Review: Belkin TuneStage 2 for iPod Wireless Music for Your Home Stereo
Pros: The second iteration of a well-designed wireless home stereo connection kit, enabling your iPod to serve as a remote control and jukebox for any pair of speakers - incredibly even through walls or a full 100 feet away. Uses Bluetooth 2.0+EDR wireless standard to provide virtually indistinguishable from original CD-quality audio. Included cable and transmitter pass-through port let you charge iPod while transmitter’s connected.
Cons: Price is somewhat high by category’s historic best levels. Battery drain on transmitter limits fifth-generation iPod use to approximately 5 continuous hours of playback before iPod’s full charge is depleted; other models vary in performance (lower) by sizes of their batteries.
More than a year ago, we reviewed Belkin’s TuneStage (iLounge rating: B+), a router-like Bluetooth wireless kit designed to let an iPod or iPod mini serve as both a remote control and jukebox for a home stereo. Now Belkin has released TuneStage 2 ($150), an updated version that does the same things, though generally better and at a slightly lower price than before.
The original TuneStage shipped in glossy white and silver colors designed to match then-current iPods, but the sequel ships in black and metallic gray, colors intended to match home AV equipment and the subsequently more popular black iPods. You still get a power supply for the wireless receiver, which connects via two types of ports (minijack or RCA) with included audio cables to your home stereo, and the receiver retains its ability to be mounted on a wall with a specially designed hard rubberized bottom surface.
There’s a power switch on the unit’s back, and a flashing blue receiver light on the front, but no optical output port, a feature introduced in Griffin’s competing BlueTrip wireless kit (iLounge rating: B+). Asked about the omission, Belkin noted that adding an optical out would suggest that the system was outputting true digital output directly from the iPod, which it is not, a reasonable explanation, but unfortunate given that TuneStage 2 sounds great, and some users would like the option to connect optical cables, regardless.
Though it is as easy and quick to properly pair with the receiver as before - both good things - this year’s transmitter has changed more than a bit in features. On the “obvious” list, it now connects to the bottom of an iPod rather than its top, measuring the width and thickness of a 30GB fifth-generation model, and also fitting comfortably if not beautifully on the bottom of smaller nanos. Additionally, if you connect an included USB cable to a USB port on the TuneStage 2 receiver’s back side, you can charge your iPod without removing the transmitter, a nice little feature. Like Belkin’s earlier TuneFM and TuneTalk Stereo peripherals, the transmitter also includes Belkin’s special enhanced Dock Connector plug, which lets it connect to iPods that are still inside many cases.
But what’s really impressive is the technology under the hood. Unlike TuneStage, which used the near-CD-quality data transmission standard Bluetooth 1.2, TuneStage 2 uses the latest version of the Bluetooth wireless technology called 2.0+EDR, and consequently is capable of higher-quality sound and somewhat lower power consumption. Sound piped through our test stereos sounded as clean as the source material - no easy feat - and didn’t exhibit any of the bass omission issues we heard in the first TuneStage sample we tested last year.
The astonishing thing about TuneStage 2 is the factor by which it exceeds the 2.0 + EDR’s minimum performance standards: rather than working from only a 33-foot minimum distance, the transmitter and receiver actually worked reliably when a full 100 feet away from one another, and through walls. We use the word “astonishing” because this performance is literally the best we’ve seen on a Bluetooth device, rivaling the distance and audio experience we recently had with Keyspan’s TuneView for iPod. With TuneStage 2, you gain the ability to use the iPod as your remote control, and pay a little less, but sacrifice all video functionality in the process.
So why does Belkin market TuneStage 2 as only a 33-foot solution when it’s really capable of 100-foot performance? One reason: Bluetooth labeling rules. Though the system can pair with other companies’ Bluetooth 2.0 devices, such as headphones, it can’t promise similarly superb distance performance with everything else that’s Bluetooth-certified. Similarly, because Bluetooth 2.0+EDR is backwards-compatible, TuneStage 2 can be used with some older Bluetooth 1.2 iPod accessories, but its sound quality and power consumption won’t necessarily be as impressive.
There is one other catch. Though TuneStage 2 was promised initially to perform for up to 7 hours on a full iPod battery charge, the number’s a bit misleading - Belkin’s manual discloses that the battery life wil actually be only 5 hours when used with the 80GB fifth-generation iPod, which has the biggest battery of all current models; lower-capacity iPods will run for shorter times, and after our review, Belkin told us that the 7 hour number was inaccurate - 5 hours is the maximum you’ll see on today’s iPods.* The transmitter’s pass-through charging port for the iPod is somewhat of an offset to this, but you’ll need to tether your iPod to take advantage of it, defeating somewhat the purpose of a wireless audio system. (Editor’s Note: We’ve updated this paragraph subsequent to the review with new information from Belkin.)
Overall, we found TuneStage 2 to be a very impressive new wireless home stereo kit for the iPod - in some key ways, the best we’ve ever tested. Battery drain aside, its major issue is one that regrettably inhibits the adoption of many other wireless systems, namely its $150 pricing, which while lower than last year’s $170 asking price is still $50 higher than Griffin’s similar Bluetooth 1.2-based BlueTrip and Logitech’s Bluetooth 2.0+EDR-based FreePulse Wireless Headphones, two more recent and different wireless accessories which were priced right given the types of advantages (and disadvantages) that Bluetooth technology offers. Other than those price and battery issues, however, TuneStage 2 is a great new wireless accessory, and will impress you on both audio quality and distance performance if you’re willing to make the investment.