Listen to your MP3 player in the car with one of these affordable transmitters
When your entire music collection is stored on a device that’s no bigger than your mobile phone, it seems a shame not be able to have the contents of this tiny jukebox at your disposal when you’re in the car. Unless you have a car stereo with a tape player (into which you can plug an inexpensive tape adapter), the only real option is an FM transmitter.
While it’s perfectly legal to sell FM transmitters in the UK, it isn’t legal to use them (despite their low power) because of the 1949 Wireless Telegraphy Act. Ofcom is likely to legalise transmitters by the end of the year, but this only applies to devices carrying a CE mark – buy one today without a CE sticker and you’ll still be breaking the law regardless. Only the Digiana and Belkin have CE marks here.
If you happen to own an iPod, there are plenty of FM transmitters to choose from. One of the most popular is the Griffin iTrip Dock. Since it’s powered by the iPod, there’s no need for any batteries, but it means it won’t work with older, non-docking iPods. As it doesn’t connect via the headphone socket, you don’t have to worry about setting the right volume, but we found that it took up to a minute to switch on. The frequency is shown on the small backlit LCD, and audio quality was good no matter where the transmitter was in the car.
It makes the Griffin a better choice than the Kensington Pico, which is designed for those with a first-generation iPod nano, hence the black finish and tiny dimensions. Again, it’s powered by the iPod, but there’s no display -frequencies appear on the iPod’s screen and are selected by the jog dial on the side. However, the signal wasn’t as strong as the iTrip’s, so the Pico had to be in exactly the right position to avoid interference. And even then, the quality wasn’t as good – a lack of treble made it sound dull.
For those who don’t own an iPod, there are still plenty of options. One is the Digiana AudiaX. It isn’t much bigger than your thumb and takes just one AAA battery (or can be powered via the included cigarette lighter adapter). Operation couldn’t be simpler – plug the coiled mini-jack lead into your player’s headphone socket, press the power button and select a frequency between 88.1 and 107.9MHz. There’s a rudimentary LED backlight that only lights the centre of the display, but the signal was strong and provided interference-free audio from any position in the car. Audio quality was fine, but when you’re stationary it became obvious that voices were a little muffled.
A cheaper option is the iCarPlay, which plugs directly into your cigarette lighter. It has a tiny blue LCD panel, which is hard to read in daylight and awkward if your socket isn’t on the dashboard in front of you. The two buttons let you select the same range as the AudiaX, and as with that transmitter, the memory remembers your last setting when you power it on again. The 0.75m cord gives more freedom on where to place your player than the AudiaX. Sound quality wasn’t bad, and the signal was fairly strong. Aside from the tiny screen, the only downside is that you’re limited to in-car use – you can’t plug it in indoors for use with a home FM radio.
Our pick of the bunch, though, is the Belkin TuneCast II. It has a green backlit display and takes two AAA batteries. These are good for several hours’ playback, but quality drops off noticeably as the cells lose power. The good news is that Belkin bundles an in-car adapter. The TuneCast automatically powers on whenever it detects a signal, and also powers off when it stops. The best feature, though, is the built-in memory, which can store four frequencies (which you’d then store in your head unit’s matching memories), and if the current setting isn’t working you can easily select the next one without pulling over. The short lead means the player has to be next to the transmitter, and we found it was picky about its location in the car. However, once you’ve found the ideal place, sound quality tops the lot and at this price it’s a bargain too.