Review: TEN Technology naviPlay Bluetooth Wireless Stereo Kit
Pros: The second and superior, fully portable Bluetooth transmitter/receiver offering for the iPod, with a wearable remote control receiver and Dock Connecting transmitter. Compatible with virtually any pair of wired headphones, and easy to use. Promise of future expandability to other wireless devices.
Cons: Audio quality is definitely more than acceptable but not stellar, does not include wireless headphones for its base price, which isn’t cheap.
Some of the most interesting iPod accessories yet developed are either heading to stores right now or planned for release in the next two months. TEN Technology’s naviPlay ($199.99) is one of them.
Announced in early 2004 only to drop off the radar screen for the entire year, naviPlay is something of a holy grail for many iPod owners: it’s an entirely portable wireless transmitter and receiver system based on Bluetooth technology. The small white transmitter unit attaches to your iPod with a plastic body clip and uniquely uses its Dock Connector port for output. An even smaller receiver unit becomes your own personal iPod shuffle: it includes a five-way joystick identical in layout to the shuffle’s controls, as well as a headphone jack and separate hold switch.
Toss your iPod into your backpack and use the receiver to access your entire music library on the go - with your favorite headphones. Mount the iPod on your motorcycle, and wear the receiver on your arm or neck. Or carry the iPod and listen to its music through your stereo system. naviPlay can do all this, and more. TEN will also offer a $239.99 bundle that includes a pair of Hewlett-Packard wireless Bluetooth headphones, which will take the place of TEN’s receiver unit if you prefer.
It’s promising technology, but does it work? How does it compare with i-Phono ($249.99), the earlier iPod Bluetooth solution we tested from Bluetake (iLounge rating: B)? And what about upcoming Bluetooth devices from Belkin, Griffin, Macally and Pacific Rim Technologies? We explore all of these issues below.
We’re always happy when the largest component in a new iPod accessory’s box is its power charger, and that’s the case with naviPlay: even given the number of parts TEN includes, it’s a wonderfully compact and simple solution for any way you may want to use it. Each naviPlay includes one transmitter and one receiver - called the naviPlay iPod Adapter and Stereo Remote, respectively - plus a set of Adapter clips for different iPod models, a belt clip for the Stereo Remote, and a large power supply brick. All of these components are iPod-matching glossy white save the brick, which is white but not glossy. TEN also includes a gray fabric lanyard necklace and a black fabric armband that can be used with the Remote, as well as a Quick Start Guide instruction manual.
The manual is almost unnecessary. TEN’s Stereo Remote is as big as a full-sized iPod cut in half, fits in the palm of your hand, and is very easy to use. Its only unusual characteristic is its odd labeling: for example, its controls are labeled on a 90-degree different angle from its naviPlay logo, so there’s no single way to describe the unit’s top, bottom, and sides.
We’ll assume that its “top” is where the headphone jack, lanyard hole, and hold switch are sitting from left to right, and that its bottom is where a power recharger port is located. Thus, its top left side features a small mystery hole, and its top left bottom a button labeled with play/pause icons. The face includes a five-position joypad, labeled with + and - for volume, backward and forward for tracks, and green in the center. In another odd labeling move, pressing down on the pad’s center performs play/pause features on your iPod - just like the controls of the iPod shuffle, including the lack of a LCD screen for track information. But so does the play/pause button on the Remote’s side, which also establishes contact with the naviPlay’s transmitter, and features a multi-colored ring light that indicates connection status.
Pressing down once on the Play/Pause button makes the light flash green. You then press the power icon button on the front of the naviPlay iPod Adapter transmitter, and the bottom light on a two-light display flashes green to indicate the Bluetooth connection is active. Holding down the Play/Pause button turns the Remote off and makes the light turn red before dimming to black.
When used on the go, the naviPlay iPod Adapter is a tiny partial iPod backpack with a detachable clip that holds the iPod’s sides, and a pedestal under the iPod’s bottom. TEN includes five Adapter-ready clips for iPods ranging from mini to photo and in-between, and all work just as expected. The Adapter’s backpack portion holds a rechargeable battery, while the pedestal includes both a male Dock Connector that connects to the iPod, and a female Dock Connector port at its rear. If you plan to mount the iPod on a flat surface, the Adapter converts into a stand by popping out a hard plastic ring from the edge of its backpack, and you can pop any Apple Dock Connector sync cable into its back, too.
You also use this port in combination with your iPod’s FireWire Dock Connector cable to recharge the naviPlay iPod Adapter. TEN’s power supply simultaneously connects to the Adapter and Stereo Remote with a y-joint design, recharging both batteries to an 80% level in one hour, fully within four hours. The components run for eight hours on a full charge. Connected to the power supply, the Stereo Remote features a red recharging light ring on its bottom, and the iPod Adapter a red recharging light on its front face. A green light on the power supply also lets you know that it’s working.
Forgiving the lack of blue lights on any of its components - an almost guaranteed feature of any other Bluetooth device - the naviPlay is designed quite well, especially considering what it can do. Especially in light of the iPod shuffle’s later release, TEN’s choice to include a lanyard, an armband, belt clip, and such similar controls on its wearable Remote can only be seen as wise moves that make the naviPlay just that much more consistent with people’s current iPod expectations.
naviPlay isn’t the only Bluetooth system expected for the iPod by the end of the first quarter, 2005, but it’s the only one that uses the iPod’s Dock Connector for audio output. Belkin’s TuneStage ($169.99) uses a top-mounting transmitter and a large router-like receiver to connect with your home stereo system. Griffin’s BlueTrip ($149.99) is similar to TuneStage in size and functionality, but resembles a white home stereo component. MacAlly’s BlueWave ($169.99) will include a large stereo headset with an integrated line-out port to spool its output into a home stereo. And Pacific Rim Technologies’ Mobility BT700 Bluetooth solution ($129.99) will include a headset and stereo headphone connection dongle, as well.
These alternatives therefore break down into two general categories: accessories intended as portable wireless listening devices and those intended to integrate an iPod into a home stereo system. While there’s some overlap between these functions, it doesn’t look like you’ll be carrying the TuneStage or BlueTrip around for portable listening, and the MacAlly and Pacific Rim solutions seem closer in concept to naviPlay - albeit less expensive and perhaps less full-featured.
Will the choice between headphone and Dock Connector mounting matter at all? It’s hard to tell, but given naviPlay’s broadcasting limitations discussed below, perhaps not. And as none of the other alternatives is out of prototype form yet, and we haven’t had enough time with any to provide a definitive comparison of their audio qualities, we won’t know for sure where the naviPlay will fit until all of the alternatives have actually been released. Therefore, and in the interest of fairness, we only evaluate the naviPlay given what’s currently available as an alternative on the iPod.
There are three critical components to assessing the naviPlay’s performance: first, its audio quality; second, its wireless range; and third, its multi-functionality outside of iPod-specific use. Two of these factors generally work in the product’s favor, one does not.
From an audio quality standpoint, naviPlay does a considerably better job than Bluetake’s i-Phono, which we tested last year. Readers may recall that i-Phono required you to wear a pair of fairly uncomfortable and not especially impressive Bluetooth headphones, which didn’t sound great for the $249.95 asking price. Unlike i-Phono, naviPlay supports the superior Bluetooth 1.2 transmission standard, which reduces static interference in the audio signal. We found the naviPlay’s sound to be comparatively clean, with the added benefit that we could use any pair of wired headphones we desired in combination with TEN’s Stereo Remote.
This isn’t to say that the device’s audio is perfect, and TEN doesn’t claim that naviPlay can output CD-quality sound - only “near CD-quality”, using 44.1KHz, 16-bit sound but a 76dB signal-to-noise ratio. In other words, expect something at the highest end of FM radio quality, a description that sounds worse than it is. We found the naviPlay music difficult to distinguish from straight-from-iPod output using inexpensive headphones and typical in-car connections, with the flaws and differences only noticeable when using direct line-in car hardware and higher-end earbuds. Typical listening will not be affected by the design.
Range was a bit spotty from test to test, particularly wherever metal objects could interfere with the naviPlay’s reception. Again, TEN generally acknowledges as much in its instructions, suggesting that users avoid placing naviPlay on the ground or where objects might interfere with performance. In close-proximity use - carrying the naviPlay on/in an arm, belt, or bag - we never had a problem. Transmissions were clean and generally uninterrupted, though once in a rare while the signal would drop for a second for reasons unknown.
But when we tried tests such as placing naviPlay in a car and then walking away with the receiver, it sometimes lost reception at the 7- or 8-foot mark - even if the device was mounted near the windshield. The same thing happened if we walked outside of our homes with the device mounted a few feet away from the door - at best, 10 feet would separate the devices before the signal stopped. In a wide-open house, placed at counter or table height, it tended to do significantly better, stretching for a 20-25 foot distance without issues.
TEN claims naviPlay can reach a maximum of 30 feet, but has a “typical” range of 24-30 feet - consistent with typical Bluetooth 1.2 limitations. We would recommend that users expect that it’ll be closer to the lower end of that range unless you’re in the right sort of area, and less if the transmitter and receiver are separated by a wall or vehicle. In other words, use it in your home, or in your car, but not through the walls of either.
A brighter note about naviPlay’s dropped signals is that any drop is a flat drop - no static or diminution of the signal, just dead silence. Though it’s never good to lose a signal, we prefer this to a degraded and noisy one any day.
Third and finally, it’s worth noting that naviPlay offers the promise of extra functionality beyond just iPod Bluetooth transmission: the mysterious small hole on its Stereo Remote is actually a microphone, and TEN has told iLounge to expect that the mic will work in concert with HP’s stereo headphones (or others) if you pair naviPlay with a Bluetooth phone, pending a firmware update that will add phone-friendly Bluetooth profiles. Since TEN isn’t advertising these phone-friendly features, and they only receive the barest mention in naviPlay’s manual, we’re not exploring them in greater depth right now, but it’s worth considering as an extra in the future.
If naviPlay is judged in the context that it’s advertised in, it does precisely what it claims: you get a truly portable, wireless Bluetooth solution that sounds good, matches your iPod, and uses its own rechargeable batteries. Especially in light of the recent release of the iPod shuffle, which offers iPod power users almost identical functionality to naviPlay’s Stereo Remote (only with much lower storage capacity and a somewhat lower price), TEN’s offering is a great way to enjoy a huge library of iPod music at a necklace-friendly size and weight.
The naviPlay is a highly recommendable offering when judged against prior and existing iPod wireless offerings - of which there is only one directly comparable product and several (FM transmitters) that could be improvised to offer the same general functionality. However, price is a serious consideration. naviPlay is available now at a cheaper ($199.99) entry point than Bluetake’s $249.95 i-Phono, but doesn’t yet include the bundled Bluetooth headphones that some users will prefer. Surely, that $239.99 naviPlay bundle will be a better deal and offer better quality than the i-Phono, but what about other competitors?
Since so many new Bluetooth (and other) wireless devices will be released over the next few months, the naviPlay’s place in history won’t be known for some time. Many cheaper competitors will soon be available, but each will lack at least one of the naviPlay’s features. For today, TEN unquestionably has a unique and very enjoyable product, and one wireless fans will be excited about for numerous reasons.
Jeremy Horwitz is Editor-in-Chief of iLounge.