How do I get a car stereo with a "normal" user interface?

This question is going to border on IMHO, but I’m really trying to find an answer.

I’m shopping for a car stereo. I want one that plays MP3 discs. This apparently means I have to settle for the god-awful UI’s that appeal to teenage boys who just want the flashiest looking stereo on the block.

I like my factory stereo (but alas, it’s dying). I like a volume knob that’s not overloaded to have 14 different functions. I don’t want or need it to scroll “Alpine” across the display when I turn it on, and I don’t need it to have “screensaver mode” or space-wasting animations of spinning discs to indicate that, yes, it’s playing music (I can hear that, thanks). What I do want is for it to be easy to navigate the music library on the disc, and not expect me to know that the Miles Davis is in “FOLDER 01” and the James Brown is in “FOLDER 02”.

And lest anyone think I’m some kind of technophobe who just isn’t going to be capable of dealing with the massive complexity of a device that plays MP3’s, I give you the squeezebox, which has an incredibly elegant and simple UI for working with a large music library. It’s the way the car stereos ought to be.

So I ask you folks: are there high-tech car stereos designed for, uh, more mature people who value usability over flashiness? Where do I find them?

You could just use an iPod or other MP3 player that has an FM transmitter attachment available, and play through a simple car radio.

The Clarion ones aren’t hideous. At least they’re mostly black.

I bought a Clarion MP3/CD stereo a few months ago and I like it. It is all black like you said and the display is blue. It does have a screensaver but you can turn that off if you want. Other, than that, it seems pretty simple and “normal” to me.

One fo the few non-bling bling car stereo brands out there is Becker. Unfortunately, like all good things it seems, the brand is not available in the US. Clarion is probably the way to go.

I have a Kenwood MP3 stereo that I use daily. The display has a few animated modes, but I’ve turned those off, since the novelty is over. I do like that the display can show what’s playing based on the ID3 codes in the MP3 file. And my volume knob does nothing but adjust the volume. Then again, when I bought it it was the cheapest MP3 player Kenwood made (had to be a Kenwood to work with my CD changer), so maybe you just need to set your sights lower.

I have a Pioneer head unit. I was looking for the same thing you were: a non-flashy interface. My Pioneer has a nice, unadorned volume knob, simple display, and some extremely nice features. Price: $150-350 at Best Buy depending on what features you want. Check it out.

(Of course, this is for a CD player…I’m not sure if Pioneer makes MP3 players, so my entire post may be moot. :))

You might want to look into the specs further. Most car MP3 players have a variety of display options settings re how the message can be displayed (ie static, scrolling, title, time, etc.) It’s not just the default eye catching/annoying mode you see in the store.

There are brands of car audio that probably fall along the lines you’re looking for, but most of them are pretty spendy. (A brand called “McIntosh” (sp?) comes to mind.)

I also dislike the bling-bling design of current affordable but crappy car HU’s, so I went with an Eclipse model that had all the right stuff, and a minimal amount of the bling-bling crap. I forget the model number, but it has suprisingly high end features (including MP3 compatibility) for such a drab and boring looking solid-state face with two knobs.

Thing is, you have to remember the market that most car CD players are meant to appeal to. Most older adults drive newer higher end cars that already have them, and the factory units are high enough quality these days to last the life of the car, so the market is pretty much driven by teens in Honda Civics.

It’s not just the display that makes a unit bling-bling; it’s the overall design. No right angles, irregular-shaped buttons and displays lined up at strange angles, lots of chrome, and other things that make a head unit visually incompatible with all but the most riced out Civic. You can turn off the displays of most units, but the bling-bling will still show through. Car recievers now look like they were exposed to extreme heat for several hours, with chrome added to any resulting raised surface.

I’m with AndrewT. Try an MP3 player.

I use my iPod in the car all the time. I have an inexpensive add-on called an iTrip that broadcasts on FM. I set the car’s radio to an otherwise unused frequency, program the iTrip to match it, and go. My only complaint is some static, especially during quiet passages. When I get to my destination, I can just grab the iPod, attach speakers or headphones, and keep on listening.

When I replace the vehicle (or the radio, whichever goes first), I plan to buy a no-frills CD player with an external jack so that I can plug the iPod in directly. That’s what I do with it at home.

Another major advantage of doing it this way is that I set up all of my playlists on the computer at home, using my nice big monitor and a real keyboard/mouse. I have tons of playlists, by genre (rock, classical, R&B…), mood (instrumental, vocal harmonies, humor & parody…), location (loud environments, work…), and some that are hard to classify (e.g., favorite guitar riffs).

In the iPod, it’s very easy to just pick a different playlist, and there’s no fumbling around with bizarre UIs or changing CDs.

blaupunkt used to have some simple UI models. They have joined the bing-bling bandwagon in recent years, so it may take some searching. While gathering this information, I noticed that their non-US models are still sensible in design.

I felt the same way when I was installing a system a few years back.
Here is what I ended up with.

Nice links, elmwood. The fact that the display is listed as a feature in the second one makes me want to cry.

I should add that I’m steadfastly against the idea of using an ipod or other external mp3 player in my car. I used to do this with a portable cd player back before CD head units were common, and I just won’t do it again. As pragmatic as it is, it’s a pain in the ass and just not what I consider an elegant solution. At the very least, I’d require the type of setup that allows the ipod to be controlled from the head unit (rather than having to fumble for it on the seat next to me), and that requires a new head unit anyway. In addition, I like to keep loose valuable stuff in my car to a minimum, since it’s a convertible and I like to be able to park it with the top down without worrying that someone’s going to walk off with my ipod. Saying “just unplug it and take it with you / put it in the trunk” is a nice idea that’s just plain not worth the hassle to me.

A self-contained head unit is a convenient and affordable solution. I just wish it wasn’t also a UI nightmare. I’ll check into the recommended brands and see what they’ve got. (although I already looked at the Kenwood pretty hard and the UI has been de-blinged, but it’s also damn near unusable when compared to the semi-blingy Alpine units)

That looks amazingly reasonable. As long as it’s usable (and I’d obviously want a model that does mp3), I’d be all over it.

What’s the downside of buying a non-US model stereo if I’m going to use it in the US? Are the channel frequencies different? Different broadcast standards?

Sorry, I should have been more clear; the unit I ended up with is a US model (now retired AFAIK). I don’t know what installing an import would require different, if anything. Hopefully a import auto expert will be along with details because now I am interested to find out.

Hate to go off-topic a bit, but what’s the difference between an MP3 disc versus say just bruning MP3s onto a CD?

space pure and simple. 12-18 songs on a music cd vs around 600 songs on an mp3 cd.

the CD3414 looks like the most affordable unit they have with MP3 compatibility. That unit should cost around $225.

AM statons are spaced at 9 KHz in Europe, 10 KHz in North America.

European FM stations are spaced at closer intervals than in North America; 50 KHz vs 200KHz. A European tuner will tune North American stations, but scanning will take longer, and possibly lock off-frequency because of the more granular channel spacing.

FM de-emphasis is 50 microseconds for Europe, and 75ms in North America. I used a European grey market Nakamichi FM tuner here in the US, and the audio sounded fine, but a purist may notice a slight difference from a US market tuner.

As pope_hentai mentioned, you can fit a lot more on the disc. You can also group your music into albums/folders and see the artist name and title of each song. (CD Text lets you put track names on a regular CD, but I don’t think you can have separate artist names for each track.)

I have a JVC KD-SX990 (now discontinued) in my car. The colors are a little flashy, but I’ve seen much worse. My last car MP3 player was an Aiwa, with a motorized face that quickly stopped working, and a pointless blue bar of light across the bottom.