iPods & Car Stereos (or hey – it seems there’s finally a decent FM transmitter)

So for a recent trip into the car-necessitating wastelands of suburbia I was faced yet again with the thousand year old question of how to connect an iPod to a car stereo, (Ok, nitpickers, technically, yes, originally it was how to connect an iPod to a chariot, but essentially it is the same question – so nyehh!) & I came across a solution that I liked & figured that some of you might want to know.

Belkin's Tunecast II

[I don’t work for Belkin or have ANY connection to them whatsoever other than as customer. I do work for Apple, but I think that is irrelevant for this article & the opinions expressed in this article are mine & mine alone.]

Of course, I can’t resist a chance to lecture you on why you should be biking or walking (or living someplace where you CAN drive less (like fabulous SF)) – so consider yourself lectured. Maybe at some point I’ll show people how I connected my iPod to my bike!

Anyhow, the best way to connect your iPod to your car is of course a direct input & some cars these days have little auxiliary input jacks or some such & if you have one of these you are golden & have no reason to be reading this… move along!

The next best way, is if your car has a tape deck, (I remember thems!) you can buy a little tape adapter, which looks like a tape with a headphone plug sticking out of it. You plug it into your iPod’s headphone jack & pop the tape into your tape deck & voila – you’re done. These are trivial to get at RadioShack or Circuit City & I think they are probably all about the same – so just go get one. The only caveat is that some car stereos don’t like certain ones I’ve found, so you might have to try a few to get one that works for your car stereo*. Yes, lameness abounds in this here universe. Also, some people have complained about the audio quality on these things, but for me they’ve been fine (maybe it is because I’ve never invested in a high falutin’ car stereo – or a high falutin’ car for that matter). If anyone has a model they really like, please feel free to post it in the comments.

So that leaves the case of a car stereo without a tape deck. This comes up often for me because one of the few times I drive a lot is when I’m visiting someplace & have a rental car (i.e suburban wastelands). The solution most often suggested is the mini-FM transmitter. A bunch of these exist & in theory they should be perfect: just plug it into your iPod & it broadcasts your music to you car stereo, just like a radio station**! The reality is a giant wash of suckiness: Most are very low power – making reception shite & almost all only let you broadcast on like 4 stations & if all these stations are taken (or even close) to real radio stations, the real radio-station will win & you’ll be back to listening to drek-o-rama. The sad truth is that most of these FM transmitters suck.

Well, on my most recent trip, I found one I liked & though it is possible I just got lucky, I’m guessing it is probably one of the best ones out there: The Belkin Tunecast II (not the I the II – it is important! Part # F8V3080-APL). The Tunecast II isn’t a remarkably different product, so don’t expect nirvana, but it smooths enough rough edges that I think it is really pretty good & I expect that it will be good enough for me. It would be better to test it in more locales (different amounts of radio-station density) but I’m guessing it will work out pretty well (you SFers are welcome to borrow mine & for your trips & report back).

Anyway here is what is cool about the Tunecast II:

  1. it lets you broadcast on any station you want.
  2. it is cleverly (& optionally) compatible with Belkin’s iPod car power adapter. (Part # F8V7067-APL)
  3. it turns itself off when not in use.
  4. it can remember 4 stations just like presets on your car stereo

Here’s what isn’t so cool:

  1. it, like all other small FM transmitters, is kinda weak
  2. I don’t think it can work w/out batteries
  3. the first one i bought didn’t work

So good things first:
1) it lets you broadcast on any station you want.
This is simple but perfect, 9 out of 10 FM broadcaster thingies only let you broadcast on 4 or so stations – in fact the original Tunecast I seems to have this problem, but this one lets you broadcast on the whole FM frequency range. This is CRITICAL because it makes it MUCH more likely that you will be able to find an open frequency that you can use, even in an FM crowded area. This is why I expect the Tunecast II will be the last FM transmitter I’ll need. I’m still stunned that most FM transmitter’s don’t do this – maybe it is hard for some reason?

2) it is cleverly (& optionally) compatible with Belkin’s iPod car power adapter.
This is pretty cool, but maybe not quite perfect. Basically the Tunecast II comes with a cable that will allow it to draw power from Belkin’s iPod Car cigarette lighter adapter (Part # F8V7067-APL) rather than it’s batteries. This is cool because if you’re going to be listening to your iPod in the car for a long trip, you’ll probably want a car power adapter anyway (the kind that plugs into the cigarette lighter) to power your iPod. Unfortunately, your FM Transmitter requires power as well & it usually uses batteries, that you eventually have to replace. Well, Belkin’s Tunecast II takes batteries, BUT if you have Belkin’s iPod car power adapter– you can also plug the Tunecast II into it – so it will power your iPod AND the Tunecast II – thus keeping it from running off it’s batteries. That’s cool. The only thing I’m not sure about is that I still think the Belkin needs to have batteries in it to function – even if it is not drawing power from them – that’s a little weak – but no huge deal & I could be wrong – I haven’t tested it – it is just the sense I got from the instructions.

3) it turns itself off when not in use.
Duh, this is very useful for saving batteries. Basically, if you’re using batteries, you don’t really have to turn the Tunecast II on & off – it just senses when it is getting audio signal & turns on. If the audio signal goes dead, the Tunecast II waits a while & then turns off.

4) it can remember 4 stations just like presets on your car stereo
This could be useful if you do the same drive repeatedly & know different areas where you need to use different frequencies.

Ok the bad things are:
1) it, like all other small FM transmitters, is kinda weak
This is just the nature of the beast & the Belkin is no different***. You usually need to put the transmitter as close to the antenna as possible, or move it around the dash of your car to find the best place to make it work.****

2) I don’t think it can work w/out batteries
See note (b) in the good parts section above – i could even be wrong about this – but I haven’t tried. I’ll edit this article when I know more

3) the first one I bought didn’t work
Yup – I still don’t know why. The second one has been flawless, so maybe it was just a random fluke – but I’d recommend testing yours right away & buying it somewhere locally if possible*****.

Ok there you have it – I hope you found this useful! Please let me know in the comments. And, for the record, I really hope you don’t spend to much time in your little oil-slurper.


* Also, you may still want to read on about FM transmitters because your tape adapter may not work in your next rental car – which for me is when i want it most (I plan to bring both the tape adapter & the FM transmitter on trips)

** In this article I use the terms “station” and “frequency” pretty interchangeably. What I mean is “those numbers you tune to on your FM Stereo”

*** I have heard that there is an FM transmitter by a company called C.Crane that is higher power & thus better, but I’ve never had a chance to use one (Anyone else?).

**** Someone has suggested to me taking a regular old headphone extender cable & putting it between your FM transmitter & your iPod to make a better antenna 7 I *THINK* this would work. They also recommended wrapping the new longer cable around your dash or around the external antenna & thus never having problems with signal strength – which seems plausible too – let me know if you try this trick!

***** I know they are carried at Apple Stores, but I only say that as a convenience to some folks – I work at Apple & am not trying to drum up business for my employer or anything.

2 thoughts on “iPods & Car Stereos (or hey – it seems there’s finally a decent FM transmitter)

  1. I bought the Griffin iTrip, the previous magic bullet for this problem, having been seduced by its coolness. The iTrip also lets you choose any FM station you want, but to select a station you play a “song”–a track that generates inaudible tones, tones that cause the attached iTrip to start broadcasting on a given frequency. So, to use the iTrip, you must first install a raft of “songs”: 89.1, 89.3, etc., etc.

    The big problem is that changing stations takes several seconds. So if you have to hunt around the dial for a clear channel, it takes a long time. Do this on a road trip, and you’ll be halfway to Sacramento before you actually get some music.

    This Belkin gizmo seems to deal with this problem. Looks like you select the station in an analog fashion, while the iPod is playing. So you get feedback right away on how good your frequency selection is.

    But anyway, now I don’t need one. I wound up getting a slightly better car stereo and spending $10 extra for an auxiliary-input cable. I just plug in the iPod and life is good. This option turned out to be surprisingly inexpensive.

    As a special bonus, the new CD player plays CDs full of MP3s. So a lot of times I just burn a CD with 10 hours or so of music and leave the iPod at home. Scandalous!

    Of course, that only works because I rip my own MP3’s from CDs I own. I do not use this newfangled “iTunes Music Store” that the young heathens are so lathered up about these days.

  2. You are shameless Belkin-Apple-shill!! Is matter only of signal strength, boost output and no problem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *