Review: Monster iCarPlay Wireless Plus for iPod and iPod shuffle
Pros: A combination in-car iPod charger and FM transmitter cable that’s easy to install in various cars, and also easy to read to determine the current state of an iPod’s recharging cycle. Offers FM transmitter tuning from 88.1FM to 107.9FM in .2 increments, three preset stations, competent audio quality by current standards.
Cons: Top options we’ve tested deliver somewhat superior dynamic range and/or lower static levels for FM transmission. Red tuning screen is one of the hardest to read that we’ve seen; despite simplicity of buttons, tuning controls aren’t as easy as those of most other in-car transmitters.
Nearly two years ago, we reviewed the Ultra Low Profile Charger, one of several combination car charger and audio-out accessories developed by Monster (aka Monster Cable) for the iPod family. Since then, the company has released FM transmitter-equipped variants on that Charger, known as iCarPlay Wireless and iCarPlay Wireless Plus, each designed to broadcast iPod music to a specified station on your car’s FM radio. Today, there are two different versions of iCarPlay Wireless Plus - one’s a $60 version specific to the iPod shuffle, and the other’s an $80 version that’s compatible with all iPods. They differ only in one major specific - the iPod version has a Dock Connector plug at its end - thankfully smaller and more compatible than Monster’s earlier plugs - and the iPod shuffle version has a USB port. Other than that, they’re the same, and both reviewed below.
iPod connection aside, you’re left with two other parts - first is Monster’s excellent power adapter bulb, which is predominantly black and silver save for a large three-color light in its center. Unlike many other chargers we’ve tested, the light is big and bright enough to be seen in daylight, and instantly tells you whether the iPod’s fully charged (green), nearly charged (amber), or at low charge and rapidly recharging (red). Like its “Low Profile” predecessor, the bulb is also very small, and doesn’t protrude from your car’s cigarette lighter/power port. There’s a lot to like about this design, and of course, our iPods charged without incident when connected.
Unfortunately, the second part is the company’s less than stellar FM transmitter module. You’ve probably seen our standard warning on FM transmitters already, but this one has a few unique peculiarities. It’s silver and black like the power adapter, but here a bit more silver than black, importantly accented with a translucent red screen and buttons. By comparison with other products in this category - Griffin’s iTrip Auto (iLounge rating: B+), Kensington’s Digital FM Transmitter/Auto Charger (iLounge rating: A-), and DLO’s TransDock micro (iLounge rating: B-) - this screen is the hardest to read, and the controls most difficult to operate. iCarPlay’s three buttons each have two features: they default as preset buttons, but if you hold the third button (3/M) down for a couple of seconds, you can use the first two buttons to manually tune the transmitter from 88.1FM to 107.9FM in .2 increments, one step per press of the button, without scanning. It’s sort of the opposite of the way you’d expect the buttons to work, and makes channel surfing more difficult than it needs to be.
This would be mostly forgiven if the in-line transmitter sounded great - a tough task to accomplish given that the bar’s been raised in recent months. The best transmitters we’ve tested since the release of Kensington’s aforementioned transmitter boast lower static levels and greater dynamic range (stronger highs and lows) than we heard in 2003, 2004, and even mid-2005 models; the new ones often do a better job of overwhelming a car’s existing radio stations, as well. In that context, both versions of iCarPlay Wireless Plus are good by mid-2005 standards, and if we’d reviewed them back then, we’d probably have been more impressed. But especially when placed alongside Griffin’s and Kensington’s cables, the iCarPlays didn’t as completely overwhelm our standard test stations (88.3FM and 103.3FM) with clear sound - there was more static than with the low-noise champion, iTrip Auto, especially on 103.FM, and they also couldn’t tune down to the more frequently clear station 87.9FM. Dynamic range was similarly a little behind Kensington’s mark, but not by much.
On the bright side, our overall experience with iCarPlay Wireless Plus was a bit more palatable on the whole than DLO’s TransDock micro, which despite strong FM performance and a more readable screen has significant problems mounting in some cars, and exhibits audible interference noises each time the iPod’s hard drive is accessed, neither of which were issues here. It’s also worth a note that Monster’s $60-80 pricing, while not aggressive, can be mitigated a bit by shopping around - the Dock Connector version can be had for a more reasonable $45 or so if you search online. For that reason, while Griffin’s and Kensington’s solutions are superior overall, we’re confident that some people will be satisfied with iCarPlay Wireless Plus’s attractive low-profile charger design, competent audio, and improved Dock Connector plug - they’re good enough features to rate a flat B and standard iLounge recommendation.