Review: Kensington Pico FM Transmitter for iPod
As FM transmitters have made fairly significant strides over the past six months, old models now appear comparatively flat and staticy, while newer models - especially ones released very recently - boast superior dynamic range (higher apparent treble response, lower apparent bass response) and cleaner audio. Available in iPod nano-sized white and black versions that happen to be compatible with other Click Wheel-equipped iPods, Kensington's Pico FM Transmitter for iPod ($55) only stands out from other recent competitors in one way: at 1.57" x .98" x 1.9", it's small, roughly half the height of XtremeMac's AirPlay2 and Belkin's TuneFM for iPod nano, and a little thinner. Like TuneFM and Griffin's iTrip for iPod nano, it uses your iPod's screen for FM tuning, featuring a simple, intuitive three-position switch on its right side that tunes up or down, and selects with a press to the center.
The reason that we’re not giving Pico a longer review is this: it looks nice and works well, but other than its size, it’s not a standout in any of the categories we consider especially important for FM transmitters. On-screen tuning has been done before, and with several additional features not found in Pico, in each of the aforementioned transmitters. Pico’s interface merely allows station tuning and selection from one of two preset stations, nothing more. Glaringly, there isn’t a Griffin-esque U.S./International toggle to let you move past Pico’s limited 88.1FM to 107.9FM tuning spectrum to the frequently empty 87.9FM station. And at $55, it’s more expensive than most of its competitors, most notably Belkin’s TuneFMs, which both come with car chargers and not incidentally allow your iPod to be recharged while they’re in use. When Pico connects to your iPod’s bottom, it blocks off the iPod’s only recharging port and provides no pass-through capability - something that Belkin, Griffin, and XtremeMac have included. Kensington instead touts the transmitter’s low power consumption and hopes that you won’t feel the need to connect a charger to the iPod while Pico’s in use.
However, it’s important to note that connected charger cables tend to boost the FM transmitting power of Pico’s competitors, a boost that Kensington doesn’t benefit from. And as we noted when we reviewed the company’s earlier Digital FM Radio & Transmitter for iPod (iLounge rating: B+) back in February, Kensington’s radio technology could benefit from such a boost, a point felt even more sharply today given the strength of Belkin’s TuneFM offerings. In comparative testing against four other transmitters, we used our standard stations 88.3 - a fallback when a transmitter can’t use the empty 87.9 - and 103.3FM, giving Pico a shot on both easy and challenging stations. Indoors, Pico did pretty well for a portable transmitter on both stations - 10-15% static levels on both at 8-foot distances, climbing up to unacceptable levels at 12 feet, and then extinction at 17. In our test car, Pico also did about the same on both stations - noticeable 20-30% static levels at best, sometimes up to 50% on the more congested 103.3FM, depending on our location when driving. We also noticed that Pico’s volume level with certain iPods was very low relative to Belkin’s TuneFMs, and at other times occasionally exhibited bass clipping that couldn’t be fixed by reducing the volume: though otherwise similar in bass and treble balance, the TuneFMs were a little louder, made anti-clipping adjustments easy, and sounded at least a little better pretty much wherever we tested them.
This isn’t to say that Pico’s affirmatively bad in any way - it’s not, but it’s the victim of such audio and price improvements in competitors that its tiny footprint is really its only selling point. If size matters to you, and its higher-than-average price doesn’t, consider it as an option; we think it’s a fair competitor to XtremeMac’s AirPlay2, and superior to Griffin’s standard iTrip with Dock Connector - thus recommendable overall - but not quite up to snuff with our highly recommended TuneFMs and iTrip for iPod nano. In the absence of stronger audio performance, additional tuning features and pass-through charging would have helped a bunch, as would a lower price.