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The Total Failure of FM Transmitters

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The original FM transmitters were notoriously unreliable
Photo: Pixabay via CC

When it comes to listening to your favorite music, podcasts, or audiobooks in your car, today’s drivers have it easy. These days, you can easily sync your smartphone to your vehicle or use a cable. However, things weren’t always that simple. There was once a time when music lovers had to resort to some often-frustrating technology to jam out to their favorite tunes. Enter the dreaded original FM transmitters.

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Remembering old-school FM transmitters

In 2021, listening to music or other entertainment on the go is a simple task. There’s tech like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and if your device has an auxiliary port, you can always fall back on using wires. It’s easy to forget that these conveniences didn’t exist until relatively recently. Fifteen years ago, getting your snazzy new MP3 player to play your music library through your car’s speakers was a bit more challenging. With many older vehicles still lacking auxiliary ports, one of the only options on the market was a device called the FM transmitter.

FM transmitters worked on a seemingly simple premise. Essentially, after being plugged into a vehicle’s cigarette lighter, the device scanned for nearby FM radio frequencies that weren’t being used. By tuning in to this frequency, the transmitter could use it to play your music through your speakers.

In theory, this concept sounded amazing. At last, there was a simple solution to the issue of playing music from your personal device. If only it were that easy.

Despite their ease of use, the earliest versions of the FM transmitter were practically unusable. The issues stemmed from a fundamental flaw with the concept: scanning for radio frequencies in a moving vehicle. As drivers continued their commutes or road trips, the frequency the device was using would be altered as the range changed. This resulted in the audio coming in fuzzy through the speakers, and necessitated a rescan for a new frequency every few minutes while driving. Naturally, people weren’t thrilled.

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FM transmitters are still available to purchase today. Thankfully, many of them work better than their past iterations. But with modern smartphone connectivity tech at our disposal, they’re becoming more obsolete and unnecessary with each passing year.