- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

— What are you going to listen to? Norway’s 24-hour folk music channel Allttid Folkemusikk? The public hearings of the California Integrated Waste Management Board? Radio Banadir - the Most Trusted News in Somalia?

It’s a big world out there, and radios that grab their sound from the Internet rather than the airwaves can bring it home.

Wi-Fi Internet radio sets have been around for a while without getting much attention, but they’re worth a look: Prices have come down, and features are up.

I tested four models, and found the best of them a great addition to the kitchen, the breakfast table or maybe the patio.

The features vary quite a bit - this isn’t a category where any manufacturer has had a breakout and created a de facto standard for others to copy.

What unites the units I tested is that they all have Wi-Fi, so they can connect to the Internet via your home hot spot and broadband connection. They also have built-in speakers, unlike the devices known as “media bridges” and Apple Inc.’s Airport Express, which can play music through a stereo or a set of powered speakers.

With the exception of the Aluratek model, all the radios in the test can be programmed through a PC, though you don’t have to keep the computer on for the radios to play music. Register your unit at a Web site, and you can find your favorite stations (and, in a few cases, podcasts) and add them to your “Favorite Stations” list or assign them to the preset buttons on the unit.

None of these radios is dead-easy to use. People who don’t program speed dials on their phones or set the VCR clock will be daunted by an Internet radio. It’s probably inevitable that a device that vastly expands the usefulness of the radio will be tougher to use than turning a dial.

But the programmable preset buttons mean that a somewhat tech-savvy person could buy an Internet radio for, let’s say, elderly immigrant relatives, and set it up so that they could, with the touch of a button, get the sounds of the home country on the kitchen table. This presupposes that the relatives have Wi-Fi, which might be a stretch, but you get the idea.

cCom One Phoenix ($194 street, $250 list) was the all-around best model I tried. It’s the only one that was good at playing subscribed podcasts in addition to streaming Internet radio. It’s also the only one that can be used truly wirelessly, because it has rechargeable batteries that will power it for a few hours when disconnected from the wall outlet.

The interface consists of a few buttons, a wheel and an LCD screen. It’s not pretty, but reasonably intuitive. There’s no remote, which is good, because it’s one less thing to lose. It accepts flash drives with MP3s and other music files in a USB slot.

The biggest limitation of the Phoenix is the sound quality. It has two small speakers, producing sound barely better than a run-of-the-mill laptop. It works fine for spoken-word content, but it has by far the weakest bass of all the radios tested, so it’s harder to appreciate music.

Roku Soundbridge Radio ($299) is the second pick, even though it’s from 2005 and showing its age. It’s a large, handsome unit with stereo speakers backed up by a woofer. Together, they pump out the best sound of the test. The wide blue-glowing display presents a lot of information in an attractive way.

But it’s harder to use than the Phoenix, and you go back and forth between pressing buttons on the unit itself and on a remote. There is no support for podcasts, though you could possibly play them by first downloading them to a networked PC. The Roku can get audio files from a computer on the home network that runs Windows Media Player, iTunes or Rhapsody software. That’s better than the competing models, which talk only to Windows Media Player.

The Roku can also play music files from flash memory, but only from an SD card, not the more convenient flash drives. And its Wi-Fi chip does only 802.11b, which can slow down your hot spot if your other devices are newer ones with the faster 802.11g.

Grace Wireless Internet Radio ($172 street, $199 list) almost has the bass power of the Roku unit, but it’s from a single speaker. Mono sound feels antiquated, and with good reason: No matter how far you turn it up, it still sounds “small.”

This unit does play podcasts but not very well. For instance, you can’t pause them. There’s a button with a “pause” sign on it, but if you press it, the set will start playing a preset radio stream, rather than pausing your podcast. In other words, the user interface is a bit of a bear.

There’s also no provision for plugging in flash drives or memory cards.

Aluratek Internet Radio Alarm Clock ($147 street, $150 list) is another single-speaker solution. It’s a new model, and has some software glitches that should be straightened out in time. The unit I tried got stuck when trying to connect to my hot spot, and then garbled the sound when playing from a USB flash drive. An earlier prototype unit I tried had the same problem playing from USB.

It’s billed as an alarm clock, but it’s a bit too complicated for that role. For example, to get it to the display the time, you either have to leave it alone for a while, or navigate a menu. Like the other units, the kitchen or a table is a better place for it.

The Aluratek gets a point for being the only model in the test with an Ethernet port, which means you don’t have to mess with Wi-Fi if you can connect it conveniently to your router with a cable.

Like the Roku unit, the Aluratek has FM and AM reception in addition to the digital features, but I didn’t bother trying this, since all local stations of value broadcast online in better quality than I could pick up over the air.

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