Bad Days Ahead for FM Transmission

Bad Days Ahead for FM Transmission 1

If you’re reading this editorial, you probably already know what an FM transmitter is, and what to expect when you buy one. For the uninitiated, FM transmitters are designed to wirelessly broadcast your choice of music to any empty FM radio station—a technology that’s useful if your car stereo has no way to make a wired connection to your iPod. We’ve been very blunt about the performance of FM transmission technology in the past: our 2006 Introduction to FM Transmitters said plainly that “few iPod accessories are as abundant, or as frequently disappointing, as FM transmitters,” noting that governmental agencies such as the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) limit the devices’ broadcasting power.

Bad Days Ahead for FM Transmission 2

These limits increase the amount of static interference you hear when playing music through transmitters, and generally require you to place the devices close to your car’s antenna for better sound quality. Consequently, transmitters have for years been our recommendation of last resort for iPod owners: use them only if you aren’t willing to spend the money on a wired iPod integration solution, and your car lacks a cassette tape deck with the ability to use a cheaper but better-sounding cassette adapter.


Bad Days Ahead for FM Transmission 3

Effective now, that recommendation is becoming even stronger. During last year’s long-awaited loosening of FM transmitter restrictions in the United Kingdom, the United States saw a quiet, much less publicized shift in the opposite direction; acting to remedy numerous companies’ violations of regulations governing transmitter signal strength, the FCC began knocking on transmitter makers’ doors and demanding immediate changes. As we predicted last September, “you should expect major manufacturers to become more concerned about FCC regulations, and non-compliant transmitters (read: super-powerful ones) to become less common in products by big companies.”


Bad Days Ahead for FM Transmission 4

This week, we’ve heard from multiple transmitter developers that these changes are in the process of being implemented, and generally without notice to consumers. Some of last year’s FM transmitters have already been changed internally to cripple their broadcasting power even further than before, without any external or packaging changes that signal the change. As a result, there’s a very good likelihood that if you’re buying an established FM transmitter, it won’t be as strong as last year’s model, and if you’re buying a brand-new device with FM transmission built-in, you shouldn’t expect it to deliver the results of your favorite prior transmitter. In short, the proximity of your car’s radio antenna to the transmitter and iPod has just become an even bigger concern.


Bad Days Ahead for FM Transmission 5

All of this isn’t to say that all of the well-known transmitters out there have just become useless. Belkin’s popular TuneFM, Griffin’s iconic iTrip, and XtremeMac’s AirPlay series will continue to be sold, alongside dozens of transmitter-plus-car charger options from other companies, such as DLO, Kensington, and Monster Cable. Some models—the comparatively few that didn’t violate FCC restrictions to begin with—will be unchanged, and 2005-2006 vintage transmitters will continue to work at past levels until they die of natural causes. At least, on current-model iPods.


Bad Days Ahead for FM Transmission 6

Our advice to iPod users is this: if you’ve been holding out on installing a wired iPod integration solution in your car, and frustration-free audio quality is important to you, now’s the right time to consider that upgrade. We have yet to see a competing wireless technology, such as Bluetooth, emerge as a viable mainstream car audio alternative to FM radio, and since that may not happen for months or years, your choices are either FM transmission or a wire. If you’re looking for something today, and unless you’re willing to consider positioning your new FM transmitter right next to your car’s antenna, we’d seriously recommend going with the wire, sooner rather than later.

  1. This could actually be seen as good news for users of FM transmitters. My TuneBase FM is fantastic — until someone with a Sirius transmitter rolls by. Those things are just too strong. I have now heard hours worth of Howard Stern in 3-second snippets (side note: is Stern the *only* thing Sirius users listen to? In my FM interference experience, yes.)

    By contrast, I’ve tested my transmitter throws a little static out to someone nearby on the same station, but it doesn’t overpower their own signal.

    The enforcement of the limits might mean that everyone just gets the signal coming from inside their cars.

  2. Chrystopher, there is a simple solution for adding an auxiliary input to radios that don’t support it, and that is a hard-wired FM modulator. This device goes in line between your radio and your antenna and provides an auxiliary input. Because it is hard wired in-line, it does not actually transmit the signal over the air, and I would assume that these devices are not impacted by the FCC rules. You need much less power if you’re injecting it directly into the head unit radio.

  3. Good. I think the FCC should ban them all, that way companies would focus more into developing iPod-ready stereos and wired car/mount adapters.

    Maybe that will help bring back the great FlexibleDock from TenTechnology, and get them back into business.

    BTW, when is going to review the new Griffin TuneFlex AUX for nano??? Since it seems to be the next best thing after the FlexibleDock.

  4. unfortately there are a lot of cars that can’t be integrated well. In-dash CD changers and upgraded sound systems make it very difficult. I have been unable to find a decent solution, other replacing the car radio completely, for my ’96 Maxima with Bose and my 2000 Avalon.

  5. I tried to post a link to my review of the Kensington Digital FM Transmitter/Auto Charger, but iLounge yanked it — ouch.

    Anyway, suffice it to say that the Kensington Digital FM Transmitter/Auto Charger works great in New York City (Manhattan to be precise) at the 88.1 frequency. If it works great here, it probably works great anywhere — to paraphrase that Sinatra song.

  6. Maybe its just where I live, but my Belkin TuneFM does a good job for me. No, the sound is not great, but its not annoying either. Maybe a 6 on a scale of 1-10, which is way better than 0 (silence). Its more than good enough to be enjoyable and is a great backup for my Send Station line out for travelling. Hotel radio with no aux input? Boom – TuneFM to the rescue.

  7. I am in Melbourne (Australia) SE metro area.

    Anyone found a good frequency they can recommend for I-pod use??? I get great clear reception on 89.5 and then all of sudden on certain days only strong radio broadcast. Are there any “blanks” left??

  8. I had an iTrip years ago and it was decent–but I sold it on Craigslist along with an old iPod when I got a good in-car hookup. I now have a new car and a new iPod. I don’t have a wired connection w/ my car stereo now, so I bought a brand-new TuneBase FM with ClearScan. I live in downtown Seattle and it was a complete waste of money, at any frequency. This might work in the sticks, but it’s worthless here. You can *barely* hear the signal when you crank it, and even then there’s tons of static and distortion. These companies shouldn’t even be allowed to sell them anymore without calling them “rural transmitters” or something.

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