Review: XtremeMac AirPlay2 FM Transmitter for Dock Connecting iPods
Pros: A Dock Connector-ready FM transmitter that’s compatible with nanos, 4G and 5G iPods, and minis. Bright, easy to read screen; thin-profile case neatly matches the look and shape of the iPod nano. Broadcasts comparatively clean audio to 88.1 to 107.9FM, with low-static mono and slightly higher static stereo modes. Includes adhesive car mount for nano use.
Cons: The most expensive standalone FM transmitter we’ve seen - in our view, too expensive. Considerable battery drain knocks nano down to roughly 4 hours of playback time, 5G iPods down to 7 or fewer hours. Not as good a physical match for larger-than-nano iPods as it is for nanos, and especially difficult to mount or carry with full-sized iPods. Can’t broadcast to 87.9FM. Fragility of Dock Connector-to-iPod connection is a concern.
Of the many types of accessories we review at iLounge, the most problematic is the FM transmitter, a device designed to broadcast iPod music through the airwaves to a nearby FM radio. Many factors conspire to make the wireless iPod-to-radio connection unpredictable from user to user and situation to situation, so even the best FM transmitters we’ve tested inevitably receive complaints from readers: “I still hear static,” “my music sounds flat,” or the like. That’s why we always prominently caveat our FM transmitter reviews with a warning: your results will vary based on the strength of local radio stations, your iPod’s proximity from your radio antenna, and the overall quality of the FM transmitter you’re using. Cassette adapters (~$20) and direct line-in stereo connections always yield much better results.
XtremeMac’s AirPlay2 ($60) FM Transmitter has appeared at a challenging time for iPod accessory manufacturers. Major players from XtremeMac to Griffin and Belkin have struggled with the “right” way to build a transmitter for Apple’s newest iPods, each of which has lost the top-mounting accessory port that used to make mounting and transmitting relatively easy. Earlier devices such as XtremeMac’s original AirPlay and Griffin’s original iTrips no longer work with the new iPods, and companies are now struggling to develop bottom-mounting transmitters that fit, look, and work as well as their predecessors.
AirPlay2 (actually written AirPlay²) is the sequel to the somewhat controversial AirPlay FM transmitter we tested at the beginning of this year. AirPlay was the first iPod-mounting FM transmitter to include its own LCD screen and buttons for channel tuning, and delivered audio quality that to some ears was entirely acceptable. But other users were unnerved by a high-pitched warbling noise in their units’ audio signals. There’s some very good news up front: this noise is gone in AirPlay2, which sounds better than ever before.
The new problem accessory companies are facing is mounting. Shortly after the release of the iPod nano in September, XtremeMac previewed AirPlay2 as a device that would match and fit the accessory port on nano. But then Apple showed up with the fifth-generation iPod, which was equally incapable of using top-mounted accessories, and companies such as XtremeMac were faced with a choice: try to rush two iPod-specific FM transmitters out in time for the holidays, or just release one and try to sell it to owners of both nanos and 5Gs?
XtremeMac gave in to the latter temptation. AirPlay2 is now promoted as “Built for iPod nano. Works with all Dock Connector iPods, 4th Generation and later.” The reason for this is obvious: like Griffin, which is temporarily marketing its hastily redesigned, 5G-width iTrip with Dock Connector (iLounge rating: B-) to both new iPod nano and 5G iPod owners, XtremeMac has designed a product that is really best suited to nano owners, but will be marketed to full-sized iPodders until something else is released.
There are two versions of AirPlay2, differing only in color. One is glossy white with a gray front surface, matching white iPods and their Click Wheels. The other is glossy black with a black front surface, paralleling the fronts of black iPods and nanos. Each has a rectangular, backlit indigo screen at its center, a male Dock Connector plug on its top offset to the left, and a female Dock Connector port on its bottom, also offset to the left. Each AirPlay2 comes with a plastic “dash mount” holder, which form-fits the accessory, and one double-sided adhesive foam sticker to conceivably attach the dash mount to your car’s dashboard. It’s worth a brief additional note that all AirPlay2 units ship in the company’s attractive new packaging, which has been receiving extremely positive comments from both iLounge editors and the company’s competitors.
AirPlay2’s size is simultaneously impressive, interesting, and concerning. At approximately 1.5” square by .25” thick, it roughly matches the width and thickness of an iPod nano, adding 1.5” to its height - a better visual and physical fit in most ways than Griffin’s iTrip with Dock Connector, which hangs awkwardly off of the nano’s sides. But on a full-sized iPod, it’s AirPlay2’s turn to look inappropriate, as it aligns off to the iPod’s bottom right with an ever-so-slightly angled Dock Connector plug - also a problem with the new iTrip - and doesn’t match the iPod in thickness or width. The company’s web site shows photos of upright iPods with the transmitter attached, but practically, you probably shouldn’t do do this: AirPlay2’s bottom edge is actually strong enough to support even a 60GB fourth-generation iPod standing up, and can do the same with iPod nano and 30GB 5G iPods, but the balance is off on the 60GB 5G iPod.
That’s only part of the reason that the idea’s not so smart. The Dock Connector plug is the weakest part of the device, and if you succeed in standing AirPlay2 and an iPod up on a table, a little jolt will bring them both crashing down. Though we can give AirPlay2 a pass on nano because it basically lengthens the unit’s existing frame, it’s our belief that neither of the Dock Connector FM transmitters yet released (iTrip and AirPlay2) are especially smart in their mounting approaches, especially as full-sized iPods are concerned. As-is, the iPod-to-Dock Connector connections feel fragile, and having seen our share of bent connectors - even a iPod shuffle’s thicker but still bent USB connector - we don’t yet feel comfortable with the long-term safety of these sorts of bottom-mounting attachments. Something smarter and more resilient is needed.
Rather than adding tuning buttons to AirPlay2’s side, XtremeMac uses the device’s gray or black face plate to provide a four-button controller that’s good, but a little less than intuitive at first. When the unit turns on, its screen glows bright blue, with easy to read white numbers most prominent on the display. You’ll see the current station at the center, surrounded by several icons and the word “Preset.” There are three preset stations, and it defaults to 1. Left and right arrow buttons - also labeled “1” and “3” - initially toggle between two of the three presets, while the top button, labeled “2”, switches to the second preset. Only by pressing a fourth button, labeled “AirPlay2,” do you change from Preset mode into Tune mode, which lefts the arrow buttons change stations in .2 increments, from 88.1 to 107.9. This doesn’t seem like a good idea at first, but makes a little more sense once you’ve used the device several times and have your favorite stations dialed in as presets.
The on-screen icons are also interesting. An XtremeMac icon in the screen’s upper right corner appears to be only cosmetic, while a speaker icon on the bottom right corner can be toggled between one speaker and two by holding down the AirPlay2 button for several seconds. This duplicates the stereo/mono broadcasting feature innovated by Griffin’s most recent iTrips, with the mono broadcasting mode removing stereo separation but creating a stronger, clearer audio signal. Holding down the 1, 2, or 3 buttons turns the current station into that number’s preset. There are also markings on the screen for “JP,” “INT,” and “US” - presumably for extended international broadcasting modes like those on iTrip - but neither the instructions nor any button presses we tried would unlock the secrets of this feature, if it’s even in there. Consequently, there’s no way we know of to get AirPlay2 to broadcast on the nearly universal “clear” channel 87.9FM, which iTrip and others can.
There are several ways that we evaluate the performance of FM transmitters: signal-to-noise levels on a couple of different local stations at different distances from the radio, subjective sound quality, and battery performance. By portable transmitter standards, AirPlay2 turned out to be a strong performer on audio quality and broadcasting strength, but less impressive on battery performance. We found its sound subjectively enjoyable to listen to, both nicely balanced and strong, though with a small amount of bass clipping on high-volume songs. As noted at the start of this review, your local radio station mileage will vary.
Our first broadcasting test attempts to see how the device does indoors when challenged to overwhelm a partially audible local station from a distance of 3 feet away from the radio’s antenna; this provides some idea of how AirPlay2 handles a signal challenge. On 103.3FM, the unit had an extraordinarily low level of static and noise when set on mono mode - 5% or so, which we’d classify as very clean, and a little better than iTrip with Dock Connector’s performance, which had roughly the same amount of static, but an audible buzz in the signal. In stereo mode, each unit took a small performance hit (3-5%), but even disregarding the buzz, AirPlay sounded a little better. Across the board, we saw a little less of a difference in AirPlay2’s mono and stereo mode performances than with iTrip, and AirPlay2 tended to sound a bit better.
Then we tested on the station 88.5FM at a distance of 15 feet - a way to show how AirPlay2 can perform when it’s not immediately next to an antenna. In mono mode, AirPlay2 had around 25% static, while iTrip varied - on one test, it was the same as AirPlay2, but slight repositioning of the iPod made iTrip much worse. In stereo mode, AirPlay2 edged out iTrip with around 40% static to iTrip’s 50-60%, a noticeable difference, but neither device’s music was wonderful. Surprisingly, however, AirPlay2 didn’t become much worse at a distance of 30 feet away; its music was still audible on mono mode. Both devices benefitted noticeably from the attachment of a USB cable to their bottom connecting ports, though - an antenna extending trick which worked on earlier iTrips, too.
Our in-car tests on challenging 103.3FM were again in AirPlay2’s favor. Though both devices proved a major problem to mount in our vehicles, and had to be laid temporarily on seats, in a center console, or elsewhere, AirPlay2 generally sounded significantly better than iTrip with Dock Connector because of static levels. In our test vehicle, the FM transmitter is placed in front, and has to travel through the passenger compartment to the rear, up to an antenna on the rear of the roof. Depending on AirPlay2 and iTrip’s placement, they sometimes had overwhelming levels of static even on mono mode, but when placed in the center of our vehicle with the FM transmitters pointing in the direction of the antenna, they generally sounded better, with AirPlay2 most often doing so. The static level varied from 5-25% with AirPlay2 at most times, and 15-40% with iTrip when iTrip was ‘properly positioned.’ Both became unlistenable when placed in areas where the FM transmitter’s broadcast was interrupted by bodies or other parts of the car.
(As indoors, it’s worth noting that both devices’ performances changed for the better when attached to charging cables, a feature permitted on AirPlay2 by virtue of its bottom female Dock Connector port. XtremeMac separately sells a new Car Charger (iLounge rating: B) for $20 that integrates cleanly with the transmitter, and says that AirPlay2 will work with “all 30-pin car chargers.” All of the other ones we’ve tried have worked; Xtreme’s looks the best when connected.)
There was one way in which the new iTrip handily bested AirPlay2, however, and that was battery drain. XtremeMac’s transmitter lasted on a fully charged iPod nano for a shockingly short 4 hours and 20 minutes, compared with 5 hours and 55 minutes for the iTrip. On the fifth-generation 30GB iPod, AirPlay2 went for 5 hours and 42 minutes, and 7 hours and 19 minutes with a 60GB fifth-generation iPod. Frankly, these numbers are almost astonishingly low, given that the same iPods have run for 14 hours, 15 hours, and nearly 20 hours without AirPlay2 attached, respectively - a drain of 60-70% per iPod. In other words, you may well get better performance out of AirPlay2 than with iTrip, but you’ll pay for it in iPod battery longevity unless you connect a charging cable.
Value and Conclusions
At $60, AirPlay2 is the most expensive standalone portable FM transmitter we’ve tested, a fact that we don’t take lightly, and both the price and its physical design gave us considerable reason to pause before choosing an appropriate recommendation. After using AirPlay2 with both 5G iPod and nano models, indoors and in cars, we found the two experiences to be considerably different from one another, and neither one entirely satisfying.
To start with the positives, AirPlay2 is a good but not great solution for the iPod nano. Audio quality aside for the moment, it matches the nano’s look and feel, fits properly on the bottom, and - ironically - adds to the already fragile nano only a bit more reason to be concerned about damage when you’re carrying both around at the same time. It’s not ideal, but acceptable. Additionally, XtremeMac’s included adhesive pad and car mounting plate are adequate for car and nano use. If you want a more sophisticated mounting solution, there’s always ProClip’s Padded Mount for iPod nano (which does in fact integrate properly with it) or XtremeMac’s MicroFlex, a flexible car mount that can hold the nano and AirPlay2 together.
The fifth-generation iPod is another story. Because of its long, thin design and soft Dock Connector connection, we wouldn’t trust AirPlay2 in a pocket with any full-sized iPod like we used to with its predecessor or any of the iTrips, and the awkwardness of using and mounting it with a 5G iPod in a car is considerable. Since no mounting solution is provided for full-sized iPod owners, and XtremeMac hasn’t yet proposed one of its own, you’ll need to own a custom mount like ProClip’s Padded Mounts (iLounge rating: B+) in order to consider using it safely in a vehicle. With issues and prices like these, a less elegant and equally expensive solution such as Tekkeon’s myPowerFM (iLounge rating: B-) makes more sense.
No matter which iPod it’s attached to, AirPlay2 benefits tremendously from impressive audio quality - the only reason it rates higher than iTrip with Dock Connector when used with the iPod nano - and a very readable display. It’s dogged by significant battery consumption, which affects the nano more than most other iPods, and a price tag that we find objectionably high for a standalone FM transmitter, especially one that’s not made to properly fit most iPod models. iPod nano owners should consider it a good interim FM transmitter solution for now; full-sized iPod owners should only consider it if they desperately need a fully portable transmitter solution, are willing to pay the steep price, and don’t want to go with myPowerFM. Otherwise, we think an in-car cable like Kensington’s Digital FM Transmitter and Auto Charger (iLounge rating: A-) is a better investment overall.