(CNET) -- Internet radios are kind of like the Jerry Lewis of consumer electronics--apparently they're really big in Europe, but you don't hear much about them in the states.
That's too bad, because while your local AM/FM might be lame and satellite radio is still expensive, you're bound to find something you like on the thousands of stations available on an Internet radio. Web radio offers online simulcasts of many of the world's broadcast stations, as well as a wealth of Internet-only streams--in other words, even the most eclectic music and talk radio fans can find something worth tuning into.
The Grace Wireless Internet Radio is one of the few Wi-Fi radios available in the American market and--for less than $200--the price is right. Now, with that low price you'll have to make some concessions: the Grace is a bit short on connectivity, and we especially missed an auxiliary input so we could connect an external source such as an iPod.
On the other hand, the Grace Wireless Internet Radio scores well on many counts, including an attractive design, good sound quality, and hiccup free playback of Internet radio streams. At the end of the day, the Grace Wireless Internet Radio excels at its main purpose of pumping out thousands of Internet radio stations with solid sound quality and is one of the more recommendable models we've tested--just don't expect it to do any more.
The Grace ITC-IR1000B Wireless Internet Radio is a sharp-looking little radio. Its glossy black finish looks nice, but it is a magnet for fingerprints. The left half of the unit is dominated by a black speaker grille, which houses a single four-inch speaker. There's an LCD readout in the upper right that can display about four lines of text at a time. Down and to the left of the display are nine buttons, used for playback, storing presets, and navigation. Below that is a medium-size volume knob and to the right is a large knob that is used to navigate the thousands of stations available.
Overall, the experience for navigating all the stations is decent, especially if you're used to using a traditional tabletop radio. When you first turn it on, it connects to your wireless network, then loads up the last station you were listening to. If you're in the mood to select a new station, you can hit the browse button at the top.
One slight usability problem we ran into was how light the Grace Wireless Internet Radio is. The large scroll knob can be pressed to make selections, but often when we went to press it, we wound up pushing the whole radio back instead of pressing the button. We got into the habit of holding the Grace Wireless Internet Radio by the side when we wanted to make a selection, but it would be better if we didn't need to support it. That being said, the Grace's controls had a much nicer feel to them than the competing Asus Air, which feels cheap in comparison.
While we appreciate Grace's decision to keep things simple, we definitely would have liked some extra search categories. For instance, being able to narrow the fields by bit rate would be nice to weed out those rough-sounding 32Kpbs feeds. Alternatively, even to be able to use multiple filters at once--like jazz stations in Cleveland.
As it stands, too often you'll make a couple choices and have a thousand feeds to flip between, which are too many to reasonably choose from. It would also be nice if there was some way to see how others users rate stations, as another way to make it easier to find a station you like. Of course, your best bet is to start building a library of favorite stations, which you can then jump to in an instant.
The Grace Wireless Internet Radio gets streaming audio from the Internet via your home's broadband connection and Wi-Fi network. The Radio has a built-in 802.11g, but it'll also interface with slower 802.11b and faster 802.11n networks. There's a single Wi-Fi antenna in the back, which can be rotated but not replaced--you cannot unscrew it.
It's compatible with both WEP and WPA security, and we had no problem logging into our WPA network--although entering the network key is a bit tiresome using the scroll wheel (luckily you only have to do it once). There's no Ethernet jack--meaning the wireless network is mandatory, not optional--and the only other connection available is a stereo headphone jack around the back.
The radio has clock, alarm, and sleep functionality, but are pretty limited. For example, you have to set the clock manually (why can't it sync with an online clock?), and it only displays the time in 24-hour style (military time), instead of the more common 12-hour style. The alarm works as advertised, but you can't actually set it to play music when it goes off--only a standard beeping sound. The alarm functionality is obviously just an afterthought, but adding some more alarm-centric features like a snooze button on top and dual alarms could make the Grace a nice bedroom companion. Sleep functionality works as you'd expect, with the ability to set any amount of time in 30-second increments up to 24 hours.
The Grace lets you set 5 stations as presets, which is definitely not enough when you have thousands of stations to choose from. Maybe we have eclectic tastes, but we would have liked to be able to save closer to 50 stations instead of 5. While 50 individual preset buttons would be too many, Grace could easily add a "favorites" option, and a separate menu to navigate your favorite stations.
Actually you can do that with the Grace ITC-IR1000B, although it's not mentioned in the manual or Grace's Web site (not prominently, anyway). Since the Grace Wireless Internet Radio uses a third-party database for its Internet radio stations--called Reciva--you can visit the Reciva Web site and register your radio. We registered just for kicks, but lo and behold, it unlocked some useful functionality.
The next time we browsed for stations we spotted a section called "My Stuff," which had three submenus: "My Stations," "My Podcasts," and "My History." My Stations is a list of the stations you "favorite" on the Reciva site, "My Podcasts" lists the podcasts feeds you've manually entered onto the site, and "My History" is a list of stations you've recently played. To our delight, My Stations can hold more than 5 favorite stations--we had at least 15 in our list.
This isn't an ideal solution--if you're browsing around on the radio and find something you like, you'll either have to give it one of your precious 5 presets or remember the name and enter it on your Reciva account the next time you're on the computer. That being said, we really appreciated this functionality considering the overwhelming amount of choice--and the big deviations in quality between stations. Also, to be clear: the station and podcasts favorites are attached to your free Reciva account, so they'll continue to be accessible even if your computer is turned off.
One feature we would have liked to see is the ability to see the tracks currently being played. For instance, we were enjoying some German rock music on our favorite free-form radio station, WFMU, but had no idea who the artists were so we could look them up later. That's not exactly a knock against the Grace Wireless Internet Radio--most standalone Wi-Fi radios lack this ability and not every station supports it--but it still feels sorely missed after getting used to the feature on the Logitech Squeezebox Duet.
On top of standard Internet radio, the Grace Wireless Internet Radio can also pull digital music off your PC. We had no problems using Windows Media Player as a UPnP server and gaining access to our tracks--although playback was far from perfect (more on this later).
You can view tracks by standard categories like Artist, Album, and Genre, but we were disappointed to see that the list wasn't actually alphabetical--we couldn't tell how it was arranged. Luckily, it did let us browse by folders, which made browsing our meticulously organized music collection easy. If you're not as detailed, browsing your music will probably be a pain. Supported file formats include MP3, WAV, AAC, AIFF, WMA, and Real Media--no DRM formats are supported.
Gadget enthusiasts will find plenty missing on the Grace Wireless Internet Radio. For example, the competing Asus Air comes with a remote control, an Ethernet jack, a removable Wi-Fi antenna (the Grace's is not removable), a stereo RCA-jack analog output, and a minijack input--especially useful for hooking up an iPod. While we'd agree that the minijack input and the remote would definitely be worthwhile additions to the Grace's Wireless Internet Radio feature set, we didn't miss the other features. On the other hand, the Asus lacks the ability to stream music off a networked PC, so it depends on which features are more important to you.
One feature we'd love to see is battery power, which would make it a breeze to carry from say, the kitchen to the bedroom--even outside (if your Wi-Fi range is good enough). If you're interested in a battery-powered Wi-Fi radio, be sure to check out the Sony VGF-WA1, which has a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery.
Also, note that there's no over-the-air access to standard AM or FM radio. If your favorite local station doesn't Webcast online--or your Internet connection dies--you won't be able to hear it.
The Grace Wireless Internet Radio sports a single five-watt speaker, which means you'll be limited to monaural sound. That's not necessarily a bad thing; with tabletop radios we've sometimes preferred the mono sound from a Tivoli to stereo sound from lesser radios. Let's face it, on units such as these where the speakers are only a few inches away from each other, you're not going to get stereo separation anyway. There's also a bass port in the back to help fill in the low end.
Before we start talking about sound quality, let's get some caveats out of the way. First, remember that Internet radio is compressed by nature (sometimes fairly severely), so no matter how good the radio is, it's not exactly a "hi-fi" experience. Secondly, keep in mind that the Grace Wireless Internet Radio is a tabletop radio and sounds like one--don't expect the same sound you get out of a real component-based sound system.
With those caveats out of the way--and when considering its $200 price tag--the Grace Wireless Internet Radio sounds pretty good. We tuned into a bunch of music types, including classical, jazz, rock, hip-hop, and the Grace held its own. Sure, when we cranked the volume all the way up, you'll start to get some distortion, and you can hear the little four-inch speaker struggling. Still, we could turn the volume up to about 85 percent, and it got plenty loud enough for small-to-medium rooms without breaking up. Sure, the Grace can't compete with the thumping bass of the Polk I-Sonic, but that model costs three times as much (and lacks Internet radio).
However, a fairer test is head-to-head with the similarly priced Asus Air, and the Grace Wireless Internet Radio easily came out on top. We had the two units set up right next to each other and it was no contest. The Air sounded thin and tinny--and it only got worse as we turned up the volume--while the Grace sounded rich and full comparatively. The difference is substantial enough that we'd strongly recommend anyone even marginally interested in audio quality to choose the Grace over the Asus.
Wireless connectivity was excellent overall for Internet radio, as signal dropouts were very rare in our experience. When loading a new station, there's a few seconds of buffering--which will be alien to AM/FM radio buffs--but that's standard on an Internet radio. For streaming music, it wasn't nearly as solid. We tried listening to the title track of Pat Martino's East! twice, and both times it cut out in the middle of the song and skipped to the next one. Listening to the rest of the album, we had the same experience. Perhaps it was the vagaries of our network connection, but we can't vouch for interruption-free playback on files from your computer.
If you're interested in more solid streaming of music from your PC, check out our list of top digital music streamers. Most of those models handle Internet radio as well, but most of them don't have built-in speakers and will need to be connected to a separate stereo system. E-mail to a friend
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