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1990 MAZDA MX5, 1992 HONDA CRX

MP3 on Wheels
Reviewed May 17, 1999

In March 1998, Hugo Fiennes, a 28-year-old computer programmer, faced a dilemma. The owner of a sporty little 1990 Mazda MX5 (the English version of the car known in the US as Miata), Fiennes wanted to upgrade his car's cassette player but didn't want to lose any of the precious trunk space to a CD changer. Fiennes, drawing on his programming and engineering skills, developed a singular solution: He built what he reckons is the first in-car MP3 player. "A few other people had put PCs in their cars, but they were usually whole PC systems with screens as opposed to a purpose-built music player," Fiennes explains.

MP3 Killed the Car Radio Star
Fiennes, who says he's "always been into electronics and coding," was introduced to MP3 technology while a university student in 1995. (MP3 is a data-reduction and -compression algorithm that provides small file sizes but good sound quality.) Some classmates had written a "jukebox" program to provide background music while they worked in a campus computer lab. Disappointed that the sound was of, as he says, "really dire quality," Fiennes did some experimenting and began contributing to the archive in the now-well-publicized MP3 format, considered near-CD quality. "It sort of went from there — I started building up my own collection and it was about that time that I started thinking about the MP3mobile project," Fiennes remarks.

Although to the layman the idea might seem inconceivable, Fiennes installed his system in just about a month and at a cost of $600. The advantages of the MP3 player versus a conventional car stereo are numerous, Fiennes observes:

  • Instant access to the depths of your music collection.
  • Never finding you're on a long drive without the music you want to hear, because you left the tape, CD or DAT at home.
  • Hearing long-forgotten songs, because they're the only track on the album you like and you can't be bothered to get the CD out to just listen to one track.

The system includes elaborate programming options available at the touch of a finger, such as sorting songs by artist or year. The display shows programmable song details, such as artist name and time remaining. "Loading" the unit with music is simple: Plug a laptop computer into the player and download the songs — as much as 35 hours' worth — directly into the unit.

Doing it Yourself
"There's only one thing better than having an MP3 player in your car and that's having made it yourself," Fiennes declares. To that end, Fiennes launched his MP3mobile Web site in April 1998 to help other people share in the satisfaction he feels. "Lots of people have been inspired to make their own players, which is great. I try to help and answer techie questions as best I can," he says. Fiennes has certainly become the authority on the subject: The MP3mobile site receives 1000 hits a day and he finds himself answering hundreds of e-mails.

"The MP3mobile was just made for my own gratification — I wasn't planning anything commercial at the time," Fiennes says. Still, by June 1998 Fiennes had registered a new domain name ( and parlayed his pet project into a prototype for a commercially available product. He founded and is currently the technical director for empeg Ltd., a team of five that has developed the "empeg" player, currently nearing the final stages of production. "While the MP3mobile prototype was made with mainly off-the-shelf components, glued together with some custom circuitry and software, the empeg commercial product is a 100 per cent custom design."

Reported by Kara Reuter,

Inside the Site
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Site Highlights
Get a peek at Fiennes' custom installation.

Read all about how Fiennes turned his car into the MP3mobile.

Related Sites
Check out another homemade MP3 "car stereo" (and even buy plans to do it yourself!).

Take a look at another cool, but more conventional, custom installation.

See one young man's souped-up 1986 Volvo 240 DL stereo.