Review: iSkin Cerulean TX+RX Stereo Bluetooth Transmitter and Receiver
Of the hundreds of companies now making iPod cases, Canada's iSkin is one of the very few obsessed with making them substantially better than its competitors; sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses, but it never seems to stand still. That's why we were excited when the company announced several Cerulean-branded wireless products back in January of this year: iSkin was ready to apply its industrial design skills to the geeky world of Bluetooth accessories, transforming the often too-big, too techie add-ons into something cooler.
Today, we’re reviewing three different Cerulean wireless product packages. This review covers Cerulean TX + RX ($150), which bundles an iPod- and iPhone-compatible Bluetooth 2.0 transmitter (TX) with a receiver (RX) that can be plugged into almost any iPod-specific speaker dock to play music—not iPhone telephone calls—wirelessly through the speakers. iSkin also sells the TX component with a pair of F1 Wireless Headphones ($190), and the F1 Wireless Headphones alone, without a transmitter, for use with Bluetooth-equipped cell phones and other devices ($130).
TX is a small black plastic transmitter that looks to have been designed to physically match the second-generation iPod nano, though it works with virtually any Dock Connecting iPod, as well as the iPhone. A simple white light is on its face, and a mini power port is hidden under a rubber cap on its left side. When connected to the iPod or iPhone, TX is capable of outputting a volume-adjusted version of the attached device’s music; in other words, you can adjust the iPod or iPhone’s volume level, and TX will automatically limit or increase its own output level to match. iSkin also includes a TX-to-USB adapter to let you attach TX to your computer if you prefer, and the same volume adjustments can be accomplished through the computer’s integrated volume controls. Though computers with integrated Bluetooth 2.0 won’t need TX or the adapter to work with RX, those without will suddenly be able to send Bluetooth audio to RX and other stereo Bluetooth devices, including iSkin’s Cerulean F1 wireless headphones.
This bundle’s chosen Bluetooth receiver is RX, a matching black plastic box that connects to the male Dock Connector plug found on any iPod-specific speaker system. RX is powered by and outputs directly to the speakers, but also has a USB cable that can connect it to an external power source, and a minijack port to connect it to speakers that aren’t iPod-specific. iSkin doesn’t include a standalone power supply or audio cable, though; if you want to use RX with a non-iPod speaker system, you’ll need to supply these parts yourself.
What TX + RX accomplishes is essentially the same as what Belkin, Griffin, Logitech, and others have achieved with earlier Bluetooth audio systems: you get the freedom to walk 30-some feet away from your speakers, using the iPod as a remote control while still listening to its audio. Regardless of the devices they’re connected to, RX and TX pair easily with one another, establishing an instant audio connection that isn’t broken unless you move too far away from the speakers while holding the iPod. Additionally, using the included USB cable, you can charge or synchronize the iPod while TX is connected—a feature offered by some, but not all of iSkin’s competitors.
iSkin deserves some credit for the miniaturization of the TX + RX package. Even though its components can be carried around in your pocket, it accomplishes almost as much as Belkin’s router-sized TuneStage 2 while using a considerably smaller and more convenient form factor—one Belkin was supposed to duplicate with its own TX + RX alternative, but never actually delivered. The key difference is RX, which shrinks most of the components found in the TuneStage 2 into a piece that’s smaller overall than an iPod nano; its ability to convert any existing iPod speaker into a semi- or fully wireless unit is not trivial.
Both TX+RX and TuneStage 2 use Bluetooth 2.0, which delivers audio quality that’s nearly indistinguishable from the original iPod source—assuming you adjust the iPod’s volume level properly with TX attached—and both devices enable you to use your iPod as a wireless remote control for a separate speaker system. TuneStage 2 has the advantages of working with any non-iPod speaker system and any aux-in-ready iPod system thanks to minijack and RCA-style audio-outs and a bundled-in audio cable, and superior (100-foot) broadcasting range; its disadvantages are its considerably larger size and its reliance on an external power source for the receiver. TX + RX benefits from connecting effortlessly to almost any iPod speaker system, drawing power from the speakers, and using smaller iPod- and speaker-side components. But it’s not as easily used with non-iPod speakers, and doesn’t include either the power supply or auxiliary audio cables found in Belkin’s package. You’ll need to decide which is better suited to your needs.
Based on the other Bluetooth accessories we’ve tested, iSkin’s F1, TX, and RX products suffer from only one major competitive disadvantage: their price to performance ratios. Here, the $150 TX + RX set is a hint or two under Belkin’s $150 TuneStage 2 in wireless performance and pack-ins; as with the standalone and TX-equipped F1 sets, a lower price would have made this bundle a smarter buy. That said, there’s no denying that the TX + RX set is the smallest iPod Bluetooth transmitter and stereo receiver set we’ve yet seen, and the only accessory currently available with the ability to convert a Dock Connector port into a wireless Bluetooth receiver. It does its job solidly, so if that functionality appeals to you, we wouldn’t discourage you from a purchase.