What is an FM Transmitter? A Comparison of the Best iPhone/iPod/iPad FM Transmitters
Now that you’ve stored your favorite music on your iPod, iPhone or iPad, you can take it with you everywhere. Rather than listen to the music from the itsy bitsy speakers on your iDevice, certainly you want to listen to it through your car stereo speakers. The least expensive way to listen to your iPod/iPad/iPhone music over your speakers is with an FM transmitter.
An FM transmitter plugs into your car’s power socket (cigarette lighter) and then plugs into either your docking connection at the bottom of your iPod/iPad/iPhone, or into your headphone jack. You tune your FM car radio to a weak station and then set the FM transmitter to that same station. The music is then picked up by your car stereo and played over your car speakers as if it were receiving the broadcast from a radio station.
Transmitters that plug into your docking connection will charge your phone while listening (or can even be used as a car charger when not listening). If you choose an FM transmitter that uses a headphone jack, for longer trips you will want to also plug it into some kind of charger as well so you don’t get out of the car with a dead iPhone.
Note: Sometimes you will plug in the FM transmitter to an iPhone and see a message that this accessory does not work with iPhone. If the FM transmitter’s packaging or website says that it’s compatible, I usually ignore the message and use it anyway. (Use your own judgement, I’m not responsible for your choice to go ahead here…all I can tell you is that many times I plug in my iPhone to a device specifically made for that model only to receive that message. If it were an older model accessory with a new phone, I’m more skeptical.)
Which FM Transmitter Work Best
In some areas all FM transmitters work really well. In bigger cities where there are radio stations at almost every frequency, it can be harder for your car radio to receive a signal from the FM transmitter. Here is where some transmitters outperform the others.
I tested them in big cities–Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Diego– in small towns and on highways. Surprisingly, one of the most challenging areas to keep a signal was along 5 from Tracy/Stockton to L.A. where I’d drive into areas with some very powerful hispanic and religious stations. These stations would “break through” the broadcast of the weaker FM transmitters and I would have to look for another frequency. The ability of an FM transmitter to hold a station is important as you don’t want to have to fumble to change the channels with driving no matter how easy it is.
It is always best to have someone else in the car tune your FM transmitter, or to pull over so you can make the changes safely. Still, some of the units tested make it easy to change stations by touch, requiring only a quick glance at your radio and at the transmitter to tune it.
The following transmitters are the best I’ve tried. Some models focus on getting the high quality sound (high fidelity), some on simplicity of use, and others on getting a clear signal to a number on your radio dial (clear frequency).
Comparing FM Transmitters
I have rated each model for quality, ease of use, and how well they transmit to your car radio.
Audio Quality: this was experiential. If I was able to hear clear highs and lows– clarity of vocals and instruments–it rates higher.
Automatic tuning is supposed to scan the radio frequencies to find a clear station. You then tune your radio dial to the station that it finds.
This feature was mostly a bust. Frequently, there was already a radio station on that frequency and the radio would not pick up the signal from the transmitter (or it was very weak and you had to turn the radio volume way up). The Schosche model was the exception. If you tuned to the station that the Schosche found, and then started playing your music, the music would overpower the incoming radio station so you can listen to your iPhone/iPod/iPad music.
Tip: Connect your iPod to the FM transmitter, turn on your radio, and start your iPod music playing while matching your radio station frequency to the FM transmitter’s frequency. This way you’ll start hearing your music when the two station numbers match. Also, you’ll know if the signal is strong enough and the sound quality is acceptable –loud enough, no crackles or other interference.
Easy manual tuning: It is usually easiest to find a clear station on the radio dial first, then manually change the FM transmitter to match that station number. This is the ease of use rating, as the ease of manual tuning is the most important feature when using this kind of device.
Resists interference/locks onto station: Here I rate the performance of the FM transmitter after I have tuned to a clear station. Do I need to find another station because there is static, interference, or when driving into an area where a local station bleeds through?
1. Monster Cable- two models
Monster iCarplay Wireless 1000 ($119.95)
Audio quality: 5 out of 5
Automatic tuning: 1 out of 5
Easy manual tuning: 1 out of 5
Resists interference/locks onto station: 1 out of 5
Clearly the best sound quality of the bunch. Not surprising as Monster has always been meticulous about their music (Noel Lee having been a musician and longtime audiophile). But this device should NOT be used when operating the vehicle. It’s three buttons are confusing. The buttons are easy to preset, but manual tuning requires that you look at the device to find the small buttons and then the buttons usually go to the preset rather than tuning up and down. And once a station is displayed, the display is small and hard to read in daylight.
Also, this model is a year or two old. It doesn’t lock onto stations as well as its successor. The automatic scan is just a joke. It seems to always go to 88.1 whether there is a station there or not. It’s almost as though it is set to find stations that have a signal and skip those with the weak signals in an area. I tested this in big cities and on mountain roads and it was consistently the worst for finding a station automatically. Add the difficulty of tuning it manually and, while it sounded the best, it was the one I’ve used least.
Monster iCarplay Wireless 800- ($89.95)
Audio Quality: 3 out of 5
Automatic tuning: 2 out of 5
Easy manual tuning: 2-1/2 out of 5
Resists interference/locks onto station: 4 out of 5
Okay, Monster got the manual tuning right this time. A turn wheel lets you manually tune up or down to another station. It still takes a little more attention than a driver should give a device while driving, but it’s manageable. What’s better, however is how well it transmits to the chosen station. This was one of those cases where we drove into town, unplugged the iPhone and heard a local station come through loud and clear. The radio had kept its connection to the FM transmitter and I was able to listen to my music without interruption. Music quality was definitely adequate but did not have the fidelity boost of Monster’s 1000.
2. Griffin Road Trip ($89.99)
Automatic tuning: 4 out of 5
Easy manual tuning: 5 out of 5
Resists interference/locks onto station: 2-1/2 out of 5
The RoadTrip by Griffin has an cradle that holds the player with a long, bendable arm so you can easily see and access your iPod/iPhone to change your music. Add an app like FlickTunes and you can swipe to the next song without looking. Be sure you get the model that also holds the sides of the iPhone/iPod. With the model I tested, while I like the arm, it had a tendency to sway when making a sharp turn and my iPhone would tumble to the floor.
When using the automatic scan function, it typically found stations that were not in use. However, it was particularly susceptible to interference when driving past telephone poles or coming into new areas. I usually had to search for another station a few times on a long drive, and sometimes had to shut it off because of the interference.
Ease of use, easy manual tuning, and large, easy to read station numbers and instructions, are where the RoadTrip shines. Raised dots on the buttons make it easy to manually tune up or down to a new station number without looking. I would set my radio to a station, play my iPod music, and using the little “braille” buttons, press up or down to tune until my music started playing. Often it took no more than a glance at the radio and a glance at the RoadTrip.
3. Scosche TuneSHIFT ($34.99)
Automatic tuning: 2 out of 5
Easy manual tuning: 5 out of 5
Resists interference/locks onto station: 5 out of 5
I ran across Schosche’s TuneSHIFT while in a Fry’s store on my last trip to L.A. It was half the price of the other models, so I had to give it a try. Surprisingly, I loved it. This unit can be used with any type of portable player, because it connects via auxiliary (headphone) jack. The round unit plugs into your car’s power outlet (cigarette lighter). There is a USB input so you can connect your docking cable to it and charge your portable player or iPhone while listening.
The unit is simply designed. Like a giant round plug, it is stable in the outlet so you don’t have to fumble around on the seat to see the station or make changes. The FM station is displayed in large numbers on a bright blue LED screen. The other sections of the circle are for manually tuning up and tuning down in case there is static interference or you come into an area where the local radio station overcomes the FM transmission. Like the Griffin RoadTrip, raised dots allow you to tune up or down without looking.
Once tuned in I almost never had to change stations because of interference. Likewise, I was often surprised when I reached my destination and turned off my iPhone only to discover a local station transmitting at the same frequency. The Schosche seemed to overpower it , and it almost never needed adjusting when driving by power lines etc.
If only it had a holder, this would be the perfect device. Instead, I had to put the iphone on the seat.
If you are looking for the best sound, choose the MonsterCable iCarPlay 1000. The 800 is more reliable. For best accessibility choose the Griffin RoadTrip. For the best value all around, the Schosche may be your choice.
Check them out when you go to buy. Be sure to look at the models to determine if that model looks easy for YOU to use.
Need help or exact instructions on how to use an FM transmitter? Leave a comment or email me and I’ll write up an article on it.