Acoustic Energy Internet Radio - review

So, at the end of November I got an Acoustic Energy Internet Radio and thought it would be good to properly review it, now that someone has commented on my blog about it.

The first thing to mention is that my radio is not the final production version. Notably, the manual was printed on A4 and stapled together, and it looks from the serial number that I’ve got the 29th receiver ever made, which is nice. So, some of the things I’ll mention might not be relevant to the version you can now buy. (In particular, the manual calls it an Internet Radio, while the website calls it a wifi radio instead. What the difference is, I’ve no idea - and, naturally, it’s not actually a ‘radio’ at all, excepting the wifi circuitry.)

Putting it simply, then, this is a self-contained unit that works through your wireless internet, and allows you to listen to thousands of radio stations across the world. You don’t need a computer - just plug it in and away you go. For the technical, it copes with MP3, Windows Media, and Real Player, streams - allowing you the widest possible choice. And, for the ultra-technical, the firmware is upgradeable via your internet connection too, so should they add anything else (Ogg Vorbis support, for example) then it should be a simple button-press to upgrade your radio. (That’s how DAB should be, incidentally, to my mind. But better not get on that one.)

Initial setup was very easy - at least, from the radio’s point of view. Plugging it in and switching it on enabled it to search for wireless networks, find my own, and ask for the password. (It supports WPA and WEP authentication, though you should be using WPA these days anyway). My own wireless network is pretty locked-down, requiring authentication through both a WPA password and a set MAC address, which took about ten minutes fiddling with my wireless access point; I doubt most people will be as paranoid, and it’s good to know that the unit coped with that fairly well.

To, to the system itself. It’s quite a large radio, fairly heavy (and very well built). It comes with a plug/adaptor that connects to the back to produce power, and a 3.5mm jack socket in the back to plug into your hifi. The base is entirely rubberised, and the twiddly knob on the top allows control of both volume and tuning (which sounds as if it’ll really annoy you but actually works just fine).

Tuning in the unit is fairly simple. Pressing ‘select’ gives you something saying ‘Stations’; then you choose by ‘Location’ -> by continent -> by country -> by station name. (You can also tune in by genre). This is the first small issue with the unit: by default it shows a limited amount of characters for the station name. Leave it alone for a second, and the name scrolls if it’s longer. This does make tuning in some stations difficult: for example, “CBC Radio One” has a bundle of different versions for each major city. Tuning into “CBC Radio One (Toronto)” as opposed to “CBC Radio One (Montreal)” is a painfully slow process, since you need to wait for each individual station to scroll round.
One of my favourite radio stations is WBUR Boston, which is a mix of BBC and NPR programming, together with news and views from the only US city where I feel truly at home. So, a quick tune later, and I discovered the next problem with the station navigation: when you’ve 12,000 stations in the USA, many of them online, it’s probably not feasible to bung them all into one menu for people to scroll through. Many channels are just listed by call-letters in the US area: not very useful if you’ve no idea where WPLJ actually is, for example. However, finally, I discovered where WBUR should have been - but it wasn’t there. Boo. So, I did what the manual asked me to: I visited Reciva’s website and added WBUR Boston myself. After a few days, it duly appeared on my radio’s display, and I can now tune in. User-updates, in this case, worked very well; a good example of giving some power to the user.

The audio quality of the unit is great. The speaker is of excellent quality, and really makes the most of the normally slightly dodgy audio from the internet. In fact, I heard very few stations where I noticed the quality was any worse than a standard FM radio, which is of credit to Acoustic Energy for not skimping on the audio circuitry.

The technical quality is also excellent. The unit seems to take some time to tune in - ABC Radio National, which I listened to for a solid hour, continually rebuffered when tuning in (with occasional short bursts of audio) for around 30 seconds, then settled down to perfect reception. Presumably, there’s some quite fierce buffering going on; however the unit achieves it, it worked absolutely fine on my 512K connection (and that’s 512K with five computers hanging off it, each causing their own bursty internet traffic). I suspect that if I was running BitTorrent on another machine it would have been less than happy, but frankly, that’s to be expected.

One of the interesting things about this radio is that you can listen to on-demand content from those stations offering it. I suspect this is only the BBC for now, and I’ve not yet tried it; but it’s an interesting idea. Of course, streaming MP3 podcasts is completely within this unit’s technical capability: so it would be interesting to see whether a forthcoming firmware update would allow it to do that.

A few other points: if you thought this would make a good bedside radio, you’re wrong. Yes, it’s got an alarm, but no, the big blue backlight stays on at all times, making it impossible to use next to the bed. (It does look, though, as if it sets the time automatically from the network, something not mentioned in the manual).

It can also listen to your own Windows Media files, and has been ‘verified to work with Windows XP and Windows 2000’. I have no Windows Media library; all my music’s on the Mac in AAC format, so again, not tried this bit. It appears to essentially work by sharing your audio directory on your PC across the network, and the unit itself just does a directory listing of this shared directory.

Finally, it has an intruiging ‘Reply’ button, which the manufacturers hope will be used as a ‘send me more information’-type button. This is absent from the manual I have; it would be interesting to learn more about this.

So, in conclusion: the UI and radio directory in particular needs work to make it a little more user-friendly; perhaps breaking up the larger countries into subcategories (UK -> National -> Virgin Radio; US -> Massacheusetts -> WBUR Boston) might be a way round that. Additional features like podcast support would be great if possible to be added; and I’d like the capability to add my own streams via a web interface if possible, too. But all in all, this is a good unit with great sound and excellent technical quality. It clearly has the capability of changing the way I listen to radio: and I really ought to get donating to WBUR.