Remember the Golden Age of Radio? When you and sis and mom and dad would gather around the colossal living-room Westinghouse to enjoy the whacky antics of Fibber McGee and Molly or endure the suspense of The Inner Sanctum? That’s okay, neither do we. It doesn’t really matter, because the Internet and boxes like Grace Digital Audio’s Solo Wi-Fi Receiver are making radio relevant again.
Free music from more than 17,000 radio stations, including NPR, CBS, and the BBC? Check. Paid and free subscriptions from the likes of Pandora, Sirius, and Live365. Podcasts? Check. High-fidelity audio streaming from your own computer, NAS box, or server? Check. There’s support for MP3Tunes, too, so you can listen to tunes you’ve uploaded to the cloud anywhere you can access the Internet. The only features missing are old-fashioned terrestrial radio and speakers; you’ll need to connect the Solo to powered speakers or to your hi-fi system.
We quickly had our unit connected to our wireless network (there is no hard-wired Ethernet NIC) and it immediately asked if we wanted to download and install an available firmware update. With that out of the way, we set about exploring the Solo’s capabilities. Onboard controls consist of 13 buttons and two rotary dials. One dial controls the volume and the other navigates the unit’s extensive menu system. These dials are ridiculously difficult to rotate, which you might appreciate if you have small children who are fond of fiddling with such things; but we have difficulty not thinking this is either a design or manufacturing flaw. The good news is that you don’t really need these dials; you can control every aspect of the radio with the provided infrared remote control. And if you have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, you can download Grace Digital’s free app and use those devices to control the radio.
Our enthusiasm for the Solo is tempered by more than a few compromises. There’s the overly stiff dials, of course, but we’re also not fond of the simplistic, four-line, text-only LCD. It displays an awful lot of information—including the station ID, song title, artist name, bit rate, and more—but you’ll find yourself scrolling—and scrolling, scrolling, and scrolling some more—to get to it all.
We also had trouble finding locations where the Solo’s internal antenna could establish a strong connection to our wireless access point, with the result being drop-outs galore unless it was positioned just so. A hard-wired NIC and a bit of cable would eliminate this dependence on wireless (assuming, of course, there’s an Ethernet port somewhere near you want to place the radio).
The Solo supports a wide range of unencrypted audio formats, including MP3, AAC, AIFF, FLAC, OGG, and WMA, but it outputs only analog signals (via stereo RCA or a 1/8-inch headphone jack), leaving you entirely dependent on its own DAC We connected it to a mid-range A/V receiver and bookshelf speakers for this evaluation. The sound that emerged wasn’t bad, but it didn’t exactly knock our socks off. Logitech’s Squeezebox Radio delivers far better sound, displays album art on a full-color LCD, and includes a built-in speaker, but it costs almost twice as much.
Broad support for digital audio, whether it reside on the Internet or within your own archives.
Crappy control dials; no hard-wired Ethernet NIC; weak wireless reception.