Future-proofing the sound system in our cars

Posted on August 7, 2011 by

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Playing Spotify in offline mode

The past decade, since MG launched the ZT range, has seen huge changes in how we consume audio and video content, whether at home or on the move.  The OEM in-car entertainment (ICE) set-up in the ZT, even the HighLine system, with its in-dash cassette player and CD changer in the boot, now seems hopelessly outmoded.  Many 260 owners, myself included, want to keep our cars looking close to original; how then can we go on enjoying music and even television in our cars?  In my last blog I described how to get the most out of the satellite navigation functions in the HighLine satnav system.  This time I would like to explore some ways of keeping the audio and video components of the ICE system up to date.

Recorded music … and beyond

Single audio CDs with little more than an hour’s listening time, seem so well, analogue now.  Recent developments in digital music have progressed in two major ways.  First, the MP3 audio format has given us the ability to transfer music between locations and across devices.  And, secondly, the very notion of file-based audio content (even in the MP3 format) is itself giving way to streaming audio which is delivered live across the Internet.  Happily, we can take advantage of both these advances today in our ZTs.

The simplest way to listen to MP3-based music in a HighLine-equipped car is to replace the CD changer in the boot with a later MP3-compatible changer (e.g. from BMW).  This enables you to burn music from your PC onto MP3 discs and has two major advantages: far more tracks will fit on each disc, and – by applying so-called ID3 tags to each track – information about the artist, album and song can be displayed on-screen.  Incidentally, BMW’s ID3 tagging protocols have evolved over the years and it may take some fine-tuning of the tags to get these to display correctly.  But if you are used to an iPod or other portable music player, this approach will soon seem very limited and you will want more.

MP3 tag display for MP3 CD

On the Two-Sixties Forum and the Rover 75 and ZT Owners’ Club Forum you will find lots of good advice about connecting an iPod or other MP3 player to the HighLine system.  The simplest solutions are to use either a cassette tape adapter, which connects to the headphone (audio out) socket on the iPod, or an FM transmitter, which tunes into an “empty” FM frequency on the car radio. Unfortunately these suffer from inconsistent sound quality, especially in urban areas with many FM stations transmitting.  You also have to select your music from the iPod itself.

To enjoy decent audio quality and to control the iPod directly from the HighLine unit (including the steering wheel controls) requires a more sophisticated approach.   Two companies provide solutions, Dension with their Gateway 300, and Intravention with the Intravee-II, combined with a small additional module from Alpine.  Both of these were originally developed for use with BMW cars but can be used in the Rover 75 and MG ZT as well.  The general consensus is that – to connect to an iPod’sMusic library – the Intravee solution is the better, for its greater ease of use and excellent on-screen display.

More recently, however, some advantages have emerged in favour of the Dension unit:

  • First, the Gateway unit allows you the choice of controlling input from either the HighLine
    controls or from the iPod itself.  Whilst choosing the latter may at first seem illogical, it enables you to access other types of music content stored on the iPod and in particular offline playlists from Spotify. Spotify is a hugely successful streaming music service and its Premium subscription allows you to store offline copies of your playlists which you can play back on your iPod
  • Secondly, the Gateway unit provides a USB port, which I have fitted in my car in the glove box.  This enables you to add a further range of devices, from a simple USB key (so that I can keep 16GB of music in the car at all times, even if I forget my iPod) to the Dension Webradio (which I describe below).  If you use a large USB key, by the way, I recommend running a one-time indexing utility on it so that you can search for specific tracks more quickly; Dension make one available here

Spotify offline playlist

Broadcast radio

Although the British government has still not committed to a final date to switch over from FM to digital radio,  the direction is clear: by the second half of this decade,if not sooner, we should expect major radio stations across Europe to transfer from FM to DAB (digital audio broadcasting).  Although we have been able to update the HighLine radio installation in the ZT by retrofitting newer BMW units such as the BM24 or BM54, the German manufacturer’s latest DAB radios require the later KBus-based technology and are not compatible with the equipment in our cars.  Faced with an increasingly limited choice of AM and FM radio stations to listen to, what can we do?

The first option is to use an add-on DAB radio unit, such as the PURE Highway.  These require an external antenna and connect to the in-car system by using an FM transmitter (as explained above). Ironically, with FM stations closing down, these should suffer from less interference in future.  See this feature in AutoExpress for a recent review of DAB solutions.

But perhaps the future lies not with DAB at all,  but with Internet radio?  Already there are thousands of radio stations streaming live music over the Internet.  One of the nice things about this is that you can listen to a station from another area or country from any location.  At the same time Internet is becoming part of the latest high-end in-car systems from companies such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes.  Unfortunately, although you can fit a Bluetooth phone kit designed for the first generation BMW Mini to the ZT this only supports Bluetooth transmissions for telephony and not audio streaming.  It is unlikely that this generation of Bluetooth equipment will be updated as the latest Minis use a different system with a later Bluetooth protocol.  But even without such equipment the opportunity to enjoy Internet radio in our 260s is here today.  There are three options I am aware of.

First, if you have a USB port connected to the HighLine system (as described above) you can plug in a Dension Webradio and use this to connect via Bluetooth to either a 3G-enabled mobile phone or a laptop with a 3G dongle.  If you want to use your mobile phone, the phone itself must support the Bluetooth profile for file transfer (not all phones do!) and your service provider must allow something called “Internet tethering”, which may be an option in your plan.  With the Dension Webradio you pre-select a number of Internet radio stations and these appear as different MP3 playlists on the in-car display.

The second option is for those who have a mobile phone allowing access to streaming audio and an iPod connection added to the in-car system with a unit such as the Dension Gateway.  Even if you don’t have an auxiliary input (3.5 mm audio jack) connected to the HighLine system, but only an iPod connection, you can buy a nifty iPod female to MP3 plug connector from Grom Audio (reference C-IPD2JK and available online in the UK for less than twenty pounds).  This lets you hook up any device with a standard audio jack (such as a mobile phone) to the iPod connector attached to your HighLine system and play any audio source on the device.   I have tested this with a Dension Gateway 300 and it works just fine to play back MP3 files on the phone, Spotify or TuneInRadio; I haven’t been able to test it with an Intravee II though.

Finally, another option which I haven’t been able to test but may be worth investigating if you are upgrading your system is the Dice Mediabridge.  Provided – as always – your phone and payment plan accept audio streaming, this single, multi-purpose unit apparently allows iPod, USB and streaming audio connections, the last through its own Bluetooth connection.

Television on the move

As with broadcast radio, so it is with television, as national broadcasters across Europe are phasing out their existing analogue services in favour of digital television.   Keeping apace with these changes in the ZT is relatively easy to do by upgrading the TV tuner module in the boot to BMW’s later analogue/digital hybrid TV unit, which is a direct replacement.  Combined with the 16:9 widescreen monitor it makes for a great, if rather expensive upgrade.   I live outside the UK but if you search for “Freeview” on the Two-Sixties Forum and the Rover 75 and ZT Owners’ Club Forum you should find lots more information about cheaper ways to add a Freeview unit to the existing TV set-up in the UK.

All these units are also the starting point for adding DVD video players, if you want to install additional screens for rear-seat passengers or watch videos whilst parked.

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Posted in: Features