October 2009


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Review: Grace Wireless Internet Radio

10:50 AM Tue, Aug 04, 2009 |
Posted by: Walt Zwirko

It was tucked away in a forgotten corner of a little-used guest room at my grandparents’ rural home — and I was drawn to it like a magnet.

The Zenith console radio and phonograph was once the centerpiece of a 1940s home entertainment system. Like today’s big-screen TV, the mahogany cabinet was designed to occupy a prominent place in the living room, delivering the sounds of Benny Goodman, Bob Hope and Jack Benny through a single massive speaker.

As a child, I was most intrigued by the dial on this radio. In addition to the familiar AM frequencies (there was no FM back then), it also had a shortwave band inscribed with the names of intriguing faraway places (England, Germany, Holland, Canary Islands, and more).

My curiosity was piqued. I hooked up an antenna wire to the connection on the back of the radio and warmed it up. Along with the pops, cracks and whistles on the shortwave band, I remember spending hours tuning in my first overseas transmissions. It contributed to a lifelong love of broadcasting and led to a career in radio, television and the Internet.

It was admittedly a lot of work to hear these voices from other places on a shortwave set. Even with today’s best receiver, reception is hit-and-miss — dependent on atmospheric conditions and external factors like appliances that generate electrical noise.

The tuning on the Zenith set was by a pointer on a dial, and the dial wasn’t very accurate. It could be difficult to find the same station from one day to the next, and most shortwave stations were (and still are) extremely difficult to receive during the daylight hours.

Almost 70 years after that Zenith radio was built, we have a better way to listen to the world — one that combines the best of Internet technology with traditional radio broadcasts.

A Grace Wireless Internet Radio (model ITC-IR1000B) has just replaced an AM/FM clock radio on the nightstand next to my bed. It is among the first devices of its kind and an amazing portal to almost any radio station anywhere in the world (along with hundreds of Web-only broadcasts). Unlike satellite radio, there are no subscriptions involved; this is free radio.

When I first saw a picture of the Grace, I was immediately reminded of my first police scanner from the 1970s. The Grace has a rectangular black plastic chassis about the size of a short shoebox. The left front panel of the radio is dominated by a large grille with a 3-inch speaker behind it; the right side has nine buttons, two dials, and a glowing alphanumeric display.

There’s a stubby antenna that folds up from the back.

Unlike a regular radio, you can’t just turn on the Grace and use it right out of the box. As its name implies, it requires a wireless Internet connection in your home or office. Power it up and it searches for available networks and then the display prompts you to select the correct one.

If your network has security enabled (and it should!), you’ll have to enter the correct code by turning the larger knob to select each character, then pressing it to confirm the choice for each letter or number. It’s not as convenient as a keyboard, but you should only have to do it once as long as you’re on the same network.

Now select [Internet Radio] from the display (again, using the larger knob), and you can immediately browse stations based on criteria like "location" or "genre" — or you can "search" for a station.

The search function is useful if you know the exact call letters of a radio station, for instance. You can also use it to zero in on a specific geographical area. Entering "DALLAS," for instance, pulled up more than 25 stations, including one that offers National Weather Service weather information and another that relays police and fire scanner traffic.

When you hear something you like, five of the buttons on the front panel can be used to immediately store your favorites for instant recall, not unlike the buttons on your car radio.

But the most mind-blowing part of the Grace for anyone who has ever struggled with a shortwave radio is the "location" selector. It presents you with a scrolling list of countries — from Afghanistan (four stations) to Zimbabwe (six stations) — and about 16,000 stations in between.

Just now, I’m listening to a news summary on station 3AW from Melbourne, Australia. With the press of a preset button, I can bounce around to the BBC in London or CNN in Atlanta or KTCK in Dallas. There is a slight delay when switching between stations (averaging under 10 seconds) while the Grace locks in to the datastream.

I’m very impressed with the sound from the Grace Wireless Internet Radio. The ported cabinet imparts a rich, mellow tone that makes even the lowest-quality broadcasts sound great.

The 3AW transmission, for instance, is being sent out at 10 kilobits-per-second (kbps) — an audio stream that could easily be received over a dial-up phone line. It sounds better than an AM broadcast on my old clock radio.

Most Internet broadcasts I’ve received so far use at least three times as much bandwidth, and they sound much closer to an FM-quality transmission.

I just punched over to the AOL Radio Smooth Jazz channel, which uses a 128 kbps stream that’s very easy on the ears. An audiophile wouldn’t confuse the sound with a CD, but again, it’s better than anything I ever heard coming out of that clock radio! As a bonus, the clock inside the Grace synchronizes with an Internet time standard, so it’s always accurate.

Grace utilizes the Reciva online database as a portal between your radio and the sound sources on the Internet. Reciva organizes and validates the available stations, making it much less likely that you’ll be tuning in to an outdated source.

By registering your Grace radio on the Reciva Web site, you can also easily manage the "My Stations" list using your computer. That means you have a scrollable list of personal favorites to offset the limitation of five preset buttons on the front panel.

If you are interested in the Grace, I’d recommend you take look at Reciva (it’s free) to make sure that the stations you want to listen to are included in its database.

OK, it’s not headline news that you can use a computer to access these stations from around the globe; the technology has been around for about 20 years now. Only recently, however, have manufacturers like Grace, Sangean and Aluratek combined computing power with a traditional radio form factor to create this type of evolutionary audio device.

There are a few things I’d change about the Grace Internet Radio. The monochromatic display — four lines of 16 characters — seems like a throwback to the 90s when compared with even the most basic screen on a cell phone. When you turn the radio off, I wish the digital clock would fill the screen instead of being restricted to a single line. It was a lot easier to check the time witout my glasses on the old clock radio.

The controls on the Grace take some getting used to; I would have preferred a more traditional numeric pad arrangement that would provide more presets and make data entry easier. The buttons — all flush to the front panel — are also hard to use by touch alone. Backlighting the buttons would have helped.

I’ve seen some complaints that the Grace doesn’t have stereo speakers, but I’d much prefer that a unit of this size has one good quality speaker pointing at you rather than two smaller ones on the side. It does deliver stereo audio, but only through the headphone jack on the back panel.

It also lacks an input jack that would let you play your iPod through the speaker. That limitation is somewhat mitigated by the Grace’s ability to link up with other computers on your home network to play back music and other audio files stored there. I’ve not tested that function yet, though, because there are so many other things to listen to!

Others have griped about the lack of a remote control; that’s not a problem for me, because I use the radio within arm’s reach.

Grace also has other models that have addressed most of the limitations of the ITC-IR1000B, which is their most basic receiver.

It seems to me only a matter of time before Internet-capable radios become as common as AM and FM. Forget satellite radio — can you imagine a car radio that can tune in 16,000 stations with digital clarity from all around the world?

If my bedside tabletop radio can do it, there is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to enjoy the same features while I’m driving.

I can, in fact, plug my cell phone into my notebook computer today and tune in any radio station on the Internet. As broadband wireless networks become more widespread, I predict you’ll see Web-enabled car radios begin to emerge within the next two years.

That will be a real radio revolution.


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Thanks for the info on the Grace radio. It sounds like a new gadget for my desk. Now to find one.

Why would you leave out any mention of Pandora radio support? One of the most exciting features of Internet based radio is to give listens are completely personalized radio listening experience, a feature that this radio supports and proudly boasts of support for but you don’t give any mention of it, instead choosing to focus on basic internet radio streaming, a feature of internet around and fairly popular since the the dawn of widely available consumer internet service.

Thanks for the review. In addition to the 16k + stations we have pandora, live365, and blogtalkradio for free. If you like Sirius Internet radio we provide those stations as well but you have to be a Sirius subscriber.

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