Upgrading your car stereo capabilities on the cheap.
Story time: I’ve got an older car, a 2001 VW Jetta, that still runs great but lacks some of the modern amenities that I would prefer to have in my car. Most notably, my car stereo still prominently features a cassette deck along with FM/AM radio.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure this setup was out of date back in 2001.
I’m well past using physical media for my music, so I needed to find a way to transmit the music from my phone to my car stereo. Ideally, I’d want a car stereo with a touchscreen and support for Android Auto — though I would easily settle for Bluetooth connectivity, or at the very least an AUX input in a pinch — but that would typically require either buying a new car or investing in a new car stereo that is also compatible with my 16-year-old Volkswagen. Neither of those options sound cheap or easy, so I turned to car accessories to help me out.
As a quick fix, I picked up a classic cassette to AUX adapter, which served its purpose well and wasn’t too cumbersome despite dealing with the red wire. Unfortunately, the harsh nature of Canada’s winter was none too kind to that wire, and it’s now time to upgrade… but again, I’m still in no position to buy a new car or get a new car stereo.
Instead, here’s my guide to connecting your phone to your car stereo on the cheap.
Mounting your phone
If you’re planning to use your phone as the media hub for your car, the first thing you’re going to need is a way to mount your phone to your dashboard. That way you can skip tracks, see and answer calls hands-free, as well as use Google Maps for directions.
Check out our list of the best universal car mounts to find one that works for you and your car. If your car has an in-dash CD player, you might want to consider the Koomus CD Eco Universal phone mount. Since the goal, again, is to stream all your music from your phone, you might as well still get some functionality out of that CD slot in your dashboard. What you do with that binder of burnt CDs under your seat is your business.
Personally, I rely on the Spigen Style Ring to mount my phone to my car dashboard. The Style Ring is a somewhat controversial accessory, and not everyone is going to like adding a half-inch bump to the back of their phone. But I love it for all the functionality it adds, especially the included car mount that quickly sticks to your car dashboard and gives you an entirely minimalist car mount option with the freedom to quickly grab your phone when you arrive at your destination.
Regardless of which car mount you go with for your phone, you’re going to definitely want to keep your phone out of your hands while you’re driving. Not only is it incredibly unsafe, but it may also be illegal depending on your local laws.
Connecting your phone to your (old) car stereo
Once you’ve got your phone mounted to your dash, your next step will be connecting your phone to your car stereo. If you, too, own a car with a cassette deck in your car, and you don’t mind dealing with a length of wire coming out of your car stereo to save some money, the cassette to AUX adapter I mentioned above really did worked out well for me — just keep in mind that frigid temperatures will make that wire extremely brittle at times and, eventually, it will break down.
Depending on the features of your car’s current stereo deck, you may be lucky enough to only need an auxiliary cable to connect your phone to your car stereo. You should get this pair of 3.5mm AUX cables that are the perfect length to be used in your car.
If dealing with a bunch of wires running up and down your dashboard sounds like a nightmare, you may want to look at an FM transmitter instead, which will let you broadcast your music to an open FM signal on your local radio dial. There are countless FM transmitters available, but arguably the most elegant and practical one I’ve found is the GoGroove FlexSMART X2.
This car accessory is powered by your car’s 12V outlet and allows you to connect your phone via Bluetooth or with the included 3.5mm AUX cable and then transmit your music over FM. But that’s just the beginning, as this little box is jam-packed with features, including a built-in microphone, controls for skipping tracks and answering incoming phone calls, a 5V/1A USB port for keeping your phone charged up, and it’s all mounted on a fully adjustable arm. This is the accessory you want if you’re looking for Bluetooth connectivity for your phone without investing in a new stereo deck. Priced at $35, you might be able to find a cheaper FM transmitter, but you will ultimately get what you pay for.