Review: XtremeMac InCharge Auto BT + InCharge Home BT
Though it's known mostly for its cases these days, XtremeMac has been developing electronic accessories -- chargers, docks, and speakers -- for years now, and in the last year or two has renewed its efforts to create distinctive options. The latest and greatest are InCharge Auto BT ($80) and InCharge Home BT ($80), two separate Bluetooth wireless audio accessories that are designed to serve as bridges between current-generation Apple devices and prior-generation home and car speaker systems.
InCharge Auto BT is a combination iOS device car charger and self-powered Bluetooth audio kit. It begins with a gray and matte black car charging bulb with an audio cable built into the left side, and a USB plug on its face; the package also contains a detachable three-foot USB-to-Dock Connector cable with an Apple-thin plug. All audio connections made between InCharge Auto BT and an iOS device are wireless, regardless of whether you connect the Dock Connector cable, which is solely there for 0.5/1/2.1-Amp (full-speed iPod/iPhone/iPad) charging. Similarly, the only audio connection InCharge Auto BT can make with a car is through the integrated audio cable, which connects to the aux-in ports found on most modern car stereos. A call answer/end button is on the edge of the 3.5mm connector so you can use it more easily with an iPhone.
XtremeMac has designed InCharge Auto BT to switch between two different Bluetooth wireless modes, one of which it handles well. In stereo Bluetooth streaming mode, InCharge Auto BT sends your iOS device’s audio to your car’s stereo, and does so with aplomb: the audio is filtered nicely and sounds quite robust by Bluetooth wireless standards, without the sorts of compression grit and noticeable static that typified Bluetooth systems only a year or two ago. While the sound quality isn’t as pristine as the lossless data sent via AirPlay, there are no AirPlay car kits on the market right now, and may not be for some time to come.
InCharge Auto BT’s other mode is disappointing. While it can work with iPhones in a monaural mode to broadcast phone call audio through a car’s speakers, the transition from stereo to monaural modes is handled clumsily, with some audible interference, and the unit uses such a distant microphone that callers will hear echoes and road noise while you talk. There are right and wrong ways to add iPhone-friendly microphone functionality to an in-car Bluetooth system; XtremeMac seems to have chosen one of the wrong ways merely to include something in this unit, rather than doing it correctly.
By comparison, InCharge Home BT attempts a little less, but doesn’t stumble, either. XtremeMac has designed this unit as a glossy black wall adapter with a gray rim and a detachable audio cable that can be swapped if necessary with other self-supplied cables. Again, there’s a USB port and a 3-foot USB-to-Dock Connector cable, optionally letting you charge an iPod, iPhone, or iPad at full speed if you want to do so; there’s still no way to get audio out of the device’s bottom by connecting it to the InCharge Home BT adapter via this wire.
Instead, you connect the 3.5mm cable ends to the adapter and the stereo line-in port, press the button on the wall adapter to pair your iOS device, and after entering a 0000 code, they’re ready to work together to let you send stereo music wirelessly to your conventional speaker. The sound quality is basically identical to the InCharge Auto BT—clear, respectably balanced, and about as good overall as can be expected in the absence of AirPlay lossless broadcasting—though InCharge Home BT doesn’t try to handle iPhone calls at all. You need to answer them entirely through the iPhone, after which the music you’re playing will resume automatically in the wirelessly connected speakers. It’s also worth a brief note that while both systems can pair with multiple iOS devices, you’ll need to manually disconnect one from active pairing before attempting to make a connection with another one. Some of the most recent Bluetooth devices we’ve tested are a little more adept at juggling multiple connections automatically.
While neither of XtremeMac’s new InCharge BT units is a completely amazing piece of hardware—iSkin released a stereo Bluetooth transmitter and receiver kit for iPods three and a half years ago—the sound quality of both of these units is great for stereo streaming, and they both provide up-to-date charging options. InCharge Auto BT falls short only for monaural iPhone calling purposes, though it does so for reasons that are regrettably common enough in peer products, as well. If you’re looking to find a viable way to continue using your existing home or car stereo without upgrading to a brand new unit with integrated AirPlay or Bluetooth functionality, these $80 options are reasonably priced and solid performers. They’re both worthy of our general-level recommendation.