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The life and times of james Hart: his family, his music, life in Luton and his occasional escapes onto the internet.

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Wednesday, 15 October 2008

A rambling internet radio pre-amble (or 'My Life as an Anorak')

A month or so ago, Beth asked for a stereo system for the kitchen, with a CD player and digital radio. This was primarily because the mac mini's DVD drive has started to reject all kinds of optical media, and it is rather a bothersome process to listen to any radio station, even with an icon on the desktop. In fairness, the mac mini's excellent for video (we regularly stream the TV through the Neuros OSD, and watch programmes on BBC iPlayer) - other on-demand services are frustratingly Windows-only - but I set myself a challenge to find a little CD micro system that has internet radio capability.

Why internet radio rather than DAB? Well, I started researching the options long before the announcement that Channel 4 were to withdraw from the second national digital radio multplex, I have long believed, though, that DAB is very limited in its scope, since our local FM station didn't even make it onto the first multiplex, promised much in terms of quality but delivered much less (MPEG simply doesn't sound good enough) and - in its current form, despite the fairly impressive uptake, is more expensive as a single platform, certainly than conventional analogue radio (you can still buy one for just a couple of pounds). Even DAB+ - which offers some improvements - seems a long way away, and although I'm really taken with the amazing distances covered by the new digital shortwave service Digital Radio Mondiale, there are precious few devices available that support it, and it's still(?) very much in its infancy.

Moreover, I'm hearing impressive things about the capabilities of mobile internet devices, certainly in the US; with an 'all-in' data package, a mobile phone can be used to stream any of the tens of thousands of radio stations on the web, and even cars are being fitted with cellular data cards, bring web mobility to the road as well. I believe internet radio is definitely the future, especially since there are already capabilities for it intrinsically available on so many portable platforms.

I was honoured to be given the DAB radio that we kept in the kitchen in the meantime as an award at work; it sufficed while I carried out my investigations, but because we live in a valley, reception wasn't perfect for all stations.

Acoustic Energy WiFiRevo BlikSo.. what's out there at the moment? There are quite a few internet radio devices available, using the Reciva internet radio directory. Unfortunately many of them are - even to my uncultured eye - horrific looking (the Revo Blik and Acoustic Energy wi-fi radio are two examples of designs that don't sit well with me) or rather plasticky (the otherwise excellent Roberts Stream 202 is lightweight, knockable - and doesn't have a CD player).

I like the concept of Reciva - the comprehensive directory is updated and the system discussed by an active community of users, and it's also possible to create a personal account on the site and populate a 'favourites' collection that will automatically be downloaded to any radio that supports it.

Frontier Silicon, a British-based radio chip designer offers a directory as well, which is probably the largest 'competitor' to Reciva.

There are other internet radio systems available, but they are very expensive and a little overkill for what we need. There's a Philips Streamium system that's designed to play audio around the house - it's seven hundred pounds and.. yet again.. looks awful! Sony also does a high-end hi-fi system that uses its own internet radio system (they are always keen to do their own thing!) and once again, well out of my price range.

One piece of kit, caught my eye, though, by Centrios I first saw it on a Canadian shopping website, but there was very little information about it. I was interested to see if it was Reciva capable, so I wrote a post about it in the community forum, and received some interesting responses - some that advised that I should buy a separate internet radio and CD micro system, and one that suggested that the same device was available in Comet under the 'Goodmans' brand.

Goodmans CD1505WiI found the stereo system on the Comet website - the Goodmans CD1505Wi and it did seem to be of the same design as the system I saw was available in the US. Once again, though, there was very little information about - there was no doubt that it plays CDs (using, I noted, the Gracenote internet database to retrieve artist and song information) and could tune into 'thousands of internet radio stations'. but - once again, it wasn't clear where it got that information!

I called Goodmans customer services - it was interesting to discover that Comet owns the rights to use the 'Goodmans' brand and badge for equipment they buy in themselves. I called Comet customer services - they suggested I go to a store that had one available and ask the staff there for a good look at it, because they had no information about it. Unfortunately, there wasn't one at our local store. Another dead end!

Serendipity stepped in - I was given another award at work, this time in the form of High Street gift vouchers that would cover much of the cost of what could amount to Hobson's Choice in terms of a CD micro system... Beth and I took a trip to Hemel Hempstead (with Suzi, who we've not seen in ages!) to do some further research. They had some in stock (yay!) and I was able to open the box and look at the instructions. Fantastic! I could see it offered some excellent features (more on this later) but still.. no information about where it got its station list from!

Yeah.. of course I bought it!

Before I go into the excitable unboxing and the results of some intensive fiddling, though, I ought to explain why it was so important to me to know where the internet station list came from.

When I was in my early teens, I had my first go at using 'proper' radio - can you believe it was my Dad's ancient clock radio? What made it so special was that it had an enormous tuning dial, and a fine-tuning knob. Within a couple of months (ahh.. the delights of summer holidays!) I could pick up over fifty medium wave stations, stretching to Chiltern Radio (just about, considering I was on the south coast) during the day and RTÉ 2 and Vatican Radio's English service when reception was improved at night.

I then received a short-wave radio - the seeds were sown for a vehement enthusiasm - I would spend whole weekends listening to stations and those distinctive up-to-the-hour callsigns from across the world, from Russia to Taiwan, and even some shortwave pirate stations in East Anglia on a Sunday morning!

Every year I am fortunate to receive a Radio Listener's Guide from Jon's parents as a Christmas present - I used to have an encyclopedic knowledge of radio stations both in the UK and in Europe, and knew when the English services were on air for my favourite world stations.

So now, I'm working in radio, and still have an affection for many commercial stations - from FUN Radio (an excellent digital station for children started by GCAP/Global Radio, in conjunction with HIT Entertainment, who make Bob The Builder and the legendary - and lovely - Susan Stranks) to Big L (Mike Read and David Hamilton's radio station based in Frinton-on-Sea in Essex which was the subject of a hilariously tragic TV programme last year); there are also podcasts with a 'radio' format, like Flat Four Radio and the unique Vobes Show available on Internet Radio through Reciva.

With Beth's requirements (Magic 105.4 and Absolute Radio - not to mention Chill and Chiltern) you can probably surmise that the requirements for this internet radio were extremely high!

I've not had a huge amount of time to play with it this week, with work and its associated commutes taking up so much of my day, but I'll be writing a full review of it in the next day or so...

Posted by james at October 15, 2008 9:49 PM

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