Web-based applications and products like Apple's iTunes have made it easy to turn a laptop or a desktop into a music player. At the same time, thousands of radio stations are re-broadcasting their audio over the Internet to anyone who wants to listen. But what if you want to listen to, say, modern jazz from Mali or pop from Paris without dragging around a laptop? Enter the Internet radio: an appliance that looks like a radio and has an antenna – but connects over Wi-Fi to the Internet, and streams audio to speakers.
We recently looked at six of these devices (the market is quite crowded already, with more than a dozen products available). Just as it is with real radios, there are many differences between products that all seem to do the same thing. For this roundup, we tested the Sangean WFR-20, Grace Digital Audio's ITC-IR1000, ComOne's Phoenix, the C Crane Wi-Fi radio, Tangent's Quattro, and the Revo Pico.
Unfortunately, one product didn't make the grade: the Revo Pico radio we had constantly locked up and needed resets. Although it had some unique features (such as a water-resistant design, integrated FM radio, and internal batteries), the Revo Pico wasn't a real contender. For the remaining five radios, we looked at sound quality, features such as a wired Ethernet port or internal FM radio, and portability to differentiate.
Dominant software player
One side note - In the world of Internet radios, we found a surprising echo from the world of desktop computers: almost all the software is made by the same company. Reciva is the Microsoft of the Internet radio business. Out of the six products we tested, five were Reciva-based. Reciva is more than just a software vendor: the company tracks and catalogs the thousands of Internet radio feeds available. Thus, a Reciva-enabled Internet radio not only has Reciva's software but also has access to the Reciva feed of stations – the most important part of the whole picture.
Reciva also maintains a Web portal where you can register your radio and customize the menus that appear on the radio's dial. In our listening tests, we used a half-dozen stations from around the world. Rather than having to find and preset each of those stations on each device, we tracked them in our Reciva portal, added them to "My Stations," and wham, they appeared on every radio immediately.
In another strange echo from the world of operating systems, there are non-Reciva radios. The ComOne Phoenix radio, appropriately Apple-white and iPod-esque in design, runs ComOne's own software. More importantly, it has ComOne's selection of stations, a completely unsatisfactory and tiny selection compared to Reciva's.
An Internet radio should sound good, or at least as good as it can within the limits of digital music. While some radio streams are 32K monoaural, you can also easily find 128K stereo feeds. The difference is easy to hear, and the radios were very easy to tell apart. When playing music stored on a local file server, which all of the radios can also do, sound quality is even more important. We recruited and blindfolded listeners to offer their opinion on six different stations, paying attention to dynamic range, highs, lows and presence.
Most radios had an acceptable quality of sound, with the Sangean WFR-20 radio scoring highest in our listening tests. The Grace Digital Audio ITC-IR1000 and Tangent Quattro were about even in scores, with the C Crane WiFi coming in fourth. The lemon of the group for sound quality goes to the ComOne Phoenix device – even with two stereo speakers, the sound was tinny and we heard a pronounced buzz out of the mylar cones. If you plan to actively listen to music on your Internet radio, or are picky about the sound you get, go with the Sangean, Grace Digital Audio or Tangent boxes.
Wi-Fi access was one of the requirements for this roundup, so all radios tested included Wi-Fi. However, not all Wi-Fi is created equal. With some radios, the experience is more like an old tube-based radio: wait a minute or so for warm up before the music starts coming out.
The Sangean WFR-20, C Crane WiFi, and ComOne Phoenix kept time between power on and music down to 4 seconds or less, while Tangent Quattro and Grace Digital Audio ITC-IR1000 took between 20 and 25 seconds, typically, to connect over Wi-Fi. Others had a hard time staying connected to our enterprise Wi-Fi network using the guest access or WPA access for employees. We had considerable frustration keeping the ComOne Phoenix connected, and had bad experiences with Wi-Fi on the Tangent Quattro as well. The Grace Digital Audio ITC-IR1000 and Sangean WFR-20 had external Wi-Fi antennae, which probably would help in a more marginal Wi-Fi environment. The Tangent Quattro, C Crane WiFi, and Sangean WFR-20 all had Ethernet ports in addition to Wi-Fi, a feature we liked for the added flexibility and reduced start-up time.
While the Sangean WFR-20 and Grace Digital Audio ITC-IR1000 radios had direct 120V inputs (limiting their usefulness outside of the United States), all the others used a transformer, making it easy to use them worldwide. The ComOne Phoenix and Revo Pico also came with batteries, making them portable – although neither was so small that you could throw it in your luggage to carry on a short trip. The C Crane WiFi, ComOne Phoenix, Revo Pico, and Sangean WFR-20 all came with credit-card-sized remote controls. You can do without the remote control on all of the radios, though, if you don't want to use it. All of the radios have a headphone jack for private listening, but the Sangean WFR-20, Revo Pico, and Tangent Quattro all have an input for an additional source, such as an MP3 player.
Reciva service seems to have locked up the Internet radio market, and fortunately the company is doing a great job. This leaves radio manufacturers to compete on features such as form factor, speaker quality, price, network connectivity options, and add-ons such as a real FM radio. No one model blew everyone out of the water, because each one seems designed for a different use case. Our comparison chart will help you decide which of the models we tested will offer you the greatest listening pleasure.
Comparing Internet radios
Snyder, a Network World Test Alliance partner, is a senior partner at Opus One in Tucson, Ariz. He can be reached at Joel.Snyder@opus1.com.