Pros: A multi-function FM radio receiver, transmitter, and iPod remote control that transmits iPod music quite acceptably to home or car stereos. The iPod’s first FM radio tuner, and currently the only such option available.
Cons: FM radio tuner is only OK by comparison with other portable radio devices, including cheaper FM/AM radios; sound quality is appropriate for talk radio and low-expectations music listening. Audible noise interference in headphones when used as an iPod remote control; iPod’s backlight flips on and off during radio usage, no on/off switch, kludgy interface and industrial design.
For years, a radio receiver has been on the iPod’s ten most-wanted features list, but Apple has declined to include either FM or AM radio as a standard feature in any of today’s iPods. That hasn’t stopped third-party developers from dreaming. Griffin Technology announced and later cancelled an FM radio attachment called iFM, while other companies have been considering similar peripherals.
Enter BTI’s The iPod Tunestir ($69.95, street price $50 and up), the first FM radio receiver to actually ship for the iPod. It works with any 3G, 4G, mini or photo iPod by plugging into its extended headphone port, and draws power from the iPod’s battery rather than requiring its own. There’s an LCD screen on the front for easy tuning, and a headphone port on top so that you can hear either your iPod or radio when it’s connected.
That’s not all. While Tunestir is physically larger than iFM would have been, it also includes two additional features: a FM transmitter and an alternative to Apple’s iPod Remote control. Consequently, you can unplug your headphones, bring Tunestir into your car or home, and play iPod tunes (not Tunestir’s radio, for obvious reasons) wirelessly through your stereo’s speakers.
Bare feature list aside, how does Tunestir actually perform? That’s the million-dollar question, and one that is a challenge to answer because of the device’s multi-functional design. We wrestled with the rating for several days, settling upon our limited recommendation only after a lot of testing and internal discussion, which we’ll further detail below.
We can’t mince words on Tunestir’s appearance; by iPod standards, it’s only an okay industrial design. Substantially larger than Apple’s official Remote, Tunestir clearly required some compromises to accommodate the integration of three separate accessories into one shell. When you’re using it as a FM transmitter, Tunestir has enough cable length to dangle awkwardly off the side of the iPod, so BTI includes a detachable cable managing clip on its back, shortening but not eliminating the dangle. As a remote control, it only provides one-third the length of Apple’s Remote cable, or just enough to stick out of any pants pocket the iPod’s inside. BTI therefore also includes a non-detachable belt clip on Tunestir’s rear, bringing its thickness from about iPod mini levels to thicker than a 60GB iPod photo. It therefore looks and feels substantial in your hand – almost like carrying around a second separate device.
Its gray stickered face is the only part that’s not made from white glossy plastic. There are six membrane-style buttons with icons and labels, “up,” “down,” “set/track backward,” “scan/play/pause”, “memory/track forward,” and a lock to prevent accidental button presses.
A small three-position switch (“Music”/“Tx”/“Radio”) flips between remote, transmitter, and receiver modes, respectively, while the LCD screen indicates either the current radio station, or “iPod” when in remote control mode. Unlike most of its competitors, Tunestir’s screen is not backlit, which can make for difficult night time tuning. The unit also stays on at all times when connected to an iPod – there’s no on/off switch – which will make you want to disconnect it when not in use.
As you might have guessed from the odd button labels above, Tunestir’s interface isn’t exactly intuitive – you’ll need to get used to it. In iPod remote mode, the track forward and backward buttons actually switch tracks backwards and forwards, but in FM transmitter mode, they tune radio stations, so you use the up and down buttons for track changes instead. In FM radio receiver mode, they tune radio stations while you use up and down for volume. Since the radio’s volume is amplified by Tunestir rather than the iPod, a number from 01 to 16 appears temporarily on Tunestir’s screen to indicate the current level.
In the name of precision – or perhaps international compatibility – the digital radio tuner allows you to make adjustments in .1 increments – 101.1, 101.2, 101.3, a feature better for old U.S. car radio tuners than new ones – and doesn’t let you hold down the tuning buttons to move quickly through the digits. Instead, the tuning buttons double as memory set and recall features, so holding them down either calls up or saves a station in one of five memory spots. Combined with the .1 increment adjustments, this means that you’ll be doing a lot of button pressing to move across the unit’s 87.9 – 107.9 tuning range.
Once you’ve gotten around these idiosyncracies, however, Tunestir isn’t too hard to use. You can tune in an FM radio station manually, use the scan button to hunt forward through the radio dial and locate it automatically, or program and recall presets. Similarly, you can transmit to an FM radio easily by either manually tuning or just storing a collection of 5 good stations. These interfaces could have been unified to create a more user-friendly and consistent experience, but each of the unit’s three feature sets does work pretty well individually.
Performance: FM Transmission and Remote Control
For all of its features, Tunestir works the best as a FM transmitter. Judged solely on audio quality, it’s a solid (B-level) performer, though very expensive by comparison with devices that sound as good or better, such as Newer Technology’s RoadTrip! 87.9FM (iLounge rating: B+). RoadTrip! 87.9FM specifically produced a crisper, stronger signal in our testing, but Tunestir wasn’t objectionable.
Tested locally in radio-saturated Orange County and in trips back and forth from even more heavily saturated Los Angeles, Tunestir sounded pretty good on the right station – solid, bass-rich, and with a mid-to-low level of static distortion. Less optimal stations, lower-than-70% volume on the iPod, and/or bad positioning relative to the radio/antenna allowed for more static interruptions and a lower overall level of listening quality. Though it could tune it, we were surprised to find that Tunestir’s best station wasn’t 87.9, a generally good station for FM transmission, but rather 104.7, with a couple of similarly solid stations elsewhere on the dial.
[We note only briefly our standard caveat about FM transmitters: because they’re wireless, analog, and are forced to compete with existing radio stations that vary in strength and number from market to market, they’re not the equals of wired stereo connections in clarity.
Some sort of interference – static, noise, or otherwise – should be expected in even the best FM transmitter, though it can generally be drowned out by enough volume from the iPod.]
Tunestir isn’t great as a remote control. Its buttons perform as expected – properly, though because of the membrane design not as responsively as those on Apple’s Remote – and it does add over a foot of extra cord length to the iPod and any pair of headphones. However, audio interference identical to the 4G iPod audio defect can clearly be heard through any pair of headphones (including Apple’s pack-ins) to overlap music whenever the iPod’s hard drive is accessed, an issue we heard even when testing Tunestir with 1G and 2G iPod minis. Except as noted in the audio defect link above, this doesn’t happen with Apple’s own Remote, or when the headphones are attached without Tunestir – a bummer that precludes us from recommending Tunestir as an alternative in this regard to Apple’s product.
Performance: FM Radio Tuning
Tunestir’s FM radio reception generated the most controversy and discussion in our evaluation process, in that it’s the unit’s single most novel feature, but performed only passably. We found that it was acceptable for talk radio, but iffy for music listening, even by comparison with small and/or inexpensive radio devices.
Two factors weighed in Tunestir’s favor. First, Apple has reportedly avoided adding internal FM tuners to iPods because of challenges in guaranteeing good quality sound in such small devices, so we didn’t expect too much. Second, as Tunestir doesn’t yet have any direct competition in the iPod market, whatever it offers is theoretically better than nothing at all. But we also wanted to be realistic about other options readers currently have – carrying around a second or alternative device, such as a $15-30 portable FM/AM radio or a competing MP3 player with an FM tuner. Based on all of this, how does Tunestir stack up?
Station tuning was generally pretty easy, albeit time-consuming because of the manual .1 by .1 button pressing. Outdoors, we were able to tune in virtually any local station, though static increased on distant/low-power stations. Indoors, Tunestir did about as well as other small radio devices with FM tuners that were placed in the same locations, which is to say hit and miss.
For audio quality comparisons, we tried a couple of portable, easily pocketable FM radio devices we had handy, both of which were Tunestir’s size or smaller. On a positive note, three separate listeners all agreed that Tunestir was an entirely acceptable solution for talk radio listening, sounding good enough to enjoy NPR and a local talk radio station. It’s a shame that there isn’t an AM tuner for sports and a broader array of talk programming, because Tunestir is clearly best suited for it.
Less positively, our other test FM radio devices exhibited noticeably better clarity and treble response than Tunestir, which often punctuated its more substantial bass with static – an frequent issue and distraction when listening to music. The same three listeners all preferred the sound of the competing devices to Tunestir, hearing greater detail, treble, and stereo separation, and finding that they were easier to improve in a “bad reception” condition. Using neutral headphones, Tunestir’s sound was more bass-rich but flat. None of us liked it, but one of us could accept it; the other two couldn’t.
That led us to conclude that if you’re looking for an FM tuner solely to listen to talk radio or news, BTI’s solution will be adequate – though also considerably more expensive, and equally unwieldy, as carrying a second device that’s at least as good.