XJS & XJ from KWE Cars

Modern music systems for classic cars

At KWE, we find that most classic car owners prefer the features of modern in-car audio systems, but not many customers are satisfied with the way modern head units look once fitted.

In cars built in the 90s onwards it is common to have non-standard single DIN units whose apertures, when removed, will not suit standalone aftermarket units. This Jaguar XK8 is a good example of a modern headunit that can’t be retro-fitted with an aftermarket Bluetooth unit.

A Jaguar XK8 modern headunit

While the FM radio facility has not changed much in the last 40 years, the sources of recorded music have. We started with 8 track cartridges followed by cassettes. The digital age produced CDs and devices such as the Apple iPod and MP3 music files capable of being stored on a USB memory stick. Advances in technology now allow drivers to stream directly from a smartphone to the headunit via Bluetooth.

But what if you want to keep the original headunit but have modern music sources, perhaps with mobile phone/Bluetooth connectivity? Below shows an image of an early (pre-HE) XJS. Although it’s possible to fit a new headunit, there’s no direct connection capability and must therefore use a FM signal via its aerial.

An early (pre-HE) XJS headunit

I have experimented with solutions for many years on my own cars, and KWE has delivered a variety of solutions for our clients. I have come to the conclusion that the best overall solution is to store all your favourite music on a smartphone. This can then be streamed to a Bluetooth module, which in turn either transmits to the original car radio’s FM tuner, or can be electronically mixed with a CD changer input.

For a long time I persevered with using USB sticks plugged into either a (modern) headunit’s front panel, or via a lead hidden in the armrest connected to the back of the headunit. However, this presents problems if you’re the owner of more than one car with several memory sticks to keep updated as new music is added to your collection. I ended up then having to carry around a single memory stick and plug it into whichever car I intended to drive.

Another problem is that most head units have quite small displays, and it is difficult and extremely dangerous to attempt to locate a particular track while on the move – not to mention fishing for one’s reading glasses for those of us over a certain age!

An iPod left in the car isn’t particularly useful as the device’s battery tends to run down quickly. What then happens is that the first five minutes of a journey are spent waiting for the iPod to charge up. Further time is then spent selecting an alternative song from the first tune that is automatically selected from your library each time the device is turned on. Leaving the iPod connected to the car’s battery in some way doesn’t offer a viable option either as it simply discharges the car’s battery.

A cassette to audio input adaptor will work surprisingly well with older cars that have cassette headunits. However, this isn’t necessarily the tidiest option as it will leave trailing wires, produce a whirring noise from the adaptor and result in poor audio quality.

Bluetooth streaming gets round all of this by allowing anything with Bluetooth capability to connect wirelessly to your audio system – unfortunately classic Jaguar cars don’t have Bluetooth capability built into the audio units.

The final solution for keeping an original headunit is to fit a Bluetooth adaptor. Most of these older headunits do not have an audio-in jack socket so the only easy way to inject the audio signal is via the aerial.

There are many Bluetooth adaptors around with FM transmitters, and some can be clipped straight onto an iPod’s main connector. However, the quality is often poor so further research is required.

Fortunately the adaptors aren’t expensive – typically £10 – £30 for simple units. Normally there will be a small control unit to allow tuning the device to one of the radio’s pre-set channels, to answer mobile phone calls and to set up the Bluetooth link to your phone or iPod.

With Bluetooth capability, you now have the huge advantage of having all of your music to hand in a smartphone, providing a large screen to make music selection easier. I always use a good quality screen mount for my phone, located near the steering wheel rim.

With smartphone satellite navigation apps being so good these days (Google, Wayz, Sygic) there is usually no need for a standalone satnav unit to be fitted. Furthermore, a satnav app will interrupt your music to announce direction changes, without any extra wiring.

For an even neater installation and perfect audio quality KWE can fit a tiny mixer module into the CD changer input (if present) allowing you to select CD input and listen to either a CD if one is loaded up, or the smartphone if not (or indeed both)!

However, most smartphones don’t have enough memory as standard built-in to house a medium or large music collection, so it may be necessary to purchase a premium phone with a micro SD card such as the Motorola X Force for example.

Finally, here’s a tip on how to update your phone with new music. I have my master collection on a laptop, and use a synchronising programme called GoodSync which will just update new additions to the phone rather than dumping the whole library each time which can take hours.

Stay tuned. Next up we share our thoughts on loud speakers.

As well as upgrading audio systems, KWE provides many additional upgrade options. Check out some of our options here.