Review: Belkin TuneBase Direct
For the past two years, integrating an iPhone into a car has been at least a two-part process: due to Apple software restrictions, it's been one thing to get music out of the phone, but another entirely to deal with phone calls that come in while you're driving. It seems as if it should be so simple -- every car has speakers, and connecting an iPod or iPhone up for music is as simple as plugging in a Dock Connecting accessory to the stereo. Yet for phone calls, users have needed to use the iPhone's Bluetooth or headphone port, instead, basically a second output port for audio from the same device.
That’s changed with TuneBase Direct ($70), a new all-in-one mounting, charging, music-out and handsfree phone accessory that was clearly developed for the iPhone but also works with current-generation iPod nano and touch models. Combining a charger, a flexible rotating/resizing gooseneck mount, an audio-out cable, and a handsfree microphone kit, the new TuneBase lets you hear both iPhone music and phone calls through your car’s speakers, relying upon its own microphone to pick up your voice as you drive; a button on its base activates the mic and serves as a play/pause button for music. You need to connect the included audio cable to TuneBase Direct and to your car stereo, or plug in a self-supplied cassette tape adapter if your stereo has a tape deck.
Belkin has included a couple of nice design touches in the mounting and charging features of TuneBase Direct. It has re-conceived the iPhone and iPod mounting dock with a vertical pressure clip system rather than replaceable mounting trays, a decision that simplifies the user experience, enhances the dock’s versatility, and reduces the need for extra parts. Now, you can use your iPhone or iPod inside virtually any case, securely setting the height of the top clamp relative to the bottom of the iPod or iPhone, a really smart improvement on many prior car mounts. Additionally, Direct also includes a spare USB port to let you charge another device with its own USB cable, allowing dual iPhone or iPod families to tap the same car charging port at the same time.
What’s more important about this design, conceptually, is that it offers an alternative to two competing phone call audio options—the Bluetooth headset and Bluetooth speakerphone—both of which are subject to significant maximum volume limitations, a problem that manifests particularly when there’s significant ambient noise. Belkin instead uses your car’s integrated speakers to let you hear your callers as clearly as your music, taking major steps forward in both sound quality and volume. In our testing, callers sounded more natural—less harsh—to us through the car speakers than through any of the Bluetooth kits or headsets we tested, and continued to sound good even at higher volumes, which isn’t necessarily the case with every wireless earpiece or speaker out there.
So that’s all the good news; unfortunately, there are several pieces of bad news, too, the first of which is comparatively minor and physical. As much as we liked how TuneBase Direct mounted and charged iPods and iPhones alike, Belkin’s speakerphone sleight of hand required an engineering compromise, namely, you need to connect a headphone plug in order to hear either calls or music through your speakers. Thus, the Dock Connector in Belkin’s base solely supplies power, and audio is all coming through the headphone port, a really unusual way for an all-in-one car accessory to handle iPod or iPhone music. Our minor complaint is that you need to make two cable connections when docking your device rather than one, an inconvenience that would have been unnecessary with a long-overdue Apple-developed iPhone software update to let the Dock Connector work with both speaker and microphone accessories. We’ll have to see whether this is properly fixed in iPhone OS 3.0—Apple has suggested that it will be—but it seems to be too late to save TuneBase Direct.
The bigger problems start with TuneBase Direct’s microphone. Our impression is that the reason that other companies haven’t made accessories like this one has nothing to do with the technical feasibility of pumping iPhone phone audio and music through the same car speakers—obviously, it can and could be done—but rather is a result of what happens when a microphone is placed in the same lap-level housing where the iPhone is docked. For all of their disadvantages, namely pricing, speaker quality, and the need to be mounted or worn separately, in-car Bluetooth speakerphones and headsets generally position their microphones right near your mouth. TuneBase Direct’s microphone sits somewhere near your waist, and tries to pick up your voice from several feet away.
Results were regrettably predictable. We tested TuneBase Direct in two separate test cars against visor-mounted speakerphones and headsets, and callers told us that we sounded much worse through Belkin’s microphone than the others—in every case, ambient car noises and interference were obvious, and our voices were nowhere near as distinct and clear through TuneBase. Under certain testing conditions, callers told us that they were hearing serious, distracting echoing of their voices when they spoke to us, and said that they just wanted to be taken off the speakerphone. It’s hard but possible to calibrate an all-in-one speakerphone to work without echoes in different sorts of vehicles, but incredibly difficult to do the same thing when the speakers and microphone locations and characteristics differ from car to car. Belkin attempted this with TuneBase, but didn’t quite pull it off.
Finally, there was a iPod/iPhone music sound quality issue. Because TuneBase Direct uses a headphone plug to pull music from these devices—and a surprisingly noisy one, with iPhone beeping interference we could hear, plus the need to adjust the volume manually on the device—the audio isn’t as clean as it would be through a direct Dock Connector audio connection. With the music volume cranked up, the interference was less obvious and frankly would likely be unobjectionable for many users, but in quiet songs, it was obviously still there. It’s obvious that Belkin had to make some sonic sacrifices to achieve its all-in-one design, but they collectively result in a less than totally satisfying listening experience.
Consequently, TuneBase Direct—a car accessory with a noble goal and an inspired new mounting system—falls below our general recommendation level. While its functionality and pricing are both extremely attractive, its poor performance as a speakerphone and its mediocre performance as an iPod or iPhone audio solution make it the sort of product we’d only recommend to users who are willing to make serious compromises in order to achieve iPhone car integration. We wouldn’t recommend it for the average iPod user given other less expensive options that are out there, and capable of superior sonic and connectivity results. Our gut feeling is that TuneBase Direct’s best parts will make it into superior sequels in the future, hopefully aided as much by additional Belkin engineering work as by ease-of-use improvements by Apple’s iPhone software.