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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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Monday, 20 October 2008

Goodmans CD1505Wi wifi micro CD system - a review

It's now a week since there's been a wi-fi radio in the house. So.. how does it look; how does it work? What can it do, and what could it do better?

First and foremost, for the money and the size, it does quite well, sitting in the middle-ground between horribly cheap Argos systems, and the likes of Teac and Denon. The speakers are twin-driven (with separate bass and treble speakers in the cabinet) so there's no great issue with frequency response, and it has plenty of power to fill the kitchen with some fairly high-quality, pleasant sound, especially when playing CDs. (7/10)

Quite Important Thing I completely forgot to write in my previous blog post

Thank you to everyone who wrote a comment. Jon raised an excellent point - with conventional radio (both analogue and digital), a broadcaster has just one connection to make to get a radio programme to the listener. In the case of the World Service, this can involve using satellites and several megawatts of electricity, but given the potential audience of millions, it divides down to an apposite sum 'per head'.

In its current form, internet broadcasting works differently - every radio makes its own, unique connection to a server, which has to send what amounts to the same digital signal down each internet 'wire'.

So if there are a thousand listeners, there will be a thousand connections. Consequently, the broadcaster needs to pay their internet service provider enough to 'cope' with the bandwidth this uses. One way to reduce costs is to bring down the amount of data going down each connection - it's possible to reduce this bandwidth substantially with the modern digital compression algorithms, but there's a delicate balance to be struck between sound quality and the size of the data stream required to deliver it.

I have to say, though, that even at quite low bit-rates (32kbits/s Windows Media), the radio broadcasts sound reasonable on this radio. What's quite nice is that often the broadcasters will stream a different feed to that which comes out of 'normal' FM radio. Commercial stations often use strong audio processing to make their station sound 'loud' in comparison with others (so that, when flicking across the dial, it attracts attention and makes it more likely that a listener will stop) - compare Capital FM and BBC Radio 1 with BBC Radio 3 and the difference will be clear.

Conversely, though, because many presenters on commercial stations use their FM transmissions to balance their 'sound', the unprocessed version can be quite.. well.. variable in level and quality.

Right now we're playing Magic 105.4 - it sounds good, but I think the encoder sometimes gets a bit 'too much' signal from the station output, so every now and then it distorts. Such are the pitfalls of a secondary broadcast medium...

end of Quite Important Thing


Goodmans CD1505Wi micro hi-fi system with internet radio


Usability
The device is fairly easy to set up - I was surprised to see that it comes with a separate wi-fi USB dongle that plugs into a cleverly positioned socket at the top rear of the system. Once this was inserted, and the device was switched on and had booted up (I believe it uses an implementation of embedded Linux) it didn't take long to make a wi-fi connection and start looking for stations.

The volume control is a continuous controller (rather than a traditional 'fully anticlockwise is minimum volume, fully clockwise is maximum' one) and only works when a station is tuned and successfully streaming - which can be a little frustrating. There's no tone control, so what you hear is what you get, although there are buttons on the remote control that can give a small range of preset 'EQ' settings, such as 'pop', 'jazz' and so on. There's also an 'X-BASS' button, which renders the already limited bandwidth of the audio almost unlistenable. (7/10)

The FM radio is good, with a separate co-ax antenna connector (and flying lead supplied), and can pick up the local stations nice and strongly. We live in an area of pretty poor reception (hence the need for an alternative) so expectations weren't too great, but there are several presets, and it seems to work fine. It doesn't have RDS or radiotext. (7.5/10)

An excellent feature is the ability to record to SD card from CD, FM Radio, AUX in (which makes it rather a useful recording device!) and MP3 internet radio streams. Recording quality is good, too so I can't fault this as an idea. (10/10)

Christopher could easily navigate the menus and find radio stations; the up and down arrows select individual services, while the left and right (next/previous) arrows skip through intitial letters. It takes a little time to get used to, and sometimes the lists take a while to populate, but it's definitely fairly intuitive. At first glance, though, the list of available radio services was extremely limited - less than three hundred for the UK, which was far too few, and many of them simply didn't work. A frustrating on-line search ensued, until I checked the radio again, and discovered that in the 'information' submenu of the 'setup' section, a URL was displayed for the directory - http://station.penbex.com.tw. This was not configurable.

I sent an email to the address on the 'Contact Us' page and have subsequently exchanged emails with a very helpful member of the Penbex organisation. He recommended that I carry out a firmware upgrade - this successfully increased the total number of UK stations listed to 1089, although there were more, since BBC Radio 4 (for example) had a number of 'On Demand' programmes that could be selected from a menu underneath this list.

Unfortunately, the list of content was horrendously out-of-date, and almost all of them refused to play - I have been assured that they're working on sorting these out; with the advent of the new iPlayer technology it will be interesting to see what platform and encoder the BBC uses, and how long it'll be before all the services catch up (since Reciva offers the BBC Listen Again services, too).

As I've already mentioned, I have an extremely catholic appreciation of radio, and know quite a few people who work on stations across the UK. Many of the student radio stations are listed (although Canterbury Student and Community Radio isn't on-air at the moment) but I'm still not convinced all the stations listed on the website are visible in the stations list. Our friend Stuart was broadcasting on the East midlands' Heart 106, but we couldn't listen..



The display of the wi-fi radio: there's no Heart 106 anywhere on the list


A screen-grab of the website: Heart 106 is there - twice; Heartbeat (which is mis-spelt) isn't..

From a usability point of view, this is probably the most irksome aspect of the radio. On a conventional radio, if you're scanning the band and come across a radio station, most often it'll just take a little adjustment of the aerial or a tweak of the tuner and it'll be audible. On the CD1505Wi, it can be on the list (sometimes even two or three times!) and simply return me to the menu when I select it, or give me a 'Data Process Err(11)' error.

This would be an ideal candidate for 'wikipedia'-style user contribution - if listeners could easily add new stations and report defunct ones; or even better, if the radio could automatically report the 'dead' ones if they occur over a period of time and expire them from the list, this would make the user experience far richer. The internet directory on the website doesn't follow the same hierarchy as the subdirectories on the radio, so it's impossible to know if there's a station hiding somewhere - perhaps a search feature would be useful? Right now, though, it really is very 'hit and miss' to find a radio station to listen to - certainly for the first time. (4/10)

The radio is capable of storing up to twenty Favorites - these are very easy to set, since all it takes is a click of the 'MEMORY' button when it's tuned in, or a hold of the 'OK' button when it's in the list, but once they're loaded, you can't re-order them (so you have to populate them in the order you think you'd like to see them) and if you go to the bottom, you can't click 'down' once more and appear at the top. These should, I imagine, be quite simple to sort out.. perhaps something for a future release?


Reliability and technology
Here's where the bad news starts. When a gadget doesn't do what it's supposed to - or, more often, stops doing it without warning - apart from the irritation caused by the failure, it's difficult to work out whether it's a manufacturing problem, an environmental issue or a design fault. Put simply, the radio loses its wi-fi connection at least once an hour. Considering the hi-fi is less than three metres from the wireless router, I can't imagine it's because of interference or lack of signal strength.

We do have quite a busy network in our house, but the internet capacity is generous (several Mbps download) and none of the other wi-fi kit (including a printer server and our i600s) have any problems maintaining a connection; in fact, I download podcasts to my phone every day using a wireless FTP connection. I can be fairly confident that the network's running OK.

Annoyingly, the station list will not refresh unless the hi-fi has been turned off. If it loses connection with the wi-fi access point while it's reading the station list, then I'm stuck with an even briefer list than before!

It concerns me that the USB wi-fi dongle gets more than a little warm - in fact, it gets rather hot. Furthermore, it annoys me a little that the USB wi-fi dongle remains powered (since it stays hot) even when the unit is in standby mode. To save electricity (since we do try to keep our energy consumption down, despite all the gadgets!), I have taken to completely depowering the system overnight. In the morning - guess what! It has lost its wi-fi connection settings, and I have to select an access point and re-enter the key again. Fortunately the favourites are still there, but it is not acceptable for Beth to have to dig out the encryption key every morning in order to listen to the radio, wasting at least five minutes of valuable breakfast time.

I would say, though, that this is the clincher for internet radio systems; if it doesn't do what it's supposed to first time, every time, a normal user will very quickly get annoyed and give up with technology, and with good reason. Unfortunately, this is close to happening with the CD1505Wi wifi micro CD system.

We have to return to that first question - is this a duff box, or a bad design? Either way, we're nowhere near 100% happy with its reliability, I'm afraid. (2/10)

To attempt a stay of execution, I'm planning to try it on the wired network for a while, to see if that improves the reliability, and I'm hoping the fine folks at Penbex will take on board some of the comments in this blog entry so that the radio delivers what it promises.

That's one thing I couldn't be more pleased with, to be honest - I have had some really positive email exchanges with the webmaster of the World Radio site, and he has been very helpful, and expressed genuine interest in my feedback. It's not often I feel so well listened-to by a manufacturer or service provider; on this occasion, I would give Penbex an emphatic 10/10 for their customer service.

Other things
One other aspect I've not yet covered is uPNP - the ability to share media (and other data) across network devices, which is a great way to keep all the music in one place, and listen to it anywhere in the house.

We only have one uPNP device in the house - the recently purchased D-Link DNS323 which makes up our central data storage. The hi-fi could see 'Dave' (as it's known) but only seemed capable of playing WAV files.. not a huge amount of use, considering we have mainly MP3s.

That said, I'm currently investigating the implementation of mediatomb which is available for the DNS323, and is recommended as a suitable uPNP server in the manual.. we'll wait and see if it's possible to play our music collection on the hi-fi! (TBC)

Posted by james at October 20, 2008 9:40 PM


 
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