Review: Belkin TuneCast II FM Transmitter
Pros: Small, easy-to-use FM transmitter includes LCD tuner and batteries, therefore is likely to work anywhere.
Cons: Depending on store, may be more expensive than comparable FM transmitters.
If you’ve never used an FM transmitter before, the concept is simple: plug one in to your iPod and its music will emanate from any nearby radio. There are only two major issues. Since FM transmitters are tiny radio stations that broadcast relatively weak signals through the air, you have to pick an even weaker radio frequency that your transmitter can easily overwhelm. Second, because of FCC limitations on the broadcast range of these devices, your transmitter will need to be close to your radio - 30 feet maximum, 10 feet preferred - for best results.
Several companies have been selling iPod-specific FM transmitters - Griffin’s iTrip is perhaps the best known, with Monster and others offering alternatives. (C Crane makes a device that’s not iPod specific but is widely regarded as the best because of its clear stereo output.) The key differences between these devices are their tuning mechanisms, power requirements, physical designs, and monaural versus stereo output. Most FM transmitters output only in single-channel (monaural) sound, have limited tuning capabilities, draw power from external sources, and only modestly match the iPod.
An Improved Sequel
Belkin’s new TuneCast II is at the mid-range of these devices in performance: it requires (and includes) two AAA batteries, hangs off an iPod with a dangling cable, and outputs in stereo* sound.
But it improves on low-end alternatives by including an LCD screen with digital tuner, which can tune in .1mhz increments and memorize four pre-set broadcast frequencies. Many comparable transmitters - including the original TuneCast - limit tuning to a total of four or eight pre-set stations, so the added tuning capability here does bolster the TuneCast II’s utility somewhat for users in locales packed with radio broadcasters.
The other major addition is Belkin’s inclusion of an optional power cable that can connect to the company’s new Mobile Power Cord (sold separately for $24.99) rather than drawing AAA battery power. Put together, the TuneCast II and Mobile Power Cord deliver comparable quality to Monster’s new all-in-one iCarPlay charger and FM transmitter, but Belkin’s solution lets you use its FM transmitter outside of a car and with batteries.
TuneCast II’s only other trick is an auto-on-off feature that turns the LCD screen and FM transmission on whenever an audio signal is piped through the headphone cable, and off after any sixty-second absence of signal. Alternately, the two tuning buttons can be pressed in together to manually turn the TuneCast II on and off - a slightly awkward system since it takes a few seconds for the device to realize the buttons are depressed simultaneously, and it occasionally tunes upwards or downwards in the process. Given the pre-set memorization features of the TuneCast II, and its auto on-off capabilities, however, this won’t be a problem for typical users.
But at a MSRP of $49.99,** the TuneCast II doesn’t offer anything significant for iPod users that Griffin isn’t already offering with the $35.00 iTrip, which has the advantages of smaller size, no external power requirement, and full incorporation into the iPod’s user interface. Because FM transmitters are so susceptible to interference, which appears in the form of static that becomes more noticeable as the volume is turned up, the TuneCast II sounds similar to the iTrip. The audio quality, a step below the clarity of a perfect digital FM radio station, will be adequate for some users but generally not as good as, say, a Sony CPA-9C cassette adapter - though neither Belkin’s nor Griffin’s FM audio outperforms C Crane’s bulkier and not-iPod-specific $69.95 FM Transmitter.
TuneCast II’s major advantages are that unlike the iTrip, it can conceivably be used with non-iPod devices, and it is a less expensive device than C Crane’s FM Transmitter, while including its own LCD screen and digital tuning. While it wouldn’t be our first choice as an iPod-specific peripheral, it performs as promised and offers a middle-of-road option to users with less serious audio quality demands.
*Please note that our review initially incorrectly listed the TuneCast II’s output as monaural rather than stereo.
**Belkin notes that although it is selling the TuneCast II through its own web site for $49.99, the product is in fact available at lower prices through other retailers.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school -ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.