Off-Road Friendly Stereo Modification and Adding Scosche iPod Controller
Most of the rigs running around on-trail or in the sand are modified stock trucks, and most of the sound systems in ‘em are stock-based too. When you’re off-road, that means skipping CDs or a pile of tapes – who still has tapes? – and have you ever noticed the kind of radio reception you get in Plaster City? Not too many new rigs are in the dirt with up-to-date adapted sound systems, either – it’s always something ancient and desperate for an excuse to crap out on you.
What’s your solution? Forgo the CD, don’t worry about cassettes (or tape adapters), damn the rotten outback radio and hook up an iPod – properly, through a proper stereo.
First things first – is your stereo capable of a stable and protected iPod connection? The tape adapter? Yes, we’re aware of 20-year old Walkman technology … it’s part of the reason this story’s being written. Do you want more wires dangling in the cabin? Something else to tangle with the CB cord or snag on your boots when you hop out to push? The mini-jack adapter that’s appeared with OEM stereos ain’t much better beyond improved sound quality, because the wires are still danglin’ and now you have a fixed jack to bump into. To do it right, you need to plug into the back of the unit, someplace that’s hidden out of the way while off-roading.
Factory-Replacement Stereo Upgrade
In this case, we’re dealing with a third-gen 4Runner, and thanks to one of the wonders of Toyota manufacturing, there is a monumental amount of crossover capability between Toyota, Lexus and Scion stereos (until they started using the formed-dash integrated head units that look like they were designed by GM). From 1997 on, almost everything is plug and play. Do your research. Most brands aren’t this simple, but if you can’t directly swap stereos there are lots of outfits like Installer.com or your local car stereo shop that have adapters which can turn interstereo spaghetti into plug and play, manufactured by companies like where we found the iPod adapter, Scosche.
We originally chose a later-model 4Runner stereo as an inexpensive replacement for the premium-once-upon-a-time head unit in our ’97, but there are quality issues. The late-model 4Runner and Tacoma stereos have an incredibly high warranty-exchange rate due to shoddy manufacture, so much so that Toyota dealerships have a specific internal process that puts all the cost on the manufacturer. Ouch.
We discovered another Toyota-spec radio/CD combo that would not only fit (standard Toyota double-DIN opening) but was adaptable for complete control of an iPod. For several years, Scions were sold with several different head units manufactured by Pioneer (says so all over it, too) that bark with a relatively healthy wattage through an internal amp. They fall out of Scions all over the place because the econobox kids want to bang bigger tracks than the OEM unit can manage. This means Craig’s List and stereo shops are choked with them. We found one from a 2006 tC, model-number T1807 ($1600-plus retail) for $30 on Craig’s. Yeehaw.
The stereo install, at least regarding the plug & play/bolt & bracket part of the operation, goes as smooth as a baby’s butt. Every bracket from the two-piece 1997 4Runner stereo (the CD reader is divorced, and connected to the head unit through an auxiliary jack) was removable from the 4Runner and bolt-uppable to the T1807, and it fit almost perfectly. In fact, even in the case of our 4Runner’s optional factory six-speaker CD/tape unit with the auxiliary amplifier, the plugs from the OEM chassis harness that went to the amp plugged straight into the Scion head unit instead.
The only actual thinking necessary to make the Scion stereo fit the 4Runner included removing two small sections of plastic from the Scion faceplate (which comes off with a few small screws and some plastic tabs – be gentle), and trimming the 4Runner center console cover to fit the wider, deeper and slightly arched Scion faceplate. All Dremel, all the time, folks – this was workbench nibbling at its best, with minute alterations to the plastic and a dusting of burned plastic fragments all that’s necessary to adjust the gen-three console to fit. A bit of artful polishing of the plastic with varying grades of sandpaper (use the double and triple-ought stuff made for wet-sanding) will duplicate the OEM plastic’s sheen at the cuts.
With time and use, it seems the 4Runner’s speakers will need some adjustments to compensate for the T1807, which appears to be designed to fill a small car with sound, not our school bus. The pre-reading CD player in the T1807 is quite robust, though, and was marginally shockproof too (serious bonking did cause tracks to start skipping, but we had to make an effort).
iPod Control is Essential
Without the auxiliary-jack capacity of the new-used Scion/Pioneer T1807, we wouldn’t have been able to jack into iPods and the like – there’s no cassette player – so what would have been the point? Serious off-roading means lots of grade-A lumps and bumps, and CDs don’t like that – physical damage to discs in the Fletcher Hills library will attest. There’s really only one way to carry tunes in the dirt, and that’s digital storage. Fortunately, many OEM Toyota stereos have an auxiliary jack perfectly suited for an iPod adapter, and there is copious adaptability available from outfits like Scosche (scosche.com) that make an iPod an option. We’ve used Scosche parts in the past to good effect.
While we’re on the topic, keep in mind that there are two different types of iPod data storage, and while the standard iPod uses a very durable hard drive, it’s not bulletproof – that would be an iPod that uses a flash-drive-based storage medium such as the Mini. Pick your poison, they’re both better than a CD player when the going gets bonky.
An essential part of an off-road iPod is being able to isolate your treasured tune-storage device from the rigors of the trail – dirt, rattling around, dust, people climbing in and out, spilled beverages, all of which can turn your iPod from tech to turnip in a blink. Unpowered iPod links are out there, but you’ll still need to regularly access the ‘Pod, and that means putting it in harm’s way. Why not stash the iPod in a glove box or console? It’s safer, more secure, probably more theft-proof, and a proper iPod adapter will give your head unit control of the iPod.
Once we figured that the Scosche adapter would give us iPod control (with cables that could be stealthed all the way to the elbow console or glove box), plus iPod charging and spare RCA ports for other plug-in junk we keep around (desperate to play some old tapes after all?), it was a sale. Not that we plan to use the satellite radio option built into the T1807, but it’s still functional with this adapter too. Considering how little we’d spent on the stereo, ponying up a few bucks for the iPod controller was easy. We can make the most of the Scion head unit, enable ourselves to off-road with proper tunes, and have the iPod completely hidden from the elements.
Scosche iPod Controller Goes Here
We’d removed the OEM auxiliary amp from the 4Runner when we yanked the tired OEM head unit, and it left a nice pocket in the nest of wires and cables behind the dash to secret the iPod controller. Because we weren’t sure how it would behave and what fit adjustments would be needed, the first install was more of an exercise in location and isolation. With wires bundled and the whole thing zip-tied in place, we wrapped an old sock around the processor for increased jounce protection. Don’t laugh; it worked perfectly. After puzzling it out, we’re going to adapt the old amp’s bracketry to hold the Scosche adapter, perhaps the next time we dig into the dash.
The spare RCA in the Scosche unit was connected to a mini-jack adapter (the 3.5mm plug, not the super small “micro” jack you see on mobile phones). Using the RCAs on the Scosche controller to run a jack to your phone would actually be great way to haul a small number of tunes, now that we think of it, but then you’ve got your phone battery being decimated out in the desert when the phone is a part of your rescue gear ... The Scosche iPod controller let us charge the iPod while we used it, and once the interface made sense (probably the hardest part of the whole process), we could choose tracks, playlists and albums. A playlist for mud? Rock & rocks? Ironically, the cables Scosche supplies with the controller (model “AXIPTA” for the Scion/Pioneer T1807) are sooo long (for your console-reaching pleasure) that you’ll need to strategize where they go before closing things up. If that’s the hardest part of getting an off-road-friendly stereo, though, we’re not going to complain.