iPod In My Car

The iPod Car adapter mentioned in this article is listed at eBay!

I’ve owned mp3 players since they were introduced back in 1998 or 1999. I was an early adopter and suffered for it– not enough memory, very expensive. The Rio PMP300 was the first with a whopping 32MB of flash memory. I sold that on eBay and bought the Creative Nomad Zen Xtra, which was supported by Linux, which was the appeal for me at the time. I got my wife a Creative Nomad II, and then later got her a white 20GB Clickwheel iPod which she still has. Earlier this year I broke down and bought a 60GB Video iPod and sold the Zen on eBay. The reason I say “broke down” is that my primary workstation at home runs a Linux distro (these days SuSE 10) and the iPod support is nearly non-existent. So, when I load songs and videos on it, it has to be on Windows. However, I have been fairly impressed with the integration of iTunes and the iPod, so I’m happy.The other reason I moved to the iPod is the connector. The iPod is one of very few digital media players that supports a remote control or base and has Line Out audio connectors. This combination gives the iPod the ability to be connected to a lot of devices including alarm clocks and compact stereo bases, as well as acting as a disc changer/jukebox for a car. It is possible to connect other mp3 players into stereos, but they tend to use the headphone jack and usually use devices like FM broadcasters or cassette adapters. I’ve used those solutions over the years and they work pretty well, but I wanted something that used line out and had some integration with the car stereo head. Why is line out important? Line out gives “line level” signal, which is a consistent audio signal between line connected devices, like an amplifier and a CD player in your home stereo. The headphone jack signal level is determined by the volume control on the device, and is therefore not consistent, and also then modified by the internal amplifier that drives the headphone. I guess it’s picky, but was important to me.

My car is a 2003 VW Passat Wagon with the Monsoon stereo. I had seen on the VW Boards that people have been connecting their iPods with a device called a Blitzsafe. Blitzsafe makes many devices, but are mostly known for connecting mp3 players into factory (OEM) stereo heads via an open or available auxiliary port typically used for CD Changers. This connector also has the ability to charge the device and also can pause the player when either the stereo is shut off, selected to something other than CD, or the car is turned off.

There seems to be two approaches when it comes to having the iPod plugged into the stereo head. Both approaches “tricks” the stereo into thinking it has a disc changer connected to it. One approach is to truly treat the iPod like an isolated jukebox similar to a disc changer, or like the Phatbox or Music Keg– meaning you don’t really interact with it directly. The iPod’s ability to have a remote control via the connector allows the ability to control it from the stereo face controls (skip, forward, back, next disc) as well as showing the ID3 song titles on the face in some cases and allowing you to choose your favorite playlist. While that is very cool, it doesn’t allow you to use the clickwheel if you are like me and have a tendency to skip around the contents. These solutions are also typically more expensive.

The other approach is the one that the Blitzsafe Volkswagen/iPod Interface uses, which is to provide the line out, charging and pause. You control volume from the stereo face or, in my case, also the steering wheel volume controls. I called around the day that I wanted to do this, and found that the only place that carried the Blitzsafe line was Best Buy, and the only Best Buy that had the one for the VW was the Cedar Falls Best Buy. So, I called on a Friday afternoon and got them to hold one for me. I drove up on Saturday and purchased it. I had a 12% coupon so that was cool, too.

Note: I think judging by the general unavailability of these right now, that Blitzsafe is changing their product line to have one “Blitzsafe Car” connector and specific connectors for vehicle applications. The Blitzsafe MLINK1 V1 I got was the connector and the converter part all in one piece. Their website is not helpful right now.

Installation was pretty easy. The Passat Monsoon stereo shipped with the disc changer cable already plugged in. Once I pulled the head out, I unplugged the blue disc changer cable, connected the Blitzsafe into it, and had to find a suitable location to connect the ground wire. I unscrewed one of the philips-head screws on the back of the stereo and connected it. It is important to connect the ground wire! The stereo will not detect the Blitzsafe otherwise and will not let you chose aux. I fished the very ample iPod connector cable around the right side and kept the slack behind the stereo head. I tucked the exposed iPod connector cable between the dash and the carpeting along the transmission hump in the passenger footwell. There was enough cable on the Blitzsafe that I had considered running the cable to the center console and storing the iPod in there, but that wouldn’t give me easy access to the clickwheel or display.

To use the iPod with the stereo, I just hit the “CD” selector twice– first one is to chose single CD, the second press is for the disc changer mode. The display shows “Track 99.” and the iPod is available for use.

The next thing I needed was a dock or mount for it. Conveniently, the B5 style Passats had an area on the dash around the stereo that could be filled with buttons for defrost or the seat heater switches. My car had a “blank” in one of the spots that could take a vehicle mount from a company called ProClip. ProClip has a whole bunch of options for mounting gadgets in vehicles. After I picked the special base, I chose a device holder that would allow me to keep my iPod in it’s case by utilizing the belt clip on the back. This particular holder will also let you hook a screwback case, which my wife has on her iPod.

The installation works great. I do the majority of my music listening in my car and having the iPod tied in to the stereo and charging is perfect, in my opinion.

Update (September 2008): The 3G iPhone– unlike the previous generation iPod’s and iPhone’s– does not charge from the firewire pins (and as such, 12v charging) on the ipod cable, so while I can use the MLINK to connect to the car stereo, it does not charge it, so I get messages on the iPhone that say “this device is not supported for charging.” According to this thread on the Blitzsafe boards, they will be making a new cable that will be available that addresses this issue by providing charging on the USB pins.