Old car? No problem! Get a cassette adapter

Cassette tape adapters are nifty little devices that are shaped like compact cassettes on the outside, but the inner workings are very different. While compact cassettes contain two connected reels of magnetic tape, on which audio or data can be recorded and stored, car cassette adapters contain magnetic inductors and a series of gears that allow them to fool the tape decks into believing they are the real deal.

These adapters can be used to extend the functionality of any cassette deck head unit to play CDs, MP3s or audio material from virtually any other source.

How to use a car cassette tape adapter?

Listening to music in the car with a tape adapter is extremely easy, but there are a handful of drawbacks you may run into.

Here are the basic steps you need to follow to connect a CD player, iPod, your phone, or any other audio source to your car recorder:

1. Insert the cassette tape adapter plug into the line out jack on your device.

If your device doesn’t have a line out jack, you can connect it to the headphone jack.

2. Turn on your car radio and adjust it to the lowest level.

3. Insert the tape adapter into the car radio tape deck.

If the radio does not automatically switch to the tape deck input, you may have to do it manually. This process is the same as what you would use if you were listening to a real tape.

4. Turn on your phone or portable music player and play a song, podcast, CD, or whatever else you’re trying to listen to.

5. Adjust the volume of your car radio to the preferred level.

If it’s plugged into the headphone jack of your portable music device and you don’t hear anything, you may also need to adjust the volume on your portable music device.

6. When you’re done listening, eject the adapter in the same way you would eject a regular cassette. You can also leave the adapter on if you prefer.

If your cassette deck has an auto-reverse feature and you are experiencing poor sound quality, pressing the reverse button may fix the problem. If the deck repeatedly reverses playback direction, there is likely an internal adapter failure.

Dispense with tape: How do cassette adapters work?

© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Compact cassettes use magnetic tape as a storage medium. A component known as a record head can be used to write and rewrite data on the tape, and a component known as a read head is used by a tape deck to translate that data into music or other audio content.

Cassette tape adapters connect to the deck’s read head, but they do so without magnetic tape. Instead of reel-to-reel tape, each cassette tape adapter has a built-in inductor and some sort of audio input plug or socket.

When the audio input is connected to a CD player, or other audio source, it carries a signal to the inductor inside the cassette tape adapter. The inductor, which works like a recording head, generates a magnetic field that corresponds to the signal from the CD player or other audio device.

The read head inside the deck cannot differentiate between the magnetic field generated by an inductor and the magnetic field of the tape inside a real cassette. So it reads the inductor’s magnetic field, as if it were coming from a magnetic tape, and allows the head unit to play the audio signal as if it were playing a tape.

Why doesn’t the Tape Deck Try to Reverse?

© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Tape decks and cassette tapes are built with a feature that allows the deck to stop playback or reverse when the end of a tape has been reached. If you’ve ever listened to music on a cassette tape, you’re probably familiar with the loud sound that occurs when it reaches the end, followed by the deck that reverses and plays the other side of the tape if it has that function.

Since cassette tape adapters don’t have tape, they need to include a mechanism to effectively trick the head unit into never stopping or going backwards. Without this mechanism, the deck may not work at all or may go into an infinite loop of constantly reversing the direction of play.

To prevent this, good tape adapters include a clever little device made up of a series of gears and some sort of wheel component. This device effectively simulates a continuously running tape.

If you have a cassette tape adapter that won’t work because the deck refuses to play it, especially if you repeatedly try to reverse the playback direction, the shift mechanism is probably broken.

Good alternatives to cassette tape adapters

Tape decks aren’t as common as they used to be, and car cassette adapters can be hard to find. They are still widely available, but there are a number of viable alternatives if you can’t get your hands on one.

Other common alternatives to car cassette adapters, which are commonly used when a head unit does not have a deck, include:

  • FM Transmitter – An almost universal option that works with any FM car radio. Less useful if you live in an area where there are no gaps in the FM band, as too much interference results in poor audio quality.
  • FM Modulators – Like FM transmitters, these devices need to be permanently installed. They still require some empty space on the FM band, but generally provide better audio quality than FM transmitters.
  • Auxiliary Inputs – The easiest option to use, but not all car radios include them. If your car has an auxiliary input, you can plug your CD player, MP3 player or phone directly into it.
  • Head unit USB inputs – USB inputs are even better than auxiliary inputs in terms of audio quality, but if your head unit has a USB input it’s probably too new to have a cassette tape player anyway.

All of these methods are just as viable even if your car has a cassette deck, and some of them provide higher sound quality than you might normally expect from a car tape adapter.