Review: Kensington QuickSeek FM Transmitter for iPod
Under the best of circumstances, iLounge's editors have never loved FM transmitters; like our readers, we've merely tolerated them in situations where we've had no other way -- say, with wires or cassette adapters -- to connect our iPods to certain car stereos. FM transmitters have enabled us to wirelessly broadcast music to more-or-less empty FM radio stations, though they've generally done so with at least a faint hiss of static, and often times with other issues as well.
In recent weeks, following reports that the Federal Communications Commission has been cracking down on overly powerful (read: especially clear) FM transmitters, two new options have arrived from established manufacturers. Griffin has released iTrip Pocket ($50), which matches the curves and coloration of silver second-generation iPod nanos, and Kensington has released the QuickSeek FM Transmitter for iPod ($90), which cosmetically comes closest to a 30GB fifth-generation iPod. Neither of these transmitters is groundbreaking enough to merit a full, extended review; they’re equal parts interesting for their simple functionality, and disappointing for their underaggressive pricing.
Both iTrip Pocket and QuickSeek begin with the same premise: they attach to the bottom of any Dock Connector-equipped iPod 4G, 5G, mini, or nano, and use the iPod’s screen to display a digital FM tuner that’s controlled with buttons on the transmitter’s front face. Griffin’s five-button design is more intuitive, with arrows for tuning and three buttons to memorize and call up chosen pre-set stations you’ve identified as empty enough for broadcasting. As Belkin has done for the past year or so, Kensington now includes a detachable plastic spacer that permits QuickSeek to be attached to iPods inside or outside of certain cases.
Kensington’s four-button design has gray + and - buttons for tuning, a central button to select a station, and a silver right-mounted QuickSeek button. Sometimes, you can press QuickSeek and the transmitter will do a check of all the local radio stations around, make a determination as to which station is clearest for transmission, then set the transmitter to that station. All you need to do is set your car’s radio to the QuickSeek’s chosen station—a feature first seen in Monster Cable’s iCarPlay Wireless 200 (iLounge rating: B)—and your music’s ready to go. Unfortunately, QuickSeek didn’t work reliably with all of our iPods; it worked with nanos and older 5Gs, but didn’t with our newer, enhanced 5Gs. This was the primary reason for our B- rating; QuickSeek might otherwise have scored a little higher. In any case, you can press the transmitter’s center button to toggle through three station presets, and hold it down to program any of them; Griffin’s separate buttons are a bit easier to use.
The only other major differences between these transmitters are their approaches to charging and user options. QuickSeek includes a simple car charger with a USB cable; it has a replaceable fuse on one side and can be plugged in or disconnected from the bottom of the transmitter as you prefer. It has no user-selectable options menu. iTrip Pocket lacks any charging pass-through capability, and has only a single option, toggling between more dynamic stereo or clearer monaural broadcasting modes. Both tune from 88.1FM to 107.9FM in .2 increments, while iTrip Pocket can also tune the frequently clear 87.9FM; unlike numerous predecessors, neither can be switched into European or Japanese tuning modes.
All of that leaves only two issues - sound quality and pricing. Regrettably, though both are better than most of the transmitters released three years ago, with crisper highs and superior dynamic range, neither of these transmitters was a superstar relative to more recent best-of-breed alternatives we’ve tested. QuickSeek is a bit behind top transmitters we’ve tested from Belkin and XtremeMac in static level, with an above-whisper level of white noise audible in tracks we tested—it is highly comparable in sound quality and static level to the prior Kensington transmitters we’ve reviewed. This was the case even on the local station it identified as clearest (107.3FM). iTrip Pocket did a little better than QuickSeek, but was still not as clear as XtremeMac’s AirPlay Boost (iLounge ratings: A-/B+) from comparable distances on comparable stations. Unlike earlier iTrips, its performance can’t be improved by connection of other cables, since it lacks a pass-through port.
Pricing was where both products were most notably disappointing. At $90, the QuickSeek FM Transmitter sells for a $40 premium over Belkin’s excellent TuneFM (iLounge rating: A-), in our view with very little justification. While the QuickSeek button can simplify station hunting for some iPod users, you’re basically guaranteed to get similar if not identical performance out of almost always empty 87.9FM, which TuneFM can tune. We’ve noted that Kensington’s prices have been too high for a while now, and the direct comparison from TuneFM to QuickSeek makes this more evident than ever before.
Similarly, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Belkin gives you a detachable car charger with TuneFM for the same price as Griffin’s selling iTrip Pocket, and that if you’re spending $50, you can get an equally good looking, and even better sounding transmitter in XtremeMac’s AirPlay Boost. AirPlay Boost doesn’t come with a charger, but it does have a Dock Connector port on the bottom that can be used with most standard iPod chargers, a feature missing from iTrip Pocket. In all regards save size, nano owners will do better with Griffin’s earlier iTrip for iPod nano, which offers extra features and includes a carrying bag for the same $50 price.
All-in-all, Griffin’s iTrip Pocket looks nice and sounds pretty good, but it isn’t a fantastic deal or a tremendous performer. QuickSeek isn’t as sharp visually or as reasonably priced, and its titular feature may not perform properly on your iPod, but it does a fine job of standard tuning and has a couple of functional benefits over some of the transmitters we’ve tested. Consider both to be second-tier choices unless you can find them at a substantial discount.