iPod Accessories 2.0

Confused iPod

It may sound soooo last year to talk about “iPod accessories,” but there’s a new wave on the horizon. Or at least there should be. So far, add-ons to the world’s top-selling MP3 player have mostly been limited to relatively basic functions that (as iPod haters love to point out) aren’t included in the player itself, like an FM tuner and transmitter, Bluetooth, voice recorder, and camera connector. And now Samsung yepp K5 owners can brag that at least their MP3 player has a built-in speaker. Die-hard members of the Apple cult don’t seem to mind paying extra for features—to say nothing of high-priced add-ons like the Bose SoundDock—so where are all the seriously high-tech accessories that could really take advantage of that digital dock connector?

Belkin has been on the forefront of this, with very cool iPod accessories like the TuneStage and the TuneTalk Stereo external mic adapter. I had a chance to talk with Gavin Downey, director of mobility product management at Belkin, about what’s on the horizon and why we haven’t seen certain items (hello, WiFi adapter?) yet.

According to Downey, Belkin’s top-selling iPod accessory so far has been the TuneBase FM transmitter, which lets you charge your iPod via your car’s cigarette lighter while transmitting the audio to your car stereo wirelessly. Personally, I hate FM transmitters, and I’m waiting for the day when they simply disappear in a cloud of static. Can this really the best thing going for Belkin in this market?

I asked about the demand for the TuneTalk Stereo, which was long awaited by musicians who want to use their own mics to record directly to their iPod. But now that the wait is over (and has been for some time), I see surprisingly few musicians using it on gigs or at rehearsals. Downey revealed that “most of the excitement and enthusiasm has centered around education for lecture recording, things like that. In terms of musicians, we have seen some enthusiasm for the product, but musicians tend to look towards solutions like the M-Audio MicroTrack.”

That seems crazy to me unless you’re a pro, since iPod owners would only need to spend $70 to get very good recordings, especially when the iPod/TuneTalk combo is coupled to a a mixer and high-quality mics. The MicroTrack is overkill for most uses in terms of quality (24-bit, 96kHz, compared with the iPod’s “CD-quality” 16-bit, 44.1kHz) as well as in price (a budget-busting $500). The answer lies in the way the product was marketed, and the TuneTalk Stereo’s all-important line input has been virtually ignored.

What I really wanted to know is if there is anything coming down the pike that might make better use of the iPod’s digital input and output, like a headphone amplifier that uses the iPod’s dock connector instead of relying on the signal from the headphones jack? Or how about something for recording direct-to-iPod with better inputs than just a 3.5-mm jack. Downey’s response was typical of a company trying to make a buck: “It wouldn’t be challenging for us technically, except… how many users out there recognize the delta between the digital and analog outputs? It’s something we’ve talked about at Belkin, but basically it comes down to that the market moves very fast, and we need to maximize our resources to make products that resonate with a wide audience.” Though he did hint that they’ve got something pretty cool for musicians up their sleeve at CES.

I also asked Downey if we are stuck with Bluetooth for much longer, or do you think WiFi adapters for the iPod will start appearing. After all, with lossless compression, there’s actually some pretty impressive sound quality to be had off an iPod. If you could get that wirelessly without the compression of Bluetooth, that would be pretty exciting. While Downey believes WiFi is probably the future of audio distribution, “there are other proprietary technologies out there that are virtually lossless (providing higher sound quality) and use less power.” Personally, I can’t say I’m particularly excited by more nonstandard distribution methods.

Plenty of other possibilities exist as well. The dock connector’s throughput and the iPod’s hard drive speed already allow for recording video from analog sources (think iRecord, ATO iSee), so why not, say a battery-powered video camera like the one that came out years ago for some Archos players? Or how bout a TV tuner? Yeah, these are pipe dreams, but are we really doomed to iPod DJ-ing consoles (groan) and iPod vibrators (a whole different kind of groan)? I’m praying that we’ll see some more sophistication from accessory makers at the upcoming CES and MacWorld Expo. In the meantime, I’ll be in the bathroom listening to my iPod toilet paper dispenser.