Review: Newer Technology RoadTrip! 87.9 FM Transmitter
Pros: Superior quality FM transmission on an almost entirely unused FM radio station (87.9) that U.S. users will likely find clear and satisfying.
Cons: Can’t be used indoors until and unless AC adapter is released; occupies your car’s power charger slot without offering iPod charging; potentially limited utility in few areas where 87.9 is used.
Despite numerous cautionary notes that their performance will vary wildly from city to city, FM transmitters continue to be in hot demand. The reason is obvious: they remain one of the easiest ways to broadcast an iPod’s music to any car or home stereo equipped with a FM radio, and may be the only option for people whose stereos don’t have cassette players or line-in ports. To date, the biggest problem with FM transmitters has been tuning - finding the right local FM radio frequency to overwhelm - followed by delivering a consistently strong broadcast of iPod music to overwhelm it.
But what if there was an tuner-less FM transmitter that was guaranteed to perform very well almost regardless of where you take it? That’s the question posed by Newer Technology’s new RoadTrip! 87.9FM Transmitter ($14.99), which requires a bit of extra introduction before we move on to the meat of the review.
The RoadTrip! 87.9 is actually a revised version of a product we previously reviewed as the RoadTrip! FM Transmitter (iLounge rating: D); Newer Technology has subsequently changed the older unit’s radio broadcasting frequency, improved its audio filters, and dropped its price. Consequently, the new product works with car radios that weren’t supported by an earlier-generation version we didn’t review (the RoadTrip! 87.7FM), sounds better than the version we previously tested and its successors, and costs less. (In a separate review published today, we’ve also tested Newer’s RoadTrip!+ (Plus) (iLounge rating: B+), which costs more but also recharges your iPod battery at the same time.)
The concept is the same in each of the RoadTrip! units: they’re tuner-free FM transmitter solutions designed to work primarily in your car. Each model is locked to a single radio station - here, 87.9FM - and plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter/power port. While not especially stylish, they use few parts - a cigarette lighter plug with a cable - and don’t create a lot of car clutter in the process. RoadTrip! 87.9FM is the black unit depicted above, while RoadTrip!+ is the white one; a green LED on each unit’s front lights up to let you know it’s powered and broadcasting.
Unlike the RoadTrip!+, you connect RoadTrip! 87.9FM to an iPod’s headphone jack rather than its Dock Connector port, a fact which makes this version of the RoadTrip! compatible with all iPod models but modestly reduces its audio fidelity in the process. As with all top-mounting FM transmitters, you therefore need to adjust the iPod’s volume to around the 75% mark in order to produce a clear signal that drowns out the mild static noise present in virtually every FM-based audio device.
In our previous review of the original RoadTrip! 107.7FM, we noted that we weren’t comfortable with that unit’s single-station tuning concept, as we test our products in a congested radio market and experienced a fair bit of interference in using the 107.7 station. However, we left open the possibility that the concept could work, saying that if “the RoadTrip! delivered fantastic sounding FM transmission in a car, it could be a viable and cheaper alternative to bulkier all-in-one car kits such as DLO’s TransPod”.
After experimenting with various FM radio stations and audio filters, Newer Technology seems to have found the magic combination. We’ve tested the RoadTrip! 87.9FM over a series of days and destinations, and found that its decision to dedicate a car’s power output to overwhelming 87.9FM - at least, where we test, and most likely where you live as well - was a very good one.
Wherever we went, this new version of the RoadTrip! sounded strong, clear, and great on our car’s stereo, decidedly better in fact than Griffin and XtremeMac’s competing iTrip and AirPlay FM transmitters. By comparison, the iTrip had a noticeably higher static interference level, and though direct comparisons weren’t possible because AirPlay can’t tune down to 87.9, it had similar static issues on its best channels, as well as a modestly less rich sound. Audio connoisseurs should not expect RoadTrip! 87.9FM to be perfect - it has a trace amount of audible static, and you need to adjust the iPod’s volume properly to get a clean signal - but it does sound very good for an FM transmitter.
There’s actually a very good reason for RoadTrip! 87.9FM’s superior performance: Newer Technology has now picked a radio frequency that’s essentially unused across 99% of the United States. As it turns out, there are only three U.S. cities with legal broadcasts on 87.9, specifically KSFH radio in La Canada, California (Bay/Silicon Valley Area); a low-power religious broadcasting repeater in Sun Valley, Nevada; and an experimental station in Brazos, Texas. If you’re not driving in or near one of these cities, or in an area where illegal FM broadcasting is taking place on 87.9, this version of the RoadTrip! should sound as great for you as it did for us.
There are only two major issues we had with RoadTrip! 87.9FM, one of which will be addressed by the manufacturer in the near future. Unlike most of its competitors, the new RoadTrip! is a car-only accessory, a decision apparently made by the company because most people have cables that can connect their iPods indoors. While this may be true, it’s undeniably also the case that devices such as XtremeMac’s AirPlay and Griffin’s iTrip don’t suffer from the same limitation. To that end, Newer Technology will offer a $9.95 AC adapter for the RoadTrip! 87.9FM to permit it to be used indoors, but hasn’t started to sell that yet.
As with its predecessor models, RoadTrip! 87.9FM’s other issue is its lack of power charging capability. Because it requires a car’s power charger in order to operate, this version of RoadTrip! precludes users with only one in-car power outlet from using any available iPod charger at the same time. In equal parts because of Roadtrip! 87.9FM’s low price, because it doesn’t itself drain an iPod’s battery like Griffin’s iTalk and XtremeMac’s AirPlay, and because of recent across-the-board improvements in iPod battery life, we’re not as concerned about this factor as we once were, but users of 3G iPods especially may not be thrilled. We wish we could recommend RoadTrip!+ as a superior alternative to concerned users, but we currently consider the two options roughly equal given their respective benefits and issues.
Overall, RoadTrip! 87.9FM is a winning package: it’s inexpensive, does a very good job on the single station it’s capable of overwhelming, and provides plug-and-play broadcasting simplicity for the 99% of U.S. citizens who live outside of 87.9 radio station range. If broadcasting power and quality were the only marks of a good FM transmitter, it would merit higher than the B+ rating it receives today. But since we consider other factors such as portability, tuning range, and aesthetic style, it falls short in some respects of our ideal design, which would work equally well indoors and outdoors, consume less space and better match the iPod. If these factors don’t matter to you, don’t let the B+ fool you: this is a great in-car FM transmitter at an irresistable price. Give it a try if you’ve been confounded by tuning or other difficulties with competing products.