A Guide to Internet Radio


Grace Digital Audio’s Wireless Internet Radio IR1000

The various ways to find Internet Radio and devices that can stream it through your home.

Jan. 20, 2009 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Internet Radio—it’s free, it’s easy to access, and it has some serious advantages over tuning into available FM/AM stations.

In addition to streaming Internet Radio content via desktop or laptop there are a growing number of compact and/or portable devices capable of streaming Internet radio content directly to your home entertainment system. 

Station Identification
There is no shortage of Internet Radio sources to be found on the web. Live365.com, Pandora, Slacker—these are but a few of the many sites where ad-phobic listeners can search for and stream music by genre and interest or find live broadcasts from all over the world.

Within the overarching label of “Internet Radio” there are essentially two large sub-categories: services that allow “on-demand” control of the listening experience, and those that do not. The former, occupied by such heavy hitters as Rhapsody, require a subscription, but grant virtually unlimited access to a large library of songs and albums. Subscribers can select specific songs, pause and rewind tracks, and basically interact with the online library as if it were one’s own. The latter category, while generally free, has limitations. “Users can’t hear the music predictably,” says Pandora founder Tim Westergren. 

Within that second category of Internet Radio service there is yet another subset of groups, what Westergren refers to as personalized Internet Radio service and programmed Internet Radio service.

  • Programmed Internet Radio is basically the Internet version of broadcast radio, where listeners “tune in” via the web but have little control over what is being heard.
  • Personalized Internet Radio more accurately describes the service that Pandora (and others) offer, whereby the power of the Internet is leveraged to stream individually catered content to users simply by knowing a user’s taste, genre preferences, and by analyzing past user experience.

The personalized service, while generally free (users can pay to have no advertisements played), does have limits on customization and control. One industry-wide accepted practice limits the number of times a user can skip a song to six skips an hour. The limits imposed on this kind of Internet Radio service is what helps to keep it free, and to differentiate from the “on-demand” services from those like Rhapsody.

If a consumer wants to pay for enhanced or premium service through an Internet Radio provider, costs will vary and so will features, but one should look for or expect no ads, and/or greater control over the content. Slacker’s “Radio Plus” service costs $3.99/month, and in addition to no advertisements, users can skip as much as they want, and their song requests are unlimited.

Choose Your Device Wisely
The ubiquity of Internet Radio has given rise to a virtual industry of devices capable of streaming content in a number of different ways. As mentioned, the desktop/laptop method is quick and easy, and allows users to listen while they work. Users simply type in the URL of an Internet Radio service provider, choose a broadcast or genre, and sit back to listen. 

For those who want to listen to Internet Radio over the home’s audio system, there are a number of devices that will do the trick. One of the better-known and better-established products in this category is the Logitech Squeezebox (formerly the Slim Devices Squeezebox, before being acquired by Logitech). The Squeezebox has built-in 802.11g wireless networking capabilities, so it can connect to the Internet even when your home computer is turned off. It also has a built-in directory of thousands of Internet Radio stations (including Pandora), and grants user access to Rhapsody’s online library of songs (in the millions). The digital optical and coax outputs let you easily connect to the home audio receiver to start streaming internet radio content into the entertainment room or any and all zones of a whole-home audio system. The Squeezebox Classic retails at $299.

“Stand-alone” Internet Radio devices are also on the rise. Featuring built-in speakers, these products also wirelessly connect to the home’s network, but don’t require a home audio system for listening pleasure. Grace Audio’s Wireless Internet Radio looks and acts like the portable AM/FM radios of old, what with the built-in 3” ported speaker, digital display and alarm features. The difference is that this device can play over 15,000 Internet radio stations from all over the world, and also connects users to Pandora for that “personalized” listening experience. Or, if one prefers, it will also play music from the home’s digital library. If the built-in speaker isn’t doing it for you, it can also be connected to the home audio system. The Grace Audio Wireless Internet Radio retails for $199. 

The S-32 from Denon is another one of these “Networked Audio Players,” retailing for $499. Like Grace Digital’s radio, the S-32 has wireless networking capabilities, connecting to Internet Radio sources without the need for a PC. A built-in iPod docking station increases source options, and Rhapsody service broadens the musical selection for the user. 

As more consumers change their radio station by clicking a mouse, expect to see more Internet Radio devices designed to change the way Internet Radio is listened to. Here are some of the features a consumer might look for in such a device:

  • Wireless connectivity
  • Wired (Ethernet) connectivity
  • Can stream digital library
  • Access to large database of Internet Radio Stations
  • Access to personalized Internet Radio service (such as Pandora)
  • Access to on-demand Internet Radio service (such as Rhapsody)
  • Built-in speakers
  • Capable of connected to home audio receiver/system
  • iPod or iPhone docking station
  • USB port
  • Remote control
  • Alarm

Radio on the Go
Satellite radio service enabled motorists to receive (mostly) uninterrupted and ad-free radio wherever they went. Service extended easily into the home, where satellite radio devices integrated with home audio systems to spray cosmically transmitted tunes throughout the home.

The advanced 3G and 4G networks utilized by cellular service providers, coupled with feature-rich phones, are bringing Internet Radio service to users on the go. “The iPhone has really transformed the industry,” says Westergren, who added that over 10 percent of Pandora’s daily listeners are doing so through their iPhone. Cellular providers like Sprint and AT&T include Internet Radio service as an option for their subscribers—Pandora access costs $3/month for Sprint users and $8/month for AT&T users. iPhone users can access Pandora for free. Windows Mobile handsets like the HTC Touch (Sprint), HTC XV6900 (Verizon), and Motorola Q9C (Sprint and Verizon) also feature free access to Pandora service.

Slacker recently released the G2, a portable music player that plays “pre-loaded” Internet Radio content—like an MP3 player, users can take it anywhere, pop in a pair of headphones, and start rocking out. The difference is that, instead of scrolling through a library of songs or playing a playlist, the G2 acts just like the Slacker.com service, playing a song list as if it were an Internet Radio station. When in Wi-Fi service it will connect and update “stations” with new songs, always refreshing and refining content according to the user preferences for genre, artist, etc. Two G2s are available—one that will store 25 stations (2500 songs, 4GB) at a time, and one that will store 40 stations (4000, 8GB) songs at a time, retailing for $200 and $250, respectively. The G2 will also act as a traditional MP3 player, storing and playing owned music files from one’s personal digital library.

As user demand for Internet Radio service grows, look for a wider range of products and devices that push the content into every corner of our lives, whether at home, at work, or on the go.

Click here to view slideshow of a handful of devices designed for enhancing the Internet Radio experience.

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