Review: Monster iCarCharger Ultra Low Profile Charger
Pros: Clean audio output, pleasantly designed LED charge indicator, good price.
Cons: Overly bulky Dock Connector plug may not fit comfortably with certain iPod cases.
Over the last several years, one company rapidly became synonymous with premium-priced, bling bling audio and video accessories - the sorts of parts people would find connecting their brand new home theater components when they told a Best Buy or Circuit City salesperson to spare no expense. Whether it was $59.95 for Monster Cable’s gold-tipped Xbox cables when Microsoft’s reference version sold for $19.95, or $49.95 for “gas-injected dielectric” FireWire cables that could be had for $3.99 as no-frills generics, we’ll admit to having been somewhat skeptical of the premium products based on their prices alone in the past.
But we’ve recently had the opportunity to put a number of Monster’s iPod accessories through their paces, and we were pleasantly surprised by a number of them. Many of the products compared favorably in price with other companies’ accessories, and worked at least as well. The results below speak for themselves.
Three Different Chargers from One Company
Get ready for a brain teaser. You’ve seen our reviews of Belkin’s Auto Kit for iPod, SiK’s imp Car Kit, and Dension’s ICE-Link auto solution, all of which include car chargers. Add to the mix Monster Cable’s three separate car chargers, each with a confusing name, and then try to figure out which is best for your needs.
Monster ULPC: (Left) Monster’s ULPC male Dock Connector is large and includes a stereo audio port, making for an uncomfortable fit with an iSkin case. (Right) Belkin’s male Dock Connector is closer to the thin profile of the Apple reference Dock Connector, and fits without a problem.
Monster’s most deluxe charger is called - on Monster’s web site, at least - the Ultra-Low Profile Charger (ULPC) for iPod with Dock Connection, and as the name suggests, it only works with the newest iPods. But the name omits at least two important details. First, it doesn’t tell you that the ULPC includes a 3.5mm female audio jack, which it does. And second, it neglects to mention that Monster makes two other chargers that are actually even lower-profile - for those who care. (Third, unlike the web site, the ULPC comes in a package with a different name: iCharger.)
The iCarCharger for iPod is not only a slightly smaller device, all parts considered, but it’s also lower-priced. Unlike the ULPC, iCarCharger leaves out the 3.5mm female audio jack, which makes the Dock Connector plug at the end of its cable smaller than the ULPC’s. But there’s a hitch. You can only get the iCarCharger in a package with two other Monster peripherals - the iCase Travel Pack, and the iSplitter stereo headphone adapter.
Here’s where the confusion comes in. Monster also makes a third charger which the web site and many stores call the iCharger. This sells for $29.95, lacks the audio jack, and is the lowest-profile of the bunch for one reason: rather than a large Dock Connector plug, it uses a small Firewire adapter to connect to old iPods. As bizarre as this will sound, since this product’s name is so similar to the second name for the ULPC, you might want to verify whether you’re getting the “FireWire iCharger” or the “Dock Connector iCharger” for yourself before ordering one of the devices.
So in summary, if you have an old iPod, you’ll consider the iCharger, but if you have a new iPod, consider the iCarCharger or the Ultra-Low Profile Charger, which just happens to have the least low profile version of the Dock Connector, an identical lighter socket plug, and an occasionally different name. Whew.
Slick Looks and Power
All three of these chargers have an identical male lighter socket plug, which is primarily black with a single painted silver ring on the front surface. Inside the ring is a pleasantly viewable LED light that indicates power and battery status. Larger, yet not as intrusive as we would have guessed initially based on Belkin’s smaller (and easily forgettable) light’s size, Monster’s LED glows red when rapidly charging, amber when trickling, and green when providing power but not charging.
Even though Belkin’s Auto Kit has a smooth, iPod-matching white plug for the lighter socket, we preferred Monster’s smaller, cleaner black piece. While it didn’t match the iPod, it better matched the interior of our test car - a subjective opinion, for sure, but one that’s more likely to be yours as so few cars have pure white interiors.
We tested the iCarCharger and the Ultra-Low Profile Charger along with a 30GB iPod (third-generation), and found the power charging functionality of the devices to be identical. Monster notes that all three of their charging devices use a digital charging technique to provide an initial rapid burst of power, followed by a “trickle” of power that gradually brings the battery up to maximum power.
Monster Charger: (Left) Monster’s lighter socket adapter is identical on both the Ultra Low Profile Charger and the iCarCharger. (Right) Belkin’s adapter may or may not be more to your visual liking.
While we didn’t notice any measurable difference between the recharging performance of the Monster devices and the Belkin or SiK car chargers, we did note that both of Monster’s Dock Connector plugs are physically larger than those competing products - just enough so to present a connectivity issue for us.
Like a number of other peripherals we’ve tested, the ULPC’s plug is large enough to create problems when attempting to connect an iPod inside of an iSkin carrying case, for example, and the slightly smaller iCarCharger plug has slightly less of a problem. Notably, Apple’s reference plug, which is similar to SiK’s plug and only slightly tinier than Belkin’s proprietary plug, has no such connectivity issue.
The ULPC’s plug is bigger because of an unfortunate design choice: the 3.5mm female stereo jack was mounted directly on the Dock Connector Plug, rather than on the lighter socket plug (Belkin’s style) or on a dangling cable (SiK’s style). Trivial though it may seem initially, this aspect of the ULPC’s design has a second consequence, namely that any audio cable plugged in to the device must run all the way to the iPod, which for certain devices such as FM transmitters might be acceptable, but for cassette tape adapters may or may not be quite so attractive depending on your vehicle.
(As it turns out, Monster also makes a Cassette Adapter called the iCarPlay - a grey audio-cassette shaped device that plugs into a car’s cassette tape deck and connects via a black 3.5-foot audio cable to one of two output sources. See iLounge’s separate review of the iCarPlay here.)
Regardless of the placement of the stereo jack, we were quite happy with the audio that came out of the ULPC. Like the SiK imp, Monster’s first output into our speakers sounded crisp and undistorted, unlike the slight adjustment period necessary to reconcile the second built-in amplifier in Belkin’s Auto Kit with the car’s and iPod’s volume levels. Though all three devices will sound similar when Belkin’s device is properly calibrated, Monster’s sounds real good right out of the box.
Years ago, Monster might have priced itself out of even the iPod’s higher-than-average-bracket market, but its offerings are close in price to its competitors: it looks a bit nicer than SiK’s less expensive imp, but is comparable in price to (and, depending on the viewer, at least as attractive as) Belkin’s Auto Kit. Based on the quality of Monster’s offerings, we’re looking forward to seeing what they have planned for the iPod in the future.
Jeremy Horwitz is Senior Editor of iLounge and practices intellectual property law in his spare time. His recent book, Law School Insider, has been called the “best book about law school -ever,” and he continues to contribute to Ziff-Davis electronic entertainment magazines.