Review: Newer Technology RoadTrip!+ (Plus) FM Transmitter
Pros: Superior quality FM transmission on an almost entirely unused FM radio station (87.9) that U.S. users will likely find clear and satisfying. Charges Dock Connecting iPods while connected.
Cons: Can’t be used indoors until and unless AC adapter is released; slight cable noise when jostled; potentially limited utility in few areas where 87.9 is used.
Despite numerous cautionary notes that their performance will vary wildly from city to city, FM transmitters continue to be in hot demand. The reason is obvious: they remain one of the easiest ways to broadcast an iPod’s music to any car or home stereo equipped with a FM radio, and may be the only option for people whose stereos don’t have cassette players or line-in ports. To date, the biggest problem with FM transmitters has been tuning - finding the right local FM radio frequency to overwhelm - followed by delivering a consistently strong broadcast of iPod music to overwhelm it.
But what if there was an tuner-less FM transmitter that was guaranteed to perform very well almost regardless of where you take it? That’s the question posed by Newer Technology’s new RoadTrip!+ FM Transmitter ($27.95), which is one of two recent improved follow-ups to an accessory we tested last year; we review the other, called RoadTrip 87.9FM, in a separate review. Both products fix several of the problems we had last year with the RoadTrip! 107.7 FM Transmitter (iLounge rating: D), and the RoadTrip!+ adds a new feature - iPod charging - as well.
The concept is the same in each of the RoadTrip! units: they’re tuner-free FM transmitter solutions designed to work primarily in your car. Each model is locked to a single radio station - here, 87.9FM - and plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter/power port. While not especially stylish, they use few parts - a cigarette lighter plug with a cable - and don’t create a lot of car clutter in the process. Unlike its predecessors, RoadTrip!+ connects with white components to your iPod’s Dock Connector port, thereby pulling out the iPod’s best quality audio while interfacing with its battery for on-the-road recharging. This change renders RoadTrip!+ incompatible with the Dock Connector-less iPod shuffle and 1G/2G iPods, but provides an obvious dividend for all other iPod owners. A green LED on the charger’s front face lets you know power’s running through it.
In our previous review of the original RoadTrip! 107.7FM, we noted that we weren’t comfortable with that unit’s single-station tuning concept, as we test our products in a congested radio market and experienced a fair bit of interference in using the 107.7 station. However, we left open the possibility that the concept could work, saying that if “the RoadTrip! delivered fantastic sounding FM transmission in a car, it could be a viable and cheaper alternative to bulkier all-in-one car kits such as DLO’s TransPod”.
After experimenting with various FM radio stations and audio filters, Newer Technology seems to have found the magic combination. We’ve tested the RoadTrip!+ over a series of days and destinations, and found that its decision to dedicate a car’s power output to overwhelming 87.9FM - at least, where we test, and most likely where you live as well - was a very good one.
Wherever we went, RoadTrip!+ sounded strong, clear, and great on our car’s stereo, decidedly better in fact than Griffin and XtremeMac’s competing iTrip and AirPlay FM transmitters. By comparison, the iTrip had a noticeably higher static interference level, and though direct comparisons weren’t possible because AirPlay can’t tune down to 87.9, it had similar static issues on its best channels, as well as a modestly less rich sound. Audio connoisseurs should not expect RoadTrip!+ to be perfect - it has a trace amount of audible static - but it does sound very good for an FM transmitter.
There’s actually a very good reason for RoadTrip!+‘s superior performance: Newer Technology picked a radio frequency that’s essentially unused across 99% of the United States. As it turns out, there are only three U.S. cities with legal broadcasts on 87.9, specifically KSFH radio in La Canada, California (Bay/Silicon Valley Area); a low-power religious broadcasting repeater in Sun Valley, Nevada; and an experimental station in Brazos, Texas. If you’re not driving in or near one of these cities, or in an area where illegal FM broadcasting is taking place on 87.9, RoadTrip!+ should sound as great for you as it did for us.
So that’s great news for FM transmitter users, as is the fact that the RoadTrip!+‘s power charging feature worked perfectly with all of the iPods we tried. Frankly, we were surprised by the previous RoadTrip!‘s lack of iPod charging given that it may occupy your car’s only power outlet, and were glad to see this issue remedied in the new update.
There are only two major issues we had with RoadTrip!+, at least one of which will be addressed by the manufacturer in the near future. Unlike most of its competitors, RoadTrip!+ is a car-only accessory, a decision apparently made by the company because most people have cables that can connect their iPods indoors. While this may be true, it’s undeniably also the case that devices such as XtremeMac’s AirPlay and Griffin’s iTrip don’t suffer from the same limitation. To that end, Newer Technology will offer a $9.95 AC adapter for the RoadTrip!+ to permit it to be used indoors, but hasn’t started to sell that yet.
The other issue is the RoadTrip!+‘s iPod-to-power adapter cable: whenever it moves, you can hear small sounds in the iPod’s audio similar to the noises you hear in headphones when their loose plug is being moved around in the port. Newer Technology is aware of and looking into this problem. In our testing, though the cable doesn’t move a lot under normal driving conditions, jostling does occasionally interrupt what is otherwise a really great-sounding FM broadcast. Therefore, if you can find a way to keep the cable in place, or don’t mind a small occasional interruption, you’ll be happier with the RoadTrip!+ as it is. If you don’t want to deal with the sound, consider the black-colored RoadTrip! 87.9 (pictured above) instead - it has the same FM broadcasting quality without the charging and noise, at a lower price.
These two issues bring down the rating of what is otherwise a seriously excellent FM transmitting solution at a reasonable price. We can currently say that the RoadTrip!+ will be very likely to satisfy you if you’re a U.S.-based user looking for solid, low-interference FM transmission in your car, and either can hold the cable in place or don’t mind small occasional sounds when you hit bumps. As currently sold, it won’t be right for you if you have a need for an in-home FM transmitter or expect perfect audio quality at all times. However, as Newer Technology has the ability to fix both of these limitations with future updates, we leave open the possibility that our rating may be revised to reflect improvements, and certainly hope that we’ll be able to do so.