Pros: A fully portable FM transmitter that broadcasts iPod music to your stereo with comparatively low levels of static to its earlier portable competitors, in an attractive iPod-matching enclosure equipped with great LCD screen and tuning dial. Consumes less battery power than any iPod-draining FM transmitter we’ve tested.
Cons: Like other portable transmitters, is challenged and produces higher static levels when tuned to “tough” stations. Achieves greatest transmitting power when connected to home or car charging cable.
This update of our First Looks article from July reflects all of the final details on Griffin Technology’s new iTrip FM Transmitter with LCD for iPod ($39.99), which officially launches today with that new name and updated pricing details, explained below. It also incorporates transmitter comparison information originally published in our FM Transmitter Shootout Part 2, the latter of which was updated using guaranteed final iTrip hardware, as we’ll explain further several paragraphs down.
History of the iTrip
For years, Griffin’s original iTrip portable FM transmitter designs for iPods and iPod minis reigned supreme, with smart aesthetic design touches that appealed strongly to early iPod adopters. Users could choose an FM station through the iPod’s screen, using a special playlist full of different channels. Once a station was selected, a light on the iTrip flashed, and the iPod’s music played through nearby car and home stereos without any need for wires.
In January, accessory maker XtremeMac threw down a gauntlet, and marketed its newer AirPlay as an iTrip killer. AirPlay featured a smaller-than-iTrip (if not as attractive) profile that fit neatly on top of any iPod or iPod mini, an integrated, backlit LCD screen of its own that made it even easier to tune channels, and two tuning buttons for easy channel surfing.
Not surprisingly, Griffin responded. Since July, we’ve been playing with prototypes of an LCD-equipped version of iTrip, which promised better than AirPlay-quality sound, easier tuning, and superior industrial design. However, we’ve held off on a review until now because we’ve been highly displeased to hear about problems readers have experienced with AirPlay units received after our review, and wanted to be certain that the iTrip hardware we reviewed was final in all ways.
In total, we’ve now tested a total of five iTrip units: the first was a prototype; the second and third were units which may or may not have come from an early, apparently flawed and unshipped production run of only 500 units; and the fourth and fifth are guaranteed final hardware. We are not including results or findings from the first three units in this review, but note that the third of those units initially would not turn on and off properly, a fact ascribed by the manufacturer alternately to the early production run or an one-in-a-hundred sort of issue. Because of our generally superb experience with Griffin products, we trust the company’s word, but reserve the right to modify this review and rating to reflect reader experiences with iTrips that they’ve received.
The first LCD-equipped version of iTrip has been designed to generally match the style of its popular predecessors, as well as full-sized iPods. With the same attractive, compact profile of the company’s prior all-white tube design, there’s now a large backlit LCD screen on the front left, which is white backlit with a light green screen tint, and very easy to read. A ratcheting chrome dial is on the far right. The iTrip name appears between the screen and dial in small gray letters.
Overall, the look is very attractive, and almost ideally matched to the bodies of compatible third- and fourth-generation black-and-white or color iPods. While the unit works perfectly with the iPod mini, hanging off of its top, Griffin plans a smaller, redesigned iTrip mini to follow this one, assuming that there are no radical changes to that iPod in the immediate future.
iTrip’s new dial feels good, turning decisively from channel to channel because of its ratcheting design. It can also be pressed inwards to serve as a button. One press selects a channel you’ve found, and holding the button down activates two hidden features.
When held down for two seconds, the button toggles between LX and DX broadcasting modes, one (DX) monaural with a promised noise level even lower than cassette tape adapters, and one (LX) stereo with a promised noise level comparable to cassette tape adapters.
Held down for five seconds, the button toggles between US and INTL (international) tuning modes, offering an expanded range of FM frequencies to tune with. Between the two modes, iTrip is capable of tuning all the way from 76.0FM to 90.0FM and 88.1FM to 107.9FM in .1 increments.
The interface on iTrip is nearly ideal. Though Griffin hasn’t simplified the U.S. tuning process to .2 jumps in iTrip as it has in its separate iFM accessory, the dial makes it so easy to change stations – rather than pressing a + button over and over again – that you won’t care at all. Because of its ratcheting mechanism, you can feel the change in stations as it’s accomplished, and the final confirmation button press is simple.
The only thing missing by comparison with some (not all) of its competitors is a preset button. iTrip remembers your last station, your US/INTL mode, and your DX/LX mode, but no more.
Before saying anything else on iTrip’s FM performance, we begin with our standard caveat: there is no such thing as a static-free FM transmitter, or for that matter a perfectly clean cassette adapter. The only way to create a noise-free connection between the iPod and your speakers is to run a wire directly between them without interruption, and any alternative will create some base level of noise. When choosing a FM transmitter, then, the realistic aim is thus low noise, rather than no noise.
Though the original intent of the new iTrip was to make tuning substantially easier, Griffin has also used the opportunity to improve the internal electronics and further boost the device’s transmission quality. The result is an option to switch between the aforementioned DX and LX modes, allowing you to compromise between a lower base level of noise and a monaural signal, or a higher, original iTrip-level noise floor and a stereo signal. Griffin reasoned wisely that many people do not care as much about stereo sound as they do about noise, and therefore gave them the choice. This was a smart approach. On a clear station, the lower noise setting rivals a good cassette adapter in noise floor, though the noises are different – the cassette adapter is a hiss while the iTrip sounds like light static.
There’s another interesting new feature, too, though it is imperfectly implemented. If you turn the volume all the way up, the new iTrip is supposed to automatically lower it to an optimal level for low-distortion FM broadcasting – a nice idea that’s roughly the equivalent of connecting a transmitter to the iPod’s Dock Connector instead of its headphone port, giving the transmitter a predictable level of output to process. While it works better than no such feature at all, it sometimes leaves the volume level a hair above perfection, so a manual touch to bring it down may be necessary. Though it’s a small issue, the company claims that this will be fixed in later models.
As we noted in our FM Transmitter Shootout Table, iTrip does best when it’s close to a radio, handling good stations wonderfully and challenging stations better than its competitors. For portable purposes, we tested on 87.9FM, a station that’s empty almost everywhere in the United States, and even at a disance of fifteen feet found music on monaural mode to be completely audible with only light static. Stereo mode was a little better than the old iTrip, which is to say that static was still noticeable, but music dominated.
Moving closer – as most users will – virtually eliminated the static. We also tested on a tougher local station (103.3FM) at a distance of 3 feet away, finding the comparative static level very low in monaural mode, and comparable to the old iTrip in stereo mode. During playback, audio sounded clean and full, possessing a good level of bass and as much detail as one can reasonable expect from a well-made FM transmitter.
While iTrip did very well in a car on a good station, it wasn’t nearly as good on the tough 103.3. In DX (mono) mode, the static was comparatively light to medium during silence and playback, but in stereo LX mode, the signal faded in and out in a dissatisfying way. By comparison with Kensington’s Digital FM Transmitter and Auto Charger (iLounge rating: A-), the 103.3 performance was not at all impressive, but the units were comparable on 87.9FM, which they both tuned – at least, when iTrip was in DX mode. Kensington wins on treble and dynamic range, while iTrip wins on bass, and lacks Kensington’s occasional sibilance.
There are only two reasons why a person would prefer iTrip to Kensington’s option, which we’ve rated as the best car-only FM transmitter we’ve heard. First, iTrip sells for about half the price. Second, if you connect iTrip to any car charger – disconnection from which is not an option with Kensington’s product – its LX and DX modes sound even better. In fact, you can just dangle a loose Dock Connector cable from the iPod’s bottom at home or in a car, and its already low static level drops profoundly.
How much? Normally, an unaided iTrip can’t be heard on a radio 30 feet away. But with a cable plugged in, you can hear roughly 75% audio to 25% static at that distance – better than the cleanest portable unit we’ve tested. Complete details are in our comparative table.
The other noteworthy thing we found when testing the new iTrip was that it legitimately drains less battery juice than its predecessor – and for that matter, any other device that uses the iPod’s battery. Connected to an iPod photo/color model, iTrip cut battery life by 32%, from 17 hours down to 11.5 hours, which was better than AirPlay (38%), the original iTrip (41%) and BTI’s TuneStir (56%). By comparison, the now-discontinued black-and-white 4G iPod ran for 6 hours, 52 minutes, while a second-generation iPod mini ran for 9 hours, 29 minutes.
There are only three ways to do better than this: use separate disposable batteries, like Belkin’s TuneCast II, require a separate rechargeable battery pack, like Tekkeon’s MyPower FM, or link the FM transmitter to a wall or car charger. Given pricing and other issues associated with the first two options, our feeling is that Griffin made the right choice with iTrip, which you can optionally connect to home or car chargers without a problem while the iPod’s attached.
Pricing and Conclusions
We wrestled with grading on iTrip over the course of several days because we always want to do right by you, our readers, and have been as disturbed by problem reports on XtremeMac’s top-rated AirPlay as you have been. At the time we reviewed it, it was the best FM transmitter we’d used, all things considered, and we don’t rate products with a flat A grade (or any other grade, for that matter) lightly – it’s worth underscoring that no other FM transmitter received that rating before, or since. So we were equally surprised and disappointed that the AirPlay unit we received behaved better during our review than what others later experienced.
So we made sure that we gave the twice-guaranteed final production version of the new iTrip as thorough a battery of tests as we could before awarding it our top rating, and do so only with a slight reservation. As portable FM transmitters go, iTrip is unquestionably excellent, giving you easy channel-surfing controls, the ability to broadcast to any station on the FM dial here or internationally, less battery drain than any iPod-dependent transmitter, and a price tag that no one could reasonably object to.