Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Music Tech: Music in the car

Ford Fusion Hybrid with a trunk mounted bike rack

We recently found ourselves in need of a new car and the one we purchased is a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid.  A number of Ford models, including the Fusion, come with Sync which is an integrated voice-control system.  Basically, you can talk to your car and it talks back and does what you tell it to do – at least most of the time.

Sync  is a Microsoft product and Ford and Microsoft appear to be heavily invested in developing and improving the system.  In it’s current form, Sync combines phone, navigation, climate control, music, and several other functions into its suite of applications.  These systems can be controlled with buttons on the steering wheel, a touch screen monitor that’s embedded in the front console, or by voice.  For example, the voice-activated phone system allows you to make or answer calls in a hands-free manner as long as your phone is with you and bluetooth synced to the car.  If you’re on the phone when you enter or leave the car, Sync transfers the call back and forth between your mobile phone and the car automatically.  Another pretty cool feature is that you can do a “business search” for either a type of business or a specific store based on your current location.  Sync finds the business and gives you the option to either call the place or get directions from your current location.  All of this is done through voice commands.

Zune player screen

What we’re interested in here is music and the options Sync gives you for listening to music in the Fusion make driving anywhere a hoot.  The basic sources you have for listening to music are AM and FM radio, CD, Sirius satellite radio, or an MP3 player.  The one we have been having a blast with is the MP3 player. The Fusion has a USB port in the center console that can be used to connect the MP3 player.  The Sync system reportedly works with a wide variety of MP3 players.  Figuring we would have the smoothest interaction, we bought a Zune for the car because Microsoft makes both Sync and Zune.  When the Zune is plugged in to the USB port, Sync detects it’s presence, accesses the content on the player, and streams music directly from the player without having to download it to the car’s hard drive.  You can control the player with voice commands including basic playback functions like volume up or down, play all, shuffle play etc., as well as commands to play specific artists, albums, tracks or playlists.  In our experience thus far, it works flawlessly.

People seem to have very strong opinions about factory installed vs. after market sound systems in cars.  I have never understood the reasoning that leads people to sink a lot of money into a sound system for their car given that the sound environment in a car is so bad that nothing is really going to sound very good no matter how much money you spend on it.  Having said that, we have Ford’s upgraded Sony sound system in the Fusion because it was part of an options package that included things we wanted to have.  Given that we’re listening in a car, it works fine – ymmv.

Home screen with Zune player info

Sync will handle a variety of audio codecs including MP3, WAV and WMA.  The Zune, however, won’t process WAV files so I convert ripped or downloaded WAV files into WMA for listening in the car.  I did some listening tests comparing lossless WMA with several high bit rate 44.1 kHz stereo WMA formats.  In all cases the lossless format sounded better than the lossy formats in the car.  I did the listening tests while the car was stationary and all of my attention was focused on listening.  Whether the decline in sound quality with the lossy formats would make a difference in a moving vehicle when my attention is focused on driving is unknown.  Nevertheless, we’re using lossless WMA for listening in the car.  The 32 GB Zune we use for the car will hold somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 tracks in lossless format which should be more than enough given how easy it is to change what the Zune has on its internal drive.

Changing the selection of tracks available to you in the car couldn’t be easier.  Download the Zune software to your desktop or laptop and set up a folder for the Zune player’s contents on the main systems’s hard drive.  You can then go into settings in the Zune software and configure the system to automatically sync the contents of the folder with the Zune player.  If you want to add a track to the Zune player, drop it in the Zune folder on the hard drive.  Tired of listening to a track in the car?  Delete it from the Zune folder.  When you connect the Zune to the main system (I use a dedicated USB line for this because I do it often) the Zune software detects the player and automatically implements any additions or deletions you’ve made since the last time you synced the player and the folder.  Connect the updated player to the car and the in-car Sync automatically registers the changes.  All you do is add and delete tracks from your Zune folder and the rest is taken care of for you.  Fast, effortless, sweet.

In a couple of years voice communication with cars, appliances and gadgets won’t be as novel as it is today.  In the meantime, having a car that gives you voice control over music streaming from a dedicated MP3 player makes driving anywhere a lot more fun.

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07/26/2010 Posted by | music, music tech, Music technology | , , , | 3 Comments