Griffin Technology iTrip
Help! I’ve Fallen And I Can’t Get Up!
Tripped up by the iTrip
Some insight on the Griffin Technology iTrip
Disclosure. I am, well, I was a big fan of Griffin Technology. Way back in the day, when (as I recall) it was their only product*, I was a huge fan of the Griffin Technology PowerMate. The PowerMate is a large, machined aluminum knob that you can program to do a number of things. The PowerMate is superbly well made, reasonably priced and best of all; it works.
So you can imagine my anticipation when I finally got an iPod at being able to procure a bunch of cool Griffin accessories for my Pod.
My 2005 Prius does not have the auxiliary line in and while I think I’ll eventually end up breaking down and getting something like the Dennison iPod integration kit, for now, I wanted something that would be allow me to listen to Podcasts in the car.
Having a lot of experience in consumer electronics and satellite radio in particular, I was very familiar with FM modulators. For all of you not familiar with what an FM modulator is used for or how an FM mod works, please allow me a brief explanation.
Basically, an FM mod allows you to listen to a source (an iPod for instance) through your car radio without having any physical connections to your vehicle (there is a subset of FM mods that do connect through the radio antennas, this is not the case with the iTrip). What takes place is very simple. The FM mod works like a tiny radio station. You plug the FM mod into something (an iPod in this case) and it broadcasts the audio signal to your FM car radio.
Well, in general, any FM mod is a trade-off. You gain some convenience and portability and you lose some quality. It’s not as nice as connecting directly to your system but you get something that is very easy to use and almost effortless to “install”.
So let’s talk about the Griffin Technology iTrip. I bought the “docking” version of the latest iteration of this venerable Griffin Tech item (it’s gone through as many changes and variations as iPods have) to connect to my 5.5 generation video iPod. Depending on your iPod, you may want a different model. However, upon talking with a Griffin representative (a conversation you’ll learn more about later on) I am led to believe that all iTrips perform to the same specifications, mandated by the FCC.
I bought mine online from a Mac computer supplier in California that I’ve done a lot of business with. I like them. So I give them my business. They have fair prices and always ship quickly.
When I got my iTrip I tried it out immediately. I’m kind of a radio geek, so I have a number of different radios, throughout the house; 2 Tivoli PALs and one Grundig portable shortwave. And the reason I mention the radios specifically, they’re both well known for making excellent radio receivers. Obviously it was no problem to find a portable to use as a test. I connected the iTrip to my iPod as it says in the instructions. Don’t worry, when connect it, nothing happens. The iTrip is a signal-sensing unit, it does not turn on until you have something playing on your iPod. So I press play and set a station on the iTrip. I go to my portable radio and tune it to the same dead place on the dial and voila!
I fiddle with the dial a bit. I make sure the iPod is playing. I check to see whether the iTrip is set to LX or DX and then I move the iPod with the iTrip connected closer the radio and the miracle occurs. I can hear my iPod.
But I’m holding the iTrip about six inches away from the antenna of the radio. That’s not good.
Needless I repeat the experiment several times with all three radios in different parts of the house. Reception varies but about the best I can get is about twelve inches away and even then, the reception is fairly poor.
This cannot be right.
So I call Griffin Technology and speak to one of their reps that, I must say, was nice, polite and professional, something not ubiquitous when calling customer support numbers these days. We go through and reboot my iPod and go over all the settings. We manage to get slightly better reception but in general, the improvement isn’t such that either of us is all that happy with the device. So he offers to replace it. I get the information sent to me via email and I send back the iTrip for a new one. About a week later Griffin sends me another, replacement iTrip back via FedEx. I know it’s not the one I sent them because the box is a bit more beat up and it has a Bed, Bath & Beyond price sticker on it. In fact, upon closer examination, it almost appears as though it’s been used and repackaged.
However, if Griffin replaces such product with returned or remanufactured items, they would not be alone. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t make happy but my main concern is getting a working iTrip. I test the iTrip and it does appear to function significantly better than my previous one. So I’m happy…for now.
The real test would come two days later. I had a job shooting some pictures about three and half hours from my home. This would be a perfect test for the iTrip and, hopefully, the perfect solution to chasing radio stations and driving boredom.
It turned out to be a very frustrating trip. I stopped several times both going and coming from home to adjust the iTrip’s broadcasting station. This really isn’t a fault I can lay directly at the feet of Griffin. Especially if you live in an urban area this is a problem that plagues all FM mods.
The problem is, the Griffin iTrip just doesn’t work that well in my Prius. The iTrip really only has any broadcasting “punch” in DX mode which would be fine except that it’s mono, so it takes a sound already degraded by the FM mod and makes it worse by yet another step.
What’s more, the reception in the Prius was really terrible. And I’m not blaming the car (though I am going to test this soon in two other vehicles). I think it’s clear the iTrip just can’t deliver in the Prius.
Two other things, which I noted about the iTrip.
One, when you tap on the iTrip itself, there is a noise not unlike a bass kick drum. It’s clearly something that the iTrip is picking up acoustically and transmitting along with the signal from the iPod. I asked the rep from Griffin about this regarding my first iTrip and he assured me it did not happen in all iTrips and meant there was a problem. So I got two bad ones?
The other thing only happened on the first unit. There is a small wire visible on the back of the iTrip embedded into the case. My assumption is that this is the iTrip’s antenna. Again, when speaking to the rep at Griffin about my original iTrip I noted that covering this up with my hand actually reduced the signal to the radio. I note on the replacement that this isn’t the case anymore (so that was clearly a problem with that specific unit) but I did notice that with both of the units, positioning of this antenna was critical to getting good reception. In fact, when I would have my hand on the unit with the new one, the signal improved! And yes, I did spend some time enjoying the clarity and driving with one hand holding the iPod.
So I sent an email to several people at Griffin expressing my frustration and my desire not to write a negative review of their product. The response was gratifying. One of the executives emailed me and called me the next morning to discuss my problems. He apologized profusely for sending out a product that had already been in stores (my first replacement had the price tags from another retailer on it) and was firm that Griffin did not do this a practice. He was, in no uncertain terms, doing everything right. It was hard not to try another one. Griffin offered to send out the replacement immediately while issuing a call tag for my old one. A few days later, I had my third iTrip in my hand.
And to be perfectly honest, it performed a little better than the second one but not so much better that I would consider it an adequate solution. For some reason, I don’t know if it’s the Prius, the area I live in (and there is nothing here that should interfere with any FM modulator) or something else, but the performance of the iTrip was dismal at best.
I’d love to slap this thing onto eBay but I can’t, in good conscience, sell something that doesn’t work.
So I came up with another solution. Mrs. Priusownersgroup has been asking me for something that would allow her to listen to her iPod (we’re a three iPod family). Now before you think I am mean, I didn’t say anything to her because I wanted a fair test. I wanted someone to evaluate the device free from my experience. And what I learned from her was interesting.
She loves it. She’s not a person who takes any pleasure in technical gadgets. In one brief explanation I was able to explain the iTrip’s functions and operation to her. She’s been using it in her car (an Audi TT) for two weeks and she absolutely loves it. Yes, on further questioning, the sound isn’t that great but she says in her car it sounds just like FM radio (which apparently is good). It’s ridiculously simple to operate and best of all, it works (for her).
So, I’m left with a quandary. I have a device that failed me in most any way I can look at it but I know that it works well for someone else.
Then I came up with another reason why the iTrip might not work very well for me. It’s what I listen to. Podcasts. Specifically, spoken word podcasts. I’ve asked Griffin about this (but have not heard back) but I wonder if there is some difference between the signal level in spoken word podcasts and music.
Good old experimentation seemed reasonable and yes, the iTrip performed much better overall when I played music with the iPod. Switch back to a podcast and I was back in static land all too much.
Like any review, all of this is anecdotal. Just because one person had a bad experience with an item doesn’t mean everyone will (well, sometimes at least). So it is with the iTrip. I cannot recommend it however my wife highly recommends it. It depends on your vehicle and what material you listen to. If you’re odd like me and listen to lectures, I would avoid the iTrip. If you listen to music, I think there is a much better chance you’ll be happy with the iTrip.
In general, I would advise against FM mods (there are dozens of different ones out there) unless you understand and accept their limitations and idiosyncrasies going into it. As long as you know what to expect going into it, then the lack of unpleasant surprises should make for a positive owning experience.
As always, if you have any specific questions or comments on this review, feel free to email me.
Thanks for stopping in and reading this.
iTrip (docking version)
-Looks kind of cool
-Easy to connect
-Great customer support
-Doesn’t much like my Prius or my spoken word podcasts
-Fairly low quality build (the first two units I got seemed to have problems)
-Very poor sound quality
*Actually, as the Griffin executive reminded me, they had a strong business making video display and printing adapters long before the PowerMate arrived.