Review: DLO TransDock Direct
From everything we've seen over the past year or two, the near future of iPod and iPhone car integration can be summed up in three letters: AUX. Short for "auxiliary input," the presence of an "aux" port on a car enables an iPod or iPhone to make a direct wired audio connection to the car's audio system, delivering superior audio quality to FM transmitters and in most cases cassette tape adapters. Pricing is another advantage: you can get an auxiliary audio cable for between $5 and $15, versus $40 and up for good FM transmitters and $15-25 for tape adapters. Yet an aux port notably offers only an audio connection; as is the case with other inexpensive connection options, you'll need additional parts to charge, mount, or remote control the iPod.
Today, armed with a new aux port-equipped testing vehicle, we’re reviewing a collection of auxiliary audio solutions from Kensington, Monster Cable, and DLO, with plans to expand our coverage of accessories in this product category in the future. From Kensington, we look at the LiquidAUX ($80) and LiquidAUX Deluxe ($100) for iPhone and iPod, while we also check out Monster’s iCarCharger 200 for iPod and iPhone ($50), and DLO’s TransDock Direct for iPod ($60).
Let’s start with what these devices do and don’t do. All four accessories provide charging power to the connected iPod or iPhone, and they also provide auxiliary audio output from the device’s bottom Dock Connector port rather than its headphone port. The advantage of doing this has traditionally been audio quality, as iPods’ bottom connectors put out much cleaner, louder signals than their headphone ports, but the quality gap has narrowed in recent years. Today, the biggest advantage is a single-point connection between your iPod or iPhone and car: set any of these accessories up in your vehicle, and you just need to connect one plug to your music player before driving away.
What these devices don’t do, by historic standards, is provide an alternate audio option that was long popular with car accessories released by Griffin Technology, Belkin, and others: a switch or dial to let you adjust your iPod’s bottom volume level for connection to cassette tape adapters rather than aux ports. Properly implemented and used, a dial or switch of this sort can not only improve the sound balance between your iPod and tape deck connection, but also fix small issues that occasionally appear after Apple tweaks the output levels of its new devices. We prefer accessories that offer user-adjustable audio level management of some sort; unlike Griffin’s 2008 iPod-only TuneFlex AUX, none of these do that.
By comparison to the Monster iCarCharger 200 and Kensington LiquidAUX units, DLO’s TransDock Direct for iPod was a better solution, at least for the iPod family; it’s not made to work with the iPhone or iPhone 3G. This version of TransDock, a long-standing series of car charging and FM transmitter accessories, has no wireless capabilities at all; it serves as an iPod charger, mount, and aux-out solution. DLO packages it with a detachable audio cable—which lets you connect a cassette tape adapter if you have one, albeit without variable volume adjustment—and a novel component: a “detachable 12V Power Socket” that lets you simultaneously connect a second charger if you need to share the power outlet with another device. This piece may for some users justify the $10 price premium over Griffin’s comparable TuneFlex AUX; others may find it unnecessary. Our only other gripe with DLO’s approach is that the long audio cable can clutter your car’s console, which can be remedied if you buy your own shorter cable, or pick a competing option.
TransDock Direct does exactly what it’s supposed to do. The charging mount provides a bit of flexibility for mounting your iPod on your chosen angle, and does a good job of unobtrusively holding the iPod upright while providing power. It can also be rotated for side-mounting of the iPod touch, in each case using 3 white power lights to indicate battery status for the connected device. Better yet, its audio output was the very best we tested in this batch of devices. Even at twice the normal volume level, it produced only a quiet hum when connected to the iPod; at a normal volume level, no interference was apparent through our aux port. Tape adapter users may notice issues due to its lack of a variable level audio port, but aux users will find that it’s a very solid iPod audio performer. While it is subject to considerable interference from the iPhone and iPhone 3G, it’s not advertised as compatible with either.
Overall, our current recommendations regarding auxiliary iPod car audio accessories are as follows. If you have an iPod and never plan to upgrade to an iPhone, DLO’s TransDock Direct does a very good job of providing charging, audio out, and flexible mounting, while Kensington’s standard LiquidAUX does a very good job of charging, remote controlling, and outputting audio with iPods, and a fine to good job with iPhones. On the edge of our B+ and B ratings, LiquidAUX’s functionality is offset by some interference and an underaggressive price tag. While we would normally be more interested in a “do it all” device like LiquidAUX Deluxe, this accessory’s price tag and problematic mount made it less worthy of our interest and recommendation; Griffin’s TuneFlex AUX offers everything save the remote control for half the price. Finally, Monster’s iCarCharger 200 for iPod and iPhone is clearly a “pass” until the company sorts out the significant audio interference issues it exhibits.