Tag Archives: WiFi Radios

Aggregation aggravation update: Frontier Silicon working on Favorites and Personal Streams

The Sangean WFR-28 WiFi Radio is one of many popular models affected

One of the hottest topics here on the SWLing Post this month is regarding Frontier Silicon and vTuner “aggregation aggravation.”

Let me explain. Earlier this month, Frontier Silicon abruptly dropped vTuner as its radio stream aggregator after vTuner CEO Peter Johnson shut off the service. Johnson stated here on the SWLing Post that he:

“[T]urned off the frontier service just for a couple hours after they backstabbed me.”

One of vTuner’s business clients (a client of Frontier) informed me that Johnson wanted to change the terms of their financial agreement thus used a service blackout to force Frontier’s hand. That seems to be supported by Johnson’s comment.  In the end, we know Frontier dropped vTuner a few days later and has now partnered with Airable.

Regardless of what might have really happened, end-users of the Frontier Silicon service have had to cope with frustrating changes (I own a Sangean WFR-28 and Como Audio Solo which have both been affected).

Without warning, we lost our curated collection of station favorites/bookmarks. Personally, this was a collection of stations I had refined over the better part of three years. To lose them without warning was a bit of a blow to say the least.

To Frontier’s credit, they did implement the new aggregator quickly, but in the process lost some important functionality that was apparently a part of the vTuner service including the ability to save/organize favorites and personal streams. Fortunately, it appears Frontier will address this in the future.

An update from Frontier Silicon

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributors Dogmatix and Bob Faucett who note the following announcements on Frontier Silicon’s website:

“We are currently experiencing a large volume of support queries. We are prioritising adding missing stations and podcasts, and will be responding to all other queries as quickly as possible. Please accept our apologies for the delay in response.”

“Based on customer feedback we are working to add Favourites and Personal Streams into the new service. Please bear with us for a few weeks while we develop and test this functionality.”

This is good news, although it sounds like it might be some time before functionality is in place.

Feeling vulnerable

I’ve received numerous comments and emails from readers regarding this “aggregation aggravation”–the common thread being a sense of vulnerability.

After the service changes, we realized the degree to which our WiFi radio devices are dependent on Frontier Silicon. When service was cut earlier this month, most of our radios couldn’t even connect to streams that were programmed into front panel memory presets. For a while, our WiFi radios became expensive internet appliances that were unable to function as advertised. Those without a traditional FM/AM receiver were essentially useless.

I imagine this could be the case for Internet radios that rely on other aggregators—in other words, the radio is only as good as its online service.

UNDOK App

A number of readers have been sharing positive comments about the Frontier Silicon UNDOK app as a work-around for storing favorites, etc.

I’ve been on the road the past few weeks and have not had time to explore this app myself, so I would certainly appreciate UNDOK experience/advice from readers.

Please comment!

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Frontier Silicon and vTuner aggregation aggravation continues

Many thanks to a number of SWLing Post readers who’ve contacted me regarding the ongoing issues with WiFi radios that rely on the Frontier Silicon/vTuner aggregator partnership. Two days ago, we mentioned this in a post about the service outage that affected Sangean and Como Audio WiFi radio devices.

Turns out, the outage was a sign of deeper troubles that will affect any Internet radio device using the Frontier Silicon aggregator. I know that at least Sangean and Como Audio use the service, but I image there are many more, especially in some automobiles. Indeed, this might also affect devices which use the vTuner service.

At present, I am unable to use my Como Audio Solo or the Sangean WFR-28 WiFi radio. Both require re-saving all of the presets.

Sangean posted a short message on their devices yesterday. Dennis Dura notes:

I have the Sangean WFR-28 and just came home to find a message on every preset saying “due to recent changes to our internet radio service, you will need to save your presents again”.

Not only that, but many of the menus of the radio have changed.

And most bizarre, in the Genre setting, they have eliminated “Jazz” as a category, and have added many I’ve never before or heard off. How does a company eliminate a category that is understood across the world?

Como Audio actually sent an email message regarding the lapse of service yesterday evening.

The Como Audio message described, in some detail, what had actually taken place. Much of Como’s message was based on the following message Frontier Silicon posted on their website:

Why did the service change on 7th May 2019?

On 1st May 2019 we experienced a major outage of the Internet Radio & Podcast service used by our customers’ Internet Radio devices. This was caused by issues with a third-party service provider that were outside our control.  The service provider has also informed us that they are unable to ensure service provision beyond week commencing 6th May.  Any such failure to provide the service would have caused the Internet Radio functionality on all our customers’ devices to stop working unless we had taken this remedial action.

As a result, we have made some changes to the way the service is delivered, and you may notice the following changes:

  • We have deployed a replacement service, and configured all devices to use it.  It may take several hours for your device to see the new service.  Older devices may need to be powered off and back on again to force them to see the new service.
  • We are using a new provider for the Internet Radio and Podcast directory.  You may discover some new stations and podcasts that were not previously available, and you may find some stations and podcasts are missing.  If you notice a station or podcast that you think is missing from the database then please raise a support ticket and we will aim to get it added within 2 business days.
  • You may see some slight changes to the menu structure on your devices due to the change of provider.
  • The previous customer portal is no longer available, and so you can no longer use it to add your own stations.  If you would like a station adding to the database then please raise a support ticket and we will aim to get it added within 2 business days.
  • It is no longer possible to recall Favourites.  Depending on your device, we recommend using the Device Presets or Last Listened functionality to recall your favourite stations instead.
  • Any Device Presets that you have previously saved will no longer work and so you will need to resave them.

We apologise for any inconvenience caused as a result of these changes, which we have made in order to provide continuity of service for customers and users.  This is a large and complex migration and whilst we have tested and rehearsed this scenario in advance there may be an initial period of reduced service stability.  We will be monitoring the service closely during this time and will communicate any issues via the status page at https://status.frontiersmart.com/.

If you have any further comments or questions about the service then please browse the Knowledge Base, and submit a support ticket if you cannot find the information you are looking for.

Of course, we all know that the “third party” is the vTuner aggregator. I’m curious who Frontier Silicon will use now as an aggregator, or if they’ll self-host the database.

A number of readers have reported issues saving their front panel presets and other favorites. My guess is that this functionality will return after the new service is fully implemented. I also assume Frontier Silicon could implement any missing music genres (like the Jazz genre Dennis mentioned). At least, I hope so.

One thing we’ve learned is how very little is actually stored locally in these WiFi radios. It seems everything down to the front panel presets rely on the aggregator functioning properly.

If you have one of the affected WiFi radios, please comment about your experience getting it back online and loaded with station presets. Please report any quirks you encounter during the process. I’ve gotten mixed reports about the Como and Sangean mobile phone applications working properly.

I shall now go about re-saving all of the presets in my family’s WiFi radios.

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WiFi Radio: Dave experiences “aggregation aggravation”

The Sangean WFR-28 WiFi Radio

Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Dave Mackie, who writes:

I have a Sangean WFR-28 that just stopped working recently and through a bit of internet spelunking I happened across your site and explanation about Frontier Silicon as ‘aggregator’ for Sangean. A phone call to Sangean confirmed that Frontier Silicon was having a problem with the aggregation service.

First off, thanks for the three part series on internet radio; it gave me just enough of a hint that the problem with be something other than the radio despite the fact that other wifi things were working properly.

[After contacting Frontier Silicon, I received] this unhelpful reply:

Unfortunately, we are having some difficulties with the internet radio service provided to us by a third party, which causes products not to be able to tune to any internet radio stations.

We are working on addressing the issue, and should have it up and running, hopefully within the next 12 hours.

Apologies for any inconvenience.

On one hand we’re getting a service that’s ‘free’ in that we don’t send a check directly to Frontier or the 3rd Party

We press a button and the radio just works.

On the other hand, the radio can inexplicably just stop working and we have absolutely no way to fix it.

Again as you mentioned, perhaps ‘closed’ vs. ‘open’ aggregator could (should?) be more well-known and more of a factor when choosing a radio.

I’d like more preset buttons on my Sangean WFR-28, but way more than that, I want it to work!

Many thanks to Dave for sharing this experience with us–I imagine other readers may have caught this lapse in service as well. Fortunately, the problem Dave referred to was fixed within a 24 hour window.

I believe the “third party” Frontier Silicon relies on is vTuner. If I understand correctly, Frontier Silicon actually pulls all of the station linking information from vTuner’s database.

So you can see why aggregation aggravation could occur: there are no less than three companies involved when you “tune” your Sangean WiFi radio.

Sangean makes the radio which has software that links to Frontier Silicon’s portal. You log into Frontier Silicon’s portal to create a user account and manage your station favorites. But in the end, Frontier Silicon uses vTuner as a station database.

If any one of these links fail, the result may be a dead WiFi radio.

On the positive side, I listen to a Como Audio Solo radio most mornings. The Solo relies on the same aggregator chain as Sangean radios and I have never experienced an outage. I might be lucky, but I don’t think outages are all that common.

It would be great if there was a community-powered aggregator–something akin to a Wikipedia of Wifi radio–that would serve as a database for our Internet receivers. I could see a model where radio stations manage their own stream data and coordinates and listeners could even be approved to help manage link integrity. Sadly, I know of no such aggregator at present (readers, please correct me if I’m wrong about this).

Aggregators used by OEMs (like Sangean) are backed by a company (Frontier Silicon, vTuner, TuneIn, iHeartMedia, Reciva, etc.) that have a financial interest in serving up-to-date station information to its customers. In the end, it still takes a human to physically add, delete or alter station information.

Since there’s money involved, it’s in the aggregator’s best interest to take care of problems quickly and efficiently. In truth, I worry less about the time it takes to fix problems or add stations–I worry about the aggregator going out of business. This happened in the early days of WiFi radio when some smaller manufacturers chose to run their own aggregators. If their company closed shop, their products were essentially useless.

Post readers: Have you ever owned a Wifi radio that stopped working due to aggregator failure? Have I missed a point here? Please share your thoughts!

Click here to read our WiFi Radio Primer.


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Grace Digital Mondo+ Kickstarter

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Tom Ally, who writes:

I remember that article you wrote about Wi-fi radios and just saw this Kickstarter on Facebook that may interest you:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1209003580/mondo

[T]hey are saying it is supposed to ship out sometime next month. [S]ome of the things it has –over the old Mondo–is Bluetooth 4.1 and Chromecast built in.

Thank you, Tom! Here’s the product description from Kickstarter:

The home audio market is evolving, and Grace Digital is leading the way. We combined the latest Wi-Fi audio streaming technologies from Google, added Bluetooth audio streaming, and over 30,000 AM/FM/HD radio stations from around the corner to across the globe. The Grace Mondo+ can even be controlled by the Google Assistant on devices like Google Home, the front panel controls, free smartphone apps, or the included remote control. We wrapped the technology in a beautifully crafted cabinet, and drive the audio with custom made speaker drivers and high performance class D digital amplification, ensuring the best possible listening experience in a perfectly compact design. We hope you love the Mondo+ as much as we do!

This is an “all or nothing” campaign, meaning it’ll have to be fully funded for the production run to become reality.

As a Kickstarter supporter, the pricing is in line with the Grace Digital Mondo (we reviewed last year).

I am still quite happy with my Como Audio Solo, so will not plan to back the Mondo+ at this time. If I was interested, I would splurge for the $174 Early Bird package which includes a Lithium Ion battery pack. Shipping could be as early as April 2017.

Check out full details and a video on Kickstarter.

Thanks, Tom, for the tip! I would certainly welcome a review of the Mondo+ from any Kickstarter backers!

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Guest Post: Richard builds a WiFi radio with the Raspberry Pi

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Richard Schreiber (KE7KRF), who shares the following guest post:


Yet Another Internet Radio!

by Richard Schreiber (KE7KRF)

After deciding that an internet radio could be an important source of entertainment in our household, we formulated a few general guidelines:

  • We opted not to use an aggregator but would pick and choose stations we enjoyed and discover the URL’s ourselves. Also would be satisfied with a couple of dozen stations. Based on a recent decision to pare down the number of TV channels we were paying for, having access to hundreds of stations seemed impractical and unnecessary.
  • The price had to be affordable, thus eliminating many stand-alone, commercially available internet radios.
  • We already owned a quality portable speaker (Bose SoundLink Mini) so the internet radio didn’t need to duplicate that component.
  • Didn’t want to tie up nor be tethered to a laptop, tablet, or netbook. We predicted that would eventually lead to less and less use of the radio.

After some research, coupled with the fact I already had some experience with Raspberry Pi computers, that small device appeared to be our best choice. I had recently purchased the newer 2 B model, which has plenty of computing power, and had installed Ubuntu Linaro as the OS. (As an aside, this OS has not to my knowledge been upgraded for the latest Raspberry Pi 3). There are several other operating systems that will work just as well including the official Raspbian OS available through the Raspberry Pi Foundation.

I installed the MPD music player daemon and its client MPC, which is used to add to and delete station URL’s from the playlist, control volume, etc. An important find was the iPhone app called MPod which provides remote wireless access to the features of MPC. At the moment it is a free app for the iPhone (in my case the iPod Touch).

For portability, my Raspberry Pi is being used “headless”, meaning it is not connected to a monitor, keyboard or mouse. If maintenance is required you can use PuTTY, a SSH and telnet client, wirelessly from a Windows (or MAC?) PC, using a command-line interface. Mainly this is needed to shut down the Raspberry Pi properly before turning off the power, but it boots completely on its own when powered up. The MPod app will then load the playlist of stations and let you start playing the radio without direct access to the Raspberry Pi.

The sound output of my Raspberry Pi is connected to the auxiliary port of our Bose SoundLink Mini Bluetooth speaker. But instead of trying to implement Bluetooth on the Raspberry Pi, I took the easy way out and use a direct connection. The sound reproduction from this setup is very good, though audiophiles might be somewhat more critical.

The above represents a minimal investment if you already have a good speaker on hand. It does require some on-line research and learning at least enough to install the OS and software. The good news is that there are many websites and forums providing step-by-step instructions and helpful hobbyists willing to explain some of the more cryptic aspects. A few of the websites that I found to be helpful:

http://www.instructables.com/id/Arduino-Raspberry-Pi-Internet

http://cagewebdev.com/raspberry-pi-playing-internet-radio

https://learn.adafruit.com/raspberry-pi-radio-player-with-touchscreen

A couple of these also explain how to add a display to your Raspberry Pi internet radio.

Our Raspberry Pi radio is on each evening and has been trouble free. It is worth mentioning that this is a very portable setup, and can even be powered by a battery pack (the kind used for recharging tablets and cell phones) for a few hours. Of course you need to be near a wifi hotspot.


Thank you, Richard! What a great way to use the inexpensive Raspberry Pi. I have a spare Pi2 and an amplified speaker here at the house. Though I don’t need another WiFi radio, it would be fun putting this little system together. 

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Muzen Audio handcrafted radios

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, John Figliozzi, who writes:

This [company] was mentioned in regard to the CES show out in Las Vegas:

http://www.airsmartaudio.com/

It’s a Chinese company with a rather novel approach to the design of modern radios — AM/FM/Internet Bluetooth, along with the use of tube amplifiers in some models. The web site is almost all in Chinese but the pictures are cool.

Air Smart Audio is the parent company; Muzen Audio the subsidiary.

John also shared the following item from Radio World:

Muzen Audio Group’s founder Dejun Zeng, referred to as the “Father of the Tube Amplifier” in China, is looking forward to the new challenge, saying in a statement: “It is my greatest desire to build a legacy with this organization that will lead customers to say, ‘I am proud to have a Muzen radio.’”

The company received a 2017 CES Innovation Award for their new AM/FM/internet radio and Bluetooth speaker lines, the fifth CES Innovation Award received by Zeng. Muzen Audio also designs a series of vintage-style tube amplifier radios and what the company calls “on-the-road” radios.

(Source: Air Smart Audio)

Thank you, John!

From what I gather, Muzen radios are very much “boutique” radios, thus come with a “boutique” price tag–some models costing as much as $500 US.

Still: it’s refreshing to see a Chinese radio manufacturer marching to their own beat, making handcrafted products in small batches.

According to Twice.com, Muzen recently introduced the  “Classic 1” AM/FM radio with Bluetooth speaker that is powered by a “fluorescent display tube amplifier.” Twice notes:

The Classic 1 is handmade and crafted with real rosewood, and every unit comes with a unique code verifying its hand craftsmanship.

Frequency response of the speaker is 75Hz to 16KHz, of the amplifier, 30Hz to 20KHz.

Pricing and availability will be announced during CES 2017.

I’m looking forward to learning more about Muzen radios! I do love the designs.

Click here to view the Air Smart Audio website (in Chinese). 

Post readers: Anyone familiar with Muzen Audio or own one of their products? Please comment!

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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.

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