Belkin TuneStage II review:

Belkin TuneStage II

Yes, our normal digital audio caveat still applies: Critical 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 at the quality. The other 98 percent of iPod users will likely find the wireless audio quality of the TuneStage 2 to be indistinguishable from listening to a direct-wired connection. 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.

Another benefit: The TuneStage 2 should work just fine with other Bluetooth devices. Click here or check our Tips and Tricks section for help. For instance, we had no trouble streaming stereo music from a Motorola Q. The smart phone recognized and paired with the nearby TuneStage 2 base station without a problem. That's a great omen for the Apple iPhone, too. Belkin couldn't confirm this (the Apple iPhone is months away from release), but as the first product in the iPod family with built-in Bluetooth 2.0, there's no reason that the iPhone shouldn't be able to stream directly to an existing TuneStage 2 base station without the need for the transmitter dongle to be attached.

As far as downsides of the TuneStage 2 go, it's a pretty short list. We knocked the original TuneStage for its less-than-solid build quality. Indeed, the TuneStage 2 maintains the same hollow-plastic feel as the previous model, but the base station doesn't have to do anything more than sit on your stereo. We'd say the transmitter dongle isn't solid as a rock either. but it's no less delicate than most iPod models are to begin with. There's no digital audio output, but we've only seen that on much more expensive products, such as the $600 Escient FireBall FP-1. The biggest concern is probably that the adverse effect the TuneStage has on the iPod's battery life. Because it draws power directly from the iPod, the transmitter depletes the music player's battery that much more quickly.

There are always alternatives, of course, but the TuneStage 2 offers some notable benefits to each. A $5 patch cable can connect an iPod to any stereo system with a line-in port, but you'll lose the convenience and freedom that the wireless solution offers. The Logitech Wireless Music System for iPod is an almost identical Bluetooth-based transmitter/receiver product, but it's a far less elegant design than the Belkin. Likewise, most iPod users will find the TuneStage 2 to be a more convenient alternative to digital media receivers. Unlike devices that stream digital music over a home network from your PC's hard drive to the stereo, the TuneStage 2 doesn't require you to leave your PC powered on, nor does it require any headache-inducing networking configurations. Even the eagerly awaited $300 Apple TV requires you to navigate your media on the TV screen; that's going to be overkill for anyone who just wants to crank up some music.

In the final analysis, the Belkin TuneStage 2 corrects nearly all the shortfalls found in the original product. Its compatibility with a wider array of iPod models, updated Bluetooth specification, USB charging option, and slick black-and-silver design make it a premier wireless iPod accessory for the home. Combine those benefits with an affordable price--under $120 online--and it's a no-brainer. If you want a plug-and-play wireless solution for home iPod listening, the TuneStage 2 is an easy recommendation.

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