Review: ASUS AIR Internet Radio

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By Gerry Blackwell

January 30, 2008

The interface is clunky, but the sound quality, design, and easy setup more than make up for it.

Product: ASUS AIR Internet Radio

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

Price: MSRP $ 199

Pros: beautiful appearance, thousands of pre-programmed radio stations, easy setup

Cons: clunky interface for some functions, monaural speaker system

In Europe, the Web Radio Appliance, 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 EU online sellers. In North America, web radios first appeared a few years ago, but have apparently failed. Most have disappeared. Now they are starting to come back.

Taiwan’s rapidly growing computer and electronics manufacturer introduced 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 as low as $ 165.

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

Design

Maybe AIR is the web radio that will finally allow North Americans to listen to internet radio without a computer. Interestingly, Asus 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 sort of retro industrial chic. It looks like an old-fashioned 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 non-trivial consideration with this type of product, since the idea is that you can install web radio in your living space where you wouldn’t want to put a clunky computer. He has to fit in.

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 shelf, shelf in a stereo cabinet, or on the kitchen counter.

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

Sound quality

However, it does sound surprisingly full and pleasant, certainly better than most clock radios we’ve heard. (It also works as an alarm clock.) And you can listen in stereo with headphones or by using the output 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. Is it good?

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 the two to a receiver, to different input channels, tune both to the same internet radio station, and toggle between the input channels.

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

To install

The hardware setup was pretty straightforward. 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 function as a Wi-Fi device, it also has an Ethernet jack on the back for an optional wired connection. We set it up as a wireless device.

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

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

Selecting your network from this list will take you to a submenu where you can choose Enter WEP / WPA, to enter an encryption key, or Direct connection if you do not have WEP or WPA security in place.

Aside from the hiccups noted, the network setup went perfectly.

Using the AIR radio is also fairly straightforward. You can use the remote control or the buttons and knobs on the front panel. They include a four-way steering control with Enter button to navigate 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 applications, AIR lists available stations by genre — it lists over 75 genres.

Characteristics

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

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

We encountered stations in the radio list that were not playing. But, that is the nature of Internet radio. Some Internet-only stations are not operated by professionals and may no longer be broadcast for a number of reasons. Some may have a limit on the number of users who can log in simultaneously. Others are programmed to be out of air at times. And sometimes stations change web servers and IP addresses.

However, Asus regularly updates its database. Selecting version update in the Home / Configuration menu updates the station list in less than a minute and returns you to listening to the station currently playing before starting the process.

Stations were muted a bit more often for the rebuff than when listening on our test computer or Squeezebox media player, but it still didn’t happen often enough to be a serious problem.

Rebuffering occurs when the network connection cannot send data to the device fast enough to maintain continuous music playback, or the device’s processing or I / O systems are choking the data flow.

The process of adding a new station to the radio 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 Properties for the Listen Now or Listen Live on Site link.

But, to enter it into the AIR radio, you have to press the up or down arrows on the remote (or on the front panel) to cycle through the alphabet, numbers and special characters, all in a 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 did not work. Bah !

Adding existing stations to the My Favorites menu or to the presets on the front of the radio is only slightly easier. To enter a station in the favorites lists, all you have to do is select it in 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 which you can select by pressing the five presets on the radio or the number buttons on the remote, you have to move it to the top of the list from from the bottom where it is automatically inserted. This involves two button clicks for each position you move, which is tedious if you have a long list of favorites.

At the end of the line ? Despite these annoying interface issues, the Asus AIR radio is a pretty impressive product. If you are 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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