Review: Belkin TuneFM for iPod
Pros: An affordable bundle of a very good iPod FM transmitter and car charging cable, available in black- or white-colored versions. Low static levels, dynamic sound, and easy tuning make transmitter easy to use; runs off of iPod power when not in your car.
Cons: Transmitter is optimized for in-car and close-to-antenna listening, quality falls off dramatically beyond five feet from antenna. While equally functional, buttons and on-iPod menu interface aren’t as elegant as some we’ve seen elsewhere.
When we reviewed and liked Belkin’s TuneFM for iPod nano (iLounge rating: A-) last month, we knew that a version was coming soon for full-sized iPods, as well. Now it’s arrived - TuneFM for iPod ($50) is essentially the same package deal, including both a very good portable iPod FM transmitter and a simple car charging cable for the same price that many companies are now regrettably selling just a transmitter. The resulting product is, again, excellent enough to earn our high recommendation. Because of the similarities between both models, we’ve kept most of the details from our original review below, adding a section at the bottom to describe differences.
As we’ve previously noted, FM transmitters fall generally into two categories: portable and car-only. Portable transmitters let you broadcast your iPod’s audio through any FM radio you find, and run off of iPod battery power, while in-car transmitters are permanently tied into car charger cables and often sound better, but won’t work on the go. TuneFM offers the best of both worlds: it’s truly portable and can run off of iPod battery power, but if you’re in your car, you can connect the charger to avoid power drain and increase broadcasting performance. This solution is simple, and it works, plugging first into your car’s cigarette lighter power port and then the transmitter, indicating that it’s working with a single LED light. It’s worth pointing out that TuneFM sells for the same price as Griffin’s chargerless iTrip, and $10 less than XtremeMac’s similar transmitter AirPlay2 (iLounge rating: B). Adding a charger from either company will cost $20 over their standard prices, so Belkin’s decision to include this charger was a very smart move, and a great deal for consumers.
That major benefit aside, TuneFM has ups and downs - mostly ups. Like iTrip and AirPlay2, Belkin’s plastic enclosure connects to the nano’s bottom, adding physical FM station tuning buttons to the iPod’s body. Unlike AirPlay2, and like iTrip, TuneFM lacks its own LCD tuning screen. Instead, pressing any of its buttons will activate a menu on the iPod’s own display, allowing you to manually tune stations or access four numbered FM preset stations. You can select stations in U.S. (88.1 to 107.9FM in .2 increments) or Japanese (76.0 to 90.0FM in .1 increments) tuning modes, toggling between them by simultaneously pressing buttons 1 and 4, then the tuning buttons; unlike iTrip, there’s no European tuning mode. But you can in iTrip fashion switch between stereo or a low-static mono mode, here by pressing buttons 1 and 3 together.
In short, and as the pictures indicate, Griffin’s on-screen menus and tuning system are far more polished - using a single three-position switch rather than requiring six buttons and odd combinations - but Belkin’s work well enough, and are better than AirPlay2’s. Similarly, TuneFM is also more sturdy than AirPlay2 - both dangle off of the iPod’s bottom, but TuneFM is shorter, a bit thicker, and centers properly, much like iTrip, but a bit better.
Where TuneFM impresses the most is in near-distance broadcasting performance: as we found when testing the company’s earlier TuneBase FMs for iPod and iPod nano (iLounge rating: B+), Belkin has really improved its FM transmission quality recently, and TuneFM benefits from whatever tweaks the company has made under the hood. In cars, or within five or so feet of an in-home radio antenna, TuneFM delivers very low-static, dynamic sound that really impressed us - it was at least as good as iTrip’s on 87.9FM, for instance, especially on their respective monaural modes. At times, TuneFM even sounds better. But at any greater distance, iTrip does a superior job - TuneFM’s fall-off outside of the five-foot mark was sharp, and at 20-foot distances, it couldn’t even be heard, while iTrip could.
New for the Full-Sized iPod
The only major differences this time around are small ones. TuneFM for iPod is larger than its predecessor, now measuring the same width as a full-sized iPod, and around the same thickness as a 30GB fifth-generation model. Slight differences aside, it’s the same general size as Griffin’s standard iTrip, and only a bit less flashy. Unlike any other transmitter we’ve seen, this new version comes with a small black plastic sizer plate, which when removed allows TuneFM to be used with many open-bottomed iPod cases, and when attached protects the Dock Connector inside from undue flexing during use.
Like TuneBase for the full-sized iPod, TuneFM also includes one novel menu feature that’s important because of changes to new iPods: a screen to adjust the transmitter’s sensitivity to a given iPod’s audio output. You can choose from five levels, which TuneFM’s manual explains are appropriate for different iPod generations, and effectively prevent a phenomenon known as clipping - when too-loud audio sounds distorted, particularly noticeable in bass. The only way this feature could be better would be if it was automatic.
Largely because of its aggressive bundling, which bumped our rating up above the B+ that its FM transmitter otherwise would have rated overall, TuneFM is an FM transmitter package worthy of our high recommendation, and a superior alternative overall to virtually all of the Dock Connector FM transmitters we’ve seen for full-sized iPods. Though some competitors may excel under specific situations - namely iTrip, for greater-distance use outside of cars and for travelers to Europe - TuneFM’s better for affordable, hassle-free in-car charging. Even if you were unimpressed by older FM transmitters, TuneFM should be near the top of your list of options today - the sound and low static performance will pleasantly surprise you by comparison with last year’s models.