An upgraded model of a consumer favorite. Features quick-charging capability and easy to use on/off button. Dual connectivity. Compact design. Earns praise for excellent sound quality. Comes at a reasonable price.
Bluetooth occasionally drops connection. Rare incidences of "lemon" models.
Pairs more quickly than you might expect. Unit is easy to use right out of the box. Nice option in older vehicles with basic audio systems. Results are very pleasing considering the below average price point.
Won't fit all devices because of design of plug. Some questions about longevity.
Offers 2 USB ports so 1 can be used for charging at any time. Sharp LED screen ensures you can adjust settings accurately. Fairly easy to set up and use. Impressive results considering its price tag.
Makes use of older Bluetooth 3.0 version. May not last as long as others.
Easily streams music from any Bluetooth capable device with automatic connections. Audio quality ranks among the best on the market. Simple design that looks natural in the car. Also offers hands-free smartphone answering.
Needs a 3.5mm audio input to car stereo. Some issues with intermittent connections.
Offers Bluetooth 4.0 support. Built-in microphone offers clear audio quality for hands-free calling. Popular device with good music replay quality. Automatic shut-off feature conserves battery power. Works great in older vehicles.
Intermittent connections cause problems with audio quality and usability.
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The world of car audio has evolved at a dizzying pace. In the last several years, we’ve gone from listening to CDs to using car stereos as extensions of our smartphones and streaming any song we can think of from the internet. The problem is, we upgrade our tech a lot more often than we upgrade our cars, so many drivers are left with modern devices that can’t connect to their less than modern vehicles. That’s where Bluetooth car kits come in.
Bluetooth car kits are adapters that plug in to an existing car stereo and provide Bluetooth connectivity for streaming music and phone calls. With a Bluetooth car kit, you can stream any audio from your smartphone to the car stereo, making your music easy to listen to and your calls clear.
Read on for the lowdown on Bluetooth car kits, then check out our five recommended models … and get ready to bring the future to the driver’s seat!
Every Bluetooth car kit needs power, and the option that will work best for you depends on the layout of your car and the location of the inputs. As you shop for a kit, pay special attention to how each is powered to determine which approach is best for you. Bluetooth car kits are powered in one of three ways.
The most common way to power Bluetooth car kits is via USB. This approach is great, so long as your car has a USB port that’s near your auxiliary 3.5mm input jack (or you don’t mind stringing wires around your car). If your auxiliary jack is only near a car power outlet, you can buy a USB adapter for it.
Bluetooth car kits that run on batteries are great for wire-free control, but all batteries eventually wear out. If you don’t mind recharging your adapter once in a while, a battery-powered unit is the simplest option. (Also, keep in mind that some battery-powered Bluetooth car kits also support USB charging.)
Perhaps better known as the “cigarette lighter receptacle,” every car has a unique port for delivering power, and some Bluetooth car kits interface directly with it. While this approach is the rarest – and certainly the bulkiest – it is wire-free and doesn’t require recharging.
If you’re going on a long drive with a Bluetooth car kit, plug in your phone so it charges while streaming. Streaming music over Bluetooth isn’t a tremendous drain on the battery, but it will deplete it over time.
Most Bluetooth car kits support streaming both music and phone calls, but many models focus on one or the other. As you consider different models, think about your priorities. You might be able to save some significant money.
Bluetooth car kits that focus on music aren’t very flashy, but they’re great for anyone who likes to “set it and forget it.” That said, audio-focused Bluetooth car kits often skimp on amenities designed for phone calls, such as external microphones or one-touch call buttons.
Bluetooth car kits that focus on phone calls often include better microphones that can be placed anywhere in the car. These almost always require a constant power source (rather than batteries). Most have easy-to-use controls, such as a Mute button, for interacting with phone calls.
If you expect to spend an equal amount of time listening to music and making phone calls, we recommend getting a Bluetooth car kit that focuses on phone calls. A flexible microphone can be essential for making sure others can hear you, and most phones allow you to update equalizer audio settings to get the most out of any playback hardware.
Many drivers buy extra-short USB cables for their Bluetooth car kits. Depending on your car’s interior dimensions, you might want to pick up a three-inch or six-inch USB cable.
Most Bluetooth car kits fall into one of two categories: hands-free devices configured mostly on a smartphone, or physical interfaces that handle the most common tasks.
Neither approach is better than the other, but think about which interface will work best for you and your car as you’re shopping for a kit.
Hands-free kits usually have just one button (the Bluetooth pairing button), leaving the rest to your smartphone. Designs vary, but in general, hands-free Bluetooth car kits are small devices with an audio cable and a USB cable. These kits are ideal for music lovers or people who have cars with limited space.
Physical-interface kits are often phone-centric designs. They sport display screens that show things like Caller ID and have buttons with one-touch access for hanging up or speed-dialing. These kits are bulky, but anyone who prioritizes quick, easy calls that sound great will appreciate them.
Bluetooth car kits don’t connect to any preexisting audio controls in the steering wheel. If you want Bluetooth connectivity in your car, and you absolutely must keep your steering-wheel controls, consider buying a new car stereo that supports both.
There are a lot of great values in the Bluetooth car kit market, and a lot of overpriced gear, too. You can expect to pay between $14 and $35 for a kit.
In the $14 to $19 range, you’ll find basic, serviceable Bluetooth car kits. At this price point, you can expect a dongle that will get the job done – but not much else. Bluetooth car kits in this price range are perfect for frequent travelers who want to be able to stream music and phone calls no matter what car they’re in.
In the $20 to $35 range, expect to see a mix of high-end, hands-free kits and models with buttons optimized for phone calls. If you take a lot of calls in the car, or if you want a basic unit that has a few extra features (like spare USB ports), look at kits at the top end of the price range.
Some Bluetooth car kits include a “car locator” feature, making it easy to use your phone to spot your car in a crowded parking lot.
Before buying a Bluetooth car kit, consider these tips.
Don’t buy a kit that’s also labeled as an FM transmitter. Some Bluetooth car kits also include mini radio transmitters, which are unreliable and degrade music quality. In these situations, your audio source connects to the device via Bluetooth, and the device broadcasts the FM radio station. While some of these units can do a serviceable job of bringing your music to your car stereo, FM radio is a flawed technology, and the risk of signal interference is simply unnecessary.
Enable your phone’s driving safety features. Your Bluetooth car kit will bring all of your smartphone’s music to your car stereo. It will also bring every notification, alarm, and distraction, too. For the safest operation of your vehicle while using your Bluetooth car kit, enable Driving Mode in Android or Do Not Disturb in iOS.
Download songs before you drive if you plan to listen to streaming services. Your smartphone’s data plan may limit the amount of music you can stream, and you could end up paying overages if you’re not careful. Many music-streaming services allow you to download music locally ahead of time, so you can do so while connected to your home WiFi instead of your wireless carrier. Some Bluetooth car kits include built-in SD card readers, making it easy to load music on flash memory ahead of time.
Most Bluetooth car kits only connect to one phone at a time. If you need to have multiple devices connected simultaneously, buy a kit that explicitly supports this feature.
A Bluetooth car kit will send any audio from the phone to your car stereo, including the soundtrack from videos you watch. If your phone supports digital assistant services like Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant, you can use a Bluetooth car kit to interact with it while driving.
Q. Will a Bluetooth car kit let me listen to my car audio on my Bluetooth headphones?
A. No. Both Bluetooth car kits and Bluetooth headphones are designed to receive audio rather than send audio to another device. Keep in mind that it is illegal to drive wearing headphones in most U.S. states.
Q. What are the differences among Bluetooth 4.0, 4.1, and 4.2? Which sounds best?
A. The Bluetooth standard has evolved, and new versions that improve the streaming protocol have been released. For example, Bluetooth 4.0 uses less power than earlier versions. Generally, new versions improve one of two things: they increase the amount of data that can be transferred, or they increase the distance at which a device can send and receive data. The music portions of the Bluetooth standard haven’t changed in versions 4.1 and 4.2, but some devices running ancient versions are still out there. For best audio results, make sure the Bluetooth car kit you buy supports Bluetooth’s Advanced Audio Distribution Profile (A2DP) at a minimum.
Q. Is it hard to connect a Bluetooth car kit to my phone?
A. No. Most Bluetooth car kits operate the same when it comes to connecting with smartphones. To pair them, go to your phone’s Bluetooth settings, find the Bluetooth car kit, and tap on it to select it. Once connected, any audio from the device is automatically sent to the Bluetooth car kit.