My losing battle with iPod car adapters

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View
I have only two theories for my snake-bit relationship with FM tuner iPod car kits: Either I am the most unlucky person to ever use one of these devices or there is something fundamentally wrong with the technology.

A brief bit of background is in order here. I am talking about those devices that allow you to play an iPod via a wireless connection to your car's FM radio. You connect the iPod to the device, tune the device and your radio to the same "empty" frequency and, voila, you hear music. That's the idea anyway.

I first wrote about my experience with such devices in a User Friendly View column back in 2005. Undeterred by my unpleasant experience with a Griffin iTrip, I gave these devices a second chance with a RoadTrip+ from Newer. At first, it worked very well and I raved about it in the article. Unfortunately, by the end of the next two months, the RoadTrip+ stopped working altogether. Dead as a doornail. I dumped it and returned to my trusty (if clunky) cassette tape adapter.

In 2007, I gave these FM adapters yet another try. This time it was a Belkin TuneBase FM. Similar to the early stages of a romance, I was giddy with joy at first. The device worked as well as or better than any adapter I had ever used (including some I won't even mention here). Sadly, over time, I was burned yet again. Interference problems kept getting worse and worse. Eventually, no matter what frequency I tried, I kept getting bleeding from other nearby stations or incredible static or both. The TuneBase eventually joined the iTrip and the RoadTrip+ in my ever expanding iPod accessory graveyard. Meanwhile, my old Sony cassette adapter, like the proverbial phoenix, rose from the ashes and was put to work again.

Fast forward to last week. I returned to my adapter roots with another Griffin iTrip. This time it was a new iTrip Auto with SmartScan, a device I had acquired at last month's Macworld Expo. My initial testing yielded a pleasant surprise: the SmartScan feature worked incredibly well. Instead of me having to locate the best available frequency, the iTrip effectively and quickly did the locating for me. It also appeared that, over the intervening years since my first iTrip, Griffin had managed to considerably improve the audio quality of these devices. I still heard some low-end hiss, but the sound was overall much better than I would have expected.

Flush from the success of this initial encounter, I was ready to give the device a full workout. I would be driving from San Francisco down to Santa Barbara for the week-end. I wanted to listen to an audiobook on my iPod along the way. The new iTrip, which also charges the iPod while it was playing, was just the ticket.

For about the first two hours, all went exactly as planned. I was happily enjoying the book. Then I stopped for gas. Once I was back on the Interstate, I turned on the radio, pressed the iPod's Play button and heard: nothing. Well, that's not exactly true. I heard some hiss. Taking a careful look at the iTrip's screen (which is hard to do in bright sunlight), I determined that there was no readout. The charger light was still working, but the FM transmitter part of the device was dead. I couldn't believe it. Not again. Not after only two hours.

Have I offended some voodoo practitioner in a former life? Or do all of these devices simply suck? I don't know for sure. I have to assume that not every new iTrip dies after two hours of use. But I no longer care. I surrender.

As for my drive, there is a happy ending of sorts. Anticipating that the inevitable might happen, I had thrown my cassette adapter in the glove compartment just before leaving. It worked, as well as ever, for the remainder of the trip—just as it had done for the past 5 years.

I know. My next car will not come with a cassette player. I'll deal with that problem when the time comes.

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Comments

Bosco

Ted, do yourself a flavor and head over to Crutchfield.com and get yourself one of the Alpine head units with iPod controls. No need to go super expensive. You can get something for less than $200 and find a handy friend to help you install it. You will absolutely love it.
——-

Tj

All in the same car????  Dude - you’ve got bad wiring to the power jack.  Probably too much juice getting through to the various units.  Got the right fuse on that circuit?

My original iTrip never failed me.  Only retired it because it didn’t fit on my iPod Video. Replaced it with a Griffin RoadTrip that works great. Had it for over a year and using it every day.

Shoaf

My experience has been that different cars/radios react differently to the FM Transmitters. (I’ve used a couple iterations of Griffin’s iTrip.)

When I had my 2001 Pontiac Grand Am, I couldn’t keep a signal on any frequency for more than a few seconds, with pretty much the same problems in an 01 Mistubishi Mirage—but it was nearly always rock-solid in my wife’s 04 Ford Explorer. (Even driving from our home in suburban Dallas to Winston-Salem, NC several times, we maintained a good signal everywhere except when in/near Birmingham, AL. My 89 Chevy pickup that replaced the Pontiac fell somewhere in-between.

But soon after I got the pickup, I replaced the factory stereo with an aftermarket one that has a mini-jack input on the front panel. I use a cord with a male mini-jack plug on both ends to connect my iPod for a hard-wired connection that sounds very good. The stereo I bought for the Chevy wasn’t expensive (about $130 US a year ago.)

Shirley D

I first used XtremeMac’s version with good success after trying a Bunch of the others.  The XtremeMac’s had the best signal strength.  I finally got tired of the hassle in the city and had an audio out installed in my car for $200 inc. install.  What I had wasted in not-usable transmitters was way over that amount.  I added the dock connector/ lineout cable to the Monster Cable Ultra-Low Profile iPod iCharger and the sound is coming strong through my speakers and charging, too.  Perfection!

Rich Wolfert

Hi Ted,

Of all people, my daughter, while in college a few years ago, recommended the DLO transpod unit to me. She’s usually more reactive, and I’m usually more of a researcher, but the unit worked so well for her, that I purchased one for myself 2 years ago. No problems at all with the functionality. My only issue with the one I have is that it flops over to one side or the other from time to time. But, in terms of operation, it always works well. i rarely have any issues with an FM station overwhelming it, if if one does, it’s easy to navigate to a clear spot. I usually position it near the bottom of the band (around 88.1 or so) and, if needed (although rarely), I just move a few clicks to somewhere near the top of the band (by going down of course, so it wraps-around to the top end) and end up somewhere around 107.1 or so).

My unit is a little older than those they sell now and I’m sure they’ve changed the style a bit (perhaps to stop the tendency to flop over). The unit has weathered some very long car trips without a hitch.

Hope this helps.
Rich Wolfert

ctopher

I assume that you prefer the FM solution because it lacks the ugly wires.

But that cassette adapter is the way to go! Better sound, no interference, easy to understand and implement. It just has that darned wire.

Sometimes, wired is better than wireless.

You have a solution. Be happy and go in peace.

joad1

Try C. Crane’s FM transmitter.  www.ccrane.com.  Not the most high tech looking thing, but I have been using it for two years and it works great.  I recently tried to switch to DLO’s Tunestick.  I heard static on all music tracks.  Talk tracks/Podcasts were fine. But if I can’t play music what’s the point!  I switched back to the C. Crane and it does the job.

Have fun

Burton

I’ve had the same experience with numerous different FM transmitters.  The cassette adapter has always worked for me, but unfortunately, the FM transmitters all seem to lose their ability to transmit sound after a period of time.

Sir Harry Flashman

Ted, I have had pretty good luck with my Monster iCarPlay. I think part of the problem is how powerful is the adaptor’s transmitter in overcoming a radio station FM signal. I can sometimes hear the distant radio station until I plug in the iCarPlay. I have an older model of the iCarPlay and I see that they too now have one with autoscan.

Your next car will not come with a cassette play? Well it will probably come with a built in iPod connection.

You could also have an audio shop install an iPod connection, not cheap, but cheaper than new car.

Sidebar: Can these blogs set up so that we can use our MacObserver accounts to post?

Adam Bell

Perhaps it’s your car radio’s lock-on that’s lousy. My Belkin TuneBase FM with an iPod nano 3rd generation in it’s saddle has always worked perfectly on the second frequency the TuneBase suggested (in a Honda Pilot, whose antenna is in the rear window)

Baroque

My FM transmitter was recently stolen. Not a great loss; I’d been joking for months that I hoped someone *would* steal it, giving me an excuse to get a better one.

Except that I forgot to get a new one before my next long car trip.

So I, too, resorted to the cassette adapter I had stuffed in the back of my glove compartment. And to my surprise, the experience was *so* much better! No fiddling with frequencies, no trying to hit Play after tuning the transmitter, and much better sound quality. Nuts to the transmitters—I’ll stick with this for now.

Tiger

I guess I’m lucky that my new Mitsubishi has audio and video inputs for the MMCS. One $4 wire and my iPod plays video on my main TV screen as long as the car is parked, up to 10 mph, and plays audio at any time.

I’ll take a $4 wire over $60 wireless any day.

Brian

Did you have the iPod plugged into the car’s cigar lighter? If not, you ran down the battery

iTrip is an enourmous drain on the iPod’s battery!

Snaab4

Luckily, numerous of the newer cars are now coming with auxililiary line jacks in the front panel of the radios, so you can connect direct from the headphone port.  The new Ford Taurus even has the port in the center console with the power port, so the iPod (or other player) can hide there and remain plugged in to power and the radio.

The biggest problem with the FM adapters is the proliferation of FM stations these days.  Especially with the FCC openiing up for all the low power stations.  I live in Southern Maryland, about 60 miles from DC, and t here’s only one station that seems to be clear, but it’s not clear for the whole trip to DC.  Every other frequency has some weak station coming in from somewhere.

James

I’v got the Kensington one http://www.us.kensington.com. that uses a real hardwired iPod connector rather than being wireless, and it actually works pretty well; it also charges your iPod at the same time. The new head units coming out are pretty sweet too, but if you insist on FM this one has been the best I’ve tried. Having said that and interference, etc. aside, the speakers in your car make all the difference as well; most factory speakers can be greatly improved upon for not much more money.

Jennifer

And for all that you could have spent $100-$150 and purchased a third party stereo system for your car that has a line-in/AUX (in the front!) for iPods. I listen to Audiobooks mostly and did that 4-5 years ago. Best $150 i ever spent on my iPod. perfect clarity and sound control.
Save thyself the hassle and get hard wired. Seriously.

Bubba

Sometimes simplicity is just that. Simple.

I myself hate the radio. hate what comes on, Hate what is played so a simple solution to never get the interference.

I have a simple “screw on” antenna for my Truck.

I unscrewed it an threw it behind my seat.

Now My FM transmitter locks on with no interference.

Simple.

jeffharris

Face it, Belkin makes second rate stuff. Griffin makes good stuff, but if you want a good FM transmitter, I agree with James, get a Kensington.

I’ve got one of the older Digital FM Transmitter/Auto Chargers and it works great. yeah, I’ve got to manually hunt for empty stations, so what. It uses an iPod dock-style cable (line-out audio!) and charges while it plays.

I’ve used it with numerous rental cars (US, Japanese, Korean and German) and even in a 20+ year old Peugeot with an analogue tuner on several long road trips around Bulgaria. It’s never failed me.

http://us.kensington.com/html/11207.html

Next time, read reviews at http://www.iLounge.com BEFORE you buy!

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