How to play Pandora Radio in your car

This is probably a, “Duh! We already knew that!” post for the more technically inclined readers, but since it was something I stumbled across by accident, I figured I’d pass along my new-found wisdom to anyone else who’s interested.

For those unaware of what it is, Pandora Radio is a service where you enter the names of artists you like, and the system will create a customized radio station with artists and songs that are similar to the one you entered. You help refine the station by using either the thumbs up or thumbs down icons to indicate whether the system chose wisely or not. That way Pandora learns what you like and don’t like and can do a better job at serving songs that will appeal to you.

A screen capture of my iPhone's Pandora Radio app, playing my Android Lust station.

It’s a very cool system and works quite well. Pandora began as a streaming radio service online for desktops and laptops, but has since created apps for mobile phone applications. I have it loaded onto my iPhone 4.

This is where the “Duh!” comments might come into play, but until last week I simply hadn’t thought about how to play Pandora in my car. I just never considered it. I knew I could play songs that were stored on the iPhone (or my iPod) through the car, but I guess I simply never considered that streaming music could also work while I was driving. I was fiddling with Pandora when I was getting into my car one day and thought, “Huh. I wonder if this will work.” Lo and behold, it did!

Obviously, to make this happen you need a device that can play Pandora, like an iPhone, Android phone, or other mobile device where you can install the app and have it play over a cellular network.A wifi only device (like my iPad) won’t work because you won’t have a connection to the Pandora servers in your car while moving.

Once you have your device, there are a few ways to make the magic happen. I’ve personally tried two of the three methods below.

  1. Bluetooth. This is the best way to play Pandora in a car, but it requires that you have a newer car that can accept a Bluetooth audio signal. I just bought a Mazda CX-7 (my long nightmare of dealing with Volkswagen Passat’s has come to an end), and it has the ability to sync both a phone and music through its audio system via Bluetooth. Just turn on Pandora, hit play, and the music emerges from the car’s speakers. It’s rock solid, too, something I wasn’t expecting at all.
  2. The headphone jack. You can also play Pandora through the headphone jack of your device, again provided you have a car with an auxiliary input that can accept the signal. This works okay, but there’s some volume attenuation that causes it to play more quietly than the Bluetooth connection, which means cranking the volume (and possibly introducing distortion) to get equivalent sound pressure levels (SPL). As I said, I prefer Bluetooth, but this one will work fine if your vehicle doesn’t have a Bluetooth hookup.
  3. FM transmitters that play through a vacant spectrum slot. I haven’t tried this one personally with Pandora (though I’ve used it in past cars with my iPod). I’m sure it would work, but I consider this the least viable of the three since there’s always a chance of cross-contamination from nearby radio stations on the spectrum. In urban areas with lots of stations, this gets even harder, since finding an open slot without interference can be pretty difficult. But again, if this is the only option available, at least it’s something.
  4. EDIT: integrated “iPod” systems. I forgot to mention cars that have integrated “iPod” or “MP3″ systems that can provide direct control over a device interface through touch-panel or steering wheel controls (or both). This is probably the best option (my last Passat had this, but I only had my iPod to use it with, not my iPhone with Pandora).

The moral of the story is, if you can get Pandora on your mobile device, you can probably figure out a way to get it in your car.

The best thing about Pandora is it’s absolutely free!

If you’re looking for more information, here’s an article about how Pandora chooses other songs it thinks you’ll like (it’s pretty interesting and worth a read). And here’s some info on upcoming car stereos from Pioneer that will have Pandora receivers built into them.

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  • Tarot1575

    Pandora may be free, but your phone provider will sock it to you with data charges for going over your data plan. AND with all of the major providers no longer offering unlimited data plans for smart phones you go through your data plan very quickly! I’m not sure how many minutes of streaming Pandora through my car I would get before I used up my 2 Gigs of data plan for my phone, but I don’t think it will let me do it all the time. If you were fortunate to buy an unlimited plan for your smartphone before they stopped them, than you are good as gold to use your phone in this way. For the rest of us we have to wait until we can find some other way to bring Pandora with us!

  • Chris

    We have unlimited data, android smartphones & I’m purchasing a portable bose speaker that works with bluetooth. My husband’s car radio doesn’t work. will he be able to utilize speaker with Pandora in car?

  • davidforbes

    Well, he should be able to use the portable speaker with Bluetooth in the car and anywhere else he wants since it’s portable.

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  • Joe

    Option 4 worked for me perfectly, thanks!

  • Ken

    I still don’t know how to get started with it.

  • David Forbes

    Does your phone have Bluetooth? And does your car have it? If yes, then you have to sync the two and choose whatever option in your car allows for Bluetooth playback. Sometimes it’s part of the AUX selection.