Who would have thought that one day a widespread challenge would be getting audio stored on one device to play on another? For the most part, we’ve settled on Bluetooth. But Bluetooth isn’t always available, and buying the necessary gear can become expensive.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could stream music and podcasts over FM radio waves instead? Cars and boomboxes already have built-in FM radios. You can also set up around-the-house radios by raiding yard sales rather than saving up for a Sonos player.
Is this idea only a dream, or is the technology in place to make this a reality? Here’s how you can start transmitting FM radio from your phone.
What Is FM Radio Transmitting?
Terrestrial radio depends on two key pieces of equipment: a transmitter and a receiver. Typically, the transmitter is a radio tower, and your car stereo or handheld radio is the receiver.
In the context of smartphones, radio transmitting means streaming audio out across radio waves rather than in. Theoretically, you can do this without purchasing anything extra, as long as your phone has FM radio functionality. Technically, most smartphones do, but a majority of manufacturers disable the feature.
According to National Public Radio, companies block FM radio functionality as a way to get customers to use and purchase more data. Some don’t want to deal with supporting different modems in different areas. But as of 2018, Samsung is one manufacturer that now enables the FM radio on its devices. You can also check out NextRadio’s list of FM radio-enabled phones.
You’re not necessarily out of luck if your phone comes from a non-supportive manufacturer. You may have the option to unlock the FM radio yourself.
Perhaps you noticed that I said theoretically. That’s because even if your phone does have FM radio playback enabled, that doesn’t mean you’re good to go. While there are some FM transmitter apps in the Play Store, they don’t seem to work. More than likely, especially if you live in the US, you’re going to need to purchase additional hardware.
What Are FM Radio Transmitters and Modulators?
An FM radio transmitter is a device that transmits audio from your phone in the form of FM frequencies. Many FM transmitters have a range of only a few yards, enough to reach from one end of a home or backyard to the other.
FM radio signals may suffer static from any number of causes, such as weather and geography, walls, or the location of your stereo antenna. Range won’t impact how well the device performs in your car, but weather and radio congestion might.
FM modulators connect directly to the receiving device, such as your boombox or car antenna. They use frequencies set specifically for your smartphone, so as to eliminate static.
FM modulators are more difficult to install. For a more plug-and-play solution, we’ll keep our focus on FM transmitters.
The Different Types of FM Transmitters
FM transmitters come in different styles. Most consumer options are for automobile use. But if you’re really invested, you can take it to the next level.
Many FM transmitters that you find on Amazon or eBay, like the Monster Cable RadioPlay 300 FM Transmitter, come with three primary parts: a 3.5mm headphone jack, a power adapter to plug into your car’s 12V port, and a control unit that displays the radio frequency. They remove the need for your car to have either Bluetooth or an aux port.
Some models connect via Bluetooth instead of a headphone jack. The BENEO Bluetooth FM Transmitter is one such example. This type of product is useful in cases where your phone has Bluetooth but your car doesn’t, as that’s one less cord to bother with. You may also gain the ability to hear calls via your car’s speakers.
Some FM transmitters are devices that require a specific Android app to function. These offer the potential of a more reliable experience, but come with several risks. They only work on devices that support the app, and once the developer stops providing updates, you’re out of luck. The TuneLink Auto app, for example, hasn’t received an update since 2012 (though at least it’s still available). That can understandably make you nervous about picking up the TuneLink wireless adapter in 2018.
For an in-home solution, you can invest in a standalone FM transmitter. These may be portable or heavier units that sit on a shelf somewhere with their own dedicated power supply and antenna. You can connect your phone to one, such as the aptly-named Whole House FM Transmitter, using a 3.5mm aux cable.
Even on low settings, standalone FM transmitters can produce signals strong enough to spread out not only across your house and yard, but several neighbors’ as well. Some send signals out in distances better measured by miles than feet. At that range, they’re illegal to use in the continental US unless you have a license, so make sure to check the rules in your area. If you live in the US, you can find them on the Federal Communication Commission’s website.
What About FM Transmitter Apps?
I searched around the Play Store for FM transmitter apps, and I didn’t see any that weren’t blanketed with 1-star reviews. These typically came with reviews warning that the app either didn’t work and/or was a fake.
TuneLink Auto’s app continues to exist, but it hasn’t seen an update in half a decade. As someone who doesn’t own the required hardware, I can’t tell you if it still works.
In short, I would recommend purchasing an FM radio transmitter or modulator if you’re serious about listening to music in this way. Doing so will also save you from being dependent on any one app and ongoing updates. Don’t forget about other ways to play music to your car’s stereo, either.