Review: Belkin TuneBase FM for iPod and iPod nano
Pros: An all-in-one gooseneck car mount, iPod charger, and FM transmitter in your choice of two colors (black/white) and two sizes (all iPods/nano only). Provides stable in-car iPod mounting, reliable charging, and very good FM transmission in a single package. Tuning accomplished on the iPod’s screen rather than separate LCD display; transmitter permits iPod volume level and stereo/mono adjustment.
Cons: Unlike older version for iPod mini, and many competing products, lacks line-out for non-FM audio output. Larger unit’s cradle is not compatible with most iPod cases, gooseneck is amongst shortest we’ve seen. Because of competition, price premium over FM transmitter-less goosenecks isn’t trivial.
Three-in-one car accessories and iPods have come a long way over the last year. By adding gooseneck mounts to iPod charging and audio output adapters, many manufacturers have radically improved the looks and quality of their all-in-one car accessories. Simultaneously, iPods have become smaller and easier to mount in cars. So it’s only natural that Belkin would update the technologies used in its earlier TuneBase FM for iPod mini (iLounge rating: B+) to produce two new products: TuneBase FM for iPod ($80) and TuneBase FM for iPod nano ($80). The two products are highly similar to each other, and thus covered in a single review, but we’ll point out the differences between them - and the earlier iPod mini version - where appropriate.
Though Belkin now sells TuneBase FM in both black and white colors, its mini, nano, and general iPod versions all rely on the same general design and concept. An iPod cradle is connected via a flexible metal gooseneck pipe to an iPod charging bulb that’s inserted into your car’s cigarette lighter power adapter. Your iPod locks into the cradle’s Dock Connector and stays in place with a large clear lip of plastic that juts out over the cradle’s white or black plastic surface. Since there’s a FM transmitter inside each TuneBase FM, tuning up and down buttons on the front of the cradle allow you to manually change FM broadcasting stations or select between four presets. Power is indicated on the charging bulb, which predictably charged all of our test iPods without a problem.
There are two major component size differences between the two models - the iPod cradle, and the gooseneck. The full-sized version of TuneBase includes eight different sizer trays that can be individually inserted into that clear lip at the cradle’s top, providing different bottom, side, and back support for every Dock Connecting iPod model thus released. It’s capable of securely holding everything from thick fourth-generation 60GB iPods to sliver-thin iPod nanos, plus everything in between - 5G models even have special trays that accommodate their flat front surfaces. Don’t expect to use encased full-sized iPods in the cradle - the cases we tested didn’t work. The same is true with the iPod nano cradle, which is just large enough to hold the nano (and protective film), nothing more.
Then there’s the gooseneck. We’ve previously said many times that gooseneck mounts are the best way we’ve seen to mount an iPod in one of these all-in-one devices, and Belkin’s designs are both attractive, and sensitive to the need for iPod stability. To safely accommodate any thickness and size of Dock Connecting iPod, the company extends the full-sized iPod TuneBase FM cradle only four inches from the charging bulb - definitely on the small side by comparison with TEN Technology’s thicker six-inch flexibleDock (iLounge rating: A), which also works with every iPod model. The lighter, smaller iPod nano version has a longer seven inches of distance. Neither of the new TuneBases exhibited any stability issues during drives in our test car, and both proved nicely repositionable, the larger version clearly less so than the nano one. Belkin includes two optional rubber stabilizers in each package, just in case you need them.
The other major changes between the new TuneBase FMs and their iPod mini predecessor are two in number. First, Belkin has replaced the FM transmitters found in its previous models with a new and definitely superior version. You’ll immediately notice that the new TuneBase FMs lack the LCD tuning screen found on the iPod mini cradle; like Griffin’s earlier iTrip for iPod nano, tuning now takes place on the iPod’s screen rather than requiring a second screen on the accessory. Belkin’s implementation of the tuning interface is not as aesthetically impressive as Griffin’s, but tuning is a little easier, and faster. It’s worth only a brief note that on-screen tuning doesn’t work on the 3G iPod - the one model Belkin doesn’t officially support - but stations are still tuned by the transmitter.
It’s also easy to make a direct and positive audio comparison between the new TuneBases and their predecessor. On a positive note, in stereo mode, the new models sound significantly better than before, with a lower static-to-sound ratio - still not perfect, but good - and both better high- and low-end response, now rivalling Kensington’s Digital FM Transmitter/Auto Charger (iLounge rating: A-) on balance and quality. While it’s true that other companies such as Griffin and XtremeMac have similarly stepped up in FM transmitter audio quality recently, raising the overall rating bar in our minds, Belkin has gone one better. Now it includes adjustable FM transmission level volume settings - five different levels - and the iTrip-pioneered stereo/mono toggle to give you additional control over your output. The result is audio that is better tuned for your specific iPod and car, and though setting this up takes a little extra effort, choosing the TuneBase FM doesn’t force you to compromise on radio broadcasting power. However, our standard caveats on FM transmitters still apply, and Belkin still doesn’t allow you to tune down to 87.9FM, a reliably good channel for broadcasting. This isn’t as bad as it sounds: TuneBase FM sounded quite strong on our 88.3 and 103.3FM tests, only experiencing static level hiccups on a night when all of our FM transmitters were similarly affected by local interference.
Unfortunately, Belkin made another, less positive change to each new TuneBase FM - the major reason the accessory falls short of our high recommendation. There’s no longer a way to take direct audio output from the bottom of either unit for connection to a car’s auxiliary audio-in port or a cassette adapter: those familiar with earlier TuneBases will notice that the company has used a piece of plastic to block off what used to be the output hole at the bottom of each charging bulb. As this might suggest, audio-out has always been a feature in earlier TuneBase models, but hasn’t ever sounded as good with cassette adapters as in TEN’s flexDock or flexibleDock mounts. We’re not happy about this change; fixing the output rather than plugging it would have made TuneBase FM more useful.
As a final note, both TuneBase FMs are good but not amazing on value - they’re priced the same as Belkin’s original TuneBase FM for iPod mini, which is only surprising in that the older model had an audio output port and its own LCD tuning screen, each adding costs this model doesn’t have. Given that Griffin is aggressively selling nano goosenecks for $40, while XtremeMac and TEN are selling their 3-in-1 mounts for $50, Belkin’s has become one of the more expensive options we’ve recently seen in this category. But since TuneBase FM is the only one in the bunch to include an FM transmitter - and, for now, to come in two colors - you can decide whether its benefits are worth a $30-40 premium over the others, given your needs.
Overall, both versions of TuneBase FM offer generally steady improvements over the earlier version for the iPod mini - superior FM power and tuning, combined with an extra black color option, and of course the ability to hold your choice of newer iPod models. If FM transmission is your preferred way of interacting with your car’s stereo, you can decide which TuneBase FM size is right for you; we’d be inclined to recommend the larger and more widely compatible version given that it’s the same price as the smaller nano one, and hopefully will still be usable with the iPod you own a year or two from now. Size aside, both are very good 3-in-1 car options; only wired audio output and/or more aggressive pricing would have made them more recommendable, in our view.