Review: Griffin iTrip FM Transmitter (2008)
When it comes to iPod FM transmitters, Griffin Technology's iTrip is one of the world's best known brands, and the company has sought to expand its dominance through numerous updates. The original portable iTrip was revised a number of times to fit newer and smaller iPods, then incorporated into a series of car-only FM transmitters and charging cables called iTrip Auto. Today, we're looking at the newest versions of each product: Griffin's 2008 version of iTrip ($50) and its late 2007 version of iTrip Auto, called iTrip Auto with SmartScan.
Before saying anything more about either of these products, it’s important to note up front that Griffin has repeatedly “revved” past iTrips, making post-release, generally undisclosed changes that have generally—but not always—improved them. Though we typically strive to review iTrips immediately after their release, we held off a little on these because we heard that revised versions were coming. Our reviews below note the current and anticipated changes as best as possible, but bear in mind that no one can fully predict how they’ll impact performance, and whether the unit you buy will be one of the original or newer models. These types of concerns are legitimate, so take them into account if the types of changes matter to you.
The standard version of iTrip is, as always, a portable attachment that enables your iPod to broadcast audio to a nearby FM radio. It has been designed to fit on the bottom of any 2004 to 2007 iPod model with a Dock Connector port, and has only two important face features: a side-lit LCD tuning screen and two rubberized tuning buttons. iTrip’s top now includes two plastic inserts for use with different iPod thicknesses, both of which can be removed to render the Dock Connector plug more compatible with cases, plus a plastic cap to keep the Connector safe when not in use. There’s also a mini USB port on the bottom to let you recharge the iPod while it’s in use, and a cable in the box to connect iTrip to Griffin’s standard car chargers, or others with a standard sized USB port. When it’s not running off of USB power, it drains the iPod’s battery, rather than requiring its own.
Simply put, the new iTrip is a good but not fantastic evolution of past models. Like certain past iTrips, it’s sold in black or white versions, both nice-looking but neither as attractive as the company’s old circular, chrome-dialed iteration from 2005; Griffin’s white version doesn’t match the body of any current iPod model, unless you’re counting their Click Wheels. The tuning screen’s sidelight activates whenever a button is pressed, working well to briefly illuminate the display, and actual tuning is very straightforward: press the up or down button and the transmitter starts broadcasting on the FM station you select. There are no presets and virtually no frills; you set the car’s radio to match the iTrip’s tuner and you’re ready to go.
What’s “great” here is iTrip’s sound on our test radios. Griffin has for years been maximizing the iPod’s audio quality to match the limits of FCC broadcasting regulations, and this iTrip sounded as good as we’ve heard from an FM transmitter since the agency cracked down on overpowered devices. There’s still a low base level of static in the audio, even on empty stations, but it’s not offensive, and your music is by far the dominant sound you’ll hear within a 15-foot radius of the transmitter. iTrip still provides less powerful stereo and more powerful monaural broadcasting modes as an option.
The broadcast mode option is still indicated by the poor symbols LX and DX rather than more straightforward letters (M and S) or dots (one or two), but it produces a noticeable difference in monaural’s favor assuming that you’re willing to give up stereo separation to achieve it. Though iTrip typically tunes in .2 increments from 88.1 to 107.9FM, we discovered that it also has an international broadcasting mode —accessed by holding down the plus and minus buttons together for 10 seconds—that allows the device to tune on the European bands from 88.0 to 108.0FM as well. Upcoming revisions of iTrip will also include a Japanese tuning mode with support for more channels, but since you most likely won’t be able to tell from the box which version you’re getting, you might have to wait a few months if you’re looking to have this feature, as well.
Not so great are the included plastic inserts, which we found to be a little less stable with certain iPods than we’d have expected, and the iTrip’s comparative lack of features for its $50 asking price. Griffin used to sell a better looking version of the same product for $40, while Belkin has been selling complete FM transmitter and car charging solutions in its TuneFM line for $50, including station preset buttons and a detachable cigarette lighter charging cable. Unfortunately, the TuneFM products don’t work with current iPods, and new versions haven’t yet been announced. By comparison, the current iTrip works well and looks pretty good, but it isn’t exactly a breakthrough product for its price, and users with a need to constantly change stations to deal with local interference won’t find it an acceptable option. It also lacks for the SmartScan option found in the new iTrip Auto, which is capable of finding empty local FM stations and adding them as presets so that you needn’t manually tune them.
Overall, if you own a new iPod and are looking for an FM transmitter that sounds as close to great as they come these days while looking good, consider Griffin’s latest iTrip worth testing unless you plan to use it while driving in a radio-congested area. In that situation, an FM transmitter with presets will be a better choice, and a version with an included car charging cable may also be a better match for your needs.