Leading into this weekend, I figured that you might enjoy an advance look at one of Monday’s reviews, plus a heads-up that Monday’s going to be a big day at iLounge. Lots of big new stuff coming. As a hint, “yes” to the questions posed in comments to the last Backstage entry.
You read about XtremeMac’s new AirPlay first on iLounge from the show floor at MWSF. Now click on Read More for our advance review of the iPod’s new top-ranked FM transmitter.
AirPlay FM Transmitter
XtremeMac quietly billed it as an “iTrip Killer,” and early demonstrations seemed to confirm that statement: the company’s new AirPlay FM transmitter ($39.99) was noticeably smaller, unquestionably easier to tune, and marginally more powerful than even the smallest of Griffin’s long-running series iPod attachments. Out of fairness, we hesitated to declare it a winner until we’d had an opportunity to really try it ourselves, but now that we have, we can say it: all things considered, AirPlay is the best FM transmitter currently available for the iPod.
These words are the result of the three aforementioned critical aspects of XtremeMac’s design – AirPlay’s form factor, tuning, and broadcasting performance – as well as its reasonable price. While we will reiterate below our boilerplate words of caution as to expectations for any FM transmitter, AirPlay’s device delivers an overall experience we would most want to recommend to iPod owners.
Basics and Design
In essence, an FM transmitter turns a wired audio device into a small wireless audio broadcasting station: you plug any FM transmitter into the iPod’s headphone jack, and whatever you play is turned into radio signals that can be heard on nearby stereo systems. Primarily useful for those who don’t have cassette decks or line-in/auxiliary input ports in their cars, FM transmitters share a number of common issues and are by no means as clean a listening option as those other options, but they’ve proved relatively popular nonetheless.
Griffin Technology has ruled the iPod FM transmitter category almost since the beginning: its iTrip (iLounge rating: A-) was until recently the smallest such accessory on the market, mounting neatly on the top of each iPod it was redesigned to accommodate. Rather than wasting space on a separate battery or tuning screen, Griffin brilliantly drew power from the iPod and used its LCD screen with some proprietary tuning software to change stations. It was a highly innovative and attractive design, easily coupled with a car charger when in a vehicle or with a Dock when indoors.
Over time, and particularly with the expansion of the iPod’s popularity past hard-core technophiles into a more mainstream population, the iTrip has received its fair share of criticism. Most of that criticism has focused on the challenge of tuning the iPod and iTrip to a given station while you’re driving – one of several key uses for the device – while some have also challenged its broadcasting capabilities. A number of competitors have emerged, but none has definitively bested the iTrip’s aggregate design, performance and value proposition.
XtremeMac’s new AirPlay manages to preserve almost all of the iTrip’s best features without compromising any of its performance. First, it’s smaller overall than the iTrip, a small matte white and gray rounded nub that sits on the top left of a full-sized iPod. Its face is white with gray minus and plus tuning buttons and a gray AirPlay label, including additional printing on its rear; its top and bottom are entirely gray plastic with a white XtremeMac logo above and iPod-specific extended headphone jack plugs beneath. While not as attractive as the glossy white iTrip overall, it’s even smaller than Griffin’s smallest iTrip, the one designed specifically for the iPod mini.
Second, despite its small size, AirPlay manages to include its own highly legible LCD screen above the two tuning buttons on its front face. Wisely, the blue and black backlit LCD illuminates whenever one of the buttons is pressed, but otherwise remains entirely turned off to conserve power. It’s very easy to use the two buttons to switch between FM channels in .2 increments. Holding down a button scrolls quickly through channels; the AirPlay remains fixed on the channel to which it last tuned, but otherwise has no channel-specific memory. While not expensive or elaborate, XtremeMac’s screen is definitely very usable and remove the need for Griffin-style iTrip channel-changing software, which has become a major thorn in the side of “shuffle songs” lovers.
Third, like the iTrip, AirPlay uses the iPod’s proprietary four-pin top connector, and thus draws power directly from the iPod’s battery – a feature we found more than acceptable even in the third-generation (eight-hour battery) iPod days, and are even more inclined to appreciate with newer, higher-capacity iPod batteries. Power drain is virtually identical to the iTrip, which is to say that you’ll notice a relatively mild diminution of a standard full charge when using the AirPlay for extended periods of time.
Overall, AirPlay is the most compact and simplified evolution of the best features we’ve seen in devices such as Belkin’s TuneCast II and Griffin’s iTrip – an FM transmitter ideally physically suited to virtually any portable (car/travel) application you may have. The only remaining question is whether its performance stacks up to these competing products, and the answer is “yes.”
When reviewing any FM transmitter, let alone one awarded an “A” rating, iLounge always includes a disclaimer as to the performance users should expect from such devices. FM transmitters are inherently third-rate tools to make your iPod’s audio play through a stereo system: direct wire connections are best, followed by indirect wire connections established through cassette adapters. Wireless FM transmitters produce audio signals of varying quality and strength, but at almost any distance from your stereo, every one will lace your music with an undercurrent of at least mild noise rather than leaving the signal totally clear.
Despite its smaller size, AirPlay manages to transmit a bit more consistently and strongly than the iTrip; the secret’s apparently in its coiled internal antenna. XtremeMac noted that size considerations commensurately reduce the broadcasting performance of FM transmitters, but it engineered around this limitation by using an antenna that loops around itself, increasing its power in the process.
As a result, the smaller-than-iTrip AirPlay has been demonstrated to work quite well at a distance 30 feet from the receiving stereo under optimal circumstances – a clear station and no human or other physical interference in the way of the transmitter. As with all FM transmitters, use under less than optimal circumstances varied; the presence of people or objects in a room, and actual congestion of local radio airwaves are legitimate factors prospective users should consider. We found AirPlay worked fine at short distances through some walls, but not others, and almost always did better when it broadcast in a line of sight from a receiver’s antenna than when it was obscured.
On 90% of channels we tested, AirPlay had a slightly stronger signal than iTrip, and AirPlay did a commensurately slightly better job of overcoming existing stations. But our most interesting comparative results were achieved on local stations 89.1 outside and 104.7 inside – two clear local stations, on which the two devices sounded essentially equivalent, though iTrip seemed to have a tiny bass boost that AirPlay didn’t, and AirPlay had a hint less noise when ideally located.
When music was turned off to establish each device’s baseline level of noise at a five-foot distance from an antenna, both products exhibited noise, neither significantly better than the other. AirPlay did a bit better when placed immediately next to the antenna. However, when compared with Sony’s CPA-9C cassette tape adapter, our reference alternative device, both iTrip and AirPlay under typical conditions were noisier, more compressed sounding, and had less dynamic range in their audio output. And as we always note, none of these options compares in clarity to a direct line-level wired interface with one’s car or stereo.
Though modestly more expensive and less sleek than the iTrip, AirPlay’s considerably easier on-screen tuning and slightly better broadcasting abilities will unquestionably justify the price and cosmetic differences for most users. XtremeMac’s choice to take on the iTrip with a smaller, simpler package was risky, but has paid off. We’d be surprised if AirPlay was the last innovatively improved FM transmitter we see for the iPod family, but for now at least, it’s the king of the hill.