Tag Archives: WiFi Radio Primer

Wi-Fi Radio Primer Part 3: Review of the Grace Digital Mondo and Amazon Echo

I originally wrote this three-part WiFi radio primer and review series for the April, May and June issues of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.  Each part of this series will be posted with the tag: WiFi Radio Primer. You can read Part 1 by clicking here and Part 2 by clicking here–I hope you enjoy Part 3 below:


WiFi-Radio-Lineup

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

Grace-Digital-Mondo-Front-AngleWhen 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).

Grace-Digital-Mondo-Front-Panel

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.

Grace-Digital-Mondo-Front

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.

Grace-Digital-Mondo-Top2

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.

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.

Pros:

  • 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)

Cons:

  • Special battery pack; not standard cells ($40 option)
  • 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.

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:

The Amazon Echo

Amazon-Echo

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.

Amazon-Echo-Logo

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.

Amazon-Echo-Volume

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”).

Amazon-Echo-Top

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.

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.

Pros

  • Very easy setup
  • Excellent audio
  • 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

Cons

  • 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.

The Amazon Echo is sold exclusively by Amazon.

Summary

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 CC Wifi

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

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

The Grace Digital Mondo looks and feels much like the beloved Logitech Squeezebox which was discontinued by the manufacturer some time ago.

Like the Squeezebox (and the CC WiFi) it uses the excellent Reciva aggregator.

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

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 Echo and 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

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.

Wi-Fi Radio Primer Part 2: Review of the CC WiFi and Sangean WFR-28

I originally wrote this three-part WiFi radio primer and review series for the April, May and June issues of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.  Each part of this series will be posted with the tag: WiFi Radio Primer. You can read Part 1 by clicking here–I hope you enjoy Part 2 below:


CCWifi-Front-2

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.

The Pure Evoke F4 (untested)

The Pure Evoke F4 (untested)

Amazon:

CCrane Company:

Grace Digital

Pure

Sangean

And now, let’s meet our real contenders

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:

  • Handy size
  • Intuitive display
  • Dedicated memory buttons on front panel
  • Clear, robust audio
  • External connections
  • An internal rechargeable battery option (for portability)
  • Easy setup
  • Remote control
  • 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.

Reviews

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

CCWifi-Front-Angle-2

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.

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).

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.

CCWifi-Display

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, .

Pros:

  • Small size
  • Ethernet connection
  • Line-out audio
  • Headphone jack (on back)
  • Included IR remote control
  • Affordable
  • Audio quite good for size of unit (bass, see con)
  • Extras include:
    • Pandora connect
    • Live365 (now defunct)

Cons:

  • No battery-power option
  • Thin, “plasticky” feel to chassis, seems less durable
  • Occasional slow connection time to WiFi
  • Internal speaker generates (comparatively) weak bass
  • No EQ for audio
  • Only three memory buttons on front panel
  • No smartphone/tablet app

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:

The Sangean WFR-28

Sangean-WFR-28-Front

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.

Sangean-WFR-28-Front-Panel

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 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.

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!

Sangean-WFR-28-Battery-Compartment

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.

Sangean-WFR-28-Back

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.

Pros:

  • Good audio fidelity from internal speaker
    • Preset EQ settings
    • Customizable EQ
    • Crisp with noticeable bass tones
  • Affordable
  • 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

Cons:

  • 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).

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).

Sangean-WFR-28-Front-Angle

The Sangean WFR-28 can be purchased from the following retailers:

Stay tuned! In Part 3 of our WiFi Radio Primer, we’ll take a look at two more WiFi radios: the Grace Digital Mondo and the Amazon Echo.

Wi-Fi Radio Primer Part 1: Radio station aggregators and alternatives

I originally wrote this three-part WiFi radio primer and review series for the April, May and June issues of The Spectrum Monitor magazine.  Each part of this series will be posted with the tag: WiFi Radio Primer. I hope you enjoy Part 1 below:


The Grace Digital Mondo

I’ve always been a hard-core shortwave radio listener.  I like the tactile experience of turning the knobs of the shortwave, tuning in stations across the globe. So when online listening became popular, it never occurred to me to engage in this new, seemingly lesser sport; I put trying it on the back burner, and continued to enjoy my shortwave. After all, I rationalized, why listen to anything other than an actual radio?

Then, at the 2012 Winter SWL Fest, an excellent presentation on the merits and technologies behind Wi-Fi radio intrigued me. I found myself downloading and installing the Pro version of the TuneIn radio app. On the twelve-hour drive back home from the Fest, I tuned to local radio stations across the world via the TuneIn app. I had to admit, it was a pretty powerful listening experience…one I could easily get used to.

And get used to it, I did.  That’s when I realized that streaming radio stations over the Internet is, essentially, content DXing. For while there isn’t any particular skill required to listen to Internet radio, it offers convenient listening opportunities I wouldn’t otherwise have, and without the rigors of travel.  For example, from my home in the southeastern US, I can listen to a station in Perth, Australia––one local to that area and one that has never been, nor is likely to be, on shortwave. I found it frankly addictive.

uneIn's iPad app has a beautiful, simple user interface. If you purchase the TuneIn Pro version ($9.99 for the iPad) banner ads disappear.

TuneIn’s iPad app has a beautiful, simple user interface. If you purchase the TuneIn Pro version ($9.99 for the iPad) banner ads disappear.

Since 2012, I’ve relied on my TuneIn app and either a tablet or smartphone to listen to stations. I found I could hook up my tablet to a portable powered speaker, an SStran AM transmitter, or even a whole-house stereo, and enjoy music from all over the world.

There was only one problem, however: while they enjoyed the music, my busy family didn’t appreciate the complexity of my radio set-up. The truth is, it did require warming up a lot of equipment––most of which is in my shack––not to mention making sure connections were in place, logging in, launching apps, and then searching for stations.  One day, referencing the cobbler’s children (who, in the old adage, go without shoes), my wife asked in exasperation, “Isn’t there some way to make listening to music around here just a little more accessible to all of us?  Maybe something we could just turn on––?”

The Quest

Thus began my quest to purchase a dedicated Wi-Fi Radio, an Internet appliance with a singular purpose:  to play online radio stations from across the globe.  Simply. 

Fortunately, I reasoned, the process of choosing such a radio was likely to be just as simple.  I mean, how hard could it be?  I was already familiar enough with the wider radio landscape to know that these radios range from about $110 to $250 in price, and that they’re widely available from a number of radio and online retailers. Moreover, I’m lucky enough to count among my friends some of the most knowledgeable experts on the topic of Wi-Fi radio––Rob De Santos, Richard Cuff, and last but not least, John Figliozzi, author of the recently updated Worldwide Listening Guide––all of whom had jointly presented at that 2012 Fest that ignited my interest in WiFi radio. No doubt, I thought, a group-email to these experts would rapidly solve our dilemma.

Boy, was I ever wrong.

My expert friends all had excellent advice, but made me aware that there’s much more involved to choosing a WiFi radio than simply selecting the best-priced or the latest model. Firstly, they advised, it’s very important to identify a good station aggregator, and then select a good radio that relies upon it.

Radio Station Aggregators

WiFi radios are Internet appliances with the ability to stream Internet content, but they’re not endowed with the ability to seek out stations in the wild and import their audio streams. WiFi radios, I soon learned, rely on “aggregators,” or online databases of curated links to radio stations.

In the early days of WiFi radio, there were several models of radios on the market that linked to proprietary aggregators, many of which eventually closed down. When a WiFi radio loses its ability to link to an aggregator, it becomes no more than a pricey paperweight, especially if the WiFi radio doesn’t have traditional AM/FM reception as a backup.

The CC WiFi uses the popular Reciva aggregator.

The CC WiFi radio uses the popular Reciva aggregator.

So not only does an aggregator need to have some longevity, it also needs to be actively curated. This means having to staff actual human beings to help manage additions, deletions, and changes to the large database of broadcasters. This is necessary because radio stations and radio networks often change their streaming server address or format with very little notice. Good aggregators have methods that allow for broadcasters and listeners to submit such changes for approval so that streaming can be fully reestablished across the network of subscribing WiFi radios.

It should be noted as well that some aggregators may not support the protocol broadcasters choose to use for their streams. So, prior to purchasing a radio, buyers should attempt an Internet search to make sure their favorite broadcasters are listed among those offered by the radio’s aggregator. This being said, buyers must be aware that a number of aggregators require a username and password to search through their listings, thus limiting any pre-purchase search.

Types of Aggregators

Aggregators fall into two categories: those that are radio-dependent, and those that are not.

Radio-dependent aggregators are those that you can use only if you own a compatible device. For example, to stream from the Reciva system, you must first own a Reciva-connected WiFi radio. With your radio model/serial number in hand, you’ll be able to create a login on the Reciva system. From there, you can create lists of favorite stations and manage them.  If you don’t own a Reciva radio, however, you can’t log into the Reciva database. The same applies to Frontier Silicon (Sangean), as well as Pure.

The dominant open (or, non radio-dependent) aggregator on the market as of this publication is TuneIn Radio. TuneIn does not require a compliant device; you can create an account with TuneIn and stream from it via your computer, tablet, or smartphone. And of course, there are now radios that link to TuneIn as their aggregator.

VTuner is another open aggregator that can be explored prior to purchasing a compatible WiFi radio. Note that in this WiFi primer we will not explore the VTuner aggregator, however it will be covered in the upcoming review of the Como Audio Solo.

Following is a list of the most popular aggregators with a brief description of each.

Radio-dependent Aggregators

Reciva (https://radios.reciva.com/)

Reciva's station search function is more functional than that of Frontier Silicon. I can typically find a station by searching by call sign. When that doesn't work--as in this case when I searched for CKUT--I simply searched by city.

Reciva’s station search function is more functional than that of Frontier Silicon. I can typically find a station by searching by call sign. When that doesn’t work–as in this case when I searched for CKUT–I simply searched by city.

The Reciva aggregator has been around for many years. At one point, it was the most user-friendly and most actively curated aggregator on the market. Today, Reciva is still the most popular choice in a WiFi radio aggregator.

I find the Reciva website easy to use, even if its design and user-interface are slightly outdated. Reciva also seems to be relatively quick to respond to stream-server changes. When my favorite Internet radio station changed streaming servers last year, Reciva was quick to update the link. Reciva also allows you to build folders of favorite stations that make it easy for you to navigate with your radio. Moreover, Reciva has an advanced search function that also makes finding particular stations relatively easy.

Frontier Silicon (http://www.wifiradiofrontier.com/)

Frontier Silicon's website is clean, simple and responsive. Their "My Favourites" page makes organizing your many station memories an intuitive process.

Frontier Silicon’s website is clean, simple and responsive. Their “My Favourites” page makes organizing your many station memories an intuitive process.

As far as I can tell, Sangean is the only WiFi radio manufacturer using the Frontier Silicon aggregator. The Frontier Silicon interface is very basic, but gets the job done. Adding stations to a playlist also seems to be very straightforward.

With that said, however, if you chose the option of browsing stations by category––say, by language or genre––Frontier Silicon doesn’t allow you to search within the category’s results for specificity. For example, I recently wanted to search for new French language stations in a certain town in France. Once I had chosen the French language, then the country, I was presented with a list of over 1700 stations arranged alphabetically with twenty results per page, and with no way to search among them. It was frustratingly imprecise. Not only could I not find the town, but the station list was simply too broad, too unwieldy, to navigate.

Frontier Silicon’s database of information can be incomplete––and inconsistent.  Nonetheless, there are some tricks to help you find stations; for example, an online search by call sign and name may lead you to the desired result (then searching Frontier Silicon for other station keywords). A quick Internet search can also help you find regional broadcasters.

Frontier Silicon provides an easy means by which to submit new stations and provide updated information, should your station change server locations, but one must be patient. For example, I submitted a station’s updated URL to Frontier Silicon; it took them almost a week to update the stream, whereas Reciva took only a day or so to do the same.

All in all, the Frontier Silicon platform, though more bare-bones than its competitors, does the trick and seems to work quite well.

Pure (http://www.pure.com/) (Untested)

purelogoThe manufacturer, Pure, also has their own aggregator for their radio product line. Since I didn’t test a Pure WiFi radio for this review, I haven’t tried their system. I do have two friends that tout the virtues of Pure’s radios as well as Pure’s aggregator, claiming superb customer service and overall product quality.

As Pure is a “closed” ecosystem, I suppose there could be concerns about their products should the company ever close its doors.  But the company’s strong consumer following makes this relatively unlikely. One pleased user of my acquaintance claimed that Pure is to WiFi radio what Apple is to computers––in other words, it’s a company that provides a quality product, excellent design, as well as a user-friendly interface. I can’t speak to this comparison.  But I do know that, also like Apple, Pure’s products top the market in terms of price:  their Pure Evoke F4 (without extra speaker or battery) retails for $225 – 250 US. To put this in perspective, the priciest radio I reviewed was purchased for $170.  So, clearly, Pure’s products can double the cost of their competitor’s.

Open Aggregators

TuneIn (http://tunein.com)

You don't have to own a WiFi radio to begin organizing your favorite streaming broadcasters. Simply create a free account at TuneIn Radio (http://TuneIn.com), search for and organize your favorites and changes will propagate to all of your TuneIn connected devices and apps.

Create a free account at TuneIn Radio (http://TuneIn.com), search for/organize your favorites and changes will propagate to all of your TuneIn connected devices and apps.

I have been using the TuneIn system for at least four years. It is, without doubt, the most user-friendly database of radio stations I’ve tested. TuneIn’s search functionality is exceptionally powerful; I’ve found that I can almost always locate a station in a matter of seconds. And of course, you can hone in on a favorite station by region and genre.

The TuneIn search screen.

The TuneIn search screen.

The great thing about Tunein is that you don’t have to own an Internet device to use it. You can use a free account to organize your favorite stations, which will then propagate to the TuneIn app on your phone or tablet––as well as to your web browser, should you decide to listen on your computer.

Overall, the TuneIn user interface is pleasant and responsive; in short, it’s my favorite among the aggregators I tested.

Live365_logoLive365

Live 365––an aggregator with some history, which may very well have been in existence longer than any other––specializes in Internet stations rather than radio broadcasters who also happen to stream on the Internet.

[Update] Sadly, on February 1 st , 2016, Live365 closed for business. It is unlikely another company will pick up the reigns.

Why did Live365 close shop? Here’s what Forbes.com suggests:

“It is rumored that the service is being forced into early retirement because of new royalty rates that digital radio producers now need to adhere to. Late in 2015, the Copyright Royalty Board handed down its decision about what internet radio services will need to pay per stream, and it apparently hurt Live365 so much that it can no longer afford for the rights to play music.”

Among WiFi radios, Live 365 functions as an “add on” rather than sole default aggregator. If your radio has Live 365 functionality, the loss of service will have no effect on other radio functions.

Network-Specific Aggregators and services

iHeart-Radio-LogoiHeart Radio: iHeartRadio is an Internet radio platform owned by iHeartMedia, Inc. The iHeart radio app functions as both a radio network for the 800+ iHeart radio stations around the world and also as a music recommendation system. There are no WiFi radios that use iHeart as a default aggregator, but there are several that include iHeart as a featured app.

SiriusXM (paid): SiriusXM is a satellite radio subscription service; subscribers at a certain subscription level can also stream 130 channels over the Internet.

Music and other internet radio services

Spotify-LogoThere are a number of Internet radio services that are not curated.  Many of these services are adaptive platforms that create impromptu radio “stations” based on your preferences. These services may be included with a WiFi radio, but most are used in conjunction with smartphone apps, among them, Pandora, Slacker, LastFM, Spotify, and Aupeo. Note these services are outside the scope of this review for the simple reason that, as a content DXer, my interest is on actual radio stations rather than music services.

A final note about aggregators

There are likely other aggregators and services in existence that I’ve omitted from this review. Again, I focused on the better-known aggregators and services, most of which are considered relatively stable and well-supported by both manufacturers and WiFi radio enthusiasts.

In conclusion, I’ll say once more:  it’s important to check whether a particular aggregator supports your favorite radio station(s) and broadcast network(s) prior to purchasing the adjunct radio. And if it doesn’t, you need not necessarily rule out the system altogether; often an aggregator will have the capability to add the preferred station(s), so this is also worth investigating. The obvious exceptions are stations using streaming formats not supported by your radio or your aggregator (or both). In short, do check before you buy.

I’ve been testing WiFi radios supported by Reciva, Frontier Silicon, and TuneIn, and can say that I haven’t been displeased with any of them. All seem to support my favorite stations and networks.

Alternatives to WiFi radios

The Roku 3

The Roku 3

Before we look at the WiFi radios on the market in Part 2 and 3 of this feature––coming up in the coming weeks––I should note that there are certainly cheaper alternatives to a dedicated WiFi Radio, especially if you already own a device that can play Internet radio content. By and large, smartphones, tablets, as well as PCs offer the most convenient access to online broadcast streaming, though even some TVs and video streaming devices (Roku, AppleTV, Amazon’s Fire TV Stick, Google’s Chromecast, and so forth) contain basic audio streaming apps.

Smartphones

Since the majority of us have a smartphone or tablet, you’ll find this provides a convenient and readily accessible means by which to enjoy the functionality of a portable WiFi radio.  If you haven’t already done so, the process couldn’t be easier:  simply download the TuneIn app (Android: http://bit.ly/1gB1DAh and iOS: http://apple.co/1O9aZxI).

Though TuneIn offers a monthly premium plan (primarily for those who want coverage of sporting events), even the free plan unlocks the full database of radio stations across the globe.

With the app installed, you can plug in headphones and tune in thousands of stations. If you want improved audio, simply plug in an external amplified speaker, or connect a speaker via BlueTooth.

iPodTouch-TuneIn

The app is lightweight and doesn’t rob you of much of your device’s resources. And of course, it can play in the background as you do other things.  As a bonus, TuneIn can stream thousands of podcasts––including those from the Shortwave Radio Audio Archive. There’s a curious pleasure in riding a train or subway while listening to an archived off-air recording of Radio Moscow from the 1970s!

While we’re talking about apps, there’s also an excellent one written by shortwave listener, Steven Clift, called the 1 Radio News app. At the moment, it’s only available for Android devices. There’s also a free version with some banner ads and a Pro version ($.99) with no ads and more stations.

WiFi radio?  We’re hooked

For many––myself included––this was my WiFI set-up for many years:  a smartphone and headphones, plus a tablet hooked up to a powered portable speaker. I never felt the need to have a dedicated Internet appliance for tuning radios stations…until, that is, my family needed something more, launching this investigation into the world of WiFi radio.

Now, having experienced the benefits of dedicated WiFi radio, I don’t think I’d choose to be without one. It’s just incredibly convenient to tune in a station on a simple device which has as its sole purpose streaming audio. All of the units I reviewed have excellent audio via the internal speaker, too.

Best yet, I’ve now found a radio that my entire family––yes, even my wife––enjoys. With the touch of a button or a voice command, they now tune to favorite stations in Brazil, Africa, Europe, or Canada.  And our house is now full of their music choices, too.

Coming up in the next two issues: Parts 2 and 3 which include reviews of four popular WiFi radios.

I will post each part of this three part series with the tag: WiFi Radio Primer.