstream that look like they’ll be tough to get hold of in this country.

However, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Skinning A Cat

You may or may not be aware that Karen recently upgraded her mobile phone. She’d had a HTC One S for 2 years, so I was planning on replacing it soon anyway, and the fact that she dropped it in the middle of a 10km run and mutilated the screen just helped to goad me into action. Her new handset is a Moto G (2nd gen, I got the one with 8GB storage because it has a micro-SD card slot).

One question she has asked me in the past is whether there’s a way to synchronise her listening, to which I’ve said well yes, instead of having a USB drive in the car, you keep everything on your phone and play it from the phone, through the car stereo. So that’s my new angle of attack – I can just buy a car stereo with one USB port (for me) and then give Karen a different means of access. Bluetooth is one option, of course, but for now I’ve ordered a 32GB micro-SDHC card and a nice high-quality 3.5mm-3.5mm lead, we’ll try that with the existing car stereo, and then we’ll see if that looks like it might be a goer in the long run.

Pete

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