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How to Play Your Portable Music Player at Home and on the Road

How do you share the songs stored on your portable music player with others? Michael Miller shows you how to connect your portable music player to your home and car audio systems—with and without cables.
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Once you've stored thousands of your favorite songs on your iPod or other portable music player, you're all set—right? Well, not if you'd also like to listen to your music collection in your living room or in your car without having to use headphones. What you need to do is somehow connect your music player to your home or car audio system so you can share your music with others.

The question is, how do you do it? The only output on your player is a mini headphone jack, and only one person at a time can listen via headphones. Fortunately, several options let you connect your portable player to other devices. All you have to do is pick the connection option that works best for you.

Connecting at Home

To listen to your portable music player in your living room, you need to connect it either to a pair of speakers or, better yet, to your existing home audio or home theater system. Although the MP3 files on your player aren't quite CD-quality, most listeners find that they sound good enough when connected to a more powerful audio system.

Connecting to a Docking System

The first option for listening to your portable player in your living room is to connect it to an audio docking system. These are systems that include a built-in amplifier and a pair of speakers; slide your player into the dock, and it will play through the docking system's speakers.

Most of these docking systems are designed specifically for Apple's iPod, although, in theory, they should work with any portable music player. You want to make sure that the connector on the bottom of your player fits into the matching connector in the docking station. (Some docking stations also let you connect your player via a cable, which is more universal.)

Some of the more popular of these docking systems include these:

  • Altec Lansing inMotion iM3 ($179.95), a small dual-speaker docking system that operates on battery power. Designed for the iPod but includes a cable hookup for other music players.
  • Bose SoundDock ($299), probably the best-sounding system of the bunch—and the most expensive. Designed specifically for the iPod and iPod Mini, complete with wireless remote control.
  • JBL On Stage ($159.95), a UFO-shape dock ringed by multiple speakers. Designed for the iPod and iPod Mini, but includes a cable hookup for other music players.
  • Monster iSpeaker Portable ($59.95), not a docking station per se, but rather a CD-size outboard-powered speaker that connects via cable to any portable music player.

Connecting to Powered Speakers

Now here's the dirty little secret behind all of those docking systems: They're really just powered speakers with a connecting cable. And you can use any set of powered speakers in the same fashion.

The speakers you connect to your personal computer are powered speakers, so called because they don't need an external amplifier. The amplifier is built into the speakers themselves, making them self-powered. (Your PC doesn't include an audio power amplifier, after all.) Just as you can connect any PC to any set of powered speakers, you can connect any portable music player to the same speakers. All you need is a cable.

This, then, is the quick and dirty way to play your portable music player through a set of larger speakers. Just connect any set of computer speakers (with or without subwoofer) to the headphone jack of your music player. Instead of pumping the signal through a set of headphones, your music now plays through the connected set of powered speakers. It's that simple.

Connecting via Normal Audio Cables

For many people, setting up a pair of computer speakers in their living room is a less than ideal solution. You'll get much better sound by playing your portable music player through your existing home audio or home theater system.

In this instance, you don't connect your player directly to your home speakers because those speakers aren't powered. They get their power from your audio receiver or amplifier, so that's where you want to plug in your music player. All you have to do is run a cable from the headphone jack of your music player into a set of right and left audio inputs on the back of your receiver. Switch your receiver to the appropriate input, press Play on your music player, and you get terrific sound fed through your entire audio system.

There's a catch, however. Your receiver uses standard right and left audio connections. Your portable music player uses a mini stereo headphone connection. How do you get from that single mini connection to dual R/L audio connections?

What you need is an adapter cable. One end of the cable has a male mini stereo plug; the other has right and left RCA plugs. Plug one end into your music player and the other into your receiver. It's that simple.

You should be able to find these adapter cables from Belkin, Monster Cable, and other manufacturers at any Radio Shack or similar electronics store.

Connecting with an FM Transmitter

If you'd rather connect to your home system without fussing with any cables, then consider broadcasting your portable music to your system's FM radio. Several accessories on the market turn any portable music player into a miniature FM transmitter. Connect the FM accessory, press Play on your music player, tune in your system's FM radio to the right frequency, and listen to your portable music via FM.

Several FM transmitter accessories are on the market, all of which work pretty much the same way. Most connect to your player's headphone jack; some Apple-specific models fit onto the top of your iPod or iPod Mini. The most popular of these transmitters include these:

  • Belkin TuneCast II ($39.99), which connects via cable to any portable music player
  • Griffin iTrip and iTrip Mini ($35 and $39.99, respectively), designed specifically to fit onto the top of Apple's music players

There are a few downsides to this connection method, however. First, it might not work; if you have a lot of strong FM stations nearby, the FM transmitter might not be able to find a clear channel to broadcast without interference. Second, even if it does work, the sound quality isn't nearly as good as with a direct cable connection—it's limited to the same quality you get from FM radio stations. Of course, the sound quality of MP3 files isn't extremely hi-fi to begin with, so you might not notice the difference.

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