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Tech Lab

Wi-Fi ready radios won't tie you down

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hiawatha Bray
June 26, 2008

What's more boring than the stuff on AM radio? The stuff on FM radio, of course. No wonder millions subscribe to satellite radio services like XM and Sirius, or sample the delights of Internet audio streams.

According to Arbitron Inc., 33 million Americans listen to Internet audio every week. Most hear the audio streams through computer speakers, but that's a lousy deal when the PC is in one room and you're working or relaxing in another.

Luckily, a solution is at hand: the Wi-Fi wireless networking system that can transmit data over the air to any nearby digital device. And I don't just mean desktop PCs. You can now buy Wi-Fi equipped desktop radios that will let you hear thousands of online audio streams almost as easily as tuning in a Red Sox game. You can also listen to music stored on your computer's hard drive.

I went looking for one or two such radios and came up with four. None of them are cheap (though one looks it). An audiophile set from Boston's own Tivoli Audio costs an eye-watering $650, or $750 with a secondary plug-in speaker.

Each radio works in much the same way. Turn it on and follow a setup procedure that connects the radio to your home Wi-Fi signal. Then enter your Wi-Fi password by using a rotary knob or an infrared remote control - this part can be a hassle, but you need only do it once. You will also want to set up your home computer to recognize the radio as a network device, so it can play back tunes on your PC or Macintosh.

Each radio comes with a library of preselected Internet audio streams. By registering the device online, you can add your favorites. The process doesn't always work with subscription services like the Live365 Internet audio network, which requires users to log in before tuning in. But most online streams will work fine.

So which one should you buy?

The Phoenix WiFi Radio, from Baracoda SA of France, features a flimsy plastic case with tacky-looking speaker enclosures. The sound quality, while not exactly awful, is far inferior to the others I tried. The Phoenix website reads like a bad translation into English. The radio does a good job of letting you add new Internet stations, but only after you've struggled to make sense of it.

On the positive side, the Phoenix is the only portable radio in the bunch, with a carrying handle and rechargeable batteries.

Despite its flaws, the Phoenix would be a worthwhile purchase at $150 or so, but its list price of $249 is way out of line. Then again, I've seen it online for as little as $180.

I'm more kindly disposed toward the WFR-20, from Sangean America Inc., which lists it at $300; it's available for about $235 at Amazon.com. The WFR-20 delivers much more for the money: a sleek, attractive black case, two big speakers that deliver rich sound, an Ethernet port for users who lack Wi-Fi, and a credit-card-size remote control that's so sleek I lost it and had to be sent another.

The SoundBridge Radio, from Roku Inc., offers good value for $300. It picks up AM and FM signals as well as Wi-Fi and features a slot for SD memory cards. The SoundBridge also has a big remote control that's ideal for the thick-fingered and absentminded. And the company's supporting website not only lets you add more Internet streams, but also change channels or switch the radio on or off from any room in your house.

But don't expect any discounts; every online retailer I could find is charging full price.

If money is no object, there's the NetWorks radio, from Tivoli Audio, due to go on sale this summer. I tried the $750 version, with the auxiliary plug-in speaker. Both devices are clad in heavy, high-quality wooden cases, and the speakers delivered excellent audio quality. Once again, there's a thin remote control unit, but I managed to hang onto this one.

Like the other radios, the NetWorks has an Internet service that allows users to add more streams. But the process is confusing and can take up to a day, while the other radios, even the Phoenix, let you add new stations in just a couple of minutes. While waiting for NetWorks to update, you can listen to local FM stations through an optional built-in tuner; the Wi-Fi-only version costs $50 less. Or plug an iPod or other digital music player into the NetWorks' USB port.

These early Wi-Fi radios are too pricey for the mass market, but that's bound to change, given the growing demand for online audio. Cheap Internet radios will quite likely be commonplace in a few years. They will probably pick up AM and FM stations as well, not that anybody will care.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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