This Cool JDM Bluetooth Transmitter Taught Me an Expensive Lesson

I got this Kenwood CAX-BT20-R FM Bluetooth transmitter from Japan hoping it’d be a functional accessory in my Montero. Turns out … not quite. But it sure does look cool.

byAndrew P. Collins|
A Kenwood CAX-BT20-R
Andrew P. Collins

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At the risk of making myself look like a wannabe weeb, I have to admit that I love collecting Japanese car accessories. The Kenwood CAX-BT20-R is one such artifact that I learned about by accident, quickly became obsessed with, tracked down like a dog, and eagerly forked over way too much money to get. But hey, now I get to show you this odd trinket and explain why it's mostly useless.

A generalization I'll proudly own is that I prefer old tech to new. My youngest car is 16 and my daily driver is a 4x4 from the '90s. Forget Apple CarPlay, my Montero doesn't even have Bluetooth. Or a full set of working speakers, but that's another thrilling story.

I'm too loyal to my pseudo-Ludditism to swap the 1998 Mitsubishi/Infinity factory stereo in that thing for something that could connect directly to my iPhone 13 (even there I'm clinging to the past; I got the Mini model that's the size of an iPhone 5). But I do want to be able to blast Culcha Candela through the truck's stock speakers. So I did what a lot of you probably remember doing in high school: I got an FM Bluetooth radio transmitter that sends the phone's vibes to the car radio. For $9.99, this exact one from Amazon is kickass if you happen to be in the market.

I had never heard of the brand "ILOKEY" when I got this, but it's the best 12v-plug Bluetooth FM transmitter I've used. I like the compact and simple design, but most importantly the light it emits is not annoying. Andrew P. Collins

While I was waiting for the Amazon unit to arrive, I kept rolling down the endless road of online retail and found myself at Croooober. Croooober is a ridesharing service for crows which—just kidding, it's an online emporium for used Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) car parts. It has those overnight parts from Japan you've heard about. Well, more like over-weeks because shipping costs can be high enough to make you want to crawl inside a Poké Ball and cry if you're trying to buy anything bigger than a single 13-inch wheel off a Suzuki Lapin.

I don't remember what I was looking for specifically when I stumbled on this listing for a Kenwood-branded Japanese Bluetooth radio transmitter. But I was instantly intrigued by an FM Bluetooth radio thing made by a big stereo brand. I'd never seen that before — none of the readily available transmitters on Amazon are made by powerhouse audio brands like Kenwood, Sony, Bose, or anything like that. I imagine that's because this method of music appreciation is usually done on a low budget, and in 2022, it's fairly antiquated. After all, many cars on the road can now connect to your phone natively.

Andrew P. Collins

From casual research, I was able to glean that the Kenwood device was not readily available in America at all. Finding the Kenwood website convinced me this was actually something cool, rather than just random junk with a legit brand's name on it, so I went ahead and completed an order for that one on Croooober. It was red, the best color, after all. Shipping more than doubled the ¥2,200 ($16) list price.

A few weeks later, a box washed up on my porch from the other side of the world, and in it was my shiny red CAX-BT20-R (that last letter indicates that color). I took it out of the box, admired the accompanying square meter of paper printed with instructions I couldn't read, and rushed out to my Montero to see how nicely it sang.

Much to my disappointment, the Kenwood Bluetooth FM transmitter I'd paid about $40 to get sounded like it was trying to pass alien communications through another dimension. As I scrolled through the Kenwood's output options, I noticed that it went all the way down to 77 FM and didn't go higher than 89. What the hell kind of FM radio channel is 77? Well, turns out it's a Japanese one.

As this post from New Zealand's Radio Spectrum Management business unit explains nicely, the FM radio frequency range is different in Japan than it is in New Zealand (or the United States of America, or anywhere else on Earth). A site called REC Networks has a good explainer of this, too. But basically, while our FM radio stations go from about 87 to 108 FM, Japan's goes from 76 to 90. This JDM Bluetooth transmitter does work in the overlapping bands, but I suspect the fact that it was designed for a different FM radio ecosystem explains why it doesn't sound very good on my American-spec FM radio.

I got mixed responses on this one from my colleagues. A couple laughed at me for not knowing Japan's radio is different, but enough were surprised enough that I figured this little misadventure was worth sharing. The moral of the story, I guess, is that you shouldn't buy FM radio stuff from Japan if you actually want to use it. Oh yeah, and that you shouldn't bother spending time researching what the best FM Bluetooth transmitter is—the cheapest one on Amazon turned out to work excellently for me.

Oh well! It looks cool and has a USB output, so I can still use it as a decorative phone charger. I'll just keep that $10 Amazon unit in my truck's other cig lighter for when I actually want to hear my phone's music through the beat-up speakers in the doors and pillars.

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