SRP: now $149
Wireless access point: 802.11g
Output: stereo audio mini jack 3.5mm
Input: port USB
Power adaptor: 100-240V 50/60 Hz, 0.5A
Power consumption: 5V – 2A
Weight: 1.41 lbs with batteries
Dimensions: 8.8” W x 4.73” H x 3.12” D
Most of us have at least sampled the huge variety of streaming audio webcasters available on the Internet via our computers. The challenge of the unworkable licensing fees for netcasters seems to have been solved to the satisfaction of most and we are assured of an unbelievable spectrum of audio programming available for free now on the Internet. The next step would be to be able to take those music and talk sources with you anywhere in the house and even outdoors in your garden, and also to feed them into your home AV system where you could hear them with higher quality sound.
Wi-Fi radios are the answer. The NPR web site already is offering four different models, though all over $300. I decided to review a somewhat less expensive model designed in France, built on an embedded Linux computer foundation. It allows you to stream music or play podcasts as easily as you do in your car using satellite radio – but without paying a monthly fee at all. Or as you might in listening to HD radio – but in that case you must also purchase the HD radio, the data reduction artifacts are more hearable than with Internet radio (where the bandwidth is theoretically unlimited), and your station choice is limited to the immediate area. As long as you have a Wi-Fi network operating in your house (or an Airport for Mac users) you can take a battery-operated Wi-Fi radio anywhere within its range and listen to your favorite stations, podcasts and readings from the Internet. Accessing a station in Japan is just as easy as tuning in your local NPR station. I call it Hi-Fi Short wave!
The Phoenix is made by Com One, a subsidiary of Baracoda, a French company that is a global leader in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi solutions. (In fact, my radio came with all the display text in French, and I had to scroll to Languages and change it to English.) The small white modern-looking radio weighs under two pounds with its four rechargeable batteries. (AA size, 2500mA Ni-MH. I trashed the first set when they died because I hadn’t read the manual to see that they were rechargeables!) It has two tiny speakers for use as a table radio or portable but of course it won’t sound really good until you connect it to a good audio system. (You can also plug headphones into the mini output jack.) The Phoenix sports an integrated W-LAN chip that automatically detects and connects to existing wireless access points on the Net and then lets you scroll thru many hundreds of available netcaster outlets. The radio comes stocked with about 400 stations, but you won’t be interested in many of them and will want to go to the Phoenix web site at www.wifi-radio.biz to customize it by adding other stations to your radio, which is easy to do.
Setup and Features
On the rear of the Phoenix are three jacks and a reset button. One jack is for the wall wart input, one for the audio output to your AV system – using a stereo mini jack – and the last is a USB port which enables you to connect a USB thumb drive or a hard drive to listen to your stored music files on the Phoenix.
On the front are the two primary controls: a volume knob on the right and a joystick type of control on the left. In a row across the bottom front of the Phoenix are eight buttons which you hold for two seconds while accessing a particular station to set it up as a favorite – just as with pushbuttons on an old car radio. In the middle of the row of buttons is a Home button, which puts the Phoenix in standby mode when pushed for two seconds and also bring up the display on the screen to let you select the source you want to hear, and the Bookmark button.
Setting up operation of the Phoenix requires a bit of effort. After selecting your language, you select your wi-fi access point and the security key. The latter is listed on the bottom of the radio and it can either be added in the radio at this point or on the web site at www.wifi-radio.biz. You then get a screen display saying “Put your wi-fi modem in Association Mode.” I never did find out what that was about, but didn’t need to change anything on the Linksys 802.11 router in my office. The next choice is to select automatic connection (DHCP) mode, which seems to work the best. Then you scroll thru the time zones to select yours, and finally you can get up the clock radio built into the Phoenix. There is also an option titled My Network, which eventually will allow you to access UPnP audio files stored on the hard drive of your home computer, but so far that doesn’t appear to operate. By the way, it supports WMA, MP3, WAV, AIFF and RealAudio formats at the USB port (although mine would not play AIFF files until I converted them to WMA). You can purchase Bluetooth peripherals from Com One for the Phoenix if you wish.
The World of Streaming Audio
For most of us it’s just not very comfortable or convenient to spend a lot of time listening to Internet stations while working at our computers – unless it’s just as background music. And stations with talk are distractions to what you are doing at the computer. A portable Wi-Fi radio can change all that and give you much better sound when you plug it into your main audio system in your listening room. Once you are set up with your favorite outlets it is also faster to access them.
There is an amazing array of streaming audio outlets on the Internet. Did you know there are 24/7 Christmas music and Hawaiian music outlets, and even a full time Jimmy Buffet outlet? There are oldies sites that play actual old 78s, others that specialize in oldies from just one period – such as the 50s. There are few or no commercials on many outlets – just an occasional request for a contribution, like the public stations. The sampling rates of most of the stations run from a low of about 32 kbps to a high of about 160 kbps. About half are stereo and half mono. The Phoenix display shows you exactly what you are getting, for example: WBGH, Boston, mono, 56kb/s. Some of the classical and jazz outlets use the higher rates and some of the news and talk outlets use the lower ones, which actually sound better than you might expect, considering the major data reduction.
To select a station, you would start scrolling thru the main Menu, which has not only the Stations, but Podcasts, your Bookmarks, other Services, Configuration, Clock, Alarm settings, and many other options. After selected Stations, you are offered a variety of options including different Genres, areas of the world, the stations provided with the Phoenix, and the favorite stations you have added from the web site.
I immediately downloaded many classical and jazz stations from around the world, as well as some known NPR outlets in the U.S. – for some reason no public radio stations come with the Phoenix, but you can get some of them from the web site. I added some of the stations I worked for around the U.S. Then I went to the Genre options and downloaded the classical and jazz services of the BBC, Swiss Radio and Danish Radio. The Swiss jazz service has announcements in German and the Danish in Danish, but the lyrics of all the vocals are English, and the programming and fidelity is excellent. One of the several stations listed for India surprised me by showing on the display “Yorkshire.” It turns out it’s a station in the UK for the large Indian population there, and the commercials – half English and half Hindi, were hilarious.
You can access the arts services of the CBC, the ABC in Australia, Programme 3 of the BBC, and many others. However, I wasn’t able to add one of the best-fidelity commercial classical stations – KING-FM in Seattle. Com One asks users to email them lists of the URLs for the data streams of stations that are not yet listed on the wifi-radio.biz web site, and they will try to add them. A new team has been hired by Com One to monitor content and update what is available, and further improvements in this brand new service will be seen.
One of the challenges seems to be that the W-LAN chip in the Phoenix is not as flexible in accepting all of the different streaming formats used by online stations. You will find that even some of the stations originally provided on the Phoenix will display “Error 12 has occurred,” or other messages indicating that the station cannot be accessed. This is often because the station has changed its platform from what it was using when it was originally added to the Phoenix, or the company it uses for streaming has been changed. Also, sometimes stations change their URL and that makes it impossible to access them. An outlet may draw so many listeners that you will get a “Radio Server Overload” warning; I only ran into this once. Once you get a station the reception is steady and reliable, without interruptions. One station had a two or three-minute silence after a selection ended, but then it was back-announced; no reception problem – the DJ just wasn’t on the ball. I did find a couple stations had a continuous clicking sound plus short wave-type distortion. All the Australian stations suffered from that, so they evidently feed from the same poor connection, at least at the time of writing this.
It’s most refreshing to enjoy your morning news from Toronto, London, Paris, or the New York Times’ WQXR. I’ve been listening to a different one each day and feeling like an aural globe-trotter. The Times has short essays and articles on many different subjects that come up like podcasts. Fans of world music will go nuts with the variety of Afro-beat, Brazilian and other folk outlets available on the Net. There’s a whole sound-world to discover out there.
Speaking of Podcasts, the Phoenix provides an easier way to access many of them than on your PC or Mac. I found a series of Macintosh tech podcasts which someone uploads every few days, and the past ones are also available. They are short and quite helpful, and get this – you can fast forward and rewind them! Most podcasts allow this feature, and you can also do it with any audio source you are feeding in except the radio stations. There are forward and back arrows at the bottom of the display and you merely press the left and right sides of the joystick control for two seconds to operate them. Others provide text details listing the selection you are hearing and other data – much like the Radio Data System that some broadcasters offer on their FM transmissions. As Internet streaming expands, more outlets will probably add this feature.
There are also podcast readings of great literature. I was surprised to find a couple of my favorite authors I didn’t expect to see on such a list: H.G. Wells and Kafka. There is an excellent reading of the complete The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, for example. And there is a section of New Age ambient backgrounds such as surf, cricket sounds and so forth. This makes your Phoenix the equivalent of those relaxation background players such as sold by Sharper Image and others. There are also ambient/dance/electronic outlets, but for some reason they didn’t yet work on my Phoenix.
That brings me to a few cons, but not insurmountable ones. The difficulty in adding stations not provided on the Com One web site would be one. The so far inoperability of the My Network connection to download from your computer would be another. The rechargeable batteries are supposed to power the Phoenix for about four hours, but mine never runs anywhere near that time. The last major one I was very surprised to discover, but Com One tells me it will be corrected in the next version of the Phoenix: that is that when you plug in the miniplug connection to your main audio system, the speakers in the Phoenix do not automatically mute! The output level is controlled by the level control on the front of the Phoenix, and it has to be all the way up to provide sufficient signal to your audio system. For now I suggest just turning the radio face down to minimize the sound from the small speakers.
I would give Com One about 30 days to get their act together on the Phoenix upgrades. They have already corrected some faults that the earliest users discovered – such as the batteries losing their charge overnight or the Phoenix failing to return to the same station the next morning as it was left on the night before. Although the speaker-muting would require modification of the actual radio, most of the enhancements are covered in the frequent firmware upgrades that Com One offers. I learned that a new update had just been offered for mine, and it was available online directly from the Phoenix itself, as are all the stations you have added using their web site. (In other words, you don’t need to download the stations manually to the Phoenix – just go to My Stations and they will all be there!) To update the firmware I just pressed the home button, scrolled to Configuration, and then to Update. Selecting Serial Number shows you the version you have installed.
Generally, the Phoenix is a hit. I doubt if there are many audiophiles who are also short wave fans. The indescribably annoying noises produced by both short wave reception and ham radio would drive most audiophiles right up the wall. Wi-Fi radio is really Hi-Fi Short Wave, and I believe most readers would find it a fascinating additional audio option. The Phoenix is being sold by several online retailers as well as thru CompUSA stores.
– John Sunier