I've had my current vehicle for a little over 10 years now. It was purchased at a time when an in-dash CD player was still considered a high-priced premium option on new cars. My factory stereo has a cassette deck plus AM/FM radio, and I've been extremely happy with it over the years. I still think it's one of the best sounding factory stereos I've ever heard. I also really like the controls - knobs for all the important stuff so you can adjust quickly while driving without taking your eyes off the road. So many aftermarket stereos are nothing but buttons these days...
Of course, even in 1997 I had long since ditched cassette tapes in favor of pristine digital music (compact discs). Thankfully there was a wonderful invention called the cassette adapter which allowed me to listen to any portable device by tricking the stereo's cassette deck into thinking it was playing a tape. Absolutely ingenious. Over the course of the past 10 years, I've enjoyed the cassette-adapted sounds of:
- A Sony Discman with 3-second anti-skip buffer (not quite enough for the biggest road bumps, so I'd usually fit it snug between the seat belt and my stomach for extra bodily cushioning)
- A Philips portable CD player with 45-second anti-skip buffer (wow!)
- A first generation Philips MP3-CD player (I was shortsighted enough to think that this would be the last player I'd ever need; ha!)
- A third generation 30 GB iPod
- A fourth generation 60 GB iPod photo (thanks Tom!)
- A first generation 1 GB iPod shuffle
- A fifth generation 30 GB iPod
This arrangement has served me well over the years, with untold miles of virtual tape having passed over the cassette deck's playback head. Until the revolt happened.
A few weeks ago, my cassette deck started refusing to run in the forward direction. It would start playing for a few seconds, or if I was lucky, a few minutes; then suddenly change directions via auto-reverse. I'd hit the auto-reverse button and my music would come back again, but only for a short time before it clicked back over to the silent side. Same thing happened with other cassette adapters I tried.
The cassette adapter only works when the deck is playing in the forward direction, and thus for 10 years, my cassette deck played only in one direction. I think it got bored of that. Or maybe worn out. If you think about it, with standard tapes playing in both directions equally, that works out to about 20 years of service for "normal" usage. Not too bad, really.
And so this weekend I began my quest to give my cassette deck its final rest. My first thought was to pull out the head unit and see if there was an auxiliary input in the back, where maybe I could wire in a direct input for the iPod. I do recall that there was a CD changer option that I could have purchased with this vehicle; perhaps that input would work.
I did this a few years back with my wife's Nissan Altima and it has worked beautifully. Actually, some guy on the internet did all the hard work of figuring out the pin-outs for the CD-changer input in the Altima's head unit, including L/R audio and a 12-volt trigger line. He even constructed and sold cables with the right connector and all the lines wired in. All I did was install it, along with a snazzy switch (wired to the car's 12V fuse and the trigger line) to flip the thing into AUX mode.
Surely I could do something similar in my Toyota, but it would be more difficult as I'd have to do all the pin-out discovery myself. Could it be done? I set out on my mission by dismantling the dash and removing the head unit.
A-ha! Indeed, there was an unused input in the back, no doubt for that 6-disc CD changer that I didn't buy. Could it work as a general purpose auxiliary input?
I disassembled the head unit further, peering into the spot where this mystery connector joined the circuit board. Unfortunately no real information could be gleaned.
And so, after about 3 or 4 Google-hours, I finally concluded that this was a lost cause. This head unit was made before the age of MP3 players, and thus without a general purpose AUX input in mind. And my research suggested that I'd likely have to build a fully customized integrated circuit, complete with some sort of clock signal to trigger the CD-changer function and make that port live. That is, if I had the equipment, experience, and time to decipher the signaling protocol and determine which pins carried which signals.
Not gonna happen. A little too much work for just a simple AUX in. Time to look at cheap aftermarket head units. Requirements:
- Inexpensive (not too much above $100 preferably)
- Auxiliary input
- Knobs for volume, bass, treble, etc
- No stupid quirks that make simple functions difficult to operate while driving
After sleeping on it, I discovered a new, tantalizing option: another JVC unit that was identical to my choice, but added iPod integration for $50-60 more. It lets you control the iPod via the head unit's buttons while connected, and displays song/playlist/etc info on the radio's screen. I debated whether to splurge on this luxury frill, or go with the sensible choice (which was already a nice step up from my current situation).
The iPod thing sounded too good to be true. Surely it would be limited in some way like not playing all file types, or not updating song play-counts and last played times. I'm extremely picky about this stuff. If it didn't do everything as well as I like it, I wouldn't want it at all. Even if everything else it did was light years better.
So I surprised myself by jumping in and getting the iPod unit: the JVC KD-PDR30
It has the iPod connector on the back, with a special cable (included). I needed to drill a hole through the plastic pocket that goes below the head unit in my dash so the cable could come out for iPod hookup.
Next step was to hook up the new head unit and take it for a spin. I had a little trouble with connectors hooking up to my factory wiring harness, but a trip back to the store revealed that I needed to bypass the factory amplifier when using this head unit. Wiring up that way did the trick.
First "hey, cool!" moment after testing the new setup: the JVC stereo puts a custom display on the iPod's screen when it's hooked up.
And sure enough, I used the JVC's controls to navigate my iPod playlists and select one to listen to. Artist and album info showed up on the display. Couldn't be easier.
After a little more fiddling, I was giddy like a little school girl. I wondered why I hadn't done this sooner. This unit was perfect. It did everything I hoped it would, and sounded absolutely fantastic.
When you plug in the iPod, it immediately starts playing wherever you last left off. When you turn off the car or unplug the iPod, the iPod is paused exactly where you were playing in the car. That means you can seamlessly transition from walking with headphones to driving in the car without losing your place in the song or playlist. It also updates all the song metadata as you play, just like I've become accustomed to.
It's truly just plug and play. Excellent.
Now I can't wait to go somewhere, just to use my new toy.