One of the major benefits of the Apple iPod is that it’s highly portable. Barely larger than a deck of cards, the iPod can easily store thousands of songs or audio books, and thanks to its relatively stout rechargeable battery, it’ll play for hours and hours. But the portability can present a dilemma – now that you’ve become addicted to the iPod’s convenience, how do you take your tunes along when you’re, say, driving in your car?
Well, if you have a BMW, you can “iPod your BMW,” thanks to a joint-effort between BMW and Apple. But for those of us not fortunate enough to own a late-model BMW, our options are somewhat limited. There’s the “cassette converter” option, but it’s rather messy, as it requires a wired connection between the iPod and the cassette deck. And, if you’re an aftermarket audio guru, you may not have a cassette deck in your car.
For those who don’t want to go with the cassette converter option, there’s always the aftermarket, integrated iPod controller, but they are often pricey, invasive and not exactly “portable.” When it comes time to sell your car, you’ll probably sell the iPod controller with it.
So what’s left? FM transmitters! But, how do they work? Are they big and clunky? Is the sound quality acceptable? Are they easy to use? How portable are they? We’ll take a look at a few of the more popular options and share our opinions and experiences with three of the most popular FM Transmitters for the iPod: The Belkin TuneCast II FM Mobile Transmitter, the Exonic EXF2030 FM Transmitter, and the Griffin Technology iTrip.
Belkin TuneCast II FM Transmitter
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
We believe the Belkin TuneCast II FM Transmitter is the most versatile of the bunch because it utilizes a standard headphone plug to communicate with your iPod. When not in use, the compact cord wraps around the unit to store neatly out of the way. And the beauty of this system is that if you have multi-generation iPods (say a 2nd Generation iPod and a 4th Generation iPod), or if you have portable CD- or DVD-Players, the TuneCast II will accommodate them all. In our opinion, this is a major benefit, one that’s exclusive to the Belkin TuneCast II.
Another benefit of the Belkin TuneCast II is that it operates from its own power source. The TuneCast II ships with a pair of AAA batteries, which should provide many hours of use before requiring replacement. If you don’t want to use the batteries, you can purchase an optional 12-volt adapter cord.
Once plugged-in and powered-up, the Belkin TuneCast II is a breeze to use. It doesn’t require any software, and operation is simple and straight forward. There are three buttons on the device – one for shuffling through memory slots, and two for selecting the broadcast frequency. Press and hold both tuning buttons and you’ll power-on or -off the unit (the unit will automatically shut off after detecting 60-seconds of “dead air”).
The Belkin transmits on FM channels from 88.1 to 107.9MHz and can memorize up to four FM frequencies. This feature allows for simple frequency changes – handy if you travel through areas where certain frequencies grow weaker or stronger. Simply press the “MEM” button and you can shuffle through your any of your four presets.
Now for the bad news. Sound quality is acceptable at best, but we found the quality to be similar to most other FM transmitters. With a frequency range of 50Hz to 15KHz, certain key musical details are often lacking. Bass drums and low bass notes are often weak and or muddy sounding. Cymbals and screaming guitar riffs can sound muffled. Signal strength was good, but in busy metropolitan areas we did have to change frequencies to avoid fade-out (interference) from competing FM stations. Traveling through Washington DC rendered the TuneCast II useless as there simply weren’t enough empty frequencies for us to receive our iPod signal on. In rural areas, the TuneCast II was great as we rarely had to change stations to correct interference.
Hardcore audiophiles won’t appreciate the sound quality, but for the majority of us, the Belkin TuneCast II FM Transmitter should fit the bill for portability, convenience and sound quality.
Exonic EXF 2030 FM Transmitter
Suggested Retail Price: $49.95
We found the Exonic EXF 2030 FM transmitter while at a local mobile audio store, and the installers and salesmen swore by it. They told us it would “Beat the pants off any other transmitter in a similar price range.” We assume they were referring to the sound quality, because the Exonic unit requires a significant amount of installation time, and isn’t portable.
The unit itself is quite small, measuring in at just larger than the Belkin TuneCast II unit. The Exonic EXF 2030 requires a 12-volt power source, and has a pair of RCA-style inputs on it (for receiving audio signals). A row of dip-switches allows the user to select the frequency on which the unit will broadcast to.
It took us about an hour to install the Exonic EXF 2030, as it required an appropriate mounting location with access to both 12-volt power and ground (all of which were located behind the dashboard). And, like idiots, we didn’t photograph it prior to installation… We then had to route a six-foot Monster Cable audio cable from the unit to our iPod. The cable carried a price tag of $19.95.
The Exonic has a limited set of FM frequencies (10) to which it can broadcast, and unfortunately, in Washington DC there aren’t many open frequencies available. We chose 87.9 MHz as our frequency, as it seemed to have the least amount of FM content. Changing the broadcast frequency requires the user to set the dip-switches into a specific array… a task not easily accomplished while driving.
The good news is that the Exonic EXF 2030 sounds wonderful. The sound quality is far beyond that of the TuneCast II or the iTrip. High notes and cymbal crashes were crystal clear. Bass drums and low notes came through with a resounding thump. Signal strength was great, and we experienced minimal interference while using the unit, even in busy metropolitan areas like Washington DC. Our guess is that the Exonic is able to send a stronger signal that probably overpowers the competing radio station.
If portability isn’t a priority, and you place a high premium on sound quality, the Exonic EXF 2030 FM Transmitter is for you. Expect to spend around $125 to have it professionally installed.
Griffin Technology iTrip FM Transmitter
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
The Griffin iTrip is without question, the most compact and most portable option we’ve seen. It also looks the coolest, but unfortunately, we didn’t find it to be as versatile as the Belkin TuneCast II. The audio connector is specific to the iPod, and while Griffin claims that one iTrip transmitter should work with all iPods, we had difficulty in getting our iTrip to work with our 2nd Generation iPod (the iTrip we tested was designed for a 3rd Generation iPod).
The iTrip allows you to broadcast on different frequencies, but only after you install the supplied software. Available FM frequencies (from 87.7 to 107.9 MHz) become part of a playlist. Changing broadcast frequencies isn’t difficult, but it does require significant navigation through your playlists.
The iTrip draws power from your iPod, and while it’s efficient, we did notice a dip in battery life when compared to using the iPod sans iTrip. This may be of concern to some folks, but it didn’t bother us.
Sound quality is similar to the Belkin TuneCast II, as the iTrip also broadcasts on a rather narrow range of audio frequencies – just 50Hz to 15KHz. Again, audiophiles will probably need to look elsewhere for high quality sound. Not unlike the Belkin TuneCast II, the Griffin iTrip had trouble broadcasting a clean signal in busy metropolitan areas. In rural areas, the iTrip performed well and was very similar to the TuneCast II in terms of audio quality and broadcast clarity.
If maximum portability and having the smallest, coolest looking form-factor is important to you, the Griffin Technology iTrip should be just the ticket.
So, while FM transmitters are handy, they’re not quite perfect – yet. Their ease of use, portability and clean installation make them seem like a good idea, but overall sound quality and the tendency to fade or tune out while in busy metropolitan areas makes them a bit of a pain to use. If you’re looking for a FM transmitter, we suggest you buy the one that’s easiest for you to use. Make sure you can quickly and easily change broadcast stations, and make sure it will work with all of your audio devices. From what we experienced during our little comparison, it’s difficult to choose a clear winner, so we’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
Added during publication: We’ve just revceived a Dension Ice-Link system, and will be installing it soon. We’ll provide a report in a future issue and will compare it to the results found in this review. Stay tuned…