While at Target earlier today looking for something else entirely, I stumbled upon the VRFM3 FM Transmitter by Virtual Reality Sound Labs. What caught my eye about this FM transmitter is the fact that it will play MP3 and WMA files directly from either a flash drive inserted into its USB port or an Secure Digital (SD) card inserted into its SD slot (see below). Of course, there's also a line-in jack for transmitting audio from another source (e.g., an iPod or Treo), but this is the first unit I've seen to offer both USB and SD interfaces. So, excited by the prospect of easy, cheap, portable, and completely wire-free tunage for any car I happen to be in, I plunked down my $49.99 and headed home to put the VRFM9 through its paces.
After an initial test, I'm very impressed by how well this device works. It does exactly what you would expect, if not hope, it to do, which, unfortunately, seems to be a rarity in consumer electronics. Plus, even more a rarity are the extensive written instructions (including color diagrams) that came with the device.
First, I tried the typical external input mode with my Treo 700p as source. The VRFM9 automatically detects which source is hooked up (if music is available by more than one source, priority goes first to the external line-in, then to the USB port, then last to the SD card slot; the unit will only play music from one source) and transmits that via one of its 15 preset FM channels (8 in the low range and 7 in the high range...enough to satisfy nearly everyone nearly all the time). The two-line LCD (at right) offers some information about the FM channel being used, play mode (normal v. shuffle), source, etc. If the unit is playing an MP3 or WMA file straight off USB or SD card, it will display the artist and song title as well (assuming these tags are present in the audio file). It's a bit cryptic and not a lot of characters appear at once, but given that you likely won't be interacting a lot with this device, it's certainly adequate, if not surprisingly nice. One nice UI touch is that when you switch tracks or change the volume, the display changes to show extra-large characters (e.g., "011/045" to let you know you're on track 11 of 45 total tracks on that source) for enhanced readability.
Second, I tried a couple different SD cards. Both my 2GB and 4GB SD (not SDHC) cards worked fine. The VRFM9 will scan the card when inserted and start playing the first one it comes across. It appears to play in this order: (1) anything in the root directory, in alphabetical order by file name, (2) anything in sub-directories in alphabetical order by sub-directory, then by file name within each sub-directory. Of course, putting the unit in Shuffle mode randomizes play across all files in all directories. One odd thing I noticed was that the unit would attempt to play the two WMV files I had in one sub-directory, but it was unsuccessful as no sound was transmitted.
I then attempted to use the VRFM9 with a USB flash drive (specifically, the 4GB Patriot Xporter XT that I reviewed previously), but no joy. The unit displayed "No Source" with that USB drive. I'll hunt around for another one and give it a go when I get a chance. Another note regarding use with flash drives; not all will fit. Particularly fat flash drives may be too girthy to fit into the VRFM9's port. If there's an SD card inserted, this further reduces the space around the USB port. Most normal extension cables will work fine.
One interesting tidbit is that a USB flash card reader that mounts like an external drive will let the user effectively play music through the VRFM9 via any of the flash media formats the reader supports. But as above, music will be played from only one card at a time. I tried plugging in an external USB hard drive (full 120VAC 3.5" drive), but no dice...the unit didn't recognize that anything was plugged in to the USB port.
Controls on the unit are spartan but adequate. They all click nicely and the dual-function (click vs. hold) is reasonably intuitive.
Now, two minor complaints. First, even though the unit ratchets through about a 120-degree sweep, the LCD isn't particularly readable except at very direct angles. So, if your car's cigarette lighter/power socket is way off to the side of the center console, you may not have much luck reading the display while driving. Second, as with all FM transmitters, sound quality is not particularly good. After all, you're limited to the sound quality of FM radio, which isn't going to impress anyone. Audiophiles will want to look to other (and likely much more expensive) hardwired solutions for getting their portable audio broadcast through their cars' stereos.
Overall, I am quite impressed by this device. Not only does it do exactly what you think it should, it seems reasonably well made and is not terribly expensive. And, given that many people have at least one lower-capacity SD card or USB flash drive sitting in a drawer not doing anything, this makes for a very easy way to put it to work as a music sherpa for your car.
There are also some nice reviews of the VRFM9 over at Audioholics and Gizmos for Geeks if you're still on the fence or want more opinions.