Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Ivan (NO2CW), who writes:
Hello, I posted on YouTube my review of the Sangean WFR-28 FM and Wifi Internet radio receiver.
In particular I was able to sideload my directory of English Language broadcast stations from over 100 countries using their “Favorites” menu. It now sounds like the good old days of shortwave …almost. I can listen to the morning traffic report in Singapore, local news from Guam, afternoon talk show from Gibraltar and a nighttime DJ from Uganda – all in English.
Of course, a number of personal assistant device like the Amazon Echo also stream radio via the TuneIn Radio aggregator, but since these devices rely on voice commands, some stations can be difficult to call up. I still prefer a proper WiFi radio/Internet appliance like the Sangean WFR-28 or Como Audio Solo.
I am a heavy user of internet radios and have a few scatted around the home, the one most frequently used is the Grace in the kitchen. What stations do people listen to?
I listen to lots of different things while cooking, what I do is tune to a station local to whatever I am preparing. So that means a lot of Asian stations; Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Japan, China, Laos etc! A few months ago spending time in Southern California put me in the mood for Mexican food, so there has been a lot of Mexican radio playing in the kitchen lately. On the special occasions when cooking Grits for breakfast I usually listen to 103.3 AshevilleFM.
[Note to Mark: I’d like to think I have something to do with the fact you’re one of the only guys cooking grits in Australia! -Thomas]
The Logitech in the bedroom is usually tuned into European stations late a night as I drift off, and as I wake up and dress I’m usually listening to Japanese community radio stations.
In the main living area mostly USA alternative and indi rock, NPR or college radio is on.
I am a very serious flight-simmer and love exploring around the world this virtual way. I’m very serious about this so preflight and route planning takes up to an hour, so in the hours before a flight I quite typically listen to a station in the city my Cessna-404 twin turbo happens to be at that particular time.
I’m kind of interested – what are you guys listening to on internet radios?
PS. Oh and the Como Solo looks great – Im ordering one!
Your query is timely, Mark, as someone recently asked me the same question.
The Sangean WFR-28 WiFi Radio
I primarily use Internet radio to listen to music and local news outlets.
In terms of music, I love almost everything, but especially Jazz, Classic Rock, Big Band, Brazilian music, French, Mambo, Zydeco, Electronica, and, frankly, anything a little eclectic and musically interesting.
Some of my favorite music stations are: The UK 1940s Radio Station, RFI Musique, FIP, Radio Bossa Nova, KBON, Espace Musique (various outlets), CBC Ambient Lounge, Kanal Jazz, Radio Swiss Jazz, WNMB, RadioNostalgia, Celtic Music Radio 1530, WNCW, Radio 6 and Fréquence 2 to name a few.
In terms of news and talk, I listen to: CBC Radio 1 (Toronto, Montreal, St. Johns, Charlottetown), WFAE, WCQS, Alaska Public Media, Vermont Public Radio, France Inter, Radio Canada, ABC Radio Australia, ABC Northern Tasmania, Radio New Zealand National, BBC World Service, 7RPH, Federal News Radio, ABC Radio Perth and many, many more.
I especially love finding some random, local radio station and eavesdropping on their community news!
I have well over 100 stations/favorites organized in various folders on my WiFi radios.
Honestly, this 2016 election season in the States has so heavily dominated domestic news, I’ve focused almost exclusively on stations outside of the US to seek a little refuge.
Of course, I’m also a heavy shortwave listener. While using a WiFi radio lacks the “fun factor” and skill of SWLing, it certainly serves up a world of diversity and is the perfect compliment to shortwave listening.
Radio Australia serving up a blowtorch signal into North America this morning–a steady S9+20db on my Elecraft KX3.
As I type this post this morning, for example, I’ve been listening to the CBC and France Inter on my WiFi radio (the audio actually emanates from my vintage Scott Marine SLR-M via an SStran AM transmitter). I’ve been muting the WiFi radio from time to time to listen to the ABC top of the hour news and music programming on Radio Australia with my Elecraft KX3 (above).
Now…back to Mark’s question…
What do you, dear Post reader, listen to on your WiFi radio, mobile device or computer? Please comment!
But exactly why did I buy this small, self-contained digital music device–? Having just completed an in-depth review of several WiFi radios, I certainly didn’t need another. But the good-looking Solo, with its clean design and walnut casing really caught my attention…I couldn’t resist checking it out. Plus, in backing the radio via Kickstarter, I was able to purchase it for $100 less than the predicted future retail of $299 US.
The Kickstarter campaign funding Como Audio was prompt in communicating updates with backers and providing even more product options during the wait for production and delivery. Although several other snazzy finishes for the Solo were brandished before me, I stuck firmly by the walnut veneer I’d originally chosen.
Fast forward to the present. I finally received my Como Audio Solo a few weeks ago, and have had time to play with it. While I haven’t had time to explore every nuance of this radio, of course, I have had an opportunity to form some opinions.
I don’t often comment on the design of radios I review, but in this case it’s worth noting.
The Como Audio Solo, in wood, is elegant and simple. Love it:
The only element of the design I’m not typically keen on? I’m not the biggest fan of devices that sport colored backlit displays; to me they appear a bit flash and faddish, undermining a radio’s overall aesthetic.
But I must say, the Solo pulls it off. The color display in this case is somehow not too distracting–it’s soft yet crisp, and easy to read even at a distance.
In short, the Solo is a stunning piece of kit, especially with that warm walnut casing, and looks right at home in any setting–office, living area, kitchen, or at the bedside.
I’ve only one gripe with the Solo’s ergonomics: the front control knobs are a little too close to the bottom of the recessed controls area. When I try to turn a knob–for example, attempt to tune the FM band–I find my fingertips won’t fit between the knob and lower edge of the recessed panel, making the knobs a little hard to turn in one fluid motion. (Of course,this is also due to the fact that I have big fingers; my wife doesn’t seem to have this problem).
But this isn’t a dealbreaker as I’m finding I don’t often need to reach for the front controls, anyway. Why? Because the rig’s IR remote–or better yet, its smartphone app–control the radio effectively at any convenient distance from the radio. Sweet.
I’m a sucker for quality audio fidelity, and I must admit that this was one of the biggest deciding factors in purchasing the Solo: it touted extraordinary audio in a modest package, being designed around an acoustic chamber/chassis containing a 3″ woofer and 3/4″ dome tweeter fueled by a 2 X 30 watt RMS amplifier. I was very curious whether it could live up to its initial claim.
After turning on the Solo for the first time, I immediately wanted to hear audio, so I put it in Bluetooth mode and played a few songs, ranging from Jazz to Electronica.
In a nutshell: Wow.
The audio is strikingly reminiscent of my Tivoli Audio Model One…which is to say, it’s excellent. It packs more audio punch than any of the radios I reviewed in my WiFi radio comparison.
Out of the box, the audio is fairly well-balanced, too. But you can tweak the equalizer, and I did, drawing in a little more bass and treble. My wife (also a bit of an audiophile) was impressed. And yes, the sound is all the more remarkable considering the radio’s relatively small form-factor: little box, big voice.
The Como Audio Solo is one of the few Wifi radios on the market that has a built-in analog FM and DAB receiver (save the $120 Sangean WFR-28, which has analog FM reviewed here).
Since I live in the US, I can’t comment on DAB reception. I have, however, had an opportunity to test the FM analog reception. Keep in mind, I live in a rural area and require a decent FM receiver with telescopic antenna fully extended just to listen to my favorite regional programming.
When I tune the Solo to my benchmark FM stations, it can receive them–but not as effectively as many of my other radios, including the WFR-28. Even when forced to use the Mono setting only, the stations it receives carry too much static for good listening. So obviously the Solo isn’t as sensitive as some of my other radios, at least in this setting. Indeed, few stations it receives in this area are able to lock in to the point that there’s no static in the received audio. For out-of-towners, this is a bit of a disappointment.
With this said, I imagine if you live in an urban area, the FM receiver should more than please you. I’ve no doubt it can faithfully reproduce beautiful audio from local FM outlets.
I should add that, while FM reception isn’t stellar for distant stations, the RDS information does convey even when the audio isn’t full fidelity.
Of course, the main reason I purchased the Como Audio Solo was to use and review it as a WiFi radio…nothing at all to do with that sharp walnut chassis, or audio power.
As I outlined in my WiFi Radio primer, WiFi radios rely on station aggregators–extensive curated databases of radio stations–to surf and serve up the tens of thousands of streaming stations around the globe.
Based on feedback from Como Audio shortly after the Kickstarter launch, I was under the impression that the station aggregator of choice was vTuner. This concerned me, as vTuner’s reputation as an aggregator is somewhat maligned due to a series of documented faults and weaknesses. Fortunately, this turned out not to be the case: after the initial confusion, I soon discovered Como had adopted the more robust Frontier Silicon aggregator, instead–a better choice.
Since I’m a pretty big fan of Frontier Silicon and since I’ve already been using their service with my Sangean WFR-28, once I connected my radio to my user account, the WiFi portion of the radio felt identical to that of my WFR-28. Simply brilliant, as the Frontier Silicon radio portal gives the user flexibility to create station lists and folders with ease–all of which readily convey to the radio itself.
The Solo also features six dedicated memory buttons on the front panel for quick access to favorites.
I love the Solo’s design–this certainly is a handsome product. Moreover, I love the audio, and am pleased that it delivers the fidelity promised by its Kickstarter campaign. The Solo and Duet are loaded with features, connections, Aux In and Aux Out audio and digital ports–more, in fact, than any similar device with which I’m familiar. I regret that the rig’s FM isn’t suited for country life, but the audio coupled with its stylish exterior do make up for this somewhat.
I do wish the Solo had an internal rechargeable battery option. Being able to move the receiver to different locations within a home or building could be a major plus for rural FM reception. As my friend John pointed out, however, the audio amplifier is robust enough, it might have been a challenge to implement an affordable-but-effective internal battery without compromising the audio amplifier’s needs.
In truth, I favor audio fidelity over portability for a tabletop radio.
In conclusion…do I have any backer’s remorse? Absolutely not–!
In short, the Como Audio Solo is a keeper. I’m still marvelling at this classy and dynamic radio that fills our home with rich beautiful audio. A few weeks in, the Solo has already become a permanent feature in our abode. It’s one of the few radios I have that meets my artist wife’s approval in terms of both design and audio.
Great job, Como Audio! If the Solo is any indication of radios to come, I’ll certainly be looking for your future innovations.
We’ve finally arrived at the final part of our three-part primer on WiFi radios. By “WiFi radios,” of course, I mean Internet radio devices that have the sole purpose and dedicated function of streaming radio audio––devices which have now won over this die-hard radio traditionalist, not to mention, his entire family.
In Part 1 of our WiFi Radio Primer we discussed what makes WiFi radios “tick”––their ability to find radio stations via radio station aggregators. We also discussed the comparative merits of the most dominant aggregators on the market, and took a look at one easy alternative to the WiFi radio, namely, streaming from your smartphone or tablet.
In Part 2 we took a quick look at the WiFi radio market and the various manufacturers and models available that use proper aggregators with market longevity. We also reviewed the CC WiFi and Sangean WFR-28 WiFi Radios.
In Part 3, our final part in this series, we’ll investigate the Grace Digital Mondo and the Amazon Echo.
The Grace Digital Mondo
When I mentioned to TSM publisher Ken Rietz (KS4ZR) that I was in the process of reviewing several WiFi radios, he encouraged me to check out the Grace Digital Mondo, which is his personal favorite. Upon unboxing the radio, I could see why Ken likes the Mondo––the unit is stylish, easy to carry, sturdy, and features a rather exceptional color display. It also offers more functions and buttons on the control panel than any other radio I tested (a very handy thing, indeed).
The tuning control knob cycles through selections on the display with ease; the buttons all have a tactile response and are backlit. The Mondo even includes thumbsup/down buttons for music service like Pandora.
The Mondo also ships with a small, full-functioning remote control, which fits easily in the hand and is more tactile than the CC WiFi’s mini-remote control. Since I had already established a Reciva aggregator account (for the CC Wifi), getting the Mondo “on the air” was quite simple: I simply registered it as a new device at the Reciva website, restarted the radio, and all of my station memories, folders, and notes were instantly there. Indeed, even if I hadn’t already established a Reciva account, I feel confident that the process of finding stations and organizing them with Reciva would have been easy.
The Mondo has a built-in speaker that delivers beautiful, rich audio. It’s certainly a notch above the CC Wifi and Sangean WFR-28. The Mondo also has a built-in dual band equalizer with five preset modes, a nice touch. If I have a criticism of the Mondo’s audio, it would be that it caps the volume a little too low. While the radio is loud enough for day-to-day listening, some may find that it can’t reach the levels that may be desired if you want a bit more volume––for example, music for a party. For me, this is not a deal breaker, as its loudest setting still fills the main living area of our home with sound. I imagine the radio designers capped the volume to maintain the excellent overall fidelity of the internal speaker.
I love the color display screen, but do wish that it was a touch screen. When using the front panel to navigate the radio, you must cycle through the option with the main tuning knob. It’s fairly painless, to be honest, but I hope their next radio does employ a simple capacitive touch screen; at the $145 price level, I feel like this could be implemented.
The Mondo has a USB port, RCA composite line out, 1/8″ stereo Aux In and a DC power connector on the back of the unit.
I also love the fact that that the Grace Digital iOS/Android app serves as a remote control (much like that of the Sangean WFR-28) that can be used anywhere within WiFi range. The app has a lot of user-friendly features and makes searching through stations quite easy. My only complaint about this app is that many of the listings are in a fairly small font, thus touching to select an individual station name or category can be challenging on a small smartphone screen. Changing orientation from vertical to horizontal does not, unfortunately, increase the font size. I hope that a future update will allow for larger print, as my larger fingers have a hard time selecting stations and folders accurately.
Optional battery (see con)
Very simple operation
Full, well-balanced audio for both spoken word and music
Proper “snooze” button on top of radio, perfect for the bedside listener
All functions can be easily navigated via the radio’s front panel (no remote necessary)
Audio volume can become quite loud, but not very loud
The dedicated volume control and snooze time on top of the Mondo make it an ideal bedside radio choice.
I can see why so many listeners love the Grace Digital Mondo and why it receives positive reviews. If you’re looking for an intuitive, attractive portable WiFi radio–with audio that suits both music and the spoken word–the Grace Digital Mondo may very well be your best bet!
The Grace Digital Mondo can be purchased from the following retailers:
Without a doubt, the oddball in this group of WiFi radios is the Amazon Echo. What is the Echo? Amazon describes it thus:
Amazon Echo is designed around your voice. It’s hands-free and always on. With seven microphones and beam-forming technology, Echo can hear you from across the room—even while music is playing. Echo is also an expertly tuned speaker that can fill any room with immersive sound.
Echo connects to Alexa, a cloud-based voice service, to provide information, answer questions, play music, read the news, check sports scores or the weather, and more—instantly. All you have to do is ask. Echo begins working as soon as it detects the wake word. You can pick Alexa or Amazon as your wake word.
In essence, the Echo is an interactive audio information and entertainment system. What piqued my interest in the Echo was the fact that it is one of the few devices that uses the TuneIn aggregator for Internet radio streaming. C.Crane also makes a TuneIn-based radio––the CC Wifi 2––but I did not review it for this series. Amazon reviews indicated that the Echo did a fine job via TuneIn, so I took a chance and bit the bullet.
Like the other WiFi radios on this page, I’ve been using the Echo daily for nine months now. For most consumers who’ve purchased the Echo, I doubt the option of using Internet radio was the deciding factor in its purchase. Here, we’ll only focus on the WiFi radio aspects of the Echo.
Once I unboxed the Echo, I was impressed with its sleek, cylindrical design. The tubular chassis feels relatively sturdy. Once placed on a table, even though it stands at about 10 inches tall, the base is wide enough that it doesn’t feel like it’ll tip over. It looks very unlike a radio.
Volume can be adjusted by turning the light ring on top of the Echo. The audio is robust and room-filling.
What’s immediately obvious that the Echo lacks controls you find on other devices. In fact, there’s only a microphone mute button and the top of the device rotates like a large volume knob. There is a blue lit ring that lights up based on the feedback the Echo gives you (for example, to let you know it’s listening, answering, or “thinking”).
Set up is very simple––it’s complete in a matter of moments. Though virtually every function of the Amazon Echo can be controlled by your voice, you need to download the accompanying app for your smartphone or tablet (both iOS and Android supported). The app acts as a remote control of sorts, but as of the time of posting, falls a little short of my expectations.
So how does it work as an Internet radio? Brilliantly––well, almost.
First of all, the built-in speaker system is absolutely superb. It has the best, room-filling, rich audio fidelity of any other device reviewed here. It sounds much larger than it actually is. Best yet, it’s even a little hard to pinpoint where it is in a room; we’ve had house guests that couldn’t locate it in our living room without assistance. I’ve read reviews from audiophiles that believe the Echo’s audio falls a bit short of Amazon’s claims, but nonetheless, I’m pretty impressed.
Secondly, since the Echo uses voice commands, you never need to look for a remote or even touch the device to start it, change the volume, or tune it. Indeed, there’s no tuning knob: you simply ask the Echo for what you want to hear. For example, I could ask, “Alexa, play WNCW.” The Echo will then start streaming public radio station WNCW. I could also ask, “Alexa, play a radio station.” The Echo replies, in a pre-recorded female voice (think Siri), “What would you like to hear?” I could then say, “jazz” or “rock-and-roll,” and the Echo would select a station from TuneIn. If I ask the Echo to play a radio station that happens to belong to the iHeart radio network, it will default to the iHeart radio stream.
Sounds terrific, right? Well…not exactly.
Alas, the Echo struggles to recognize some station call letters. From the example above, there was no difficulty playing WNCW or WWNC, but when I asked for CFZM (740 AM Toronto), it was confused. You basically need to know how the station is listed in TuneIn or iHeart radio in order to know exactly what to ask for. In the case of CFZM, I looked up the entry and discovered that it’s listed (via TuneIn) as “Zoomer Radio.” I found, though, that the only combination of words I could use to get the Echo to play CFZM was, “Alexa, play radio station Zoomer Radio.” And that was after innumerable trials.
This is where voice commands––which should make this system incredibly accessible––actually make it very frustrating. The night I installed the Echo in my home, I attempted to have it play the the UK 1940s Radio Station, an Internet station I particularly like. After about fifteen minutes of trial and error––attempts to speak more clearly, in different accents or pitches, using different word combinations––I eventually discovered the only way I can get the Echo to play this station is by asking, “Alexa, play a program,” and when it asks which program I would like to hear, I reply, “The 1940s Radio Station.” The prefix “UK” must be eliminated from the phrase, as it is unrecognized.
When muted, the Echo’s light ring glows red as a reminder.
Don’t get me wrong: I think the Echo’s voice commands are nothing short of amazing. I don’t have to stand next to the device or speak very loudly––I can be across the room and speak in a normal voice; even with ambient noise and music in the background, the Echo almost always “hears” my requests.
A huge mark against the Echo, however, is that the Echo cannot link up to your TuneIn account––at least, not at present. This means the Echo can’t sort through your station memories or use your most recent playlists to help decipher what you’re asking it to play. I sincerely hope that Amazon remedies this flaw in a future software upgrade. The Echo will, however, link to your iHeart Radio, Audible, Pandora, and (of course) Amazon accounts.
There are no memory presets with the Echo: you simply ask for the station you want to hear.
Being an Amazon Prime member with an Echo means that the Echo will stream Prime content like music, and even read Audible books to you, without advertisements or interruptions. I’m not the biggest fan of Prime Music playlists, but I must admit that I’ve been impressed with the 1940s-era music selection (again, one of my favorite genres). I can ask, “Alexa, play Tommy Dorsey,” and the Echo will produce a variety of Tommy Dorsey numbers without any ads or interruptions.
I should note, too, that kids love the Echo because it’s also quite accessible to them (and will spew out almost an endless number of riddles and corny jokes). It “understands” their young voices just as easily as those of the adults in the house.
Very easy setup
If you’re a fan of Amazon, or a Prime member, you’ll be pleased with the added functionality
Links with Pandora and iHeart Radio accounts (see con)
Much more functionality than a typical WiFi Radio
Echo functionality is continuously improved–weekly, even daily–with automatic software updates
TuneIn: long radio station names are not always understood. Takes voice training, trial and error, on the part of both device and listener/programmer
Advanced music features (Prime Music is a default) requires Prime membership purchase at $99 annually
No line out
Well centered in the Amazon.com ecosystem
No link (yet!) to TuneIn account preferences
Relies solely on voice commands for TuneIn Radio, Alexa remote app doesn’t allow station tuning (at time of publication)
There is one uneasy truth about the Echo that is always in the back of my mind, however: it very much lives within the Amazon ecosystem––and thus puts you there, too, like it or not.
Admittedly, if you’re a regular Amazon customer, especially if you’re a Prime member, you may appreciate the functionality and links to Amazon’s own content, along with the requisite personalization and customization. It’s handy to be able to ask Alexa to put an item on your (Amazon) shopping list. But if you like privacy and anonymity, the Echo doesn’t necessarily respect that.
I imagine, like Apple’s “Siri” and Google’s “Google Now,” Amazon is in a position to gather a lot of data about your listening habits, just like it follows your purchasing habits. Amazon states very clearly that the Echo only listens after the wake-up word “Alexa” is spoken, but it just feels a bit odd knowing you have an Internet-connected device that is always on…and always listening to you.
Each of the WiFi radios we’ve investigated––the C.Crane CC Wifi, Sangean WFR-28, Grace Digital Mondo and Amazon Echo––have their strengths and weaknesses, and each has some highly unique characteristics.
The C.Crane CC Wifi
The C.Crane CC Wifi, for example, has been on the market longer than its competition, thus lacks a color display and any sort of smartphone functionality. Still, at time of publishing, it is the least expensive in our comparison and offers good sound quality and overall functionality for the price.
C.Crane also offers excellent customer support to back this little radio should you encounter problems.
The Sangean WFR-28
The Sangean WFR-28, in my book, offers the most “bang-for-buck” of this bunch.
Though its audio fidelity isn’t quite as good as the Grace Mondo and Amazon Echo, it’s still better than I anticipated. The price point is only slightly higher than the CC Wifi, and for that you get a color display with intuitive controls and smartphone application remote functionality.
The Sangean Frontier Silicon aggregator is also very easy to use––perhaps the easiest, in fact, to organize memory folders. With four standard NiMH D cells internally-charged, you can look forward to hours of portable WiFi radio entertainment. Best yet, the WFR-28 is the only WiFi radio we tested that also has a built-in FM receiver.
The Grace Digital Mondo
The Grace Digital Mondo looks and feels much like the beloved Logitech Squeezebox which was discontinued by the manufacturer some time ago.
Audio is well-balanced and offers above-par fidelity, though I do wish it could serve up a little more volume. And it’s quite portable, especially if you splurge for the proprietary battery pack.
The Amazon Echo
The Amazon Echo is quite an amazing device on many fronts––especially if you’re an Amazon Prime member. If you’re not a Prime member, and/or don’t particularly like global media Internet superstores like Amazon, you might pass.
While the Echo has access to both the excellent TuneIn aggregator and iHeart radio, calling up stations with voice commands can be incredibly frustrating.
Here’s the thing, though: the Echo is being aggressively updated by Amazon. New functionality is added weekly and its popularity is clearly growing.
I hope Amazon will eventually allow the Echo to tap into TuneIn preferences so favorite stations can be found quickly and, perhaps, with keywords (think, “Alexa, play 1940s” and it calls up The UK 1940s Radio Station). At present, Alexa only accurately calls up the stations we request 60% of the time, and discovering the right word combination to increase this percentage is monotonous.
So, which radio did we choose?
My wife and I find that we’ve used two models more than others: The Amazon Echoand the Sangean WFR-28.
We find that we use the Echo to listen to only a handful of favorite radio stations via TuneIn. Most of the time, we play only our favorite stations with the Echo, so that we we can simply ask, “Alexa, play TuneIn.” She’ll call up the last station played. With full fidelity and a down-facing speaker system, it’s hard to detect where the Echo’s room-filling sound originates. But what we have found the Echo really good for is hands-free Internet access––besides reminding us of things and offering an impromptu alarm, it’s a a weights and measures converter, a weather forecaster, a headline newsreader, a science-fact researcher. And for our kids? The Echo is a dictionary, an encyclopedia––and, I’m afraid, a joke generator. Thus, the Echo has become a fixture in our home, and in my estimation, is a value at the $179 asking price.
The Sangean WFR-28
The Sangean WFR-28, though, is my favorite WiFi Radio in the bunch. Why? It offers such good value, and is so simple to operate. It’s a great little companion around the house and can easily be moved from location to location. Good quality rechargeable D cells will power it for hours upon hours.
But the clincher is this: everyone in our house gave it a thumbs up. Even my wife. That’s good enough for me, and so we’re keeping it…on.
As I mentioned last week in the first of this three-part primer on WiFi radios, I never thought a WiFi radio was something I’d ever acquire. By “WiFi radios,” of course, I mean Internet radio devices that have the sole purpose and dedicated function of streaming radio audio, and so, as a die-hard ham with a penchant for a well-balanced tuning knob, I just couldn’t see the need for what I thought of as an overly-simple, perhaps even redundant, device.
Indeed, until I began the as a search for the perfect radio for my family and XYL (“ex-young lady,” old ham radio speak for wife), I had used only an app on my smartphone (with headphones), and on tablet PCs connected to amplified speakers, in place of a dedicated WiFi radio. And I was fine with that. Or so I thought…
Fast-forward several months. Now that the XYL and kids have been using WiFi radios for a while, I don’t think they’ll go back. And as for myself? Yes, I’ve crossed that no-return boundary, too. Our whole family’s now joined the WiFi radio club, and the truth is, we’re all enjoying the WiFi’s simplicity and unique benefits.
In Part 1 of our WiFi Radio Primer, we discussed what makes WiFi radios tick––their ability to find radio stations via radio station aggregators. We also discussed the comparative merits of the most dominant aggregators on the market, and took a look at one easy alternative to the WiFi radio, namely, streaming from your smartphone or tablet.
Now we’ll investigate some of my picks from the current market.
WiFi radios: an overview
WiFi radios, by and large, look like traditional radios; they typically have backlit digital displays, front panel buttons to recall memories, and an internal speaker. They function like them, too, in that they play radio stations––but there’s where the resemblance stops. Streaming lnternet audio, and their dependence upon an aggregator to do this, sets them entirely apart.
The market for WiFi radios is actually not as broad and diverse as the shortwave radio market. If you’re seeking a quality device that uses a well-known, properly-curated station aggregator (again, see Part 1 for more on this), you’ll be looking at about a dozen (or so) radios currently on the market.
Here’s a short list of the current market’s most popular WiFi radios. Note that this is by no means a comprehensive list––it’s a curated list of WiFi radios that are in wide use, are relatively simple to operate, have built-in speakers, and that use reliable aggregators. I’ve noted the aggregator in parentheses as well as the average US purchase price.
After much research and head-scratching, I chose four WiFi radios from the above list: the C.Crane CC WiFi, the Sangean WFR-28, the Grace Digital Mondo and the Amazon Echo.
FYI––and in full disclosure––here’s how I obtain my review radios. To keep my review budget within reason, I contact a supplier and request a loaner unit for review that I may return or purchase afterward; otherwise, I purchase the unit(s) outright. In this case, I purchased the Amazon Echo ($179), Grace Digital Mondo ($150), and rechargeable “D” cells for the WFR-28 ($30), while both C.Crane and Sangean kindly opted to send sample review radios, this being a less expensive route for these retailers. When I receive samples, my policy is to give away those I don’t wish to keep; for those I do decide to keep, I donate the full retail price to Ears To Our World, a 501(c)(3) non-profit which sends self-powered shortwave radios to teachers in off-grid developing world communities.
The decision process, this time, was a particularly difficult one. Every model has its advantages and disadvantages; and there are no “perfect” WiFi radios––at least, none that satisfied all of my stringent requirements:
Dedicated memory buttons on front panel
Clear, robust audio
An internal rechargeable battery option (for portability)
Traditional FM and/or AM radio tuner
Several friends urged me consider the Pure EVOKE F4, which reportedly has excellent audio, a simple interface, and superb customer support. Plus, it’s a sleek little device, and…well, frankly, cute. Many have also touted Pure’s own proprietary aggregator, as well. But I just couldn’t justify purchasing and reviewing a WiFi radio with such a hefty price tag ($225), especially knowing that I would also need to purchase the optional battery pack ($50) for a total performance picture.
Following are summary reviews of each radio I tested. These are not comprehensive reviews covering every feature; rather, in these summaries, I focus my analysis on their ability to tune stations, on audio quality, on portability, and simply on general usability.
The C.Crane CC WiFi
I’ve had many C.Crane radios in the past. I love C.Crane products because they’re typically well-designed, effective, and because C.Crane offers excellent customer support.
The CC WiFi radio has been on the market longer than any other WiFi radio reviewed here. When I first unboxed the CC WiFi, I was a little surprised by its diminutive size: it is, perhaps, 30% smaller than I expected (based solely on web images and from the catalog). It comes with a small remote control with blister/membrane style buttons. The front panel on the CC WiFi is very simple: one large knob, six buttons, and a monochrome backlit two-line alpha-numeric display.
The front panel of the CC Wifi is simple and intuitive. The main knob acts as both a selection dial and volume control.
Setup is fairly easy; the accompanying owner’s manual walks you through the process (another C.Crane strength is their production of good-quality manuals). Once I had set up the radio and registered it with the Reciva aggregator, I was tuning in the world.
The CC WiFi’s plastic chassis feels rather thin––at least, thinner than I would have expected. But the radio is surprisingly lightweight, perhaps as a result of this. Fortunately I was pleasantly surprised by the audio from the internal speaker. It provides a full sound and is more than adequate for medium-sized rooms. Bass tones are present, though not especially deep. It’s wonderfully balanced for the spoken word.
All of the external ports are on the rear panel of the CC Wifi and include an ethernet connection, headphone jack, line-out jack and power port (7.5 VDC).
The CC WiFi only has three buttons on the front panel of the radio that act as dedicated memory presets. I wish this number were, at the very least, doubled. With the provided remote control, of course, memory presets are expanded to 99 allocations. Fortunately, you can pretty much operate the CC WiFi’s functions without the remote control (a bonus for those of us who tend to misplace tiny remote controls).
There are a few updates that I think would make the CC WiFi shine:
To help with portability, it would make sense to add a carry handle and capacity for internal rechargeable batteries. The CC WiFi requires a DC power supply to operate; this is a shame because I suspect other listeners, like me, often enjoy radio away from home where there are no main power outlets. The unit is small enough, and lightweight enough, that it would lend itself very well to portability.
Though I’m sure the two-line backlit display was among the best in its class when the CC WiFi was introduced, I now find myself wishing this display could be a bit wider, taller, and (ideally) in color. The display is small enough that if you’re browsing stations with the accompanying remote control, you need to be within a few feet of the radio. If it’s across the room, however, it’s very difficult to navigate.
Additionally, the display width is not sufficient for longer Reciva station names/labels. As an example, I have a folder with local CBC stations from across Canada. Stations are labeled with the town or city name following, for example, “CBC Radio One – Toronto” or “CBC Radio One – Charlottetown.” When I’m browsing the folder of CBC stations, the display merely shows me a long list of “CBC Radio One” stations––which is to say, the truncated display cuts off the city’s name. Of course, I can press the right arrow on the remote to have the station name slowly scroll into view, but this is a cumbersome process when browsing the list. There are, of course, work-arounds for this––I could, for example, create folders for each city, or assign the station to a dedicated memory position––but the then I would have to drill down another level to find my station. “Work” around is the operative term, in either case, .
Headphone jack (on back)
Included IR remote control
Audio quite good for size of unit (bass, see con)
Live365 (now defunct)
No battery-power option
Thin, “plasticky” feel to chassis, seems less durable
Overall, I think the CC WiFi is a good value and is currently one of the least expensive WiFi radios using the excellent Reciva aggregator. The CC WiFi has a surprising number of features for its price class. None of the criticisms above are necessarily deal-breakers, but some strategic upgrades to this radio would keep it competitive for many years to come.
The CC Wifi can be purchased from the following retailers:
When I first unboxed the Sangean WFR-28, I immediately noticed its design, which bore a striking similarity to other Sangean AM/FM portables like the Sangean PR-D7. The WFR-28 has a glossy hard plastic body that feels robust and durable. The buttons are spaced well across the front panel and have a tactile responsiveness and weight that speaks of quality. There is a dedicated volume rocker button, five memory preset buttons, as well as a dedicated tuning knob and five function buttons.
The WFR-28 also has an easy-to-read square color screen that provides about five lines of text and can display any broadcaster artwork/logos provided. You can access all of the WFR-28’s functions by using the front panel buttons and tuning controls. As with most WiFi radios, doing so is not as enjoyable an experience as with most traditional radios, since you’re using a tuning control to move up or down through selections on a small display.
The Sangean remote control app allows full control of the WFR-28’s functions.
The Sangean WFR-28 does not ship with a remote; however, if you have an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet, you can download a free “remote control” app to control your radio.
I find that this is actually more convenient than with a traditional IR remote, because you can control the radio functions from anywhere within your WiFi network. Not to mention, it’s great to be able to turn the volume up from another room in the house!
What I really appreciate is the ability to browse the full Frontier Silicon database from the app-––so much easier than browsing through the radio’s front panel. I do wish there was a way, however, to add stations to memory allocations via the smartphone app (take note of this for a future app update, Sangean!)
The Sangean remote app even allows you to control the various player modes: Internet Radio, USB, AUX in, and the traditional FM tuner.
If you have a USB memory stick with audio content, you can play it through the WFR-28 via this handy, dedicated USB port on the top of the unit.
Speaking of which, yes, the WFR-28 has a very good FM tuner. I can easily receive one of my benchmark distant-FM stations, and even successfully decode the RDS data––both the remote app, and the radio display FM station information. Nice touch, Sangean!
The WFR-28 doesn’t ship with a battery pack: rather, it takes traditional D cells in either Alkaline or NiMH form. I purchased a four-pack of high-quality, high-capacity NiMH D cells––they’ll set you back $25-30, but are well worth the investment. The WFR-28 will internally recharge the cells when plugged into an outlet. Once fully charged, you’ll have hours upon hours of playtime. I haven’t measured the total playtime after a full charge, but I imagine it to be in excess of 24 hours.
What is the WFR-28 missing? One obvious thing is a carry handle or strap, always useful. Other than that, it really packs a lot for a $122 radio.
Good audio fidelity from internal speaker
Preset EQ settings
Crisp with noticeable bass tones
One-touch preset buttons (see con)
iOS/Android app/remote control
Accepts and charges standard NiMH D cells
Very good FM receiver/displays RDS information
Superb playtime from 4 D cells/batteries
USB MP3 playback (MP3 and WMA compatible)
Stream Spotify music channels and selections
Only five preset buttons
No carry handle
If unplugged to go portable, radio shuts down and restarts on battery power, rather than remaining on
No battery indicator on display
On a few occasions the audio has failed after being woken up from standby (turning the radio off, then on again, is the fix for this)
All of the external ports are on the left side (facing) of the radio. The WFR-28 has an auxiliary in, line out, headphone jack and power port (7.5 VDC).
Overall, I believe the Sangean WFR-28 is an excellent WiFi radio; when combined with rechargeable D cells, you have a portable multi-function audio entertainment system that’s simple to use. I should note that I’ve also been pleased with the Frontier Silicon station aggregator, as well; although more simple than other aggregators, FS just happens to provide all of my favorite stations and networks (do check for your faves before you buy).
The Sangean WFR-28 can be purchased from the following retailers: