Internet radio

Review: ASUS AIR internet radio

By Gerry Blackwell

January 30, 2008

The interface is awkward, but the sound quality, design, and ease of setup more than make up for it.

Product: ASUS AIR Internet Radio

Manufacturer URL: http://usa.asus.com/index.aspx

Price: MSRP $199

Advantages: beautiful appearance, thousands of pre-programmed radio stations, easy configuration

Cons: Inconvenient interface for some functions, monaural speaker system

In Europe, the web radio, a dedicated hardware device that connects to a home network and then to the Internet to play live audio streams from the ‘Net, is already a well-established product category.

A Google search reveals half a dozen or more products. Most, however, are only available from UK and European online sellers. In North America, web radios first appeared a few years ago, but apparently did not work well. Most have disappeared. Now they are starting to come back.

he fast-growing Taiwanese computer and electronics manufacturer launched its AIR internet radio last year. The product, which won an International CES Innovations Design and Engineering Award for 2008 ahead of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, is now available online for just $165.

The AIR radio plays WMA (Windows Media Audio) and MP3 streams at rates up to 320 megabits per second (Mbps). The radio comes pre-programmed with 10,000 stations – or at least, according to the company, we didn’t count. You can also add other stations.

Design

AIR may be the web radio that will finally inspire North Americans to listen to internet radio without a computer. Asus, it’s worth noting, is pushing the environmental angle – a web radio consumes less power than a PC.

Like the other products in this category, this one sports a rather pleasant industrial design: a kind of retro industrial chic. It looks like an old-school tabletop radio, but with cleaner lines and a small monochrome display on the front panel. It is available with a black or wood grain frame.

Industrial design is a big consideration with this type of product, since the idea is that you can put a web radio in your living room where you wouldn’t want to put a clunky computer. It has to fit.

The AIR radio measures approximately 9.8 x 5 x 7.5 inches (250 x 128 x 190 mm) so it can easily perch on a bookshelf, shelf in a stereo cabinet, or on the kitchen counter.

Also, like many other web radio devices, the AIR’s speaker system is monaural, and the speaker is necessarily, given the dimensions of the radio, small. It is not, on its own, a hi-fi device.

Sound quality

However, it does have a surprisingly full and pleasant sound, certainly better than most clock radios we’ve heard. (It also functions as an alarm clock.) And you can listen in stereo with headphones or by using the line-out jacks to connect the radio to a stereo or home theater receiver.

To get the best possible audio quality, you need to connect the Asus AIR radio to your stereo sound system. How good is it?

To find out, we ran a side-by-side comparison with the popular Logitech Slim Devices Squeezebox wireless media player connected to a stereo system. We connected both to a receiver, different input channels, tuned both to the same internet radio station, and alternated between the input channels.

The Squeezebox sounded better, but not by much. And it’s all to the credit of the Asus radio.

Install

The hardware setup was quite simple. You plug it into the wall outlet, flip the power switch on the back, and use the included 26-key remote to select Setup from the main menu displayed on the radio’s small screen.

While AIR is designed to work as a Wi-Fi device, it also has an Ethernet jack on the back for an optional wired connection. We configured it as a wireless device.

Selecting Network in the Setup menu takes you to a submenu where you can choose Auto Setup if you’re using a router that functions as a DHCP server (which most do), or Manual Setup if you need to manually enter the IP address, Subnet mask, etc. We kept the default Auto setting.

Back in the Setup menu, we selected Wi-Fi Setup. The next screen took so long to appear – it just said Empty for several seconds – that we backed into the menu system and tried again. The second time it displayed a list of available hotspots much faster, including our desired network.

Selecting your network from this list takes you to a sub-menu where you can choose Enter WEP/WPA, to enter an encryption key, or Direct Connect if you don’t have WEP or WPA security in place.

Aside from the single noted hiccup, the network setup went perfectly.

Using the AIR radio is also quite simple. You can use the remote control or the buttons and dials on the front panel. They include a four-way directional control with Enter button for navigating menus, a large volume dial, a Home button that automatically takes you to the Home menu, and five presets for selecting favorite stations.

To get started, select Radio Stations/Music from the Home menu. Like most Internet radio apps, AIR lists available stations by genre — it lists over 75 genres.

Features

Although we haven’t counted the stations, we know this is a substantial database. Even the Classical Music category, which is never one of the most popular, included over 140 stations, many of which we had never come across before.

AIR also allows you to select stations by country/location. Virtually every country in the world is represented. For the United States, you choose by state.

We encountered stations in the radio list that would not play. But, that’s the nature of Internet radio. Some internet-only stations are not professionally operated and may not air for a number of reasons. Some may have a limit on the number of users who can connect simultaneously. Others are scheduled to be off the air at certain times. And sometimes stations change web server and IP address.

However, Asus regularly updates its database. Selecting Version Update from the Home/Setup menu refreshes the station list in less than a minute and takes you back to listening to the station that was playing before you started the process.

Stations turn off to rebuff a bit more often than they do when listening on our test computer or our Squeezebox media player, but it still didn’t happen often enough to be a serious issue .

Re-buffering occurs when the network connection fails to transmit data to the device fast enough to ensure continuous music playback, or when the device’s processing or input/output systems choke the data stream.

The process of adding a new station to the radio’s database is tortuous. This involves entering a URL for the stream, which you can usually find on the station’s website or by looking in the properties for the Listen Now or Listen Live link on the site.

But, to enter it into the AIR radio, you must press the up or down arrows on the remote (or front panel) to cycle through the alphabet, numbers, and special characters, all in one long list, for each character. , then click the right arrow to move to the next character.

We entered an address longer than 40 characters, then the link didn’t work. Bah !

Adding existing stations to the My Favorites menu or presets on the front of the radio is only slightly easier. To add a station to the favorites lists, simply select it from the Radio Stations/Music menu and press the Add Favorite button on the remote control.

But, if you want it to be one of the top ten favorites that you can select by pressing the five presets on the radio or the number buttons on the remote, you have to move it up the list from the bottom where it is automatically inserted. This involves two button clicks for each position you move, which is cumbersome if you have a long list of favorites.

At the end of the line ? Despite these annoying interface issues, the Asus AIR radio is quite an impressive product. If you’re addicted to internet radio, already have a Wi-Fi network, and want to bring the experience into your living space, this is a great way to do it.

Gerry Blackwell is a frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet.

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