There are many advantages to driving an older/classic car. There are, unfortunately, some downsides as well – such as the challenge of playing music/podcasts/audio from your phone via an old car’s stereo.
From saving money (if you’ve already got a perfectly serviceable car) to enjoying a more “connected” driving experience in the case of many classics, older cars are still a common sight on the road for a number of reasons.
However, there is one area where new cars unequivocally beat older cars, and that’s when it comes to connectivity and in-car entertainment.
All new cars – even the cheap ones – come with the ability to hook up your phone to your car stereo/ICE unit in order to play music, take and make phone calls, tap into navigation etc. Actual audio quality might vary greatly with cheap new cars sporting weak speakers etc, but the basic functionality is there.
But many old cars don’t have this capability. Bluetooth “car connectivity” is only something that is considered standard on relatively recent cars.
There are many cars driving around from the 70s, 80s, 90s and even early-to-mid 2000s that lack “modern” infotainment. In fact you can still find plenty of cars built up until a few years ago that don’t have particularly sophisticated audio systems by modern standards.
This lack of infotainment is something that can be a crippling blow for the aspirant classic car owner (or the person who already owns an older car).
Considering that even CDs are now a thing of the past – and many younger drivers will have grown up in an era where they’ve never owned any kind of physical music media like tapes or CDs – this can present a real challenge.
Gone are the days of having one of those padded multi-disc cases sitting in your glovebox (maybe even with this summer’s hottest mix on a burned CD – I can’t have been the only one to do that, right? ).
It is just about a “human right” to be able to play music from your phone or other smart device through your car speakers.
That’s why we have put together this ultimate guide to playing music from your phone in an older car (NB this would also apply to other devices like MP3 players or tablets that you might use for audio)
Adding additional capability to your older car can be a great way to give it a new lease of life. You might be able to enjoy many more years of happy motoring if you are able to get some more modern audio connectivity in your car.
So let’s look at how you can play music in an older car from your phone or other device.
Table of Contents
Does This Guide Cover Phone Calls & Navigation?
Because many of the products we talk about in this guide also have some phone and navigation capabilities, we will mention where appropriate.
However, the focus of this guide is primarily on music playback (including audiobooks, podcasts etc).
Modern smartphones support voice-only navigation anyway, so provided you can get sound out from your phone and into your car speakers you can just use that to aid your navigation.
Phone calls are a slightly different story, because not every aftermarket solution supports voice input. It’s generally possible to play call audio back on the speakers (via one of the solutions in this article) and then use the inbuilt microphone in your phone BUT you need to be wary of a couple of points:
Depending on the phone you have and the placement of it within the car, the call quality might be poor.
In many jurisdictions it is not legal to talk on “speakerphone” in the car – you have to have a specific handsfree kit that allows for making and taking calls without touching the phone itself, IF your car does not have its own built in hands-free connectivity like you’d find on most modern cars. Please check for your local rules and regulations first.
Where relevant we will make specific mention of navigation and call capabilities.
We are also planning on doing a specific article on call making/taking in older cars, so keep an eye out for that.
How CAN You Play Audio In An Older Car?
The first port of call is to look at the infotainment options that older cars tend to have.
By understanding the different options available, this makes it easier to decide what solution is right for your needs. This is not a fully comprehensive guide, but most of the common options are covered here.
Very old cars (namely ‘vintage’ cars from the early 20th Century) often had only an AM radio.
If your car just has an AM radio, then this is one of the trickiest problems to solve but we have found some solutions.
Any car built from the 1970s onwards will have FM radio, as far as we’re aware.
Realistically, it’s unlikely that the kind of person using a car with an AM-only radio would be using it for anything other than occasional use (e.g. taking to car meets or shows) so it’s probably not too big of a problem, but worth mentioning anyway.
A number of older cars only have FM radio available, without any kind of tape deck or CD player.
This is about as simple as it gets when it comes to car stereos. There’s not too much more to say here!
CD Player, Stacker Etc
At one point in time, the humble CD was very much cutting-edge technology.
These days most people haven’t bought a CD in years.
Most cars from the 1990s up until relatively recently will include a CD player, and many higher end cars even featured CD “stackers” which allowed you to load in multiple discs. The first mass production car to feature a CD player was the 1987 Lincoln Town Car.
Unlike the tape deck (which allows for the use of a cassette adapter) if your car only has a CD player there is no ‘plug in’ adapter available. For example you can’t buy a “CD to AUX’ adapter.
Generally-speaking a car with a CD player will have an FM radio, so you can look at a bluetooth FM transmitter as a potential option.
Cassette tape players in cars were available earlier in the 20th Century than you might think.
The tape – as a music storage medium – is perhaps best associated with the 1980s, invoking memories of such nostalgic items as the original Sony Walkman (which was actually released in 1979).
However, Phillips was the first to introduce a cassette tape player in a car stereo back in 1968, with the RN582 stereo.
Ford had introduced an 8-Track tape player a few years earlier as well.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that tape decks started to become a more common car stereo feature, but by the 1980s and into the 1990s these were commonplace.
Although tape is generally viewed as a bit of a garbage storage medium versus the CD that followed it, having a tape player in your older car does provide one distinct advantage – there are some decent tape adapters that you can purchase for little cost, which allow music playback from your phone.
The last car to be sold new in America and feature cassette tape functionality was the 2010 Lexus SC430. Many manufacturers had long given up on tape decks by this point.
AUX & iPod/USB Input
Starting from the mid 2000s, many cars came from the factory with AUX/3.5mm inputs, and sometimes iPod inputs (for the original iPod cable, or sometimes USB input for more generic MP3 devices).
If your car has an AUX input and you want wireless audio playback, then there are a number of excellent AUX to bluetooth adapters on the market that work well enough for what they are. You’re never going to get perfect audio, but this can be an inexpensive way to massively enhance the connectivity of your car.
Some cars – such as select Audi models from the mid 2000s – came with their own connector systems such as Audi’s “AMI” which allowed for a direct iPod connection.
Other manufacturers had their own systems as well – it pays to check on your exact make and model of car to see what might be possible.
The good news is that many of these systems have aftermarket options for superior connectivity in the modern age.
For example you can buy Audi AMI adapters on Amazon and other sites that allow AUX and even Bluetooth connectivity!
If your car has some kind of “stereo cable” then start by searching for any potential aftermarket adapters that allow AUX or bluetooth function. This can be one of the best ways to enhance your connectivity for little cost.
Hard Drive Playback
Some car stereos come with hard drive playback. This is something we’ve seen on a lot of JDM cars, as well as cars that were sold new in Japan but which were not necessarily JDM. This feature has also shown up on all sorts of European and American cars over the years.
For example, the Panasonic Strava Stereo fitted to this Japanese-import Volvo V70 has a hard drive, which can be loaded with music. One thing to note with this particular stereo is that it actually has a Bluetooth playback capability, which is buried away under a number of Japanese menu screens.
The way you load the music is via CD or MiniDisc (a bit of an obscure technology that we won’t cover in this guide) and you can therefore turn your car stereo into a giant MP3 player.
If you have an existing physical music media collection and are happy to go ‘old school’ compared to modern tech, this can be a quirky and interesting option.
No Man’s Land
One of the editors of this site used to have a tennis coach who would tell him to never play in ‘No Man’s Land’ – the middle of the court. You either play at the net or at the base line, but never in the middle.
Car audio is a little bit like this. There was a period of time where car manufacturers were stuck in ‘no man’s land’ fitting stereos with non-standard dimensions that only had CD and radio functionality.
This was a bit of a trend in the mid-2000s, when cassette tapes were already ancient technology so tape players weren’t included in stereos, and iPods/MP3 players (which were the “genesis” of AUX inputs on cars) weren’t yet particularly widespread.
This meant that on some cars you’d get a stereo that could tune in to AM/FM radio, and play CDs, and not a whole lot else.
The Fiat Stilo Abarth is a great example of this ‘No Man’s Land’ of car infotainment. It has a stereo that plays CDs and has radio capability, as well as a rudimentary sat nav system. While it can theoretically be replaced with a Double DIN unit, this requires an aftermarket fascia kit and can be a bit of a pain to install.
The good news is that whatever age, make, or model of your car, there will be some way to get music playback from your phone or other device.
Potential Solutions To Play Audio In An Older Car
Depending on the nature of what is currently available in your car with regards to audio playback, let’s look at some potential solutions that will allow you to play music in an older car.
There might be more than one option that will work; further on we rank the best choices.
Check Your Current Stereo Thoroughly
A family member recently purchased a 2006 Volvo V70, which came in from Japan with a rather funky looking Panasonic Strava stereo (which even has the ability to fold out from the dash with a button click).
At first glance, it appeared that this car’s stereo supported the full gamut of ageing technologies (radio, CD, HDD playback and even MiniDisc) but did not have Bluetooth.
However, some digging around through obscure Japanese instruction manuals revealed that there is a Bluetooth option. It doesn’t support call-taking, but is perfect for audio streaming!
The moral of this story is to make sure that you thoroughly inspect and test what your current audio system is capable of doing. There’s no point in buying an adapter or upgrading your stereo if your current one can do what you want with a bit of tweaking.
Porting Around An External Speaker
Another option you’ve got is to carry around a portable speaker that you can place in your car and then connect up to your phone or music device.
Something like a UE Boom will be easy enough to place in a door card or possibly even cup holder, and there are portable speaker options to suit every budget.
The downsides of this approach:
- You have to carry around another device with you, or leave it in your car permanently (which is a theft risk especially if you forget to hide it when you park your car)
- Sound quality won’t be as good as having a proper setup through your car speakers.
- Portable speakers are battery-powered, meaning you need to remember to recharge them.
However, if you’ve got an old car and you just want some tunes for a road trip, then this can be quite a good option especially if you already have an external speaker at your disposal.
For our sins, the editors of this site have used this solution on a number of occasions.
Wearing Headphones In The Car
One solution we have seen is to wear headphones or earbuds in your car, and then play music off your phone like you might do when going for a walk or hitting the gym.
We really don’t like this option, because wearing headphones or any other kind of ‘in-ear’ device that is playing music back to you will affect your ability to hear what is going on around you.
Driving with headphones on is dangerous in our view, and in some jurisdictions it’s illegal anyway.
This is an option to be avoided, unless you like placing yourself and other road users at unnecessary risk.
If you don’t believe us, check out this study here which has some interesting data on the effects of wearing headphones while driving.
AUX & Other Cable Type Adapters
If you are lucky enough to have an AUX input in your car, then you’ve got a number of options.
The first is just to go ‘old school’ and connect up your phone to your stereo via a wired connection. This was easier “back in the day” when all phones came with headphone jacks – many phones these days do not, so you’ll need to invest in something like this USB-C to AUX adapter that will allow you to connect up your modern smartphone. One annoying thing about using an adapter like this is that you won’t then be able to charge your phone while listening to music, unless you also have something like a wireless charging pad that is running off your cigarette lighter/12v socket.
Another option is to use a bluetooth to AUX adapter (we are currently working on a detailed review/buyer’s guide for some of the most popular of these). You connect the adapter to your AUX port, and then connect your phone to the adapter via bluetooth … voila, you have wireless sounds!
If you do have an AUX port/input in your car, then a bluetooth adapter for AUX is probably going to be your best option for wireless sounds, short of swapping in an entirely new head unit.
If you value sound quality more than wireless functionality, then your best option is the wired approach. Although it isn’t as convenient, you are almost certainly going to get better sound and fewer hassles with connectivity.
Don’t forget that some cars came with other wired audio input configurations, such as conventional USB or even “proprietary” systems like Audi’s AMI system.
If your car stereo has one of these input options, then chances are there is probably an adapter to suit that will add additional functionality.
Bluetooth FM Transmitters
One of the most popular aftermarket methods for adding wireless audio connectivity to an older car is to use a Bluetooth FM transmitter.
We recently did a detailed review on some of the top selling Bluetooth FM transmitters that are available on Amazon.com – you can read that review and buyer’s guide here.
If you have a car that lacks an AUX or other wired input, and which does not have a tape deck either (i.e. you’re in that “No Man’s Land”) and you aren’t looking to swap out your stereo, then a Bluetooth FM transmitter is probably the best option.
FM transmitters can also come with microphones to allow for handsfree calling, as well as other features like LCD screens to show what song is playing or who you are talking to on the phone.
As our other guide is much more detailed, check it out here.
Overall we aren’t the biggest fans of FM transmitters/adapters, simply because they can be a bit unreliable and the sound quality isn’t always great. If you live in a busy area, for example, then it might be hard to find an empty radio frequency that allows for reliable connection.
However, as a ‘last resort’ option you can still get decent results from a Bluetooth FM transmitter, and our guide linked above will help you to find the best product for your needs and budget.
You can get basic versions of these dirt cheap off Aliexpress if you are on a super-tight budget. Here’s one we found with some very poorly translated promotional messaging!
Wired FM Transmitters For Cars
If FM radio transmission is the only workable option for getting audio from your phone and out of your car speakers, then one other option to consider is a wired FM transmitter for your car.
With a Bluetooth FM transmitter, you stream the music from your phone to the transmitter via Bluetooth in a wireless fashion. The transmitter then “broadcasts” the signal to your car stereo which is tuned into a particular station.
With a wired FM transmitter for your car, the second half of the equation is the same BUT instead of audio going from your phone/device to the transmitter via Bluetooth, you achieve this via AUX input.
The advantages of a wired FM transmitter are that you will generally get better sound quality than a Bluetooth device, as well as better reliability as you don’t have to worry about the Bluetooth connection part (most of us have probably had Bluetooth connectivity issues in the past).
If you’re not too fussed on the Bluetooth part, then a simple wired FM transmitter for your car like the following is probably a good option, and very affordable.
AM Radio Transmitters
If you have a vintage car that only has AM radio, your options are substantially more limited. However, there are some specialist suppliers of AM radio transmitters (that function in a similar manner to FM transmitters but generally require the audio device such as your phone to be plugged in).
For example here’s a product we found that is sold on Etsy that works as a car-compatible AM radio transmitter.
You definitely aren’t getting the height of sophistication here, but if you have a vintage car with AM-only radio and you really need to add in more connectivity, then you’ve got to take what you can get!
Tape Deck/Cassette Adapters
If your older car has a functioning tape/cassette deck, then you’re in luck. There are actually some rather decent options for adding more modern connectivity to your tape-powered car stereo. While tape might be completely ancient tech, having a tape deck in your older car is a godsend when it comes to cheap improvements to audio connectivity.
Cassette To AUX Adapter
One of the best options is to use a tape to AUX adapter, if you are happy to go with a wired connection to your phone or audio device.
You can pick up a basic tape to AUX adapter such as this for pocket change on sites like Amazon (click here to view Amazon’s range of cassette adapters).
Aliexpress has a number of dirt cheap options. In fact we found this particular product – which doesn’t look to be the world’s greatest piece of engineering but probably more than adequate – for less than $1 excluding shipping with a new user Aliexpress discount code.
If you’re out on a road trip, then many gas stations and auto parts stores (as well as general electronics and hardware stores) sell this type of product.
One of the editors of Garage Dreams relied on a tape to AUX adapter for a number of years in his Mazda Sentia, and it did a sterling job with impeccable reliability. This was just a cheap adapter purchased from a big box retailer, but it did what it needed to with no fuss.
Sound quality is never going to be amazing, simply because cassette tapes themselves never had incredible sound. But if you have a tape deck and don’t mind plugging in, this is your best option by far.
Cassette To Bluetooth Adapter
If you have a tape deck but fancy wireless connectivity via Bluetooth, then there are some tape to Bluetooth adapters available.
These work in a similar way to tape to AUX adapters, except that instead of connecting your phone via a cable you connect it to the adapter via Bluetooth.
Sound quality on these is generally a step below that of the wired adapters, but if you really value wireless connectivity, then this could be a good option.
They are more expensive and less reliable than using a cassette to AUX option, but if you need wireless then it’s well worth investigating here.
Aftermarket Head Units
If you have a bit more to spend, then the best option in many respects is to install an entirely new ‘head unit’ into your car.
This is what one of the editors of this site did with his Volkswagen Touareg, for example.
A new head unit was fitted by the car dealer that allowed for bluetooth audio streaming, hands-free calls, and even a reverse camera was added.
Aftermarket head-units/stereos can also add other great features like Apple Carplay and Android Auto, and can generally be hooked up to any steering wheel controls your car has (although this doesn’t always work particularly well).
For only a few hundred dollars, this was a great addition to the car that thoroughly modernised its capabilities.
Most cars – especially those from the 1990s and early 2000s – come with a DIN or Double-DIN stereo from the factory (long story short this is a ‘standardised’ dimension stereo head unit).
You should therefore be able to source an
The only reasons not to install an aftermarket headunit to improve the connectivity of your old car – in our view – are as follows:
- Budget concerns – If you’re on a tight budget and just need some tunes, then swapping out your stereo might not be affordable. You can pickup a bluetooth FM transmitter for less than twenty bucks, for example, but you probably need to budget at least a couple of hundred dollars for a new stereo (including installation) unless you plan on doing it yourself.
- Preserving your car’s originality – Another reason not to swap out the stereo is to preserve the originality of your car. Aftermarket stereos can look out of place in classic cars, and if your goal is to keep your car “period correct” then you might not be willing to change out the headunit. Some cars might require modification – including cutting of the dashboard – in order to fit a different stereo, and it’s understandable why you might not be keen on that.
- There may not be any suitable alternative – As mentioned above, many cars have DIN/Double-DIN stereos. However, many cars do not, and can have proprietary fit head units, or even systems that are required to do things like control the AC system and so an aftermarket unit is not an option. In this case you’ve got to look at one of the alternatives! One thing to note is that many cars which appear to have ‘bespoke’ stereo configurations do in fact have DIN/Double-DIN stereos with different fascias/front plates that make the system look hard to replace so it pays to Google for your specific car make/model. Sometimes you will just need a fascia kit to ensure that your new stereo doesn’t look out of place.
If you are looking at upgrading to an aftermarket head unit, then it pays to do your research.
There are a staggering number of options available, from “no name” Aliexpress units through to stereos from industry-leading brands like Sony, Pioneer and more.
In our experience, the no name units (which are easily available on sites like Amazon) can be a bit hit and miss.
One family member has a Subaru Legacy with an inexpensive aftermarket stereo installed from some never-heard-of-it-before brand. It is unreliable in its function, and laggy to respond to inputs. It also has a problem whereby the radio has a different volume setting to the rest of the car, which means that if you had the volume up on your Bluetooth audio when last driving and then you restart the car (which defaults to the radio) you will just about go deaf!
On the other hand, the stereo fitted to the editor’s Volkswagen Touareg – a “Lumina” branded unit, which is presumably some kind of white-label brand – is actually rather good. It is easy to use and responsive to inputs.
If you value sound quality and functionality, then you are best to save up and get something from one of the reputable car audio brands.
However, if you just want a basic aftermarket stereo that allows you to connect up your phone via Bluetooth, then you may well be happy with one of the cheaper options available on sites like Amazon.
This particular unit seems to be the best-rated Double-DIN we could find for under $100 – on special – excluding installation.
It pays to check your local Facebook marketplace listings, Craigslist, eBay etc as you can often pick up aftermarket stereos for cheap. However, do be wary of stolen units … if the deal looks to good to be true, then it probably is.
Many car dealerships and audio installers will have their own recommended line of these products as well, so if you’re not confident installing one yourself, then you can find an expert in your area.
Specific Use Cases & FAQs
In this section we answer specific questions/”use cases” we have seen people ask:
Where To Buy Audio Adapters?
There are a number of different places to buy audio adapters of all types, from radio transmitters to AUX devices.
Our recommendations are as follows:
- Amazon.com – stocks a wide range of these types of products, and seeing user reviews before purchasing is handy.
- Aliexpress – once again a massive range is available, however it can be harder to discern bad products from good. One thing to note is that many of the products you see on Amazon are actually Aliexpress products (more correctly Alibaba products) that have been re-branded. If you’re happy to deal with the Aliexpress interface and potentially slow shipping, you can save decent money buying from here.
- Local auto stores, electronics stores and big box retailers – If you don’t want to shop online or you need something quickly, then just about any decent auto store, electronics store or big box retailer like Walmart will stock this category of product. Your choices will be more limited and you might pay more than you’d like, but if you need something ASAP then look in-store. We have also seen products like Bluetooth FM transmitters sold in gas stations.
How Do You Play Music In A Car Without An AUX?
If you don’t have an AUX port in your car, then the first thing to do is see if you have a tape deck/tape slot.
If so, we would recommend investing in a tape deck adapter.
If you don’t have a tape deck, then you need to look at using a Bluetooth FM transmitter or upgrading your stereo.
Can You Add An AUX Input To An Older Car?
Sometimes it is possible to actually add an AUX input to an older car stereo, without replacing the stereo with a new unit.
This is often the case if a car was sold in different trim/spec levels, with the higher spec having an AUX input while the base model did not.
This might also be the case if your car has some kind of proprietary connector that has an aftermarket AUX adapter available.
Google for your car make/model to see if this is possible.
How Can You Add Bluetooth Music Capability To Your Old Car?
The best way to add Bluetooth music capability to your old car is to invest in a new stereo head unit. You can then connect your phone directly to your new stereo via Bluetooth.
If that isn’t an option for budget or other reasons, then the alternatives are:
- Using a Bluetooth to AUX adapter if the car has an AUX port
- Using a Bluetooth to tape adapter if the car has a tape deck
- Using a Bluetooth FM transmitter if your car only as an FM radio (or FM radio + CD player combo)
Do AUX Adapters Affect Sound Quality?
Long story short, any audio adapter of any description has the ability to impact on sound quality in a negative way.
The best way to keep the highest possible sound quality is to stick to wired options (e.g. using your AUX input with a cable as opposed to using an AUX to bluetooth adapter).
The more “connections” you add when chaining different adapters together, the greater the risk of interference and reduced audio fidelity.
However, for the vast majority of motorists, audio adapter products offer “good enough” sound quality without having to go through the hassle and expense associated with having a new stereo headunit installed.
If you consider yourself an audiophile, then you won’t likely be happy with the output of any kind of adapter product, and so your best bet will be to invest in an aftermarket stereo with good sound quality.
From our own research and tests, there is substantial variance between different adapter options when it comes to sound quality. For example, we recently did a detailed review of five of the most popular bluetooth FM transmitters available for sale on Amazon. While some of the transmitters had very respectable sound quality, others were not so good and had poor sound.
Therefore, whatever option you are looking to buy, it’s important to do your homework first before purchasing.
Conclusion – How To Add Music Playback To Your Older Car
Few things age a car quite like having an outdated infotainment system.
The modern car buyer – even if buying a modest new vehicle – is accustomed to being able to connect up their phone for audio streaming, call taking etc.
This is something that many take for granted.
However, whether you are driving an older car because that is your primary form of transport, or you are getting into classics and wanting to try and sure up a bit more connectivity and functionality, you will quite quickly notice the lack of options that many older cars have when it comes to audio and music playback.
This guide has covered a number of different ways to play music from your phone in an older car.
As mentioned in the introduction to this guide, the best option – if budget allows – is to consider installing a new stereo head unit. This will allow the most modern interface possible, and also add additional capabilities (depending on what you purchase) like Apple Carplay and Android Auto.
However, if you are just after an inexpensive solution or you have some other reason why your car cannot have an upgraded head unit (such as there being no compatible options) then the good news is that there are plenty of aftermarket adapters available.
You should try avoiding radio transmitter devices wherever possible, as these tend to have the worst sound quality and the most issues. That being said, if you have no other option this is still a decent way to upgrade the connectivity of your older car.