How I got an iPod to play in my 2005 Prius

I don't know if this page will ever be helpful for anyone else, but after all the digging and research I had to do, I figured I should write up a summary in case there's anyone else looking to connect their iPod to their early model Prius.

Recently I finally gave up my long-standing resistance to MP3 players and bought an iPod. One of the reasons for that is the fact that it's getting more and more difficult to find the music I want on CD (at least in brick and mortar stores). The thought of having close to a thousand albums at my fingertips on a portable device was attractive too. The final straw was when a friend told me about RockBox, an open source replacement firmware that plays nearly any audio format (MP3, WAV, WMA, FLAC, SHN, OGG, etc) and has versions for dozens of different MP3 players. Having dealt with iTunes via my wife and my daughter's iPods, I wanted nothing to do with Apple's proprietary software. But knowing there was an alternative out there turned me to the dark side.

The last time I had listened to MP3s was when the format first came out, and I was under the impression that they still sounded like crappy AM radio. The compression software has come a long way though, and now I doubt I could tell the difference between a well-encoded MP3 and a CD. The other big gripe I had against MP3 players was that there was always a gap between songs, which really sucks when you're listening to live albums or albums where the songs all segue into each other. RockBox is "gapless" by default (if you encode the MP3s correctly), so that fixed that problem.

So I caved in and bought an 80gb iPod Video (5th generation) off of eBay. That was the highest memory capacity model that RockBox supported at the time (still is, as of this writing). I got RockBox installed and then ripped about a hundred CDs and copied them to the iPod. It was great - I was listening to the iPod at home, I was listening to it at work, I was listening to it while going for long bike rides. But there was just one problem...

I couldn't play the iPod in my car. I do a lot of my music listening in the car, and I really wanted access to that huge music library on the iPod. I could randomize that thing and basically have my own radio station that only played music I liked and didn't have annoying DJs and commercials. But my 2005 Prius had no way to connect an iPod to the stereo system. It didn't even have an auxiliary input.

So I went to four different car audio places near where I live (five, if you count Best Buy). Two of them had gone out of business, and the rest all told me it was impossible to connect an iPod to a 2005 Prius. No wonder those places are going out of business - it took me all of five minutes research on the web to find out that it is possible. The question became "what's the best method, and can I do the installation myself"?

As part of my research, I used a help page at Crutchfield Electronics' web site. I'm not endorsing the company or saying you should buy anything from them, but they were very helpful to me. They sent me an email almost immediately recommending the USA*Spec PA20TOY iPod adapter for Toyota cars. After doing further research for about a week, I didn't find any options that were clearly better, so I decided to take their advice and buy it. It's not a cheap gizmo - the $170 asking price is a good bit more than I paid for the iPod itself on eBay. But after reading some horror stories about other iPod adapters (there was one that was only half the price but disabled the air conditioner for a couple Prius owners who tried to install it), I decided to shell out the money. In Crutchfield's favor, I should mention that they were very helpful and kept me informed of what was going on every step of the way. On the other hand, they signed me up for their spam email list without asking me, but that was easy enough to opt out of. The adapter I ordered arrived quickly too - just over 24 hours after I ordered it. That may not be typical though - apparently I live just a couple hours away from one of their distribution centers.

Anyway, now that I had the iPod adapter, the question became how to hook it up to the radio in my Prius. I searched the web and quickly found some instructions that included photos, but those instructions assumed that you wanted to actually get the radio out of the dashboard, and to do so you pretty much have to take the entire dashboard apart from the air vent by the driver side door all the way over to the glove box, including removing the video screen. No thanks - that sounded like way more work than I was up for.

After doing quite a bit more web surfing, I finally found this site, which outlines a much easier method, complete with pictures. [NOTE: I received an email on 4/29/2013 letting me know that that link no longer works - the site with the photo-based tutorial seems to have been taken down. The person who sent me the email said he still found this page useful though, so I'm leaving it up.]

When I installed my adapter, I made sure the radio was turned off and the car was turned off. One set of directions I read recommended removing the fuse that powers the radio, but since I had no idea where that was located I decided to risk skipping that step. I don't know if you even have to have the car and radio off, but it seemed safer that way. Proceed at your own risk...

Now, if you start following the directions in that slide show, you'll notice that it starts with the lower half of the glove box missing. Don't worry, that part is really easy to do. Open up the passenger side door and pop open the lower glove box. On the right hand side (looking at it from the passenger seat) you should see an "arm" attached to a knob sticking out of the side of the box. The end of the arm is a little plastic ring that easily pops off that knob (and easily pops back on again, so don't worry about taking it off). Pop that off of there and then squeeze the sides of the glove box in towards the center. There are two little plastic knobs at the top of the glove box sides in the back that run in little tracks and prevent the box from opening too far. With the sides squeezed in towards the center you should be able to get those knobs out of their tracks so the glove box opens all the way to the floor. Once that's done, just lift up on the hinges on the back bottom edge of the box (they're just sitting in little slots - they're not attached to anything) and the whole lower glove box should come out. Set it aside somewhere that it won't be in your way.

BTW, while you've got that glove box out, look behind it and you should see a big box. That contains the cabin air filter. If you slide the little drawer at the top out towards you, you'll see the filter. You can easily change it yourself, and this site sells the filters for under four bucks (note: I haven't actually bought any from them yet, but I'm going to try it next time the Toyota dealer wants to charge me an arm and a leg to change the cabin air filter).

Back to installing the USA*Spec. The next step in that slide show is removing the cover over the air vent between the glove box and the radio. The picture makes it look easy, but it can be a challenge. It's not attached with screws or anything, it just "snaps" into place via four little plastic prongs (two at the top and two at the bottom), but it's really wedged in there good. I managed to get it off with just my fingers, but I've read that a screwdriver wrapped in duct tape (to avoid scratching the dash) or even a paint stir stick can be helpful. Just be careful not to crack those plastic prongs, because you have to snap the cover back on when you're done. I found that opening the cover over the slot underneath the radio and gripping the vent cover from both sides about mid-way along its length, and then wiggling it back and forth helped to loosen it up. Eventually I managed to get the top to give a bit and slide out a few millimeters, and then the whole cover popped off.

Once you get that cover off you'll see a big white plastic box with a ton of wires sticking out of it. It's visible in the second, fourth and fifth pictures of that slide show. I have no idea what it is, but it's in our way. There's a screw at the top of it - it's hard to see because the air vent sticks out over it. All of the directions I found said to use a 10mm socket wrench to remove that screw, but I easily got it out with a long phillips head screwdriver. Use whichever method works better for you (and the tools at hand). That's the only part of the installation that you'll need a tool for, BTW.

Once the screw is out, something that slideshow doesn't mention is that there's also a plastic knob at the bottom of the big wire box that attaches it to the plastic piece behind it. Pull gently but firmly on the box, straight out towards the passenger seat, and that knob should pop out of its socket.

Once the wire box is completely free, move it as far towards the right as you can (into the area where the glove box used to be), being careful not to disconnect or break any wires. WARNING: One set of instructions I read said that if you disturb a particular wire (no idea which one), you could potentially set off the passenger air bag. I don't know if that's true, but be careful and try to keep your head away from the area where the airbag pops out.

The slideshow tells you to cut the plastic "zip tie" that's wrapped around the wires coming from the wire box, but I have no idea why they're telling you to do that. It serves no purpose. I figured it was better to leave well enough alone, and didn't cut it, and I had no problems.

So now if you stick your head where the glove box used to be, you should be able to see the side of the radio "head unit" and kind of, sort of, see part of the back of it. You'll see a white plug attached to the top, passenger side corner of the back of the head unit. It's visible in the slide show on the slide labeled "Now you can see the wire harness behind the radio". The spot where you want to plug the USA*Spec into the radio is right next to that white plug, a bit closer to the center of the head unit. Reach in and feel around with your fingers (being careful not to dislodge anything) and you should feel it.

Now here's the tricky part. But even this was easier than I thought it would be. The USA*Spec comes with a Y-shaped wire that has a big connector at the "foot" of the Y, and two smaller connectors at the top of the Y. Of the two smaller connectors, one is male and one is female - the male one would plug into the female one (think of why they're called male and female and you should get the idea), although there's not enough slack in the wires to actually do so. The male one is the one we need to plug into the radio. Slide it in behind the radio and try to get it into position (the flatter part goes on top), then push it as firmly into that open socket as you can. Stop snickering.

Once that wire is connected, we're golden. There should be another wire that connects one end to the "foot" of that Y-shaped wire, and the other end into the USA*Spec adapter. Hook up both ends of that wire. Now there's a wire with an iPod docking connector at one end - hook the other end up to the USA*Spec adapter. There's only one spot each wire can go into the adapter, so don't worry about getting it backwards. Once everything is hooked up, turn on the car and the radio, and try connecting your iPod. You should be able to at least play music and hear it through the car's speakers. If so, congratulations - you've successfully installed the adapter.

Now to put everything back together. First read the directions that come with the USA*Spec and see how the DIP switches on the side of it are supposed to be set for your vehicle. For a 2005 Prius, all four switches are supposed to be in the "on" position (unless you don't plan on using the alternate auxiliary input, in which case you can put DIP switch #1 in the "off" position). If you are going to use the aux input, you may want to go to Radio Shack or some place and get RCA extension cables (those are the type of cables that plug into the red and white inputs of the USA*Spec) so you can run that extension cable out to the front of the dashboard.

Put the USA*Spec in a location where it will be out of the way and won't slide around - you might want to tape it down behind the radio or under the wire box. Run the iPod connector cable (and aux cable, if desired) up to the divider between the upper and lower halves of the glove box. Put the wire box back in place and attach the plastic knob at the bottom and the screw at the top. Snap the vent cover back on, being careful not to pinch the wires you're running out to the front. If you position them just right, you should be able to put them in the top half of the glove box, close the door and not be able to see them.

You can also just keep the USA*Spec unit in the glove box, but the cable that runs between the unit and the radio is thicker than the cable that runs from the unit to the iPod, which makes it more likely to be pinched by the vent cover and makes it harder to get the glove box cover closed. Plus if you're keeping the whole mess in the glove box, that's a lot of wires - makes it hard to find the one that connects to the iPod, especially if you're driving at night.

(Actually, I kind of lied up above when I said a screwdriver was the only tool I used. After living with the USA*Spec in the glove box for a day, I decided I wanted it hidden behind the dash. So I took a drill and made a hole in the left side of the upper glovebox big enough to run the iPod connector cable and the aux cables through, then stashed the USA*Spec under the big box of wires behind the vent cover. It doesn't look very professional, but it works and you can't see it as long as the glove box is closed.)

Now you can keep your iPod in the glove box or run the wire out to the cup holders or that slot under the radio and keep it there. If you're really ambitious, there was one set of instructions on the web somewhere that explained how to drill a hole in the back of that slot under the radio, run the cables through there and then use a rubber grommet to make the whole thing look more professional. I considered trying that, but I still listen to CDs and need that space to store the jewel cases.

Once the iPod was hooked up, I discovered that it plays fine through the radio (it fools the radio into thinking you have a multiple disc CD player and your iPod is disc 7). If you already have a multiple disc CD player, the installation would probably be more complicated - I didn't have one, so I can't help you there. I think you plug the CD changer into that other branch of the Y-shaped wire (which went unused in my installation), but I can't say for sure. According to the USA*Spec instructions, if you set your radio to disc 8, it puts the iPod into "Direct" mode, whatever that means. So far disc 7 has been working fine for me. If you use the aux inputs of the USA*Spec, it defaults to disc 9, I think.

As the iPod plays, you can push the "Title" button on the Prius screen to see what artist and song is playing. I've found that it often takes three or four songs before that title feature starts displaying accurate info, but that might be because the USA*Spec was designed for Apple's software and I'm running RockBox. On the plus side, the USA*Spec provides power to the iPod and keeps it charged while it plays.

The "Next Track" button on the steering wheel skips ahead to the next song. The "Prev Track" button sometimes works, but usually doesn't. Again, that might be because I'm using RockBox. The volume controls work fine, because they change the volume of the radio, not the iPod. I tried pressing the Random button on the Prius' screen, and it did set RockBox to shuffle mode.

While the iPod is playing, I still have full control of RockBox. If there's something I want to do that the car's controls don't support, I can always use the iPod itself to change playlists, or whatever. Of course, I don't recommend doing that while driving. The USA*Spec instructions explain how to create up to six custom playlists that you can access via the radio's CD1 through CD6 buttons, but I didn't even try that because I'm sure it wouldn't work with RockBox.

The coolest thing is that if I'm playing the iPod and put in a CD or switch to the radio, the USA*Spec automatically pauses the iPod. When I switch back to iPod mode, the song resumes right where it left off. This morning I had the iPod playing when I stopped at Dunkin Donuts for coffee, and when I came back out and started the car up again the iPod automatically resumed exactly where it was when I turned the car off. Very cool.

We tried the USA*Spec with my daughter's more recent iPod Touch, and it would play music through the speakers but the iPod itself becomes disabled while it's connected. It just shows a screen that says it's in accessory mode, or something like that. Apparently that's the case with most recent Apple products. If you want full control of it, you can always connect the headphone output to the aux input of the USA*Spec, but then the iPod won't be charging while it's playing and the sound quality won't be quite as good.

So there you have it, my adventures in audio installation. Trust me, if I can do it, pretty much anyone should be able to do it. So if you go to a car audio dealer and they tell you it's impossible to connect your iPod to your older Prius, have a go at doing it yourself.

NOTE: The above was provided for informational purposes only. I'm not making any guarantee that this solution would work for you, or that you would have as easy a time installing the thing. I'm just saying that for my 2005 Prius and 5th generation iPod Video, this was a great solution. If you start taking your car apart and run into trouble, you're on your own - don't blame me.