Have you heard the recent news? The average age of cars on the road in the U.S. is at an all-time high of 11.5 years. That’s the average — meaning about half of cars are even older than that. So assuming you haven’t installed a kickin’ aftermarket stereo in your hoopty in the last decade, chances are you don’t have a way to enjoy your music library in digital form.
When my wife bought a 2004 Nissan Sentra — itself now 11 years old — I remember thinking the AUX input was a great idea for the iPods and other MP3 players that were beginning to percolate into the consumer electronics marketplace at large back then. In the intervening years, both aftermarket and OEM audio head units have added new connectivity options at a precipitous rate, from dedicated 30-pin iPod hookups to multiple USB and SD card slots and, more recently, Bluetooth music streaming capability.
My daily driver is now a 2010 model car, and though its head unit was the “base” unit, it still includes a 30-pin iPod connector and an AUX input. That said, it’s nice not having to whip your phone out of your pocket to plug it into that AUX jack with a fumbly cord that’s always in the way.
Enter the piece of tech I reviewed recently: The GOGroove FlexSMART X5 Bluetooth car kit.
The FlexSMART X5 is intended to give those of us with old-school head units the capability to both stream music and make hands-free calls using Bluetooth. The X5’s control head has a Bluetooth chip embedded within its guts, and that chip sends the Bluetooth call or music out to your antenna via an FM transmitter.
FM transmitters got a bad rap in their early days. Many of my friends who had experience with FM transmitters during the aughties snarled their noses when I told them about that aspect of the FlexSMART X5. Many of those older FM transmitters would allow the user to select from a predetermined few frequencies — often just three or four of them — and if you had strong signals from local radio stations on all those frequencies, tough.
Thankfully, GOGroove gave the FlexSMART X5 the ability to choose from just about any frequency in the consumer FM radio spectrum. Just touch the dial and then turn it to your desired frequency, and you’re golden. The FM transmitter was respectably strong. It had no difficulty drowning out a few staticky public radio stations down in the 88 MHz frequencies where I most often tested it.
To avoid any unnecessary fumbling of buttons whenever a call came in, I set an FM preset button on my head unit to the X5’s frequency. So when I received a call and I wasn’t already listening to the X5, all I had to do was hit that preset button and then hit the answer button on the X5.
Audio quality for music over the X5 was the same as most mid-strength FM signals. There was some distortion apparent at higher volume levels, but it was livable. Static did not prevail at any time during my test. Call quality was as good or better than the built-in unit in my ride. Callers on the other end of the conversation always responded that I was as easy to hear as ever.
A few words on the hardware itself: The FlexSMART X5 control head is equipped with provisions to attach it to one of two places: your sun visor or a gooseneck mount that plugs into your 12-volt power port. You can charge the control head using that gooseneck or a micro USB cable included in the box. Reportedly, the battery can be fully charged from a drained state in just two hours using the USB method. I wouldn’t know, as I used the gooseneck. It worked better for my application anyway.
Also included on the control head: An AUX input so you could FM-transmit devices that didn’t have Bluetooth, call answer and hang-up buttons, a volume knob that doubles as the frequency selector, a blue multipurpose display, and track play/pause, forward, and backward buttons. Unlike some units I’ve used in the past, I found the track forward and backward buttons actually worked with my cheap-o LG Optimus Fuel smartphone. Nice.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure said smartphone was working well with the X5 in other ways. Music playback via Bluetooth was prone to skipping. I use Google Play Music to manage my music library on my phone, but I keep it set to “downloaded only” so that I’m not eating up a bunch of data trying to stream albums that aren’t on my phone’s Micro SD card — therefore I’m certain the skipping wasn’t caused by trying to stream in areas of poor data coverage. A couple of times, the X5 seemed to lose its Bluetooth connection with my phone. I could only fix the issue by powering down the X5 and turning it back on again, then letting it reconnect to my phone.
Having said that, I’m not sure whether that was actually a fault of the X5’s, or whether to blame it on my cheap, low-memory smartphone. The Optimus Fuel is one of LG’s cheapest phones, and its system memory is very limited. Forget using the Facebook Messenger app — too memory-intensive for this phone. In addition, I’ve had a number of little things that keep cropping up with this phone, such as a persistent “Cannot update application: Not enough storage” message anytime an app tries to auto-update. So it’s possible my phone simply couldn’t handle reliably streaming music over Bluetooth while maintaining a Bluetooth phone call connection as well, given the overtaxed state of its memory.
Had I been a customer who wanted to exchange the X5, GOGroove’s representative said it is covered by a three-year warranty. Knowing that, I’d say the GOGroove FlexSMART X5 is an attractive-enough piece that would have been a most-welcome way of adding Bluetooth music and calling to my previous daily driver, which had not even an AUX jack in its factory head unit.
As for my current daily driver, I think I’ll just revert back to using the AUX jack and cord for skip-free music from my phone.
GOGroove FlexSMART X5 Bluetooth FM Transmitter Car Kit
Price: $64.99 at Amazon
- Adds modern functionality to older head units — no wires needed.
- Non-distracting lights on control head fade after a period of inactivity.
- Three-year warranty gives peace of mind in case of hardware failure.
- Not sure if skip-prone music is X5’s fault or my phone’s — but bear in mind this hasn’t happened on a number of Bluetooth music streaming-capable cars I’ve tested recently.
- Blue power light on 12-volt gooseneck never goes away — and unlike the control head’s display, it is distracting.
- Smallish buttons hard to locate without glancing away from road.