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Review: Griffin RoadTrip Handsfree

“Total music + phone solution”?  Depends on the car really…

Hot off the back of our Griffin WindowSeat review, we’re taking a look at another of their in-car solutions; the RoadTrip Hands-free.

This time around connectivity is achieved by converting the sound from your smartphone to an FM signal which can then be picked up by your cars stereo.

Less wires, but does it work well?  Yes and no, really.

Out of the Box

The RoadTrip is essentially designed for iPod and iPhone, though it will work with other phones as well.  It’s a single piece unit, with a couple of extra accessories provided to keep your phone and the mount secure.

Unlike the WindowSeat, this unit attaches to the 12V adapter in your car in order to charge your iPhone, but that’s also the sole mounting method; the rubberised arm is flexible to allow you to position the phone so that it’s; A, easy to reach, and B, out of your way.

You also get an instruction manual and a mounting guide.  The latter is pretty obvious, to be honest, but the manual is definitely worth hanging on to.

On the front of the RoadTrip is a small back-lit display and a series of four buttons; a menu button and three “soft” buttons which change function depending on what you’re trying to do.  To start with, the display will show the radio frequency to use (more on this later), but it will also show you call information and track/artist information when playing music.

In terms of construction the RoadTrip feels fairly sturdy, in our tests we experienced a little bit of wobble, but that’s common with this type of phone holder.  Far more importantly; the unit stayed connected to the power socket and the phone stayed connected to the unit, even under heavy braking.

Connectivity.

Bare with us on this one, it’s a little tricky.

The RoadTrip is designed for people who’s mobile phones support phone calls over Bluetooth, but who’s car stereos don’t.

It works by modulating the sound to a radio signal in the FM band which can be picked up by your car stereo.

The unit itself contains a microphone which picks up your voice, and the person on the other end can be heard via your cars stereo by tuning in to the frequency which the device is set to.

At the same time, it has an Apple dock connector which will allow you to connect an iPhone or iPod for charging and for music playback over the same FM frequency that voice calls are handled with.

Essentially, it’s a very snazzy FM modulator.

So much so, in fact, that it actually comes with an iPhone app which allows you to select the best possible radio frequency for the RoadTrip in order to avoid interference from actual radio stations.

The RoadTrip is clearly designed for the iPhone, but it is worth noting that it will also work with other mobile phones as Bluetooth calling is a standard feature.  Just don’t expect to be able to charge your phone or playback music.

Using it.

In tests we found music playback using the FM modulator to be among the best for this type of device.  There are countless FM modulators available these days, but most sound pretty bad and suffer terribly from interference from radio stations and other sources.

With the available app and control buttons we were able to find a quiet part of the FM band, tuned in the radio to the same frequency and we were off.

Music quality was not quite on par with a direct cable connection, but with FM it was never going to be; ever notice how music never sounds quite as good on the radio as a CD?  FM transmissions will always be “lossy” when compared to a CD or even an MP3 quality recording.

That being said, the quality was just as good as listening to music on the radio, so definitely listenable.

We did experience a few drop-outs during our road tests, but this is unfortunately the nature of FM modulators; interference is everywhere and you’ll get the same kind of drop-outs using this unit that you would get while listening to any FM radio station.

When it comes to hands free calling, we found the RoadTrip pretty easy to use.  Incoming calls will cause the music to be muted and you can pick up the call by pressing the “accept” button on the unit.  When you finish the call the music will restart.

This works even if you’re using an iPod for music playback and a separate handset for Bluetooth calling, which is a nice touch.

When it comes to making calls, iPhone users have it slightly easier; they can press and hold the center button on the RoadTrip to activate voice dialing, other handsets will be able to access the contact menu on their phones either using the handset itself or by using the multi-function button and display on the RoadTrip to access their phone books.

Call quality was on par with what we experienced with the WindowSeat; calls placed at low speed or while stationary were of excellent quality, we had no issues hearing the other end of the conversation or being heard ourselves.

Unfortunately, at speed this becomes a different story.  Call quality suffers greatly due to the additional background noise experienced at 70mph.  In our test calls the driving party was legible, but only just.

Our advice is the same as before:  If you spend a lot of time on the phone while driving; consider an in-ear solution with a decent quality microphone.  On the other hand, for quick calls or in cars with decent noise isolation, the RoadTrip should be usable to say the least.

The big issue

Unfortunately, there’s one big problem with this type of device, and it’s one that you need to consider when thinking of buying an in-car mounting system:

Just where exactly is your 12V socket?

If it’s on your dash or in front of your gearstick then the chances are you’ll be ok, but if it’s next to or behind the gearstick don’t even think about it.

It’s common sense really; This mount is designed to hang out of the 12V socket, if that socket is next to the gearstick, handbrake or any other controls then the chances are it’s going to be in the way.

We’re not saying it’s a design problem, it’s impossible for Griffin to make a device suitable for every car, just consider the placement of it BEFORE you buy.

Peugeot 307 owners will be disappointed to know this unit is no good for them.

Conclusions.

While FM modulators aren’t our favorite way of connecting a smartphone to a car, this example does a reasonable job of it.  The technology is, at best, a bodge designed to let people with older car stereos have access to the music stored on their MP3 players and phones.

Music quality was as good as could be expected from an FM modulator, though we did experience a few drop outs during extensive testing.  The instructions give you a few ideas on suitable radio frequencies, but it’ll be up to you to find the best frequency for you.  The good news is that you can save a number of them as presets and quickly switch if you find that you’re getting interference from somewhere.

Call quality was not great, but we’ve yet to find a system that offers truly great quality calling at high speeds.  At low speeds or while stationary the call quality was perfectly fine, and more than adequate for quickly checking in with people while on the road.

The added advantage of this unit over some others is that it also doubles up as a charger for your iPhone or iPod, so it’s really three devices in one:  A charger, an FM modulator and a hands-free kit.

At around £40, it’s not the cheapest FM modulator available, but it is one of the better featured ones, and it’s still cheaper than a new car stereo

Author

Matt

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