USB Inputs

What are they?

USB (Universal Serial Bus) inputs are digital connections designed to connect and charge a wide range of devices. USB ports in cars can let you:

  1. Charge your media devices (when used in conjunction with appropriate cables).
  2. Play music files from a USB memory stick.
  3. Connect and play audio from select media devices (such as iPods and iPhones).

Unfortunately different cars support different functionality via USB ports. Some USB ports will only charge devices, whilst others will fully integrate your smartphone. It is also likely that the new Car Mobile Operating Systems will connect your device via USB.

What do they look like?

USB inputs are everywhere these days, so you will hopefully know what they look like! Just look on any computer to see an example. Many modern cars have USB inputs fitted. These inputs are sometimes found on their own, but most of today's models come with both a USB and 3.5mm AUX input.

USB Inputs

These inputs just look like those you are used to on your computer / chargers.

USB Input with AUX Socket

Most modern cars provide a USB input and a 3.5mm AUX Socket.

How do I connect them?

1. Charging Devices

Just like USB ports on computers, USB ports in cars can provide power to your media devices. All you need is a USB charging cable compatible with your media player. You can normally charge your devices via USB ports whilst using other connection methods (such as AUX Inputs or Bluetooth®) to play audio. If you need a spare charging cable there are lots of aftermarket options, or if you have the latest Apple devices we sell our own Apple Certified USB-Lightning Cables.

2. Connecting USB Memory Sticks

i. To connect a USB memory stick you will first need to transfer your music files onto an appropriately formatted USB memory stick.

Manuals, dealers or online guides can provide advice on what type of formatting, files and file structures are supported for your car.

You are normally safe with a USB stick formatted with the FAT file system, containing mp3 files.

ii. Connect your memory stick to the USB port on your vehicle. Normally your car will then upload information about the music content to its system. This may take a while the first time you connect the drive (but is normally quicker when you connect the same drive later).

iii. Switch your audio system source to USB.

The specific buttons to press will depended on your make and model of car. Often you have to press: Source, AUX or Media.

Normally this will take you to an external devices / audio source menu where you can cycle through a list of connection options available in your car.

iv. Select the tracks you would like to play. Depending on the information with your music files you will be able to sort and play your music via artist, album, genre etc. You may also be able to see album artwork.

3. Connecting Media Players

Some car USB ports support connections with some media players, allowing music playback and integration with your car's controls and display. Unfortunately this functionality is not universally compatible, often only working with Apple devices (iPods and iPhones) if at all.

Don't forget most modern cars combine a USB input, AUX input and Bluetooth integration, so there are other options. If you can't get your device to transfer audio via USB, you could always use the USB port for power and use the other methods to transfer audio.

Connecting directly to USB port

If everything is compatible, often you can connect your device to your car simply using your standard USB charging / sync cable as follows:

i. Plug one end of your charging / sync cable into your media player and the other end into your car USB input.

You can generally use the cable that came with your device. If you need a spare there are lots of aftermarket options, or if you have the latest apple devices we sell our own Apple Certified USB-Lightning Cables.

ii. Switch your audio system source to USB.

The specific buttons to press will depended on your make and model of car. Often you have to press: Source, AUX or Media.

Normally this will take you to an external devices / audio source menu where you can cycle through a list of connection options available in your car.

iii. Select the playlist, album or artist you want to play music from and you are all set!

Connecting to USB port and AUX-IN socket in tandem - The Y Cable.

A few cars are designed for you to connect your device to both the AUX-IN socket and USB socket together using a Y cable. This is particularly common on some BMW models (without enhanced Bluetooth), and older Ford and Hyundai models. The Y cables have a USB connection and 3.5mm input at one end and a connector for your music device on the other. Essentially they use the AUX input to transfer audio and the USB port to charge and control your device as well as display track information.

You can see an example of a Y-Cable to the right. Essentially they use the AUX input to transfer audio and the USB port to charge and control your device as well as display track information.

Most car manufacturers sell their own official cables for their models. You can get them from your dealer or sometimes online. There are also aftermarket versions available online on Amazon and eBay. There can be compatibility issues however so we would always recommend carefully reading the description / reviews to see if they mention your specific models!

To use Y cables:

i. While your car is off, connect the Y ends of the Y cable into the AUX input and USB input in your car.
ii. Switch your audio system source to USB.
iii. Now connect the other end into your smartphone or mp3 player.
iv. Select the playlist, album or artist you want to play music from and you are all set!

Compatibility

Will it work with my iPod, iPhone, iPad, smartphone, mp3 player or tablet?

USB ports will charge pretty much any media device with the correct cable. In addition some car USB ports will integrate with some media players allowing music playback. Unfortunately this functionality is not universally compatible, often only working with Apple devices (iPods and iPhones).

Will it work with any USB flash drive?

USB ports will generally support playback with most USB drives, but they must be formatted correctly and have the correct types of files. Manuals, dealers or online guides can provide advice on what type of drives, formatting, files and file structures are supported in your specific car.

As a general rule you are normally safe with a 32GB (or smaller) USB stick formatted with the FAT(32) file system, containing mp3 files. Many reviewers on Amazon have had success using Kingston's USB flash drive in their cars. Specific stereos may support other file formats and sticks with more memory.

Functionality

Which of my devices' features can I use?

USB inputs can play audio from compatible devices. This means you will be able to play music, audiobooks or podcasts through your car's speakers. If your car has a sophisticated interface, or one of the latest mobile operating systems you may also be able to access further applications like maps or Spotify.

Will I be able to see information from my device on my car display?

Yes. USB inputs can transfer information from your device to your car's display. This might include song titles, artists, albums or album artwork. For this to work you must have IDT3 tags with your music files, however, but most music download services will do this automatically.

What if I want to make phone calls?

You can't transfer audio for phone calls via USB ports in cars. However most cars with USB inputs will also have Bluetooth fitted. Normally you can use both in tandem, so you can play music via USB but make and answer phone calls hands-free via Bluetooth.

Will I be able to select the music being played using my car's controls?

Yes, normally USB ports will allow you to select songs, artists, albums or playlists using your car controls. You can also easily skip forward or backwards through your tracks and adjust volume.

Will it charge my mp3 player / smartphone?

Yes USB ports found in cars can charge your device (with the appropriate cable).

What about sound quality?

USB inputs provide a direct digital link from your device to your car stereo. As a result the sound quality is normally excellent.

Summary

When working properly USB inputs are a brilliant solution, allowing you to choose your tracks, charge your devices and get information about what you are listening to. One of the best ways to use USB inputs is with USB flash drives. You can put thousands of mp3's on a flash drive, which you can keep in your car!

There can be compatibility issues when connecting media players - particularly Android™ smartphones. You can normally discover whether your specific device is supported by reading your manual, visiting your car manufacturers website or contacting your dealer. Of course you could just try connecting your media player with your existing USB Sync cable to see what happens. If you have no luck you may need a Y cable, or your car may not support your device through USB.

If your device isn't supported don't forget you could always use the USB port for charging and use the other methods available in your car (like Bluetooth or AUX inputs) to transfer audio.

Pros

  • Can play music from USB memory sticks which can be left in car and don't require charging.
  • Integrates with car controls.
  • Can transfer track information to car display.
  • Can charge your device.

Cons

  • If using USB memory stick you will have to transfer and manually updating your music library.
  • Not universally compatible with media players.
  • May not support playback from apps on media players.

Products that may be of interest

Kingston 32GB USB Memory
Stick

Why not just pop all of your tunes onto a USB stick and connect it to your car's USB port.

NB - Please check your car USB port supports playback from memory sticks.

InCarCables USB A - Lightning Cable

Our USB charging / sync cables for the latest Apple devices. Available in a range of colours.

NB - Not all car USB ports will support playing music from your device.

AmazonBasics USB A - iPod Dock Cable

Amazon's USB charging / sync cable older Apple devices.

NB - Not all car USB ports will support playing music from your device.

AmazonBasics USB A - Micro USB Cable

Amazon's charging / sync cable for Android™ devices.

NB - Not all car USB ports will support playing music from your device.

Official BMW/Mini
Y-Cable

Official BMW Y Cable. Suitable for select BMW models made after Sep 2010, with Control for Combox (S6VCA).

See Amazon page for full compatibility

Official BMW/Mini
Y-Cable

Official BMW Y Cable. Suitable for certain BMW models from around 2005-2010 without Control for Combox (S6VCA).

See Amazon page for full compatibility

Aftermarket BMW/Mini
Y-Cable

An aftermarket BMW/Mini Y cable suitable for select models after 2007.

See Amazon page for full compatibility

Aftermarket Ford
Y-Cable

An aftermarket Y cable suitable for selected Ford models made after 2011.

See Amazon page for full compatibility