November 8, 2007


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Fantastic music
No, that’s not what FM stands for
By John “jaQ” Andrews

Music and the road. Like peanut butter and chocolate, this combination has stood the test of time, starting out with fuzzy AM stations, upgrading in time to FM, and incorporating drivers’ own collections with 8-tracks, cassettes and compact discs.

Since CDs are so passé now, though, what with the digital music revolution and all, the sound quality many are able to enjoy in the car has rolled downhill. MP3s already have lower fidelity, and many car stereos don’t have audio input jacks to preserve even that.

The most common method for pumping tunes from your MP3 player to your car stereo is with an FM transmitter. Because it broadcasts on a normal radio frequency, any radio can pick it up. Easy. Problem is, a tiny electronic device can’t compete with a 50,000-watt tower used by commercial radio stations, so getting it to sound decent can be a challenge.

Fortunately, there are a couple things you can do to make even the cheapest FM transmitters sound at least a little better.

• Choose a clear station. Don’t try to overpower your favorite music or NPR station. Sure, you won’t have to change presets, but you’ll also get a lot of interference, and you’ll annoy drivers in nearby cars that are trying to listen to those stations. Unless your transmitter can only broadcast on one frequency, look for a station that’s not already taken. That means static — the most pure, clean, flat static you can find. The bottom and top of the FM range are usually best for that. Be prepared to switch frequencies if you’re on a long trip or heading into the big city.

• Keep the volume low. As low as you can, anyway, while totally rocking out and such. More importantly, don’t push either your MP3 player or radio to their volume limits. I usually choose about ¾ volume on my player and adjust the radio after that. High player volume causes distortion, while high radio volume exposes whatever interference there might be. And speaking of interference...

• Keep away from other electronics. In theory, all electronic devices have to pass a certification that they don’t emit radio interference. In practice, just a couple stray radio waves can get in the way of clean transmission. If my cell phone is plugged in right next to my transmitter, for example, I hear a quiet but infuriating high-pitched whine behind all my songs. Eventually I figured out that only happened when my phone was fully charged anyway, so it’s sort of a convenient, if unintentional, indicator.

• Experiment with different positions. It might seem obvious, but an unimpeded path from your transmitter to your car’s antenna makes for a clearer signal. That doesn’t mean you have to staple your transmitter to your ceiling, but it does mean throwing the iPod back in your purse once you’ve selected your “RIOT GRRRRRRLS” playlist isn’t in your ears’ best interest.

A direct line or cassette player adapter will offer better sound quality, if those aren’t viable options for you, invest a few minutes and try these tips out.

• Equalize: Though some are better than others, FM transmitters usually aren’t very good at broadcasting music’s full dynamic range. Your highs won’t pop, your lows won’t thump and your middle just sounds kind of muddy. Nothing will totally fix this, but boosting your radio’s bass and treble a couple clicks can give each note a little more definition. Even better, if your MP3 player has an equalizer, save a setting that sounds good over the air.