- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

It was only a matter of time before car stereos went digital. But the amazing thing about PhatNoise’s brand-new digital audio system, now available as a factory-installed option in Volkswagens and Audis, is that it seems like it’s been around for years.

If you know how to work a car stereo and are savvy with CD-ripping programs, PhatNoise won’t seem like newfangled technology at all. It’s more like the culmination of hardware with which you’re already comfortable.

The new system (retail price $795) — compatible for now only with Kenwood car stereos, if you aren’t in the market for a new VW or Audi — is mounted unobtrusively in the trunk and is fully integrated with the car’s stock radio.

When I recently took a spin with two Los Angeles-based PhatNoise representatives, including co-founder Dan Benyamin, it took about one minute to explain how the digital system is used, as we drove in a VW Passat down New York Avenue.

Songs can be transferred from a computer’s CD-ROM or hard drive onto the Phatbox, as the system’s media storage hardware is called, via USB connection (it’s not compatible with Mac computers yet).

The Phatbox cartridge comes with a USB cradle on which it’s placed during the song transfer — a process not unlike uploading pictures from a digital camera, if you’re so equipped.

After songs are loaded and organized, the cartridge is then easily placed into its appointed Phatbox slot and is powered by the car’s electrical system.

And don’t worry about the legality of copying CDs onto the PhatNoise system: It’s considered “fair use” under federal copyright law, in the same way it’s permissible to make copies of cassette tapes for personal use.

Don’t worry, either, about being exclusively locked into digital music: You can still play regular CDs and listen to the radio in a PhatNoise-equipped car — that is, if you get bored with the approximately 5,000 songs that fit into the system’s 20 GB hard-drive.

As noted earlier, PhatNoise is operated through the car’s existing audio system. Picture a typical six-CD changer’s dashboard or steering-wheel controls. But instead of switching between discs, PhatNoise allows you to sort your digital collection alphabetically by artist name, song or album title, by genre or through customized track lists.

All this searching is voice-enabled, meaning that drivers won’t be distracted looking at text displays and endangering other drivers while working the PhatNoise system.

If a search is done by artist name, a little computerized voice comes on the speakers and says, for example, “Joel.” Then it will sample the Billy Joel track for 30 seconds, until the driver clicks ahead or selects the song.

The company recently landed a deal with EMI, one of the five major record labels, to include around 200 pre-loaded songs in the VWs or Audis with PhatNoise. It also has an arrangement with Audible.com, from which users can download digital copies of books and transfer them directly to their PhatNoise systems, making it an attractive option for drivers who already have sizable digital song selections.

Transferring thousands of digital song files from a PC hard drive would take no time; but copying, say, 500 CDs one-by-one might prove a bit too labor intensive, especially for drivers who use computers for nothing more than word processing or e-mailing.

But for the tech-smart music lover out there, PhatNoise is more than a promising start — indeed, it’s more than one could expect of a technology that’s still in its infancy.

There are, of course, other digital car audio systems — portable MP3 players hooked into car stereos through unwieldy tape-head adaptors or FM modulators that play over unused radio frequencies but, as with any radio station, occasionally run into bad-reception areas.

Because PhatNoise is seamlessly integrated into the Audi and VW audio systems, it blows those jury-rigged options out of the water.

Another plus for the PhatNoise system is its adaptability. If new file formats offering more storage capacity hit the market, the system can be popped into a computer and accept software upgrades from the Internet.

As Mr. Benyamin explained, car companies design their vehicles over five-year increments. And who knows what the digital music industry will be like five years from now?

For now, he’s banking on the fact that 70 percent of music is listened to in cars. So why not have as much of it as possible at your fingertips?

Road-tripping will never be the same.

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