Posted by John Goreham
More and more new vehicles are missing a CD player. Here are the options if that has been your go-to music system.

In-vehicle music systems continue to evolve. Everything from record players to 8-tracks and cassettes has been tried, and they all had their pluses and minuses. It is fair to say that the best quality sound ever offered in an automobile was the compact disc player. CDs offer an incredible depth of sound in their uncompressed wonderfulness. They are simple to load, relatively robust, and selecting tracks a lot easier than any tape-based system ever was. With so many pluses, it’s hard to understand why automakers are starting to leave them out – unless you are under 30 years old and have never owned one. IHS Automotive research says that by 2021 less than half of the vehicles sold will have a CD player. For those who have been using them, and wish to keep their vehicle options open, here are some music systems to consider.

MP3 Players (iPod) and Phones 

Pluses– Easy to operate using vehicle controls.

Minuses – It’s all your music. You have to download it all and manage it. Aging technology.

MP3 players, made popular by the Apple company, are like CDs in many ways. They simply act as a physical-digital way to store music using ones and zeros. If you already own a large CD collection, you can “burn” your CDs to the device and thus, add them to your collection. The downside is that to save space on your memory chips, MP3 players compress the music files and the quality is diminished. Many folks can’t hear the difference. Many can. If you only want to hear your own music and the stuff you already own this method is worth looking at as your next best option. – However, we suggest you make your phone an MP3 player. Why carry two devices around? 
Thumb Drives (Flash Drives)

Pluses -It’s your music. Higher music quality than some options.

Minuses – Limited selectability. It’s all your music. You have to download it all and manage it.  Aging technology.

Maybe readers can fill us in on why we would use a thumb drive rather than an MP3 player to carry music around. Perhaps there is a quality advantage. To us, this is silly. Those who do use thumb drives report that they often find it difficult to select the track they want to hear while driving.
Music Streaming (Pandora)

Pluses – Zero cost with commercials. Widest range of options. Works in all situations in off-line mode. Inexpensive when commercial-free.

Minuses – Requires a re-connection each time you enter the vehicle. Quality is lower than CDs.

Music streaming is how younger generations listen to music. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part, this is the “now” method of music enjoyment. There are many services that offer streaming music. In fact, Google, Apple, Amazon, and pretty much any other big name you can come up with offer it. If you have not yet moved to music streaming we would suggest thinking hard about which “team” you are already on. Are all your devices Apple-made? Start with Apple. Are you rocking an Android and live and die with Google Drive and Gmail? Why go outside the family to get your music? Are you an Amazon Prime Kindle black belt ninja? Amazon is your obvious starting point. However, Pandora, Stitcher, Slacker, Spotify and a long list of others make many music listeners happy.

Pandora has teamed up with SiriusXM. They are now one company, but they still have separate operations. We expect they will meld together in the coming decade. Pandora was one of the first successful music streaming companies and has a lot of market share. Pandora also works seamlessly with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. If you have not given Pandora a shot, they offer free trials. A monthly basic subscription will eliminate all of the commercials and there are few downsides. Pandora will automagically place files of your favorite songs/stations on your phone, so you won’t have to worry about losing it when there is no cell service.  Best of all, and this feature is now expanding to all media, you can give songs a thumbs up or down and the stations become more and more customized to your tastes. Pandora will also work easily with your home assistant like Alexa. Finally, although Pandora compresses its music, it does offer two levels of quality. The top quality is pretty good. Not as good as CDs, but the difference is hard to detect in our opinion.

Satellite Radio (SiriusXM)

Pluses – Wide range of niche music options. Works like old-school radio.

Minuses – Cost, Quality

Satellite radio is a mature technology that has evolved a bit but still has some downsides. In fairness, some upsides should be listed. It is by far the easiest technology to operate. It is just like terrestrial radio, but with mostly zero commercials on the music channels. The wide range of music is impressive, and the company changes station offerings to keep things fresh. Among the downsides is cost. Though cheap to join, like your cable bill it seems to grow in cost over time. The individual stations also tend to play a lot of the same songs repeatedly and have a limited “setlist.” The music is also interrupted by tunnels, mountains, trees, weather and sometimes no reason at all that we can detect in our test vehicles. Another big downside is the quality of the music. To our non-professional ears, it sounds flatter and less impressive than streaming music does.

HD Terrestrial Radio

Pluses – Quality. Wide range of niche music options. Works like old-school radio.

Minuses – Commercials

This is FM and AM updated a bit. You know the rest.

About Music Compression

There are experts who can explain music file compression better than we can. We just know that CDs sound louder and also richer to our ears than the systems that compress music. However, many of our test vehicles have amazing sound quality even when playing compressed music. That seems to make a bigger difference to our ears than does the source. Also, high-end music systems, like those found in the new Acura RDX, have technology that somehow addresses the compressed music’s downsides and livens it up. The sound changes when this system is employed for the better.

CD Or Not To Be

If you are a true audiophile or have convinced yourself that anything but a CD sounds “horrible” and ruins your mood, we are not going to convince you that any of these alternatives will work for you. We are not trying to. This story simply lists out the best alternatives for music enjoyment when your car’s CD player disappears. And in case you have been wondering, yes, they are also taking away the “Aux” input, so your portable CD player isn’t a solution in many cases.



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