Tivoli's Web Radio: Well-Made but Costly

Tivoli Audio has a richly deserved reputation for superb sound, but its new Internet radio has other drawbacks

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Excellent sound quality; superior setup compared with other products

The Bad: Navigation to find Internet stations complicated; no AM radio; price is excessive

The Bottom Line: A premium niche product at a premium price

Internet radios don't get much respect. This has always bothered me. The idea that you can make a device able to play radio streams from all over the world seems so drop-dead simple and certain to succeed that a part of me is dumbfounded that all household radios aren't Internet-ready by now.

Then I spent the last several days listening to Tivoli Audio's Networks radio from my house on Eastern Long Island. There I enjoyed one of the best radio stations in the world—Jazz.FM91, based in Toronto, more than 400 miles away. I wouldn't be able to hear this station on a conventional FM radio. But the Networks radio tuned right into the station via the Internet, using a Wi-Fi zone created by my Apple (AAPL) Airport Extreme Wi-Fi router.

This is the fourth or fifth Internet radio I've sampled over the years. While I am impressed, I'm not fully satisfied. Tivoli Audio makes a line of excellent table-top radios that produce excellent sound from a single speaker. Tivoli's wonderfully retro Model One, its most popular offering, sounds excellent, although it has only one speaker. I have several around the house, so I was predisposed to like this newer model.

Easy Setup, Even With Security

The base product, a $599 stand-alone unit, looks like a rectangular speaker that might accompany a shelf-top stereo system. Except for the bluish display screen and the oddly placed button on top, you'd have a hard time guessing what it is. To tune into Web radio, this model connects to your home network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. But strangely, it doesn't pick up FM or AM stations over the air. To get FM, you need to buy a higher-end model for $649. For my test, I used the Networks Stereo Radio, which includes the FM feature and a second external speaker, for a price of $749.

My biggest complaint about Internet radios generally is that they're hard to set up on wireless networks when security features are enabled. Setup becomes so cumbersome and awkward that the best solution is to turn the security features off. That, of course, opens your network to outsiders. Thankfully, in the case of Tivoli, setup was not so difficult, even with security turned on. I was able quickly to find the radio's unique MAC address (Tivoli calls it a "radio ID") and, using the credit-card-size remote control, enter the network password.

Once set up, the device is generally easy to operate, though not perfect. The Networks radio suffers from a problem common to Internet radios: Selecting stations from the tens of thousands in existence isn't easy. When I first heard that Tivoli was building an Internet radio, I hoped for one of its famous analog knobs that would make it easy to cycle through a long list of stations on a display.

Endlessly Long Lists

No dice. The primary way to select an Internet station is to use the remote control. Or you can use buttons inexplicably located on the back. You can search through prebuilt lists of stations based on genre (Bluegrass, College, Country, Jazz, Comedy, Rock, and so on), then subdivided by country. Or you can locate stations first by the country in which they're located.

Either way, you can expect to scroll through a long list before you find what you want. It took me a while to locate a station in my home state of Oregon, for example, and another I like that's in Los Angeles. It took even longer to find New York-area stations, which, like all located east of the Mississippi, begin with a W, rather than a K, placing them further down the alphabetized list. Fortunately, it's easy to make a station a favorite by pressing and holding a key on the remote. Whenever you want to tune in, simply navigate to the favorites menu, where the scrolling will be quicker.

Drawbacks aside, it's hard to quibble with the sound quality, for which Tivoli is widely known. I switched a few times between a local FM broadcast and the same station's live Web stream. There was a difference: The FM broadcast tended to have a deeper base and was louder. But the Internet stream was crystal clear and didn't have that annoying "bump" sound, heard every minute or so on other Internet radios, that's associated with the speed of the network.

Connecting to Your Computer

Another bonus: The radio is also able to take music from an iPod through a stereo patch cable or from a USB drive. It can also connect directly to the music stored on your computer over the network. The included documentation tells how to do this on a Windows PC (MSFT), but not on a Mac. Even after finding instructions for sharing music files from a Mac, via Tivoli's Web site, I couldn't get it work.

One obvious missing feature: The radio should let you connect to music discovery services, such as Pandora or Last.fm (CBS), or such other services with streams as Rhapsody (RNWK). I hope that will be addressed in a software upgrade.

I listened to Internet streams on this radio for a full weekend—and enjoyed the experience. If you live far away from home and like to hear radio from your own home town or in your own language, the ability to dial it up over the Internet is a great thing. But you can do it just as easily, if not more easily, on a PC than on a dedicated radio. As much as I hate to admit it, there's only so much appeal for Internet-connected radios, especially when you consider that most people listen to the radio only their cars, or at home first thing in the morning for the traffic and weather. That makes the $599 to $749 price range excessive.

I like this product a great deal, mostly because it's made well, and Tivoli got right more than it got wrong. I hope Tivoli keeps working on Internet radios. Given another year, perhaps features could improve and prices could come down on another less-expensive model. But for now, it's hard to make a case that this product is worth so high a price.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.