These iPod companion pieces offer the wireless approach

    I slid the Nano flush into a backing cradle, iPod connector and headphone jack fitting together in a satisfying sensual embrace. I set the stereo receiver somewhere on the left end of the dial (though in these digital days such spatial orientation lacks clear definition). I lightly fingered the jog dial on the left of the iTrip and set a matching frequency, paused briefly before hitting play, and there it was: the Eurythmics? Sex Crime?




    Let’s just say the Prefix labs don’t come fully stocked. Sometimes we have to borrow a friend of a friend’s Nano. If that Nano is filled with German techno, Eurythmics, and a little bit of Mr. Scruff, you just gotta swing with it.


    Some new cars are coming with expensive iPod-specific connector units, and still others have a tape deck or quarter-inch headphone jack that can connect your favorite MP3 player to the car stereo. For folks with standard-issue CD players or those who just despise cabling, FM transmitters provide a nice wireless approach to gain access to those gigs of sound files.


    The iTrip for the Nano certainly represents the most graceful approach, as befitting the lithe player itself. The cradle brings the thickness to a still svelte half-inch, provides an open mini-USB connector for charging, and uses the Nano’s display for radio station selection. It provides stereo/mono selection (with mono providing a stronger signal) and will clip the volume so things don’t get distorted on the way to the car antenna. One nice feature is the ability to save three station presets. If you’ve found 88.1 works well in San Francisco, you can keep that station in memory as you scan the dial in Los Angeles. The dial may provide hindrance to those fingers lacking dexterity, but then you bought the smallest iPod you could (don’t even mention the Shuffle), so you clearly knew what you were getting into.


    The standard-issue iTrip and iTrip Auto both have niceties and aggravations. Both work by plugging into the iPod’s dock connector, have backlights, and use a terribly unintuitive LX/DX designation for stereo vs. mono. The standard iTrip is a little one-inch nubbin with LCD display that docked with my ten-gig iPod like Soyuz sidling up to a space station. You may be confused by the lack of any initial display; the iTrip lies in waiting until you actually hit play. After that, you can browse the radio dial one decimal place at a time, and like the iTrip Nano, the iTrip generic provides a mini-USB port available for charging duty.


    If you’re like me and you make every preparation for the eight-hour (six when Junebug, my green Ford Focus, cooperates) trip to Los Angeles, except you forget to charge your MP3 player beforehand, the iTrip Auto may save your day. It has a large breakout panel with LCD and oversized button to toggle through the stations, but better yet it plugs into the cigarette lighter to provide a steady charge for those caffeine-fueled manic marathons down the freeway.


    In informal tests with A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions,” Massive Attack’s “Angel,” Amon Tobin‘s “Proper Hoodidge,” and Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Paradise City,” the iTrip Auto clearly had the best sound. It not only provided a better amp signal but a generally fuller sound as well. Clearly being able to draw power from a car battery rather than your iPod (both the iTrip standard and Nano run off the player’s power) helps to provide stronger output. Stereo sound also made a bigger difference with the iTrip Auto, with the quality change barely discernable in the standard iTrip.


    Your usage may determine which iTrip makes the most sense. The iTrip Auto cannot provide power without the cigarette lighter, so it’s unsuitable for bedroom use, though it clearly provides lots of value for those cross-country road trips. Just be sure that your stereo actually provides fine tuning for the frequencies. The iTrip family can go in decimal intervals, but that won’t do you any good when your car stereo tries to work its auto-tuning mojo. This will be especially bothersome in large cities where public access and pirate radio stations abound. When the instructions tell you to find a station that’s static, surrounded by stations of static, you better heed them or be prepared for alternating white noise and beats. Once you hit that right frequency, though, all the iTrip products provide reasonable sound quality without the bother of wires.


    Among its many other iPod-enhancing products, Griffin also makes the SmartShare, a headphone splitter cable with independent volume controls for each side. It works as advertised to limit volume when needed, though not to the point of muting, so if the sweetheart you’re sharing tunes with puts on James Blunt’s “Beautiful,” you’ll just have to remove the phones entirely.


    Discuss this feature at the Prefix Message Board