The iPod mini has helped revolutionize the way people store and listen to music, but it’s not particularly car-friendly. Unless your car stereo includes a cassette deck (increasingly rare) or an auxiliary input (more common among newer stereos) combined with the appropriate adapter, you simply haven’t had the means to play your extensive iPod library through your car’s speakers. Several companies, however, have sought to fill this void by releasing a product called an FM transmitter, which broadcasts iPod tunes via the FM airwaves. Griffin Technology is among the category leaders with its iTrip mini, a discreet little device that fits unobtrusively on top of the iPod mini. The iTrip mini isn’t confined to car stereos–it plays on almost any FM radio–but because most home stereos and boomboxes have auxiliary inputs, it’s most popular as a car accessory.
The iPod mini is loaded with impressive features, but it’s also an Apple product, which means that looks matter. A lot. And Griffin clearly recognizes this, because the iTrip mini is sleek and complementary. It’s built to fit into the iPod mini’s headphone and remote ports, from where its all-white body looks like an extension of the mini itself. Plus, the device measures less than an inch tall and exactly as wide as the mini, so it takes up almost no extra space–an important feature to people who value the mini’s portability. The iTrip mini also works when plugged into full-sized iPods with dock connectors, but it doesn’t fit as well shape-wise. Owners of full-sized iPods can buy alternate iTrips designed with their players in mind, including iTrips for 1G and 2G FireWire iPods, 3G and 4G iPods with dock connectors, and special-edition black iPods.
The iTrip mini is designed to broadcast to any empty FM frequency on your dial–depending on where you receive the best reception–but it’s only configured to play at 87.9 MHz right out of the box. That means a little setup is required using the included CD-ROM and iTunes. Fortunately, the installation is painless and takes only a few minutes. The installer adds a playlist to your mini (through iTunes) called iTrip Stations, which consists of a series of short audio files that correspond with all available FM frequencies.
The iTrip mini performs best when tuned to an FM frequency that plays nothing but static, with no audible words or music. Finding a good frequency is fairly easy, but it requires your full attention, so it’s best to do so while parked. We tested the iTrip mini on three separate frequencies in a midsize market with varying success. The sound was generally good in two of the frequencies, less so in the third. This remained true whether the device sat next to the radio, in the backseat, or under a stack of newspapers. While driving through bad FM reception areas, the iTrip mini received a bit of static, but it usually passed in a couple of seconds.
The iTrip mini is designed more for convenience than elite audio performance, so listeners shouldn’t expect CD-quality sound. When tuned to a clear frequency, it’s about on par with the average FM station. If the volume is turned high, users might notice a slight hiss through the speakers, but engine hum and road noise will generally cover that up. However, listeners who value top-quality sound–especially people with expensive speaker systems that pick up every minor flaw–may instead want to add an auxiliary input to their car stereos to get the most from their iPod minis.
The main drawbacks to the iTrip mini are fairly minor, but will bother some users. First, the iTrip Stations playlist is stored as part of your overall music library, meaning the individual audio files can emerge during shuffle play–and the sound isn’t pleasant. Listeners can remedy this by creating a new playlist with their entire music libraries minus the iTrip Stations files. Second, the iTrip mini draws its power from the iPod mini battery. This is actually both a plus and a minus, as it means you don’t need to keep buying new AAA batteries every week, but you also won’t receive as much power from each iPod charge. If this bothers you, consider purchasing an auto charger, which powers your iPod mini through the cigarette lighter adapter while you drive. Third, the iTrip mini isn’t great for long road trips through crowded regions, because the available FM frequencies may change every 40 or so miles (or less), making it necessary to frequently retune the iTrip mini. On the flip side, it’s great for long drives through the country.
Ultimately, the iTrip mini is a good value. The convenience will please iPod fans that have been clamoring for a way to play their music in the car. Audiophiles may want to look elsewhere, but most other listeners should be satisfied.
(Please note prices are subject to change and the listed price is correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of posting)