Review: DLO nanoTune FM Transmitter/FM Radio/Headphone Amp for iPod nano
Pros: A fully competent hard plastic case with an FM transmitter, radio receiver, and headphone amplifier inside, capable of serving as a desk stand and relocating your nano’s headphone port to its top. Includes a Dock Connector pass-through for in-car charging. Very substantially protective, does a very good job of tuning radio without static; can amplify iPod’s audio by additional 25%.
Cons: FM transmitter is highly unimpressive by standards of recent portable options, requires additional broadcasting assistance (attached antenna or Dock Connector cable) to perform near-acceptably. Radio receiver leans bass-heavy, is slightly better-suited to voices than dynamic music. Headphone amp is of limited value. Case lacks Click Wheel protection.
Never shy when marketing its products, DLO has recently billed its new iPod nano accessory nanoTune ($70) as “the only nano accessory you’ll ever need,” combining an FM transmitter, FM radio receiver, headphone port amplifier and case in one plastic shell. But as we’ve learned from earlier multi-function accessories, it’s easier to get one feature right than two, and far easier to get two features right than four. Because of variations in the execution of its four key features, nanoTune’s difficult to rate, and its appeal will depend largely on your intended applications.
If you remember ABT’s iJet for iPod nano, an accessory we first saw late last year, you’ll find nanoTune’s physical design highly familiar, even though its features are somewhat different. Just like DLO’s earlier iPod mini-specific accessory mini FM (iLounge rating: A-), nanoTune starts by tuning in FM radio stations and serving as a headphone port volume amplifier. Then, like iJet, it adds an FM transmitter and a hard plastic carrying case to the package. The result is what DLO accurately describes as a cell-phone sized accessory with quite a bit of versatility; the included case flips open to serve as a stand, and includes a Dock Connector port on its bottom for in-car charging. This port can also be used for data synchronization at home, though you’ll need to lay the case on its back to do so. Additionaly, DLO has relocated the nano’s headphone port to its top, which will please those who prefer not to keep the nano upside down at all times.
With all of these features, it’s no surprise that our initial reaction to nanoTune was very positive. As a case, it works well to protect the nano’s body, exposing literally only one part - the Click Wheel - which is pretty good by any case’s standards. Though it adds an extra inch of plastic at the nano’s bottom and doubles its thickness to house the combination FM receiver/transmitter/amplifier - similar to the sled design of Griffin’s iTrip for iPod nano - there’s good reason to feel that a clear plastic shield really bolsters the appeal of such an accessory, assuming you don’t have a case you’d prefer to be using instead.
DLO has also done a fairly good job of making nanoTune’s various features easy to use. Unlike BTI’s three-in-one device TuneStir (iLounge rating: B-), nanoTune’s controls are very easy to figure out and use. A clear, blue-backlit LCD screen on the unit’s bottom front provides station information, and a single button on its right toggles between “T” (transmitter), “radio tower icon” (receiver), and “iPod” (amplified pass-through) modes. The screen is hard to see from certain angles - particularly from above - but it’s better than many we’ve seen. Station tuning buttons accompany the mode toggle on its right, while volume tuning buttons are on its left.
Screen viewing angle aside, our only interface gripes are nanoTune’s oddball numbering and tuning schemes. Specifically, the screen unnecessarily shows an extra 0 after every station number - 88.1FM becomes 88.10FM, for instance - and its transmitter moves from 88.1FM to 107.9FM (not 87.7FM or the widely usable station 87.9FM) in .1 increments, even though U.S. stations never appear on even numbers (88.2FM), while the radio receiver similarly tunes slowly from 87.9FM to 108.1FM in .1 increments. These are small issues, but we’ve come to expect better from similar accessories.
Unfortunately, the audio performance of nanoTune’s three electronic features is mixed. Strongest in the package is the FM radio receiver, which like its predecessor mini FM does a very good job of tuning in radio stations - so long as you don’t need to hear 87.7, that is - and is at least as strong in this regard as Griffin’s iFM and Apple’s iPod Radio Remote, which were very good radio tuners given their small side. However, nanoTune’s audio balance is bass-biased rather than neutral, which works best for talk radio and news programs. By comparison, and as we noted with mini FM, Griffin’s iFM sounds a bit crisper, which is the reason we’d still give iFM the edge for music. That said, both devices sound good enough at anything to satisfy all but the pickiest listeners.
nanoTune’s FM transmitter performance is regrettably nowhere near as good as its reception - in fact, it’s one of the least impressive portable transmitters we’ve tested in a long time. Even by comparison with Griffin’s iTrip with Dock Connector (iLounge rating: B-), which has some serious limitations, nanoTune’s transmitter had big problems overwhelming virtually all of our standard test stations on both home and car radios. We found that it needed to be within several feet of an antenna to do an even okay job without assistance, which was a problem in our test cars that had rear-mounted antennas. One iLounge editor commented that it would rate a low C or D if judged solely by this factor, and this was the single reason nanoTune fell short of our standard recommendation. However, like some other FM transmitters we’ve tested, this one benefits quite a bit if you add an extra antenna - to the unit’s headphone or Dock Connector ports - but it’s overall not very good by comparison with our top picks.
Last but not least in the package is the headphone amplifier. When it was added to mini FM’s radio receiver, amplification was pitched by DLO as a “bonus feature” - one that provides around 25% additional amplification for attached headphones. In nanoTune, the company has preserved the feature without explaining exactly why most people would want to use it, and we continue to feel the same way about it here - it’s a fine bonus, but not something we’d use, except perhaps with an EU volume-capped iPod, or with inefficient headphones. Put another way, we’d strongly recommend against use of this feature with standard iPods and headphones, because high-volume listening increases your risk of hearing damage.
After two or three extended discussions between iLounge editors - ones where we found ourselves taking different-than-normal sides - we ultimately arrived at a limited recommendation and B- rating as a compromise. Why? Back when we reviewed and praised the A- rated mini FM, we felt that what DLO had delivered was pretty impressive, namely a simple radio attachment that sounded good, matched the shape and size of the iPod mini, and cost a reasonable $40. It was not perfect, but highly recommendable. At $70, nanoTune is a different story. The device’s FM transmitter is pushed as a major selling point, but in our view, it’s not, and will actively disappoint those familiar with superior solutions. We’d sooner have seen nanoTune ship without it - and preferably a bit cheaper - than have it done poorly.
nanoTune’s major appeal will be to those who simultaneously lack an iPod nano case, FM radio, and transmitter, and want to try to kill all three birds with one stone. Our advice? You’ll get better results with two or more stones. Unless you are willing to accept the weak FM transmitter for what it is, or really love the all-in-one concept behind nanoTune, we’d recommend that you consider other alternatives; this one is only recommendable to those few people still willing to make serious compromises when spending $70.