Do you remember Aiwa? They're still around, you know. Still making all sorts of consumer electronics. They even make car stereos, and while I have no idea how those compare to Alpine or Clarion, they do have one tremendous killer feature.
Aiwa is the only decent brand left that puts an auxiliary audio input on the front panel of their car stereos.
Ever since portable digital audio players have become popular, we've been faced with the problem of how to get them hooked up to the car. The popular solution seems to be the FM transmitter, that you connect to the player and set to an unoccupied frequency, which you then pick up on the car stereo. This does work, sort of, but it is an unnecessary workaround that falls prey to the fact that you have a large amount of metal between the low-powered transmitter and the antenna that is supposed to pick up the signal. Plus you need to connect the transmitter to the player, and waste battery life on it. The other popular choice is the cassette adapter, which also works, sort of. Except you don't have a cassette player in your car. And if you do, it's because you still have cassettes to play.
The funny thing is that the problem has been solved a decade ago. The front panel AUX input is a standard 3.5" jack, same as a microphone line in on the back of your computer. In fact it works exactly the same way. You get a 99-cent cable from any electronics store, stick one end into your player's headphone jack and the other into the auxiliary input. Then when you select a source, between the CD or the radio, you have a third option - AUX. Problem solved. It's a two-bit wiring solution that costs basically nothing to put in, and I keep wondering why all but one manufacturer has forsaken it when they switched away from cassettes.
Except there is a third way. It's not necessarily the best - it's more intrusive than the others - but it allows you to eliminate wires. The auxiliary input can be wired right into the dash.
The company that markets these things the most is Alpine, and their iPod adapters are ridiculously expensive - plus I do wonder whether it's just a marketing ploy, or it really connects to the iPod's proprietary dock, making it perfectly useless for any other brand. But the other day I saw an absolutely brilliant thing on sale. It's an adapter made by Kenwood; and it goes into the back of a head unit, plugging in as a CD changer cable. On the other end is a pair of red/white stereo inputs; you'd need another wire to end up with a headphone plug, but again, it's a 99-cent item. The manufacturer's website says it works with most recent Kenwood stereos, but here's the thing: the CD changer interface is an open standard. They're interconnectable; you can hook up a Kenwood changer to a Sony head unit, so I expect the Kenwood adapter would fit any stereo that has a changer plug - which is just about any of them. It also costs about 20 Euro.
The advantage here is that, if you are not averse to a bit of handywork, or you don't mind getting a shop to do it for you, you can end up with the headphone plug in the glove compartment. Or some other useful, out-of-the-way place - the little storage bin on top of the dashboard in a Mazda6 comes to mind.
Unfortunately, it just doesn't work for me. My driving playlist is currently at 141 tracks; and I still need to keep the player under hand to skip over tracks I'm currently not in the mood for. So I just keep my Archos Gmini 400 in the passenger seat... while listening to it in my headphones.
Which works perfectly well at no expense whatsoever.