My New Car Stereo, or Arthur C. Clarke Was Right

This Friday, I'm packing a few boxes into my beloved beige Corolla named Jesse Quick, firing up my TomTom GPS, and leaving South Florida for good. The destination for this round-faced man? My new home near Denver. Yes, I'm driving. And yes, I name all my cars after female superheroes.

I love epic solo road trips like this one. They give me plenty of quiet time to process the gobs of stuff in my head -- process some baggage, brainstorm creative and entrepreneurial ideas, the works. But I love my tunes and podcasts, and my 8-year-old car stereo has been giving up the ghost for the past two years.

My drives were filled with First World problems. The detachable faceplate took great glee in spontaneously detaching. When it was attached, the connectors to the radio proper would misalign, often resulting in me jabbing buttons to no effect, or watching the digital display flash like a discotheque strobe. Sometimes the only way to get things working again was to play the lone CD I own, a Conway Twitty greatest hits album. (Anyone who doesn't love Conway's Hello Darlin' has no heart.) Finally, the auxiliary cable that snaked through the dashboard -- which connected to my iPod's headphone jack -- was falling apart from the inside, resulting in audio playing through the right speakers only.

Like I said, First World problems. But I love my tunes and podcasts. I used the road trip to rationalize an upgrade.

Solemnly determined to Never Again be foiled by the degrading guts of auxiliary cables (for all cables' guts degrade after daily wear and tear), I decided to look for a replacement that used Bluetooth technology to wirelessly stream the audio from my iPhone to the stereo. It had been nearly a decade since I'd done research on stereos, so I expected this tech would be well out of my $200 budget.

radio

Not so. I browsed a local Best Buy store, talked to a few very helpful and pateint employees on site, and zeroed in on the Sony MEX-BT2800. Bluetooth built-in. $159. For another $50 and a 30-minute wait, I could have it installed right there, they said. After a few days of hemming and hawing, I pulled the trigger this morning.

I spent most of the day driving around the area, running errands and giving the radio a workout.

I fully understand that what I'm about to describe isn't breaking news for car nerds or tech-heads. But for me, it's been a day of living the famous Arthur C. Clarke quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." This shit is miraculous:

  • Indeed, the music plays on my iPhone and transmits wirelessly to my stereo. Not a cable in sight.
  • I'm not an audiophile, but I honestly cannot tell a difference between the quality of this wireless Bluetooth connection and the wired solution in my last stereo.
  • In fact, the sound quality piping though my 8-year-old speakers is better than my old Kenwood, but that's probably a testament to the Sony's newfangled sound-making innards more than the Bluetooth.
  • I can wirelessly skip tracks on my iPhone, forward and reverse, using the stereo's buttons. I can pause too.
  • I can switch to music-free "phone mode," activate the hands-free feature using the stereo's built-in microphone, and vocally tell my iPhone to play specific artists and playlists. I then switch back to "Bluetooth audio" mode and listen to the accessed music.
  • Using "phone mode," I can do voice-activated dialing too.
  • If I get a call while the phone's wirelessly connected to the stereo, I can answer and disconnect calls with a tap of the radio's volume knob. The music fades out, and I hear the caller's voice through my car's speakers. I'm told the radio's mic works great. The music fades back in when the call's done.
  • I can also pipe the TomTom GPS' voice through my speakers (thanks to the GPS' own Bluetooth technology), but this eliminates my ability to listen to music via the iPhone. (Only one device can pipe audio to the radio at a time, my only minor gripe.)
  • If I have an audio player that doesn't have Bluetooth, I can always connect it via a front-facing minijack aux port.
  • The stereo also has some nice equalizer presets, for fiddle-free -- and to me, impressive -- results. Lady Gaga never sounded so good.

Plus a CD player, FM/AM (which sports a whiz-bang feature that shows what song's playing on the radio) and a crapload of other probably-standard-fare features that delight this old schooler.

Abracadabra, all for $159. (Or for $119, currently at Amazon.) For the kind of driver I happen to be -- I reckon my audio quality demands are average or a teensy smidgen above that -- on a less-than-average budget, it's a steal. Incredible value here.

And no wires, man. Hallelujah.

Come Friday, the world beyond South Florida won't be ready for Jesse Quick and the round-faced man behind her wheel.

I got magic in my car, see.

--J.C.