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How to Update Your Old Car Stereo

In the mid-2000s, standardized head units were replaced by integrated receivers. Then came USB and Bluetooth connectivity. And yet, millions of vehicles out there predate these factory audio evolutions. How hard is it to bring these beasts into the era of podcasts and Spotify? I tested three approaches on three audio systems, each from a distinct audio epoch, to find the best solutions.

Challenge 1: Someone stole my Alpine.

Solution: Dual XDM16BT receiver ($20)

Okay, nobody stole my 1993 Bronco’s stereo. It just doesn’t work, and I’ve never bothered to replace it. Because then I’d worry about someone stealing it. Head units are around $350, right? They were when I last bought one in the ’90s. Well, deflation has hit the head-unit business same as TVs and solar panels. I bought a Dual XDM16BT Bluetooth receiver at Walmart for all of $19.84. After some light wire-stripping and crimping, it works. But only out of the right front speaker, because all the others are either shorted out or not hooked up. And there are some fitment issues I need to take care of. And I should probably tidy up that rat’s nest of wires that I stuffed back inside the dash.

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• Verdict: Installation is less intimidating than it sounds.

Challenge 2: Add Bluetooth to an AUX plug.

Solution: Anker SoundSync Drive ($20)

• The Clarion head unit in my boat dates to 2008, when auxiliary audio plugs were common, but Bluetooth was not. If I wanted to crank “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” from the captain’s chair, I’d have to physically plug in my phone, which meant removing the case and hoping it wouldn’t slide off the dash and into the sea’s merciless, icy clutches. Anker’s SoundSync Drive transmits Bluetooth audio into the AUX jack, so I can keep my phone pocketed. Excellent. But the Anker requires power, which is a problem, since a vehicle without Bluetooth almost certainly lacks a USB port. You can use a 12-volt USB adapter plugged into your car’s lighter, or do what I did and Velcro a cheap USB battery nearby.

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• Verdict: Power issue solved, and the old Clarion has new life.

Challenge 3: You never had a stereo in the first place.

Solution: UE Wonderboom ($100)

• I bought my 2009 GEM e4 street-legal golf cart secondhand from the Navy. And Uncle Sam didn’t spring for extras like speakers. Or doors. If you, too, have a vehicle with no stereo whatsoever, your best course of action is a battery-powered Bluetooth speaker. Better yet, two of them. The Ultimate Ears Wonderboom is about the size of a grapefruit and disproportionately loud. It lasts about ten hours between charges, and is waterproof, which makes it well suited to old Jeeps or other cars with hose-it-out interiors. Hanging one from the rearview mirror is a jaunty way to go, but I, once again, resorted to Velcro, mounting one on each side of the dash, no wiring required.

• Verdict: Just remember to put it in the trunk when you park.

This appears in the July/August 2017 issue.

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