Despite being developed in the early 1990s, the first hands-free Bluetooth car kit didn’t hit the market until 2001. Even then, the technology didn’t become a staple feature in car stereos until the late 2000s and early 2010s.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, distracted drivers kill nine people and leave 1,060 others injured every day in the United States. The main offenders are people who can't resist the lure of their phones. Distracted driving is so dangerous that many states have adopted laws against using your cell phone while driving without a hands-free device.
However, many professionals spend a significant amount of time both on the road and on the phone for work, and ignoring calls and messages while driving is impractical. Bluetooth car kits allow you to stay connected to your smartphone without taking your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel.
Bluetooth car kits are not one-size-fits-all devices. The best kit may not work with your stereo, or you might have specific priorities such as primarily wanting to stream your favorite music on your smartphone through your car stereo. As such, there are three questions you need to ask before you buy: Are you getting a Bluetooth car kit for streaming music? Are you getting a Bluetooth car kit to make hands-free calls? How much are you looking to spend?
Best Visor Bluetooth Car Kit
This type of Bluetooth kit clips to your car’s visor and has built-in speakers. On the visor, the microphone is in an ideal place to pick up your voice for hands-free calling. In many ways, this style of kit works like your phone with the speaker on, as it allows you to talk and listen to the caller without holding the phone to your ear.
However, while you can certainly stream music through them, visor-style Bluetooth car kits don’t replicate the car audio experience. Your car probably has at least two speakers that are at minimum around 5.25 inches in diameter, though most cars have four speakers that range in sizes between 4 inches and 6 x 9 inches. On the other hand, visor kits usually only have one speaker that’s 1 inch in diameter, so you should only purchase one if you’re sole concern is hands-free calling. That said, some feature an FM transmitter, so you can stream audio to the Bluetooth kit, and it will convert the sound into an FM signal you can pick up on your car’s radio.
The Jabra Freeway may be the biggest visor-style Bluetooth car kit on the market, but the built-in speakers are the real deal. Not only were they the loudest speakers in our tests, but the Freeway’s call quality was also the clear winner on both ends of the line. It features a dedicated mute button and clearly marked controls. It even has an excellent FM transmitter feature that allows you to listen to music from your smartphone over your car’s audio system. If hands-free calling is your main priority, then the Freeway is your best choice.
Best AUX-In Bluetooth Car Kit
If streaming music is your priority, then an AUX-in style Bluetooth car kit is your best bet. As the name suggests, these devices connect to your stereo via the AUX-in port. You stream music to the device via Bluetooth, and it uses your car’s speakers to play the audio.
These devices also have microphones, so you can use them for hands-free calling. The major advantage of this type of Bluetooth kit is the caller’s voice is amplified by your car stereo, making it very easy to hear. The downside is there can be feedback if you and the caller speak over each other. To fix this issue, most of these Bluetooth car kits have echo-canceling and noise-canceling features built-in to their microphones. That said, some are more aggressive than others, which can cause the call to break up and sound choppy in an attempt to remove or minimize the feedback loop.
The SoundBot SB360 is the best option for drivers who are looking for a way to stream music from their smartphones. This Bluetooth car kit has a very simple but effective design. It uses an AUX cord to connect to your car stereo, which allows you to play music and make hands-free calls over your speakers. At around $20, it’s also one of the most affordable ways to incorporate Bluetooth into your driving. Just don’t expect high-quality phone calls.
Best FM Transmitter Bluetooth Car Kit
FM transmitters have long been popular for bridging audio technology incompatibilities. For example, when CDs became popular, most cars still used cassettes. Rather than replacing your car stereo with one that had a CD player, you could buy an FM transmitter to connect to a portable CD player, which effectively made you a traveling radio DJ. You simply chose an FM station that didn’t pick up any radio stations and programmed the transmitter to convert the audio into that frequency.
The same technology was used to bridge the gap between CDs and MP3 players – now it’s Bluetooth’s turn. The difference between these FM transmitters and the old versions is that they also have microphones for taking hands-free calls.
This style of Bluetooth car kit has the same downsides as most FM transmitters – FM audio quality is simply not ideal. It is notoriously inconsistent, with a high noise-to-signal ratio. So, this isn’t the car kit for you if audio quality is your primary concern. In addition, call quality suffers from the same feedback issues as AUX-in kits, except with the added inconsistency of an FM signal.
Basically, there are two reasons to choose an FM-transmitter Bluetooth car kit: your car stereo doesn’t have an AUX-in and it is more affordable. Surprisingly, many car stereos don’t have AUX inputs. If yours doesn’t, then an FM transmitter is your only option to play music over your car speakers. Most FM transmitter car kits cost less than $20, though some can cost as much as $50.
The Nulaxy KM18 is the best Bluetooth FM transmitter in our review and one of the most affordable Bluetooth car kits available. Its call quality doesn’t compare to higher-end kits, and FM transmission doesn’t sound as good as an AUX connection, but the KM18 performed better than the other FM transmitters in our tests - Mpow Streambot Flex and GOGroove FlexSMART X5. It paired to our phone quickly and has an easy-to-read display that makes finding the best FM station easy. It also has an AUX port, which means you can forgo FM transmission for a direct signal to your car stereo, which is the preferred method.
What We Tested, What We Found
In general, AUX-in and FM transmitter kits are the best for streaming music through a car’s speakers, though which of the two is right for you depends on whether your car stereo has an auxiliary input or not. With an AUX-in Bluetooth car kit, the audio quality is only as good as your car stereo. In other words, one isn’t going to sound better than another. However, with FM transmitters, the quality of the FM transmission affects audio quality, and it is testable.
We evaluated how easy each Bluetooth car kit is to use, regardless of style. We looked at how easy the controls were to find and use and rated how simple it was to pair each product with our smartphone. While every product was easy to pair, some took much longer to be noticed by our smartphone.
In addition, we tested each Bluetooth kit’s call quality by making many calls in three different scenarios – parked but idling, city driving and freeway driving. Each situation has a different level of ambient noise that can interfere with the call quality. We rated both the driver’s side and the receiver’s side of the call.
We also measured the volume of each visor Bluetooth car kit’s built-in speakers. Without the aid of your car’s many large speakers, your caller’s voice is projected entirely through the device’s small ones. Some car kit speakers aren’t loud enough to take calls on noisy roads. The Jabra Freeway has two built-in speakers that produce volumes loud enough to hear over the roar of the freeway, while the sound from some other visor kits gets drowned out.
For FM transmitter kits, we measured radio transmission quality. During testing, we found it very difficult to escape the persistent buzz of an FM transmission, though this is most common when you choose an empty frequency that is too close to an actual radio station’s. Finding a frequency with very little buzz can be time consuming and depends largely on where you are driving, as it can increase as you get closer to stations.
When to Consider Replacing Your Car Stereo
Bluetooth has been a common feature of car stereos for years. In fact, it’s so common that even the most affordable car stereos have it. Still, while some cars have Bluetooth for streaming music from your favorite apps, many don’t come with built-in microphones for hands-free calling. If hands-free calling is your priority, car stereos with microphones usually start at around $150, which is much more than even the most expensive Bluetooth car kits.
Certainly, swapping out your car stereo with a Bluetooth compatible one is the better option if you can afford it. Many car stereos even come with external microphones you can clip to your visor or dash. That said, here are some other things to consider before you replace your stereo:
Cost of Installation
Sure, you can get a car stereo for $50, but can you install it correctly? Removing a stereo can be a difficult and delicate process, depending on the car it’s installed in. You also need to ensure that the wires to your speakers are connected correctly and that the stereo has sufficient power to match them.
Professional installation is often included in the price when you purchase a stereo from a brick-and-mortar car audio store. But when you purchase one online, you have to take it to a local car audio store for installation, and that can cost much more than the stereo itself.
Multiple Cars Without Bluetooth
A Bluetooth car kit doesn’t require any complicated installation – you either clip it to your visor, dash or an air vent. This means it’s easy to pluck out and move over to another car. If your family has multiple cars without Bluetooth, a portable Bluetooth car kit is the easiest way for everyone to enjoy hands-free calling and streaming.
AUX-in and most FM transmitters plug directly into your car charger, so battery life is not a concern. However, visor-style kits are completely wireless and require recharging. This means that battery life is an important consideration. That said, most visor-style kits have batteries that last between 10 and 45 hours, and standby time ranges from three weeks to over six months. So there’s plenty of talk time, unless you’re chatting up the hours on a long road trip.
Almost every Bluetooth device now comes with multipoint pairing. Advanced multipoint pairing allows you to connect two phones to the device at the same time.
Dedicated Mute Button
Sometimes you need to mute the caller to talk to other passengers, and having a dedicated mute button makes this easy. Surprisingly, it’s not a common feature with most Bluetooth car kits.
Help & Support
Most Bluetooth car kits have a one-year warranty. Manufacturers should be easy to contact if you have a concern or question, and you should have access a FAQs page, apps, downloads and manuals so you have all the information you need to get the most out of your hands-free Bluetooth car kit.
Using your phone while you're behind the wheel is irresponsible – it's not only dangerous to you, but also to others on the road. With a Bluetooth car kit, you can responsibly take important phone calls and text messages while you drive.