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Network World - 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.
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.