Sunday, March 11, 2012

Adding Bluetooth to my car stereo

A few months ago, I flirted with buying a new car. I've driven a Subaru B9 Tribeca for nearly 6 years, and I was attracted to a sedan that would get better mileage. The Tribeca's a fine vehicle, and since my commute has mostly involved driving to transportation (train in Illinois, the Google shuttle in California) instead of driving to work, it has very few miles on it (fewer than 50,000 miles). But I took a few cars for a test drive, and came close to pulling the trigger.

In the end, I didn't. A paid-for car is a beautiful thing, even if it doesn't get fantastic gas mileage. In deciding to keep the Tribeca though, one frustration stuck with me: the stereo was frustratingly limited. There was no line-in option and no Bluetooth connectivity - so I had no way to listen to anything other than broadcast radio or CDs, and taking calls in the car meant using a headset. (I never liked Bluetooth headsets, and the wired headsets were always clumsy to put in when a call came in.)

Last year I tried to solve this by adding a line-in port to the stereo, but ultimately failed. I ended up getting an FM transmitter (plugged into the headphone jack of my phone, and broadcast to one of a handful of FM frequencies to the car stereo), but the interference meant that even on relatively brief drives I'd have to change frequencies two or three times. I stopped using it after just a few months.

I was at Best Buy a few weekends ago, and wandered to the car stereo section. I asked one of the salesmen whether there was a solution that'd let me add Bluetooth to the vehicle. Sure enough, there was: he told me about the Parrot kits that do exactly that - but I'd need to obtain the wiring harness for my vehicle independently, get it to them, and then they'd sell me the Parrot kit and do the install. (Trivia: this is the same Parrot that makes the AR drones!) Total cost would be around $500 (more if I wanted them to mount the phone on the dashboard). That was more than I wanted to spend, but sounded like a pretty ideal solution.

The issue I'd run into last year was the inability to get the right wires into the existing harness, so even though I could hear the audio from the phone, it was very faint and a loud hum was constantly present (I suspect the line-in connection needed to be amplified and grounded). A wiring harness that would ensure everything connected properly would get around last year's obstacle.

Online I went, and here's how I added Bluetooth to my 6 year-old car stereo for just over $300:
  • Parrot MKi9200 ($180). This kit includes a microphone, a small dash-mounted LCD display to show call and audio information, a set of line-in cables (headphone, iPhone, USB), a remote (make/end calls, play/pause, next/previous, volume), and the junction box that routes the audio through the car's existing stereo.
  • Quickconnect QCSub-1 MK ($50). This is what makes the installation a pretty straightforward affair. You can ditch the spaghetti mess that ships with the Parrot kit - this harness is configured to plug directly into the Subaru's stereo and into the Parrot, making it a plug-and-play setup.
  • ProClip Vehicle Mount and Device Holder ($75). I'd tried suction-cup holders for my phone in the past, but inevitably would find them on the floor of the car as the suction would give way to gravity. (The last one I tried lasted just one afternoon.) Much like the Quickconnect site, you provide your year, make and model and they have a mounting bracket custom-sized for your vehicle, then you pick your device and you get a holder that is specifically tailored for your device.
Once everything arrived, installation took about 90 minutes. (I ran into one snag, but found this photo walk-through from a Tribeca owner who'd done the exact same install last year.) This is not a particularly difficult thing to do, but you do have to be comfortable removing the trim from your dashboard and disconnecting your stereo to get everything hooked up. With the wiring harness from Quickconnect, the only thing that was at all tricky was figuring out where/how to hide the wires for the microphone and the line-in cables - that'll vary by car but I was able to completely hide everything behind the car trim so that no wires are visible at all.

The end result is exactly what I was looking for. My Galaxy Nexus is firmly mounted to my dash, making it much easier to see and access (particularly for navigation). Sound quality is outstanding - I've listened to podcasts and music (via Rhapsody, Pandora and Google Music) and found the fidelity to be excellent. Sound quality for phone calls is similarly terrific - the caller comes through on all eight speakers in the vehicle so I hear them very clearly, and the mic is close enough to my face that they hear me well. (Callers have reported some road noise, but nothing that's interfered with hearing/understanding me.) I expect I'll have the car for another few years, and eliminating this annoyance from the vehicle has been a huge win.

One final note: a shout-out to Howard from Quickconnect, who provided the best customer support of any online purchase I've ever made. Within 20 minutes of me e-mailing when I ran into the installation snag, he replied (this was after business hours, mind you). No fewer than four more e-mails over the next two hours - including asking me to take pictures of the stereo and harnesses to isolate the issue I was having - and I was able to quickly figure out what I was doing wrong. In reading reviews online about Quickconnect, I see my experience is hardly unique - can't recommend them highly enough!

Note: links to Amazon use the Amazon Associates service - Amazon pays a small commission if anyone reads this and then buys the products linked here. The commissions end up either buying a few Kindle books or a gadget once in a while; mostly I just enjoy seeing data about whether anyone clicks through and buys the items I write about periodically!

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