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AudioBUG ATB-350

AudioBUG ATB-350 Automotive FM Transmitter

by Chris Bray

There is a problem that some of us have experienced, and it will probably affect more people in the next few years. You buy a fancy new portable MP3 player, such as an Apple iPod, Creative Nomad, or any number of similar devices now on the market, and you want to listen to your new tunes in the car.

Sure, many car stereos now include MP3 support, but that's only if you burn the MP3s to CD first. For people like myself, who have amassed several gigabytes worth of music (whether ripped from CD, bought through on-line services such as iTunes, or from whatever source), it becomes a hassle to then copy the music back to CD, not to mention the fact that most cases will tend to scratch the CDs over time. Some stereos, mostly aftermarket ones, have an "auxilliary" input so you can hook up your device through RCA cables, but what do you do if yours isn't one of them?

You buy an FM transmitter, such as the AudioBUG series from Aerielle. These devices have a jack via which you can connect your mobile music maker (or a laptop, portable DVD player, or whatever you want, really), and convert the sound into an FM radio signal. It's basically a tiny, portable radio station that you can tune your car's stereo to (similar to the way we hooked up our portable CD players to the car through a tape adapter years ago).

There are quite a few FM transmitters on the market now, and I've had a chance to play with a few of them. Most are portable, battery powered ones, including Aerielle's own ATB-250 previously reviewed on TechnoFILE. These are great if you need real portability, or if you want to play your sounds on a portable stereo, for example. However, if you're like me and you only use it in the car, every time you change the battery (and for the ATB-250 the batteries are over $10 if you don't buy them from a local battery store), you wonder why you can't just use the cigarette lighter socket that is more and more sitting idle in cars.

Strangely, there don't seem to be many FM transmitters that plug into the lighter. I found one for around $40 Canadian, only to discover that, while it took a 12 volt DC input, it didn't come with the lighter adapter. I had to buy that for an additional $10 and solder the ends together. Worse, it was a big, clunky box and the sound quality was awful. I'm talking drop your $5 AM radio in the toilet and listen to it reverberate off the porcelain bowl awful. Yeesh!

Fortunately, the ATB-350 is much better. In fact, I'm extremely pleased with it, and at $49.99 US, it's a pretty good bargain, too. It's a tiny little unit, about the size of a cigarette lighter with a match box glued to the end of it (which in my Honda Prelude is a good thing, as the gear shift is right next to the lighter socket). The cable is between 2 and 3 feet long, long enough to reach the front seats in most cars, or the center console, etc. And unlike most units I've seen where you can choose from 3 or 4 frequency presets, there's a little LCD screen and up/down buttons that let you tune the transmitter to any FM radio frequency you want, high or low.

Most excellent flexibility!

Now as for sound quality, it's about the same as the AudioBUG ATB-250, which is to say it's very good. Part of the problem is it's constrained by the limits of an FM radio, plus it can suffer from interference, and MP3s will never sound as good as the original CD. The AudioBUG probably won't win any Hi-Fi stereo awards, nor will it compare to my NAD power amp at home. However, let's face it, between road noise and having to waste so much attention on the road ahead, it's highly unlikely that anyone will notice the difference.

Initially, I had tuned the AudioBUG ATB-350 to 88.5 MHz, since I had a radio preset left from testing the ATB-250. Strangely, when the unit was cold it would play nothing but static for a few minutes, until it warmed up a bit. The 250 didn't do this, even when left in the car overnight and, for a car unit, many people will probably just leave it plugged in overnight as I did. After all, it's all about convenience.

At first I thought I had just found a dead spot (sometimes while driving there will be a spot where the normally excellent signal just drops off, probably due to interference, and you'll get static for a second or two), but comparing against the 250 again proved it was the 350 unit. It didn't even have to be very cold; it did this when it dipped down to about five degrees above zero (Celsius). However, on a hunch I tried changing to the other end of the FM dial, transmitting at 107.9 instead of 88.5, and the problem seems to have gone away. Go figure.

So if you're looking for a way to listen to sound, music or otherwise, through a car stereo that doesn't have auxiliary inputs or a tape deck adapter, the AudioBUG ATB-350 by Aerielle is a fantastic product. I wish they'd sent us enough to have one in each car!


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