A Closer Look
Two Ways to Take iPod on the Road
Sunday, May 29, 2005
Apple's iPod can take an entire music collection wherever life takes you. But if that journey includes playing DJ at a friend's house party or providing a soundtrack on the road, you'll need some help -- most iPods don't include the hardware needed to plug into a home or car stereo.
To bridge that gap, a variety of manufacturers now sell iPod-to-stereo adapters that usually work in one of two ways. Some transmit a low-powered FM signal that an adjacent radio can pick up, and others send an iPod's output through a cassette-tape-sized adapter that plays in any tape deck.
We tested two FM transmitters -- Belkin's TuneCast II, $40; and Griffin Technology's iTrip, $40 -- and three cassette adapters -- Belkin's Mobile Cassette Adapter, $25; Monster Cable's iCarPlay, $20; and a nameless generic model we had lying around.
The iTrip is easily the most stylish device of the bunch. As its name suggests, it is made expressly for Apple's player; Griffin even sells variants for the smaller iPod Mini and the black-and-red "U2 Special Edition" iPod.
The iTrip uses your iPod as a symbiotic host, drawing power from the iPod's battery and using its screen and controls to switch broadcast frequencies (for an FM transmitter's signal to come through clearly to your radio, it needs a channel unoccupied by any stations).
The iTrip's setup is slightly ugly, requiring that you load a special playlist using the iTunes software on your PC or Mac, but from then on it's easy to use.
Belkin's TuneCast II plugs into the headphone jack of any audio source with an included cord. It includes its own LCD readout and controller buttons to show, set and switch among four preset frequencies and runs off its own AAA battery. All that adds weight and makes the TuneCast an unwieldy appendage.
Neither the iTrip nor the TuneCast can overcome the limitations of the FM-transmission approach, however. Both sounded distant and tinny and started generating static if placed farther than 8 feet from a radio receiver. This should not be an issue in most cars, but it's a major problem at home.
FM adapters suffer from an additional weakness on road trips -- the need to adjust their frequency as radio stations fade in and out. We had to do this about every 30 miles on a round trip between the District and New York.
If your car has a cassette deck, a tape adapter will sound much better while costing less. They're simpler to use, too: Pop in the adapter, press play on the tape deck, then press play on the iPod. The Belkin, Monster and generic models we tried all worked well and sounded good, although the Monster adapter provided slightly superior bass output.
Unfortunately, many cars no longer ship with cassette decks, and most vehicles' stereos also leave out the simple line-in jack included on any home stereo. With that input, a cheap patch cord -- $7 to $30 at Radio Shack, depending on brand, construction and packaging -- is all the adapter needed. (An iPod dock's line-out jack provided better sound quality than its headphone jack.)
Without it, however, many car owners have only one alternative to an FM adapter: hiring a car-stereo shop to add a special controller to the vehicle's sound system. This will provide a simple connection for an iPod and allow you to exercise basic control over it with the car stereo's own buttons. But these aftermarket setups also cost from $90 to $200, plus installation, and most require the use of the iPod's own controls and screen for some functions. (Putting in only a line-in jack will still cost $50 to $100, plus installation.)
If being able to play your tunes on any radio anywhere is key, then the iTrip is the way to go. If your main goal is listening in a car that includes a tape deck, a cassette adapter makes more sense. For home listening, your best bet remains a patch cord connected to the line-in jack.
If only the folks in Detroit, Tokyo, Munich, Stuttgart and Seoul would add the same connection to all their car stereos, buyers probably wouldn't begrudge the extra few dollars that might add to a new car's cost.