We are 4 years into XXI century but digital music in the car is still nowhere closer.

So I got a new car. First thing I usually do to my new car is I upgrade stock audio system since I actually do most of the music listening while driving. Amp, speakers, subwoofer - those all all obvious improvements that any decent car audio shop is able to install quickly and well. This time, however, I decided I ought to have digital music in my car.  After all, CDs are sooooo XX century. Here where all the fun (and disaster) begins. Here are my requirements for the player:

1. Storage 40 GB at least, 60GB is better, 80-100GB is ideal. My music collection exceeds 60GB and is all lossless. I am not looking forward to maintaining a separate collection for the car player. Therefore
2. Player should supports lossless format.
3. Integrates well with existing car stereo or is a dedicated head unit.
4. Line out is highly desirable. Optical out is better, but optional.
5. Is able to display titles in Russian.

There are few dedicated car players. Dension DMP3 only plays MP3. PhatNoise emulates CD changer and has no title display. I am wondering how people actually use it with large music collections. Playlists? I am too lazy to create them, sorry. Dension looks great, but only plays MP3. OmniFi does support WMA but no higher than 192 kbps. Interesting that none of two car audio shops I visited recommended any of the above system albeit they did have them in stock. Not a good sign.

Next there are portable players. I own 20GB iPod and watch carefully if Omar Shanine finds a good replacement. I purchased iPod simply because it was the only portable devices which supported lossless compression and was able to display Russian titles.

iPod Photo 60GB and PMC such as iRiver PMC-140 (40 GB) are top contenders. I am not sure that PMC-140 actually exists though. iRiver has PMP-140, but PMP != PMC. There is PMC-120 (20 GB). DMC XClef 500 (100 GB) is interesting, but it is as large as PMC and has no line out. Archos AV-480 looks promising too, but I am not sure about WMA lossless and Unicode support. I don't care about video but I don't mind large display in the car. However, so far it seems that only Portable Media Center units support WMA lossless as well as titles in Unicode.

iPod, especially 60GB unit seems to have an edge. Why is that almost all Portable Media Centers are 20 GB when 40 (and 60 GB) disks have been available for quite some time? Now, how to connect portable unit to the car stereo? iPod has a lead here b/c single connector makes things simple and install looks cleaner.  Separate power and line cables don't look very nice. iPod cradles and car mounts are abundant.

There are interfaces that emulates CD changer and allow control of iPod via steering wheel controls. Dension IceLink and PAC Audio iPod2Car are two popular ones. Alpine CDA-983x head units have dedicated iPod interface. So I decided to try one.

Car audio shop (Magnolia HiFi)  installed Alpine CDA-9831 and KCA-420i iPod interface. Unfortunately, I discovered quite a few flaws. Alpine interface disables iPod controls since it expects you to control iPod via head unit controls. This would be fine if head unit controls were as good as iPod controls. Unfortunately, head unit UI is very complicated and in search mode it scrolls about one title per second (imagine how long does it take to get to Yes albums). And obviously, head unit display only capable of English. That would be fine too if I was able to use iPod controls and screen to find my daughter's fairly tales. After a week I asked car shop to take the unit back which fortunately they did (and I got all my money back). I was told that Alpine was going to fix UI issues in 2005 units. We'll see. Meanwhile, I am back to square one.

Clarion announced that it will have iPod interfaces in their units by mid-2005. I'd like to have it in Clarion DRZ9255 which is my favorite player. Why? Because it does not have stupid flashy display, it has simple rotary volume control and NO sliding face panel, just a good old CD slot. Pioneer seems to be interested in iPod connection as well. At least when you register in order to get access to Pioneer product manuals, you are offered a list of e-mail updates and one of the topics is 'iPod interface'.

I hope someone is planning to make a good interface to Portable Media Center.

I am thinking about yet another [crazy] option which I will be blogging about in my next post :-).