Editors' Note: Belkin has since released a follow-up product, the TuneStage 2, that offers more features and wider iPod compatibility at a lower price.
While no one will argue with the simple convenience of an iPod on the road, things get a little complicated when you want to use one at home. Despite the emergence of a thriving iPod accessories industry, most home-based iPod amplification solutions have suffered from one annoying limitation or another. The main problem: whether you're attaching the iPod to a high-end powered speaker system (such as the Klipsch iFi or the Bose SoundDock) or pumping your iPod's music straight into your stereo (via a dock connector or just a $5 cable mated to its headphone jack), the iPod--that is to say, your music collection--ends up anchored to something on the other side of the room. That's all right if you have a bunch of fine-tuned playlists or can live with the vagaries of shuffle play, but anyone who wants to jump from song to song on a whim--or see the song and artist name--will need to head over to read the iPod's tiny screen. That's about as much fun as getting off the sofa to change the channels on your TV.
Enter the Belkin TuneStage. With this ingenious contraption, you can listen to your iPod through your big stereo speakers without ever having to release it from your hand (or its tote, shoulder strap, or belt clip). The TuneStage ($180 list) consists of a wireless transmitter/receiver combo. The tiny matchbook-size transmitter snaps into the headphone and remote jacks on the top edge of any third- or fourth-generation iPod or iPod Mini. You plug the AC-powered receiver--about the size of a VHS tape--into your home stereo; any A/V receiver, minisystem, or boombox with a spare stereo input will suffice. The transmitter then broadcasts the player's audio output to the receiver.
The receiver has two analog outputs: a standard pair of RCA stereo jacks and a minijack stereo output. (Belkin includes a 7-foot minijack-to-RCA cable for connecting to the latter port.) As far as setup is concerned, that's it: there's no software to install, no wireless settings, nothing to adjust on your iPod. Blue LEDs on the transmitter and the receiver confirm that each has recognized the other. You operate your iPod as you normally would when listening over headphones, but of course, the music emanates from your stereo's speakers.
The TuneStage uses Bluetooth wireless technology to broadcast audio from the iPod transmitter to the receiver base. Wireless headsets for many cell phones use the same basic technology, but the TuneStage adopts version 1.2 of the spec, which provides enough bandwidth for a decent-sounding stereo signal. Because Bluetooth transmission is digital rather than analog, it's less prone to the sort of dropouts and static that are all too familiar when using older FM wireless iPod transmitters such as the Griffin iTrip and Belkin's own TuneCast models. The TuneStage uses frequency hopping to avoid interference with other devices on the crowded 2.4GHz frequency; Belkin warns that cordless phones, Wi-Fi networking gear, and even microwave ovens can theoretically cause problems, but in our testing environment, which teemed with all three, we always had a perfectly clear signal. Despite Belkin's claim of a maximum wireless range of 33 feet, our signal didn't break up until we walked the iPod more than 45 feet away from the receiver.
What's not to like about the TuneStage? For starters, it's good that the receiver doesn't have to do anything more than sit on your stereo, because it feels pretty chintzy, even by the standards of today's ultracheap manufacturing. The system sounds fine, but more attentive listeners--those who appreciate the quality of lossless audio files or can tell the difference between a compressed MP3 and the original CD--may balk. Also, while the wireless transmission is digital, the input and the output are strictly analog. And while it's nice that the snap-on transmitter dongle doesn't need batteries, it draws power from the iPod instead, so the music player's battery depletes that much more quickly. It's also worth noting that the TuneStage transmitter doesn't work with early-generation iPods (those lacking the underside dock connector), iPod Shuffles, the iPod Nano, or the fifth-generation video-enabled iPod. Ideally, we'll soon see a version of the TuneStage that's compatible with those newer models--perhaps one that snaps the transmitter onto the dock connector rather than its current configuration.
Those flaws notwithstanding, the Belkin TuneStage makes a great accessory for home-based iPod listening because it lets you use the music player as an interactive remote control for your stereo. In fact, the TuneStage is a superior alternative to most digital audio receivers. Unlike those devices, which stream digital music over a home network from your PC's hard drive to the stereo, the TuneStage doesn't require you to leave your PC powered on, and you won't have to struggle with any headache-inducing networking configurations. Also, it lets you use the already familiar iPod scrollwheel to navigate your music collection. Moreover, unlike virtually all streaming-media devices save Apple's own AirPort Express, the TuneStage plays songs purchased from the iTunes Music Store. That last advantage is something that even the $1,200 Sonos Digital Music System can't offer.
Logitech has announced its own Bluetooth-enabled Wireless Music System for iPod. It's scheduled to hit stores later this fall for $30 less than Belkin's offering; we'll have a full review of it--with an eye to how it compares to the TuneStage--once it becomes available. We expect Belkin to drop the price of the TuneStage when that happens. In the meantime, we find its $180 list price a little steep. That's what you pay for convenience, though. For iPod junkies willing to pony up for a plug-and-play wireless solution for home listening, the Belkin TuneStage fits the bill perfectly.