Review: Belkin TuneBase & TuneBase FM
There are many accessories you can use to get your iPod’s music to play through your car’s stereo. The problem is that once you hook them all up—a charger, an FM transmitter or cassette adapter, and a holder or mount—you’ve got a mess of cables, cradles, and other crap (pardon my alliterative French). If you’ve got a full-size iPod, there are a few all-in-one alternatives, but until now those products have been a poor match for the iPod mini, if they were compatible at all. With the release of Belkin’s TuneBase ($50; available soon) and TuneBase FM ($80; available now), iPod mini users finally have their own solutions, and overall those solutions are impressive.
Both TuneBase models feature the same basic design. A car accessory (“cigarette lighter”) base plugs into your car’s accessory jack and provides a 7-inch, flexible-but-sturdy neck. At the top of the neck sits an iPod mini-shaped cradle; when the mini is inserted, a dock connector plug fits snugly into the iPod mini’s dock port, and two small prongs slide into the the two holes on the bottom of the iPod mini to hold the iPod securely (thus answering the age-old question, “What are those two holes for?”). Your iPod is charged as long as your car is on (either with the engine running or in “accessory” mode).
The TuneBase is significantly sturdier than it looks, and in my testing held my iPod mini perfectly still in almost all cases —the more treacherous urban potholes resulted in little more than a mild sway. And because of the length of the neck, I was able to position the iPod mini at a much more accessible—and safer—height. (We don’t recommend trying to control your iPod while driving, no matter what accessories you’re using, but we realize that many readers will do so anyway. If you’re going to barrel down the freeway while trying to choose a song on your iPod, we’d rather you were doing it using the TuneBase than some of the other car holders/mounts we’ve tested.)
The accessory plug base on both models provides an audio output jack—featuring a line-level audio signal for better sound quality than the headphone jack—that allows you to connect your iPod mini to your car stereo via a mini-to-mini cable or cassette adapter. (If you don’t have an auxiliary-in jack or cassette deck on your car stereo, you’ll want the TuneBase FM, as described below.) The iPod mini’s headphone jack remains exposed, so if you have a cassette adapter that can’t handle line-level output, you can use the headphone jack instead.
The design and functionality described above would be enough to make the TuneBase models very good products, but Belkin has added a few thoughtful touches that we appreciated. The connection between the neck and the cradle is actually a swiveling mount that allows you to rotate the cradle (and thus the iPod mini) 90 degrees in either direction, which means you can twist the plug base, manipulate the flexible neck, and swivel the cradle in virtually any combination of directions to find the perfect position. And since not all car accessory jacks are identical, Belkin has provided a number of custom spacers to ensure a tight fit—so the TuneBase won’t dump your iPod mini into your soda when you drive over speedbumps. Finally, if you’re playing your iPod mini through the TuneBase/TuneBase FM, turning the car off automatically pauses playback. (Unfortunately, turning the car on doesn’t automatically resume playback.)
The TuneBase FM is identical to the standard TuneBase except for one significant feature: a built-in FM transmitter that allows you to broadcast your iPod’s audio over FM radio waves to your car radio. This transmitter is contained in a slightly larger cradle that provides an LCD display as well as controls for choosing the broadcast frequency. The LCD shows the current frequency in type that’s large enough to see without having to lean close and squint—a common complaint I’ve had with many other FM transmitters. Up/down buttons let you choose the desired frequency (from 88.1MHz to 107.9MHz, in .1MHz intervals), but even more useful are the TuneBase FM’s four custom frequency presets. If you live in an urban area, chances are you’ll need to change frequencies often as you pass through the “territories” of various radio stations, so being able to choose up to four preferred frequencies is a major convenience.
Unfortunately, this need to “surf for static” was my one real complaint with the TuneBase FM: In the crowded-FM-spectrum San Francisco Bay Area, its FM transmitter performance left a lot to be desired. As I drove from place to place, I had to frequently change stations to find an open frequency. This was especially the case in our Honda Pilot test vehicle, in which the FM antenna is located at the rear of the vehicle. The TuneBase FM fared better in test vehicles that had an antenna near the front of the vehicle where the TuneBase FM was broadcasting, but static was still a frequent occurence. To be fair, Playlist has been largely unimpressed with most FM transmitters, so the TuneBase FM isn’t being singled out for poor performance. However, its FM tranmission functionality isn’t as good as Sonnet’s PodFreq, our favorite FM transmitter, which is unfortunately only compatible with 3G and 4G full-size iPods. We generally recommend using an FM transmitter as a last resort, as you'll get much better sound quality via an auxiliary input cable or cassette adapter.
Belkin’s TuneBase models are currently our favorite accessories for plugging an iPod mini into your car. Their all-in-one designs reduce clutter while placing the iPod mini in a more usable position, and using the included audio-output jack with a car stereo‘s auxiliary-in jack or cassette deck (via a cassette adapter) will give you good sound quality, as well. Unfortunately, using the TuneBase FM’s built-in transmitter can be frustrating in urban areas where it has to compete with heavy FM traffic, but that's been our experience with all iPod mini-compatible transmitters. If you’ve got an iPod mini that you’ve been jonesing to listen to in the car, Belkin’s TuneBase models are a great option.