If european car were to compile a yearbook of past and current contributors and staff, I would probably be listed as "most likely to perform ritual seppuku," or "least likely to purchase car audio equipment."

For much of my driving career, car audio has been limited to whatever was in it when I bought it--quite often an AM/FM stereo, with a tape deck that required a folded matchbook cover to align and prop up the cartridge.

Don't get me wrong; it's not that I don't like music. I love music and own several hundred compact discs, but mobile music for me is often a brace of Weber carburetors and a header exhaust system. My in-car requirements are quite mundane. The 2000 Beetle is the first car I've owned to come equipped with more than four speakers and, more surprisingly, a six-disc CD changer.

At ec we have been reticent to install audio equipment after an ill-fated experience in the old BMW Z3 1.8. Removing the aftermarket stereo equipment required the skills of a micro-surgeon to re-connect the multitude of micro-fine wires in the thumb-wide cable running front to back. That Hurculean feat earned me a hefty plate of Exec. Editor Collins' homemade cookies and a newfound desire to never deal with hack installs.

More recently, I had the pleasure to drive the magazine's now departed long-term A4, which was equipped with an XM satellite radio system. The satellite system is fine and good for news, programs and weather, but what I want in my car is the ability to have my entire music collection at the touch of a button without having to stop, move junk, remove the CD carrier, swap CDs, then replace. Enter VW's Phat Noise(R) Digital Car Audio System.

As the resident ueber-nerd/music fan, I have long watched the digital music revolution with a profound interest. The advent of the MP3 format, developed in the late 1980s at the Fraunhofer Institut in Erlangen, Germany, exploded in the Internet age with the creation of Shawn Fanning's Napster network. Although not an early adopter of this technology, I found it a good way to experience new music which then later became a part of my collection. I am, in other words, the poster child for the music trial/purchase model.

Recently, while plying the pages of VW Trends, I came across an advertisement for VW's Phat Noise and decided to put it to the test. On paper Phat Noise fits all of my requirements: integrates into the stock head unit, is easy to install, has removable media and the ability to contain my music catalog. A call to a local dealer for a quick FAQ/Q&A confirmed my desire, and three days later the box arrived.

For those who have a CD changer, the installation process is very simple: Remove two screws at the top of the protective case, slide out the CD changer, remove the CD carrier, remove the CDs, replace the carrier, unplug the CD changer. The two brackets attached to the CD changer are reused and mounted to the Phat Noise housing.

To install the Phat Noise system, attach the adapter cable to Phat Noise, insert the Phat Noise DMS (Digital Music Storage) cartridge, attach the adapter cable to the existing CD harness (making sure the cable connector fits in the protective hanger,) wait 5 to 10 sec. until the lights go out, turn on the car's power, turn on the audio system into CD mode and start playing music.

If your car has not been equipped with a CD changer, Volkswagen's Web site has a 24-page downloadable document showing the exact installation procedure for each of its cars for which the Phat Noise is offered. As a side note from looking at the photos in the manual, it appears my dealership did not put the CD changer in the exact location as specified by the factory, and this accounts for the DMS cartridge being tricky to slip in and out.

The power of the Phat Noise is not only in the hardware, it's in the software. Phat Noise comes bundled with a CD and Music Manager software that prepares and catalogs audio files from your CD collection. If your computer has an internet connection, Phat Noise can even download the CD artist/track data from the Gracenote CDDB(TM) database. This saves you the time of entering the track information, which is later used to create playlists.

The playlists are presented to the user via a computer-generated voice that tells you the mode of operation you're using (browse, artist, genre, etc.) and the current CD followed by titles. Once you're in a playing mode, the songs are presented seamlessly.

As mentioned, Phat Noise stores the music on a removable media cartridge, in this case a 20 GB hard drive contained in a proprietary housing. The data is loaded onto the cartridge via a USB docking cradle, which uses a USB 2.0 connection for faster transfer. If your PC has an older USB 1.0 port, an inexpensive upgrade card can be installed to greatly improve transfer speeds. The first step is to install the Phat Noise software from the included CD; upon restart, the USB dock can be connected. When you first run the software, it will ask if you want to register, followed by a message for upgrading to the new Phat Noise 2.0 software (free.) The software has some additional features, such as ripping audio files straight to the DMS cartridge.

The easy-to-use software can search your hard drive and subfolders for audio files which can be added to your collection. Once you have dragged and dropped the files into artists/playlists, simply choose "save and eject" to copy the files to the DMS. The DMS can then be returned to the Phat Noise system for your listening enjoyment. As a point of interest, Phat Noise works with both MP3 and WMA file formats. Hopefully, a future upgrade will work with the copy-protected Apple Music Store files I've been purchasing for my Mac iTunes. At the very least, I haven't been able to figure out how to move and play those files. As a side note, the Phat Noise software is designed to work with PCs running Windows 98, 2nd Ed. or newer, or thru emulation on Mac OS 9+ with Virtual PC/Win 98.

To date, Phat Noise has exceeded my demanding requirements for an in-car audio system. I have yet to optimize my playlists to assuage my ever-changing moods, but they're easily edited and saved. For the consummate audiophile, or the everyday person, it's easy to exceed the storage capabilities of many on-board solutions. Phat Noise is probably just the thing for which you have been searching, offering convenience, compatibility and the all-important cool factor.

For those not fortunate enough to own a Volkswagen, Phat Noise is available for other cars at www.phatnoise.com. Volkswagen owners can also go there to buy hats, extra docking cradles and cartridges (up to 60 GB.) If you have your own MP3 player hardware, you can try and buy a freestanding version of Phat Noise Music Manager. Check it out.

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