Our testing shows that you can avoid distracted driving and play your favorite tunes on your stereo.
That’s what we call a “win-win”
At Driving2Save, we are committed to reducing traffic and fatalities by providing our community member with car safety tips. One of the most important steps rivers can take to improve their safety is to avoid distracted driving. We strongly encourage everyone to put the phone down and go handsfree if you choose to take or make calls while driving.
What did we do?
Bluetooth is now a common car safety feature in newer cars. But did you know that you can use it in older cars too? We put three leading aftermarket Bluetooth transmitters through their paces in older cars under real driving conditions to see just how easy it would be. (Spoiler alert: it’s super easy).
What did we learn?
Distracted driving statistics tell us that distracted driving claimed 3,477 lives in America in 2015. We know that one of the main forms of distracted driving comes from the use of a mobile phone. Drivers are often seen talking on their cell phone, holding their phone on speaker phone or worse, texting/taking photos while driving. In fact, in a driving simulation study, drivers using a cell phone had slower reaction times than someone impaired by alcohol at the legal limits.
Although most new cars have Bluetooth integrated calling, many older cars do not – in fact, the average age of vehicles today is 11 years old. However, technology saves the day with inexpensive aftermarket Bluetooth FM Transmitters. These accessories will allow you to talk hands free, play music through your existing stereo and set you back less than $20. With many options to choose from, we decided to test the most popular ones so you can make the best choice.
What did we like?
- 1st Place – Nulaxy KM18 Transmitter $17.99
- Pros: Great music sound quality, clear voice audio, easy-to-use design with a screen
- Cons: Largest size overall, only 1 USB charging port
- 2nd Place – Camsoon Bluetooth FM Transmitter $16.99
- Pros: Great music sound quality, good voice audio, 2 front USB ports, easy to use
- Cons: Some static noise with phone calls, small bottoms for controls, dim screen
- 3rd Place – Faytun FM Transmitter $17.99
- Pros: Great music sound quality, good voice audio, 2 bottom USB ports
- Cons: Some static noise with phone calls, less intuitive controls, bottom facing USB may prohibit some 12V ports
How did we figure this out?
Many newer vehicles have auxiliary and Bluetooth capabilities built into the factory audio systems – however, for older vehicles to get the same technologies, drivers must have their existing system removed and replaced with an aftermarket stereo “deck.” Not only does this involve modification to the dash, it can also cost $50-100 to get a basic system installed – this does not include the time it takes to bring your vehicle to a store and installation time. Bluetooth FM transmitters have existed for some time, but older models proved to be somewhat unreliable and often had poor sound quality. Have things changed?
There are hundreds of Bluetooth capable FM transmitters, we picked three bestselling and highly ranked models (4 stars or better with 100+ reviews) on Amazon to test. In order to qualify, the item must be in stock at the time of testing (October 2017), have a maximum price of $20 and be able to make/receive calls via Bluetooth. In addition, we looked for models that appeared repeatedly on top lists from other independently reviewed and recommended blogs and websites.
The three models listed below:
We tested these three transmitters on three different vehicles to better understand whether there were any differences between them in vehicles. We had on hand a 2002 Subaru Impreza, 2003 Toyota RAV4 and a 2009 VW Jetta. We would plug in each transmitter into a standard 12V plug accessible to the driver. In each vehicle, we used an Android based phone as well as an iPhone (6) to test the usability of the functions with each transmitter.
We used the following categories to rank how each transmitter performed:
Ease of use – we removed each transmitter from the package without reading the manual on how to use it. We tested to see if someone could set it up without the instructions.
Features – are there any additional features such as volume control, music skipping, USB charging, etc…
Sound quality – each transmitter should be able to play music from the phone directly to any car stereo system. Does the sound appear to be the same quality as the radio/auxiliary plugged audio?
Call quality – the voice sound quality criteria involved phone calls between myself and another staff member at Driving2Save. We ranked based on clarity of voice on both ends and whether there was significant amount of static/background noise.
Ease of use: This product was very easy to use right out of the box. Once you plugged it into the 12V slot, it flashed the radio frequency for broadcast. Unfortunately, it was listed at 87.5 – a frequency that we do not use in the US, so you must change it right away. Changing it was simple, you hold down the middle button until it flashes and use the forward/backward button to change to the desired frequency. Pairing was pain-free: simply look for the device name on your Bluetooth list and click to connect. The device will give you an audio confirmation upon successfully connecting – a nice feature.
Features: Camsoon has two front facing USB ports (5V/3.4A) that make it easy to plug in two phones for charging and the 3.4A charging means quicker charging. The top USB port (with the music symbol) allows you to plug in flash drives with music in it to be played, but we did not test this functionality as most users will use their phone for music. Additional features include a one touch middle button that will allow you to pick up/end calls and start/stop music. Above and below are buttons to skip or go back on your songs. Unfortunately, these buttons are rather small, so if your device is tucked away like it was on our VW Jetta, it can be difficult to access these buttons. One missing feature that may be nice to have for some users is a phone volume control knob as it is less safe to try to unlock your phone while the car is moving.
Sound quality: The overall sound quality was great with this transmitter. It sounds as good as what you would get from plugging in your music with an auxiliary cord. The bass was deep and does not get blown out at typical sound levels (we did not test it while blasting the volume, as that is unsafe!). The treble was mixed in correctly, providing sharp notes. Midrange was great, providing good clarity to vocals. Note, we did get some static noises that come from electrical signals – that is not something that can be avoided as all FM transmitters will have some level of this noise. We ranked this particular as acceptable in terms of noises.
Call quality: During our phone calls, we were able to make out 95% of the spoken words during the conversation. There were definitely some words that became muffled in the vehicle – this varied as each sound system may be different. The ever-present background noise was sometimes apparent during the phone calls. However, overall, we thought that users will be happy with the built-in microphone call quality.
Ease of use: This product was less intuitive to use. With a single-knob design, you must hold it down until it flashes and then you turn it left or right to select the channel you want. However, it felt less intuitive because the feel of the knob made us question whether it was designed to turn or not. The pairing procedures were the same as Camsoon and it provided an audio confirmation upon connection.
Features: This transmitter is almost a replica of Camsoon. The only difference between them is that Faytun has their USB ports on the bottom of the device and for vehicles with 12V plugs on the center console area, this may work better, but for the VW Jetta and vehicles with a tucked away 12V plug, it makes the USB ports non-accessible. However, the single-button design on the face of the device makes it easier for people to access unlike the Camsoon. Therefore, if you have a 12V plug, in an open location, then this product would work well for you.
Sound quality: The overall sound quality was comparable to the Camsoon, the only major difference is that Faytun had a little more static noise overall.
Call quality: During our phone calls, we were able to make out 90% of the spoken words during the conversation. There were definitely some words that became muffled in the vehicle – this varied as each sound system may be different. The ever-present background noise was more apparent during the phone call when compared with Camsoon. However, overall, we thought that most users will not be able to differentiate between the two.
Ease of use: This product was the easiest to use right out of the box. Once we plugged it into the 12V slot, it displayed all the pertinent information such as frequency and whether a device was connected (including name/battery levels). Frequency changing was the simplest – with two dedicated buttons below the screen. Pairing was pain-free: simply look for the device name in your Bluetooth list and click to connect. The device will give you an audio confirmation upon successfully connecting.
Features: Whereas the other two transmitters contained two 3.4A USB ports, Nulaxy only has one, and it is only 2.1A – meaning it has a slightly slower charge and only allows one device at a time. However, to make up for this, it contains a volume control knob that can alter your phone volume as well as function to pick up/hang up calls and play/pause music. Flanking the volume control are forward/back buttons for music. Therefore, if you are limited to one 12V plug in your car and need to charge multiple devices at a time; this might not be the device for you. However, if you rarely charge multiple devices, this product might be for you as it excels in sound and call quality.
Sound quality: This transmitter had the clearest vocals during our calls – our staff noticed a big difference in our test cars while holding a conversation. We were able to understand 100% of the words spoken during the conversation.
All three of the products performed very well in our tests. This is a show of the advances Bluetooth technology has gone in the last several years. Overall, the Nulaxy transmitter performed the best terms of sound quality, call quality and ease of use, but it did fall a little behind in terms of features (having only one lower power USB port). Perhaps the most surprising thing about Nulaxy’s transmitter is that while testing, it overpowered the Camsoon module in the test vehicle – something that we did not expect. Therefore, if you care about the best possible sound, the most powerful module, do not mind the slight bulk of the device and lack of additional USB ports, we would highly recommend this to you. If you require additional USB ports, then the other two transmitters are great choices. You will need to determine whether bottom or front-facing USB ports will work better for your specific vehicle.
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