Review: DLO mini fm FM Radio and Headphone Amplifier for iPod mini
Company: Digital Lifestyle Outfitters (DLO)
Model: mini fm
Compatible: iPod mini
Pros: A compact combination of solid, low-static digital FM radio tuning and a headphone amplifier at a reasonable price. Good sidelit LCD screen, and relatively easy to use.
Cons: Can’t be used without headphones. Tuning may require more button presses than top competitor, audio has less dynamic range than said competitor. Slight cosmetic blemishes on bottom rear casing.
When DLO premiered its mini fm FM radio and Headphone Amplifier for iPod mini ($39.99) several weeks ago, few people knew that the popular iPod it was designed specifically to match would be abruptly discontinued. Despite that fact - and because of the huge installed base of existing iPod minis out there - DLO is bringing mini FM to market anyway, hoping that its small body and a unique feature will distinguish it from existing iPod mini FM radio options such as Griffin’s iFM (iLounge rating: A/B+) and BTI’s TuneStir (iLounge rating: B-).
In all seriously important ways, mini fm succeeds. Unlike both of its predecessors, it is built to sit directly on top of the iPod mini’s body, and doesn’t dangle from a cord or serve as a remote control - all facts that we are perfectly happy with. Like iFM - because of an Apple-imposed limitation - it can’t record audio when attached to the iPod mini. DLO instead adds a bonus feature - headphone port amplification - which the company touts as boosting iPod mini volume by over 25%. And it’s $10 cheaper than iFM, another fact which will endear it to iPod mini owners.
But how does it work, and sound? Our review below lays it all out for your consideration.
Similar to Griffin’s earlier iTrip mini FM transmitter, DLO’s mini fm is a top-mounting iPod mini-specific add-on that matches the mini’s curves, extending about an inch over the mini’s top surface. Built in silver as a way to generically complement the various body colors of all iPod mini models, mini fm has five silver buttons on its white top, and a pass-through headphone port. A white DLO logo is on its back, and a clear headphone plug protector is included in the package.
A “mode” button on the unit’s top left turns it on, and switches between FM radio and iPod listening modes. If held down for two seconds, it will turn both itself and the attached iPod mini off. Pressing it again will turn both units back on. Volume is tuned with the plus and minus buttons on mini fm’s top, while tuning is accomplished with the left and right directional buttons.
mini fm’s front-facing bright blue sidelit screen displays four things: the word “DLO” upon brief initial startup, the current radio station mini fm is tuning, the word “iPod” when it’s being used as a headphone amplifier, and the volume level (indicated by “VL 01” to “VL 16”) when you’re adjusting volume. The sidelights turn off when not in use, but the current radio station or iPod remain on while mini fm is connected. Whether on or off, mini FM’s screen is about as readable as iFM’s.
There were only two things about mini fm’s design that didn’t impress us: our review unit’s silver paint was slightly scuffed at its rear bottom, and the included headphone plug protector is the same one used by DLO for full-sized iPod accessories, and was not made to physically match mini fm. As a consequence, it hangs awkwardly off the bottom right side of the device, and we wouldn’t trust it as a full-time protector.
We’ll also note briefly that mini fm can be electronically attached to full-sized iPods, and works properly when connected, though it hangs off those iPods’ left sides in a less than visually appealing way. Since DLO neither markets nor intends mini fm to be used with these iPods, we’ll not go deeper into the subject than to say its performance is identical from iPod to iPod.
What’s Missing: Battery and Antenna
The only things missing from mini fm are generally “good” missing features: there’s no battery compartment or internal battery, as mini fm draws power off of the iPod mini’s battery, and flashes its letters when power is low. As with iFM, battery drain in radio tuning mode is virtually inconsequential. We connected mini FM to a second-generation iPod mini and left it on for more than 24 hours continuously (with one brief interruption to prevent the iPod from going into sleep mode), and the mini’s screen still showed 70% remaining power at the end. Regardless of the iPod mini model you’re using, expect mini FM to outlast the mini’s stored music playback longevity by a considerable factor - at least 4 to 1.
Unlike iFM and TuneStir, you’ll also notice that mini FM lacks an external antenna - DLO opted instead to use your headphone wires as an antenna, removing the need for the device to dangle from the iPod by its own wires. This decision strikes us as wise except under one very limited circumstance: we tried to connect Macally’s PodWave pocket speakers to mini FM, and found that it couldn’t tune radio stations at all: the headphones are legitimately necessary. By comparison, iFM works with PodWave attached, producing more static but still letting you hear signals.
Tuning and Audio Quality
Tuning mini fm is relatively easy, thanks to a channel scan feature built into its left and right buttons. Holding either one down for a second begins the scan upwards or downwards, which stops whenever mini fm finds a good station.
In its single interface oddity, mini fm tunes from 87.5FM to 108 in super-sensitive .05 increments - the utility of which is lost on users in the United States. Consequently, and unlike other FM tuners we’ve used, one button press moves you from 87.5 to 87.55, two to 87.6, three to 87.65, and four to 87.7. By comparison, iFM tunes from 87.5 directly to 87.7 in one button press, which is far more convenient for US users but less useful for international users. In any case, you can reduce button presses on mini fm by using channel scanning instead.
How does tuned-in radio sound? In two words, quite good. With headphones connected as required, mini fm’s sound has a lower apparent static level than the already impressive iFM, but also a bit less treble and dynamic sparkle: its sound is more bass-heavy, and a hint flatter, but nowhere near as flat and muddled as BTI’s TuneStir. We prefer iFM a little for music, but mini fm for talk radio and news - both devices do all types of audio in a way that will satisfy all but the pickiest listeners.
The static differences are more notable indoors than outdoors, where both devices have to struggle more to tune stations, but mini fm generally has a slight edge on that factor. Neither device is entirely static-free - in bad reception areas of a home or city, they’ll each have issues - but we consider both to be very good overall.
mini fm’s “headphone amplifier” feature is, according to the company, an unexpected benefit of having designed an amplification circuit for the radio tuner: it was easy to pass the iPod’s audio through mini fm’s amplifier and give it a bit of a boost. The feature is accessed by putting the mini fm in iPod mode and then using both the iPod’s and mini FM’s volume controls at the same time.
While you shouldn’t expect the amplification to deliver pristine audio fidelity - a limitation of any post-iPod headphone amplifier - it’s a nice bonus feature, and one that can provide either extra juice for demanding headphones or extra iPod volume in places (read: Europe) where iPod minis are limited by the EU Volume Cap. Because of legitimate hearing loss concerns, we strongly recommend against use of this feature with standard headphones outside of Europe, but it’s there if you want or need it.
For iPod mini owners, mini fm is a great accessory: a very solid FM radio tuner with a low static level and good sound quality, plus a headphone amplifier feature, all in a conveniently small and very affordable package. Despite iPod mini’s discontinuation, we feel certain that it will appeal to many current mini owners, especially athletes who want radio on the go without extra dangling wires. It’s one of the best-engineered DLO products we’ve seen in some time.
Its oddities - a .05 increment tuner, a little less dynamic range (especially treble), incompatibility with portable speakers, and slight cosmetic blemishes on our review unit’s rear - are relatively small by comparison to its benefits, the primary reason we opted for an A- rating rather than a B+ overall. In our judgment, mini fm merits our high recommendation, and we very much hope to see DLO release and further evolve the device for full-sized iPods and nanos in the future.