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Music Gadgets

by Derrick Story
06/24/2005

The "screwdrivers" and "pliers" in my digital music toolbox include the basics that most of us use--iTunes, iPod, and AirPort Express. But I'm forever fiddling and changing my mind about how to serve up this stuff. One day I'm an avid AirTunes user, the next I'm controlling my iPod via remote while it's plugged directly into the stereo.

Since it's easy for me to get my hands on gadgets, I thought I'd provide you with some quick feedback about the goodies I've been testing lately. The thing I've noticed in general is that all of the iPod/iTunes accessories are getting better and more refined. Here's what's caught my eye lately.

Home Broadcast

Back in the old days, I'd walk around the house with an iPod in my pocket and 'buds in my ears. But not so much anymore. I do use the Shuffle when I'm exercising, but other than that, I'm playing audio through real speakers--often streaming it wirelessly.

Rocket FM

When I'm not sharing via WiFi, I'm playing with RocketFM for broadcasting music from iTunes. I discovered this stylish device in a batch of Griffin Technology products I was testing.

The USB "rocket" plugs right into my PowerBook. I set the sound output (System Preference pane) to RocketFM, then tune my stereo to an open channel. RocketFM broadcasts any audio generated by my PowerBook to the tuner and out of the stereo speakers.

The range is up to 30 feet--not bad. The default channel is 88.1. But when I tried it at first with the default, it didn't work. So I loaded the RocketFM System Preference pane that came on CD so I could choose any open channel I wanted. Within minutes I was broadcasting. The RocketFM Preference Pane appears to play nice with the other kids in Tiger, so I wouldn't hesitate to load it. Plus, it's really sharp looking.

For the best sound, you have to find a open FM station and adjust the volume controls on both your Mac and the stereo receiver. I found that about 50 percent output from the PowerBook, while showing restraint with the amplifier control on the stereo, produced the best quality.

Griffin's RocketFM
Griffin's RocketFM is a handy device for streaming music to your stereo or boombox when WiFi isn't available

The RocketFM is a handy addition to the laptop bag for broadcasting when away from the comfort of your AirTunes network. It's compact, doesn't need additional power, and looks elegant with its glowing blue light. You can leave the clear plex stand at home. It's stylish, but it takes up unnecessary room in your travel bag. Once your get the volume levels set, the output is good for music and voice (such as podcasts). But remember: radio is radio, and you're not going to get CD quality via FM stereo modulation. So set your expectations accordingly.

My favorite use for the RocketFM is playing iTunes through a boombox when working on the patio. I've also used it for viewing QuickTime movies to provide more of a theater experience. Sounds good, works great, and it's very easy to use. $39.99 from Griffin.

AirBase

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When WiFi is available, there's nothing like using AirPort Express for streaming music. But if you don't want to plug your brick directly into the wall, what do you do with it?

Another interesting Griffin product is the AirBase, a stylish white plastic and chrome stand that lets you put your AirPort Express atop any flat surface.

Even though Griffin claims you get better reception using its stand, I couldn't measure that because I already have good coverage with my WiFi network. But I did like having easier access to all of the ports on the Express--something that just drives me crazy when it's plugged into the wall.

This is especially handy if you use the Express to charge your iPod Shuffle (that's right, you don't need a separate charger). Just connect your Shuffle to the top of the AirPort Express (now that it's mounted in the AirBase), and juice it up. It even looks like an unusual desktop sculpture while doing so. $24.99 from Griffin.

Bonus tip: I've found that streaming music via AirPort Express to my stereo makes shopping in the iTunes Music Store even more fun. For some lame reason, I always used to listen to those 30-second snippets through my PowerBook speakers. Once it dawned on me that I should be using "real" speakers for this, iTMS has become even more entertaining--certainly more compelling than watching another rerun on TV. But remember: shop responsibly.

(Still) Favorite Software

I've mentioned two of my favorite audio apps before, but I wanted to note that I'm still using them and need them more than ever.

Audio Hijack Pro

Audio Hijack Pro by Rogue Amoeba just keeps getting better and better. What began as a clever way to capture any audio source that plays on your Mac has become my Swiss Army knife for capturing and enhancing audio.

I use it to timeshift radio programs for listening to later on my iPod, grabbing audio tracks off of DVDs (great for concert movies), and for recording voiceovers with me speaking directly into a mic. Podcasters definitely need this app.

a quick Hijack setup
Here's a quick Hijack setup that enables me to record my voice through a microphone. But Audio Hijack Pro can grab any sound your Mac can play.

If you've switched to Tiger, be sure to download the latest version of Audio Hijack. You can now use Automator actions with it--something I'm just beginning to explore. $32 from Rogue Amoeba.

PodWorks

What Audio Hijack Pro is for my PowerBook, PodWorks is for my iPods. It started humbly as the best way to grab music off of your iPod and move it to one of your Macs (that isn't paired with your iPod). The latest version allows you to move music directly into iTunes with complete metadata. And the coolest part is that you can run Podworks right off of your pod, so you can connect to any Mac on the go and move your music.

This is a great way to take back in control of your digital music. $8 from Sci-Fi Hi-Fi.

Pod Communication

I want to jump back to hardware for a moment and mention two more Griffin goodies--both enhance communication with your iPod.

AirClick for iPod

The AirClick RF receiver
The AirClick RF receiver looks great atop third- and fourth-gen iPods.

This might be my favorite pod accessory of all time (at least for the moment). And the funny thing is, when I first read about it, it didn't make a big impression on me.

The AirClick for iPod is the remote control I've always wanted. Now I can plug the iPod into my stereo and control it via a pocketable remote that's easy to use. With its five buttons, you can pause, play, skip forward, skip back, and adjust the volume. Unlike most remotes, which are finicky at best, the AirClick uses RF signals that allow me to control the iPod even when I'm in another room. No more line-of-sight or short-range limitations. This baby is good up to 60 feet.

AirClick remote
The handy AirClick remote is so easy to use you don't even have look at it

The AirClick is a good car accessory, too. Griffin has included a Velcro strap for the remote so you can attach it to the steering wheel. Your iPod can rest comfortably on the seat next to you connected to the stereo via a cassette adapter. Instead of having to fiddle with the iPod's controls while driving, you can push the buttons on your steering wheel while keeping your eyes on the road. You fellow drivers will thank you for this.

Back at home, if you use your iPod in its dock with the line-out connection to the stereo, you won't be able to control the volume with the AirClick. You'll have to use your stereo's remote for that. You can use the "audio out" jack that's on top of the AirClick instead, enabling you can control the volume with the remote. It doesn't look as clean, but it's your choice, depending on aesthetic standards versus practicality.

You can replace the battery in the remote, but Griffin says that it's unlikely that you'll ever have to. The RF receiver on the iPod is powered by the pod's juice. I haven't noticed much additional drain since using the AirClick.

At $39.99, it's not an impulse buy. But since I've had the AirClick, I've been getting even more use out of my third-gen iPod.

Dock 800

One of the features of my old Pismo PowerBook that I just loved was its two FireWire ports. Ever since Apple went metal, we've only had one FW 400 outlet. But my iBook has one FW 400 connector and one FW 800 connector, which is great for the one FW 800 hard drive I have at home. But other than that, I don't get to use the second port much.

Now, thanks to the Dock 800, I use that second port for my iPod, leaving the FW 400 connector available for anything else. This is really clever and works great.

Just to make sure I wasn't giving up anything with this configuration, I transferred a 1-GB file from my third-gen iPod to the PowerBook using both FW 400 and FW 800 connectors. Both transfers clocked in at 2:15--darn close to identical.

If you want to free up your FireWire 400 port, you can get Griffin's Dock 800 for $19.99.

Tic Tac Mints and Altoids Case

I've been using the stock Altoids case to transport my iPod Shuffle when it's not in use. Everyone knows about this setup, so it really isn't breaking news. But I do like the fact that the easy-to-find Altoids tin holds both my Shuffle and earbuds with a little room to spare.

Altoids Shuffle carry case
Here's my standard Shuffle carry case. Not beautiful, but certainly works well.

I then read about Tic Tacs Shuffle case in Leander Kahney's Cult of Mac weblog. I was ready for a change of pace, and thought this to be an attractive alternative.

The problem is, this mod uses the "Tic Tac 100" container that's about as rare as buffalo here in Northern California. I went to five stores--two drug, one grocery, and two liquor--and could only find the "standard" Tic Tac box that is too small for the Shuffle. (Everyone was carrying a wide variety of fruity flavors, however.)

So for now, I'll have to stick with Altoids. If anyone has a good line on Tic Tac 100s, please send me a note. I want the white ones.

Derrick Story is the author of The Photoshop CS4 Companion for Photographers, The Digital Photography Companion, and Digital Photography Hacks, and coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, with David Pogue. You can follow him on Twitter or visit www.thedigitalstory.com.


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