Review: Belkin TuneBase FM
Pros: Beautiful aesthetic and practical design for an all-in-one iPod mini car mount, power charger and audio output.
Cons: In original versions, audio quality of both FM transmission and line-out weren’t as good as in other products we’ve tested. In updated version, both have been improved - not ideally, but close enough for most people.
[Updated July 1, 2005: Following our review of the two TuneBase models, Belkin released an updated version of the TuneBase FM that addresses some of the points raised in our original review. This version of TuneBase FM is now the only one on store shelves; however, you may still find older units on eBay or at other merchants of used products. To the best of our knowledge, there is no way to distinguish between old and new units by packaging. Our comments on the newer, higher-rated version of the product appear at the end of the original review text.]
At one point when iLounge was considering a revamp of our rating system, we briefly discussed the prospect of creating a “disappointing” rating - but opted not to. Our reasoning was that there can be A, B, and C caliber products that are disappointing in some way; even great ideas can be disappointingly executed.
Belkin’s TuneBase ($49.99) and TuneBase FM ($79.99) illustrate this point better than literally any other accessories we have seen for the iPod platform. As iPod mini cradles and chargers, they are so beautifully designed aesthetically and practically that we would strongly prefer to use either in our own vehicles than both Belkin’s Auto Kit (our current preference, iLounge rating: B+) and DLO’s TransPod Direct and TransPod FM (iLounge rating: B), which are the closest matches in functionality to the TuneBases. But in the most critical department, audio performance, both TuneBases surprised us by falling short of those older products in our testing. As a result, both of Belkin’s products look so good and work so well as car chargers and cradles that we absolutely hate the fact that we wouldn’t use them ourselves to actually listen to iPod music in our vehicles. That’s a major disappointment.
Rare is the third-party iPod accessory that perfectly matches and evolves Apple’s design cues, but Belkin nailed both with the TuneBase and TuneBase FM. Both serve as cradles for the iPod mini and include at least three features: iPod car mounting, power charging, and provision of a line-out audio port. The TuneBase FM looks very similar to its less expensive brother, yet also includes a digital FM transmitter at its base.
Both TuneBase designs employ a concept we’ve been waiting years to see properly implemented in a dedicated iPod accessory: gooseneck mounts. White and clear plastic forms a sturdy and safe iPod mini cradle in each TuneBase, while a flexible seven-inch gray metal pipe runs between the cradle and a white and gray auto power adapter. These three parts serve three simple but ideal purposes: (1) provide a nice-looking car holder for the iPod mini that also charges it, (2) permit the holder to be positioned virtually wherever you desire vertically and horizontally in your car, and (3) provide a solid but distinctly iPod-like connection to the car’s power source, complete with a line-output for audio and green front-mounted LED light to indicate that power’s flowing.
A few added touches on each unit merit attention, too: the iPod mini cradle includes not only a Dock Connector plug, but also a clear plastic ring and two bottom prongs to hold the iPod mini in place. TuneBases are amongst the only devices we’ve seen that capitalize on the two tiny holes in the iPod mini’s bottom; Belkin’s two tabs keep a mini plenty firm in the cradle; we even turned the TuneBases upside down and our test mini stayed in place. Additionally, Belkin placed a 180-degree rotating joint between the gooseneck and the cradle, permitting the cradle to turn on almost any angle you desire - a smart move that further enhances the device’s positional versatility.
Finally, the power adapter comes with a built-in rubber washer to provide added anti-twist stability - a noticeable omission from both DLO’s TransPod and Griffin’s RoadTrip (iLounge rating: C+) - plus two plastic adapters to help the power plug fit in different cars. These little touches elevate both TuneBases over most of the various car accessories we’ve seen - they’re smart, and work as intended to keep either TuneBase stable in your power charger port.
The TuneBase FM differs from the standard TuneBase in only one way: its FM transmitter. A modestly taller cradle includes a six-way gray FM transmitter control button and a fairly large, backlit LCD screen. Labeled 1, Up Arrow, 2, 3, Down Arrow, Four, the control button lets you tune between four preset FM stations and manually from 88.1 to 107.9MHz in increments of .1 - an ode to analog (and super-sensitive digital) car radios. Otherwise, the TuneBase FM is the same as the TuneBase, and still includes a line-out port on its power adapter. Notably, neither version’s line-out port includes the amplified volume adjustment knob found on Belkin’s earlier Auto Kit accessory, which most people never used anyway.
As one last note, the TuneBases both come in new Belkin boxed packaging that looks fantastic and thankfully doesn’t include any transparent blister-pack material. While a touch that most people will forget after their purchases have been made (and online orderers may never consider), packaging does count for something, and we’re always glad to see a company focus on that detail, as well.
In sum, we think the TuneBases are as well-designed aesthetically and practically as anything we’ve seen for the iPod platform to date, though some may wonder about the iPod mini-suitability of their color schemes. The white and gray plastic look has understandably carried through many of Belkin’s accessories, and they’re almost perfect colors to match full-sized iPods. Unfortunately, the TuneBases are both intended solely for use with the iPod mini, which doesn’t have the same dominant white plastic appearance as the full-sized iPod, and proves a bit of a challenge for color-matching. Perhaps for similar reasons, Griffin went with gray rather than white when designing its iPod/iPod mini PodPod car holder, and we’ve heard rumblings that Apple is advising iPod accessory developers to think “silver” going forward. While we suppose that a silver TuneBase would look even better than this one, we think that most people are accustomed enough to the iPod mini’s white plastic earbuds and cables not to mind the heavy white plastic presence of the current TuneBase model. We really liked it.
Power charging aside, our expectations for the TuneBase and TuneBase FM consisted of two separate audio criteria: we hoped that both devices’ line-out ports would deliver clean (or at least low-distortion) audio output, and that the TuneBase FM would deliver solid FM transmission to our car stereos. In both cases, while the TuneBases were adequate overall, neither was good by comparison with other products we recommend.
By comparison with both DLO’s TransPod and Belkin’s own Auto Kit, both TuneBase products surprised us by delivering disappointingly bass-distorted line-out audio. To provide some context, the purpose of line output from an audio device is typically to deliver the cleanest possible audio signal from that device; audiophiles invariably prefer line output to the signal from the iPod’s headphone jack, which is subject to distortion from the iPod’s built-in amplifier. Like the TransPod and Auto Kit, each TuneBase connects to the iPod mini’s Dock Connector port and provides a line-out jack that should provide a very clean signal. Belkin noted that true line-out, minus volume adjustment, was a user-requested feature.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound as good as the output from the properly adjusted Auto Kit. Even using Apple Lossless audio tracks, bass notes played through the TuneBases rippled with static-like distortion at average and above-average volumes. Third-party listeners who heard both the TuneBase and the Auto Kit - but weren’t informed of the difference we had perceived - independently noticed the same distortion. All parties agreed that the TuneBases’ sound was scratchier and more grating in some songs (bass-heavier ones) than others, and while not terrible per se, was enough to make the Auto Kit’s audio preferable.
The TuneBase FM also had some FM transmission issues. We have repeatedly underscored that the audio quality you’ll get from virtually any FM transmitter will not compare in clarity or stability to typical line output and/or cassette tape adapter accessories, because FM transmitters compete for bandwidth with whatever signal or interference is already being broadcast onto a radio station in your car. The best FM transmitters overwhelm perhaps 95% of a given radio frequency’s existing audio, leaving a bit of a hissing noise and sometimes occasional hiccups of interruption from competing signals on the line.
By comparison with DLO’s TransPod, the TuneBase FM produced less clear signals on the same channels the TransPod was able to largely overwhelm. Whereas the TransPod could lock down “empty” stations with some consistency, TuneBase FM broadcasts of iPod songs on the same channels sounded a bit more noisy (by perhaps a 15% factor), and did worse on stations with more interference. We test FM transmitters in the congested Southern California metropolitan and suburban radio market, so our experiences are tougher than those of users in rural and less populous areas, and your results may be better than ours. Even so, the TransPod is likely to perform noticeably better than the TuneBase FM regardless of the area where you live.
Rating the TuneBase and TuneBase FM was a challenge. We feel that both products should only be considered options for people who don’t mind a bit of distortion in their line output - and mostly for those who don’t like bass-heavy audio. The TuneBase FM combines a so-so FM transmitter with the same so-so line output port, at a commensurately higher price.
Judged amongst other products we have reviewed, the standard TuneBase regrettably rates a B-, a rating based mostly on the strength of its aesthetic design and cradle functionality, and secondarily on the fact that some people might not mind its line output distortion. We hate to say it because we love how it looks, but we wouldn’t use it as an option over either the Auto Kit or the TransPod. Like Griffin’s RoadTrip, the (old version) TuneBase FM rates a C+, but based on different factors: unlike the RoadTrip, which sounded good but was hugely clunky and physically unstable, the TuneBase FM is sleek and stable but doesn’t sound as good.
Unless Belkin reissues an audibly cleaned up version of this product, we would sooner recommend combining Belkin’s Auto Kit and Griffin’s PodPod, or using DLO’s TransPod, though neither is close to as good of a solution for iPod mini owners as the TuneBases would have been if done right. They are classic and regrettable examples of missed opportunities, and products we had strongly hoped to endorse.
Because it hasn’t yet released a TuneBase for the full-sized iPod, Belkin does have another shot at getting this formula right: clean up the distortion, maintain the price, and keep it just as stable for a larger-sized iPod, and we’d call a full-sized version of the standard TuneBase as close to the perfect iPod accessory as we’ve seen.
July 1, 2005 Update: TuneBase FM, Take 2
To its strong credit, Belkin took another stab at improving the TuneBase FM after our review last December, and has come back with a product with several changes. First, it uses a slightly shorter metal gooseneck than before, a decision made to enhance the unit’s stability in some vehicles. We never found the original gooseneck to be an issue in our testing vehicles. but as our photo indicates, there’s now less chance that the TuneBase FM will sway in your car. This is a neutral change unless you really needed the original’s extra length for something, which we didn’t.
More significantly, the TuneBase FM does better with FM transmission than before. It produced a noticeably stronger, cleaner signal on the stations we tested, comparing more favorably with the best FM transmitters we’ve heard. While no FM transmitter is going to deliver perfectly clean, static-free audio, TuneBase FM now does a very good job. Given that this is the device’s major selling point, this fix elevates the device’s grade from a C+ to a solid recommendable B+.
The new TuneBase FM’s line-out audio appears to have benefitted from a slight tweak to the device’s default level of gain. In two different car testing setups - one with a direct line in, and one routed through a cassette tape adapter (the solution used by many iPod owners to achieve better than FM-quality connections in their cars) - the new TuneBase FM didn’t have the same level of noticeable bass distortion we heard in the prior version. TEN Technology’s flexDock (iLounge rating: A-) includes a two-position gain switch to adjust for different types of car audio connections - a feature we prefer - but TuneBase FM sounds good regardless.
As a final note, we received two different new TuneBase FM units for testing - the second one worked perfectly for iPod mini charging, while the first one charged our 2G iPod mini but not our 1G model. After internal testing of the first unit, Belkin confirmed our findings and ascribed them to a misaligned Dock Connector, an issue claimed to be isolated to that particular unit.
We’re inclined to believe them, as Belkin has been forthright and responsible with its products in the past, evidenced both by its improvements to TuneBase FM and a number of other responsible actions it has taken on behalf of its products and customers. As such, we won’t hesitate to recommend the revised TuneBase FM, though we suggest readers also look to the comments below to see whether other users’ experiences parallel ours.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school - ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.