3rd Party Review
We obtained samples of the four most widely sold iPod compatible portable FM stereo transmitters, and put them through their paces in both indoors and in-car use. In the
process, we learned a lot about what features and what performance factors are important in choosing an iPod transmitter.
The four transmitters tested here are the TuneCast, the iRock, the iTrip, and the
AudiaX... all of these being pretty widely available and well marketed to the iPod community. Each of these operates on AAA batteries, except the iTrip,
which is powered by the iPod, itself. Also, at this time, there is no iTrip available for the newest "3G" iPods (with the dock connector).
Conversely, the other three transmitters will work with any iPod model, as they only require a standard 3.5mm headphone jack for their audio connection.
The four factors we evaluated with these products were (A) sound quality, (B) transmitter range, (C) ease of use, and (D), a category
we'll call "style," where we consider how well the products integrate with an iPod user's lifestyle and with the overall design ethic and appearance of the iPod, itself.
We quickly found that each of these products has its own quirks insofar as getting it to operate at its best performance level. So, our opinions
here are based around having played with each transmitter enough to learn how to best set it up and use it, for maximum performance.
The best sound quality is a toss up between the TuneCast and the AudiaX. We were surprised by this result, as the TuneCast and the iRock use the same circuit board, and we expected them to have
similar performance. However, that was not the case, as the TuneCast is notably clearer, and has noticeably firmer bass response. Both it and
the AudiaX, when used in ideal circumstances can match the quality of a 128kbs MP3 file, with no obvious sound degradation. The AudiaX is
pretty senstive to the volume level setting of the iPod; if you have the iPod cranked up too loud, the signal overdrives the input on the AudiaX
and causes obvious distortion. However, simply turning down the volume on the iPod, and turning up the volume on your FM stereo system fixes that issue nicely, and creates a system with fairly
impressive sound quality.
Third in sound quality is the iRock; even when in an ideal situation this transmitter suffers from weak bass response, as well as is very prone
to sweeping waves of static drifting in and out of the music. When you use an iRock, you are frequently reminded that you're listening to an FM transmitter.
We were a bit disappointed with the slightly thin sound of the iTrip, as this product's appearance and overall impression of high quality had us
anticipating equally terrific performance. Such was not the case, as the iTrip suffered from poor frequency response, and was very difficult to
locate in a manner that eliminated traces of static. The sound was shaky enough that we acquired a second iTrip and tested that unit as well, just to make sure we had not received a defective unit.
It must be said that none of these units has audiophile sound quality, all suffer from the vagueries of FM radio transmission, all at time show
signs of static or other FM interference, and that the differences between the four products are very minor, compared to the overall
difference between the basic idea of using an FM transmitter, or using a hard-wired stereo interconnect.
The absolute hands down winner here is the AudiaX. Given that all four products supposedly conform to the same FCC Part 15 output level
constraints, we were very, very surprised at the huge range advantage shown by the AudiaX. Where the other three products worked pretty well as advertised, giving a decent signal within a few feet of the
receiver, the AudiaX worked wonderfully at distances as great as 50 to 75-feet (outdoors). We actually made a game out of moving this transmitter around from room to room in our offices, just to see how
far it would actually play. Suffice it to say that you will never be disappointed with the range of this product.
Tied for second place in transmitter range were the TuneCast and the
iRock; and, this matched up well with our expectations, as, again, both products use the same circuit board. Both of these products were
sensitive to where they were located inside a vehicle, with even slight changes in placement often causing bursts of static in the music.
Close behind the TuneCast and iRock was the iTrip, with just the slightest bit less effective range, and just a tiny bit more tendency to
have static in its signal. All three of these last products are, frankly, pretty frustrating to use in a vehicle; even when set up in a proper
location, each shows drifting static problems. We could only gain an acceptable listening experience from any of the three transmitters
when parked, when carefully selecting from the available channels, and when investing some serious tinkering in finding just the "best" location inside the vehicle.
With a quality FM tuner in a home stereo system, indoors, all four products had sufficient range to use without static inside a normally
sized room. Though, again, the AudiaX simply smoked the other units by being usable pretty well anywhere inside a normally sized house.
Ease Of Use
With this category being a bit more subjective than the first two, we'll encourage you to try these products and draw your own conclusions.
That now said, the most elegantly designed unit in this test is the AudiaX. Surprised we didn't say the iTrip? So were we. Yes, the most
gorgeously designed appearance in this test, by a light year, is that of the iTrip. And, with its software based operation, and its clever
integration with the iPod, we believed this would be the clear winner of this review. No so. What we found in real use is that the clearest FM
station for tuning the transmitter will often drift and change. What works best at 88.9 this morning, might work better at 101.3 this afternoon... or even in 10-minutes.
The easiest of the transmitters to
re-tune was the AudiaX, with its simple front panel control and its backlit display. And, this setup permits re-tuning the transmitter without disturbing the iPod. With the iTrip, you must use the iPod's
controls to change the FM channel, and, despite the apparent simplicity of the instructed method, changing the iTrip's channel wasn't always that easy. Many times, moving from
one frequency to another required cycling through a dozen or more button pushing efforts, before an attempt actually did change the tuner frequency.
So, with the AudiaX in first place in ease of use, and the iTrip in last place, we found the TuneCast and iRock cast into the middle, hampered, really, by their restriction to only four possible transmit
frequencies. Even in our underpopulated mid-South location, it was often difficult to find one of those four frequencies with a weak enough
signal already present not to interfere with the signal from the TuneCast or iRock. Other than that issue, these two products are dirt
simple to use; just plug them in, turn them on, select a frequency, and you're listening to music.
No contest: the iTrip totally smokes the other three products in meeting
Apple's notoriously high design ethic. This product is so stunningly well designed that it should win Griffin Technology an IDEA design award.
And, really, functionally, it is not all that far behind any of the other three products in any area.
Of the three distant runners up to the iTrip in style, the AudiaX presents
the smallest, least intrusive appearance, the TuneCast offers an all-white complement to the iPod's color, and... well, the iRock... well,
it's a lump of ugly gray plastic, but, at least it's a fairly small lump.
The Bottom Line
If you're looking for the best all-around performer in an iPod FM
transmitter, the product we recommend from this group is the AudiaX. It's strong signal range, clean sound, front-panel full-band tuning control, and its tiny size make for a very well designed and great
performing product. Whether in your car or truck, or your home or office, this FM transmitter will not likely disappoint.
Any of the remaining products demonstrate some combination of
weaknesses that, depending upon your use, will cause some sustained level of frustration. We cannot recommend any of these products for
regular use in a vehicle, because of the static and station selection issues. However, these three products did perform nicely indoors, when used at close range with a home stereo FM receiver.
So... our recommendation? The AudiaX, if your usage is mainly in your vehicle... and, principally on the merits of its gorgeous industrial design
and simple "cool factor," the iTrip for at-home usage.
As reviewed from Macwhisper