Review: Kensington LiquidAUX and LiquidAUX Deluxe for iPhone and iPod
From everything we've seen over the past year or two, the near future of iPod and iPhone car integration can be summed up in three letters: AUX. Short for "auxiliary input," the presence of an "aux" port on a car enables an iPod or iPhone to make a direct wired audio connection to the car's audio system, delivering superior audio quality to FM transmitters and in most cases cassette tape adapters. Pricing is another advantage: you can get an auxiliary audio cable for between $5 and $15, versus $40 and up for good FM transmitters and $15-25 for tape adapters. Yet an aux port notably offers only an audio connection; as is the case with other inexpensive connection options, you'll need additional parts to charge, mount, or remote control the iPod.
Today, armed with a new aux port-equipped testing vehicle, we’re reviewing a collection of auxiliary audio solutions from Kensington, Monster Cable, and DLO, with plans to expand our coverage of accessories in this product category in the future. From Kensington, we look at the LiquidAUX ($80) and LiquidAUX Deluxe ($100) for iPhone and iPod, while we also check out Monster’s iCarCharger 200 for iPod and iPhone ($50), and DLO’s TransDock Direct for iPod ($60).
Let’s start with what these devices do and don’t do. All four accessories provide charging power to the connected iPod or iPhone, and they also provide auxiliary audio output from the device’s bottom Dock Connector port rather than its headphone port. The advantage of doing this has traditionally been audio quality, as iPods’ bottom connectors put out much cleaner, louder signals than their headphone ports, but the quality gap has narrowed in recent years. Today, the biggest advantage is a single-point connection between your iPod or iPhone and car: set any of these accessories up in your vehicle, and you just need to connect one plug to your music player before driving away.
What these devices don’t do, by historic standards, is provide an alternate audio option that was long popular with car accessories released by Griffin Technology, Belkin, and others: a switch or dial to let you adjust your iPod’s bottom volume level for connection to cassette tape adapters rather than aux ports. Properly implemented and used, a dial or switch of this sort can not only improve the sound balance between your iPod and tape deck connection, but also fix small issues that occasionally appear after Apple tweaks the output levels of its new devices. We prefer accessories that offer user-adjustable audio level management of some sort; unlike Griffin’s 2008 iPod-only TuneFlex AUX, none of these do that.
Kensington’s LiquidAUX and LiquidAUX Deluxe are parallel products to the two competitors mentioned above. LiquidAUX is a charging and audio cable, while LiquidAUX Deluxe offers charging, aux-out, and mounting. They’re both designed to work with the iPod and iPhone, as well. Where they differ most substantially from iCarCharger 200 and TransDock Deluxe is in their inclusion of wireless RF remote controls and steering wheel mounts: both versions of LiquidAUX let you use Velcro and rubber to hold an attractive remote on the side of your steering wheel, controlling the connected iPod’s play/pause status, track forward, reverse, and shuffle features. More on that in a moment.
We were generally very impressed with Kensington’s approach to these products’ designs. They both come with fabric-covered, shielded audio cables, one built into the charging bulb, the other a longer, detachable extension cable for cars that need it. While we would have preferred that Kensington allow both cables to be detached, allowing tape adapters to connect to the charger as well, the dual-cable approach is otherwise the smartest we’ve seen so far: the short cable fit perfectly into our test vehicle’s aux port, removing cable clutter. Thanks to the fabric jacketing and some very attractive industrial design from Kensington, both of the LiquidAUX units looked nicer than the competing options, too.
That said, each of the LiquidAUX units had fairly important issues worth noting. First and foremost, though both versions sounded virtually identical to one another, neither produced as clean an audio signal as the DLO TransDock Deluxe; a small amount of noticeable but not terrible constant interference was evident at normal listening levels, with a more considerable level at higher volume levels. The interference was worse in iPhones than in iPods. Kensington’s design also picks up hard drive and other component noises from iPods and iPhones, so you may occasionally hear a little bleep or buzz during silences in your audio, particularly if you’re changing tracks using the remote. Though the audio quality we heard was more than acceptable for most users’ needs, Kensington really needs better filters and shielding to make the most of an iPod or iPhone’s aux-out.
LiquidAUX Deluxe also had another issue: its mounting system. Armed with one of the shortest goosenecks we’ve yet seen on an iPod or iPhone mount, the accessory uses a cradle that is designed for maximum iPod and iPhone compatibility—complete with a moving Dock Connector, spring-loaded arms, and special rear resizing pads—and it’s clearly very thoughtful; for some users, it may well be completely adequate. But there were definite issues with our sample unit, including one problematic spring arm and loose side pads. After we noted this in our preview of Deluxe, Kensington acknowledged that the mount had issues and was going to be replaced in subsequent versions of the Deluxe mount. Our hope is that the new mount preserves the core functionality of the current one, which is all impressive, but just improves its reliability and simplicity for users; Deluxe struck us not as dramatically overdesigned, rather, it’s undermanufactured.
Remote control of both systems was generally good. We did experience a loss of remote control connection to the LiquidAUX Deluxe’s base on one drive, but were able to restore the connection by unplugging and reconnecting Deluxe in the charging port. Overall, we felt that the remote was a nice feature, easily and attractively attached to our steering wheel, but it comes at a roughly $30 premium over otherwise comparable accessories—a bit too much, in our view.
Overall, our current recommendations regarding auxiliary iPod car audio accessories are as follows. If you have an iPod and never plan to upgrade to an iPhone, DLO’s TransDock Direct does a very good job of providing charging, audio out, and flexible mounting, while Kensington’s standard LiquidAUX does a very good job of charging, remote controlling, and outputting audio with iPods, and a fine to good job with iPhones. On the edge of our B+ and B ratings, LiquidAUX’s functionality is offset by some interference and an underaggressive price tag. While we would normally be more interested in a “do it all” device like LiquidAUX Deluxe, this accessory’s price tag and problematic mount made it less worthy of our interest and recommendation; Griffin’s TuneFlex AUX offers everything save the remote control for half the price. Finally, despite its price, Monster’s iCarCharger 200 for iPod and iPhone is clearly a “pass” until the company sorts out the significant audio interference issues it exhibits.