Two other major ways to use Station Finder are being able to: sort the station listings by bitrate (high to low or vice versa) and adding stations by URL. The former will directly affect your listening performance, as higher bitrate streams definitely sound better coming through the virtual pipe—I found a 192 kbps classic rock signal, and it sounded crystal clear, while 64 kbps jazz offered noticeable compression artifacts.
The latter, adding stations, was of utmost importance to me and pain-free to accomplish. Some of my favorite bands, such as Phish, the Grateful Dead and other “jam” bands have excellent streaming web stations that I couldn’t find searching the listings. When you open such streams in iTunes or Windows Media Player, for example, you can find the ISP information and copy it into VTech’s station adding form. In all it took about 3 minutes to add three of my favorite stations (you may already have several in your iTunes), which show up instantaneously on the IS9181 after you’ve added them on the web.
If you’re used to the iTunes radio streaming section, you’ll be happy to see metadata such as station names, artist information, song info, genre and geographic location appear similarly on the radio’s GUI. You can also click “skip to” buttons on the remote or the device to rapidly move from one station to the next or previous.
Depending on the stream, you may have a relatively instantaneous buffering before play begins, or it could take awhile. Or, like I found out with my Pink Floyd station, it may not work at all. The hit-or-miss nature of web radio is understandable, but it can be frustrating at times.
As for the other music sources, VTech includes a standard headset jack, so I used it to plug in my iPod. Again, this capability expands the IS9181’s musical prowess and is a great feature to include—whether you have 120-gig iPods or a shuffle, chances are it has your favorites and they’ll be easy to access. In the future it may be good for VTech to add some sort of simple iPod charging base for this application.
I also tested the FM signal. I’m sure this will vary wildly not only from house to house, but to location within your house. Perhaps there’s too much interference in my kitchen, but it seemed only really strong signals worked well. That being said, I barely listen to FM as it is, and there’s no metadata, so no big loss by me.
As for the networked music, the user’s manual details the ways you can access other tunes on your Mac (OS 10.4, 10.5) or PC (Windows 2000/XP/Vista), with an extensive section on setting up the “My Music” source. I chose not to configure a networked attached storage device or my computer for this, as I wanted to play music without extra devices or extra setup—I don’t leave my PC on 24/7, and for listening to tunes in my kitchen I was more than happy to stick with web radio, FM or plug in my iPod to the aux input. That being said, I will note that after you have set up the correct configuration for your computer, the IS9181 allows you access to files in MP3, WMA, Real Audio (RA, RM, RMVB) and AAC (MP4 and M4A) formats, making the unit even more attractive.
For a music nut like me, I had a feeling that a standalone Internet radio player would be a fun addition. I just didn’t know how fun—you could spend countlesss hours searching for stations around the world, or simply going back and forth between a few that you previously had to be chained to your desktop to hear. And just think of the possibilities if you’re a sports fan, to find clear streams of games from around the country.
The IS9181’s built-in 3W stereo speakers provide ample sound quality, aided by the built-in 10W subwoofer as the bass extension was certainly a strong suit. There’s also RCA outputs so you can plug it into an external receiver or integrated amp for bigger sound. Don’t go into it expecting audiophile quality, and you won’t be disappointed. And as noted, it helps if you pick some higher quality streams to listen to.
Features such as the bluish-purplish screen, top-located buttons, compact form factor and quick weather lookup make it a more robust proposition, and at $175 the unit is very competitively priced in the category. For rooms such as kitchens, playrooms, bedrooms, home offices and others, even setting up multiple devices is a low-cost way to enjoy tons of music, old and new.
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.