Hands On: VTech IS9181 Wi-Fi Internet Radio


VTech’s IS9181 Wi-Fi Internet Radio

VTech's easy-to-use radio puts millions of songs and thousands of radio stations at your fingertips.

Oct. 16, 2009 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

For starters, I’m going to let my Facebook status update regarding my review experience with VTech’s IS9181 Wi-Fi Internet Radio speak for itself: “Testing out VTech’s Wi-Fi Internet radio. Pretty much a magical music box. Already found a great Beatles-only station streaming from Russia, and it only took a few minutes to add gdradio.net and Live Phish Radio streams. Sleep can wait till tomorrow night, right?”

In the tabletop evolution from the old AM/FM-only radios to the cassette boomboxes of the 80s to CD/radio boxes to iPod dock systems, the VTech model is the ideal culmination of today’s technology wrapped up in a compact, pretty package.

The IS9181 is almost as simple to set up and use as a traditional boombox you may be used to, but with access to 11,000-plus Internet radio stations foremost among its highlights, it acts almost as a poor man’s multiroom audio system. Currently it’s selling for $174.95 on VTech’s website.

Set Up
For the most part, the IS9181 is a pretty easy out-of-the-box solution. I was actually surprised by how compact the product was, too—dimensions are only 6.3” x 12.4” x 3.5” and the giftbox weighs just 4 lbs. The size makes the product even more feasible and flexible to use in just about any secondary room of your home or home/work office.

I plugged my review unit into a tidy corner counter space in our kitchen, perfect for when my wife or I are preparing dinner or putting away dishes from the dishwasher. It takes up about as much territory as a small toaster.

The IS9181 includes two manuals—the comprehensive user’s manual as well as the single-page fold-out quick start guide. I grabbed the quick start guide and it proved more than enough for my purposes. The guide says initialization after first-time plug-in can take up to three minutes, which may have been a minute longer than mine.

Following the guide from there, I activated the system and quickly got to the wireless network setup—the unit searched for and easily found my Linksys router, and I punched in my network password and was off and running. The virtual keyboard that appears on the IS9181’s GUI is simple enough to work, either using the included miniature remote control or the controls located on the top of the unit.

From there I also went through clock settings (you can enter manually or have them imported via the Internet) and weather settings. Yes, the device works pretty well as an extra clock for your room, or an alarm clock, and it also provides you with a 5-day forecast once you’ve entered your zip code.

With that taken care of, I was really to start the mega-listening experience that is the IS9181.

Features and Performance
There are four main ways to explore music from VTech’s Internet Radio—source choices are Internet Radio, My Music, FM Radio and Aux In. For this review’s sake, I focused on the Internet Radio, which I believe to be the biggest boon to the device as it taps into 11,000-plus stations—including just about any you can add yourself if they’re not already available.

Highlighting “Internet Radio” on the source menu brings you to a menu of Genres, Locations, Languages, Most Popular Stations, and My Stations. Let’s just say it’s good to have options when you’re dealing with such a vast quantity of stations. Those options are pretty self-explanatory, save for the My Stations.

That one, as well as the other choices, might best be discussed by pointing you to the Station Finder on VTech’s website. You first need to set up your account, by inputting the product ID, to go with your email address and password (sent to you). You can certainly scroll through and select the genres and individual stations on the device itself, but once you check out the Station Finder you will get a better idea of how much there is to choose from, whether it be typical genres like classic rock, jazz, classical, blues, bluegrass and more, or talk radio, for example.

Just as an example, there are 1003 Top 40 stations as of this writing, 230 Contemporary Christian stations, 53 Reggae stations, 10 World Hawaiian stations and 262 sports talk stations. Remember, these are global choices.

I used the list to scan some in the classic rock category, from North America, and add a few channels to My Stations. This acts like a Bookmarks area on your radio so it’s easy to quickly access some favorite choices. I found all-Pink Floyd and all-Beatles stations (both streamed from Russia), for example, that I managed to one-click add to My Stations.

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.

-Stream music across the 802.11 b/g WiFi network. Broadband Internet service and a home WiFi network router are required
-Listen to Internet radio from the available 11,000 stations with no monthly fee
-Access Internet radio stations from our user-friendly online site or on the device itself
-Play music from any audio device (i.e. CD player, MP3 player, etc)
-Connect to any stereo system or powered speakers to access streaming Internet radio or music files stored on a PC or Mac
-Built-in FM radio tuner for local FM broadcast service. Preset your favorite stations
-Built-in 3W tuned stereo speakers and a 10W subwoofer with class D amplifier for each speaker that can fill any room with dynamic sound
-Digital alarm clock radio-wake up to your favorite Internet or FM radio station or the internal buzzer.
-Automatic clock set and adjustment via the Internet.
-Battery-operated option allows you to take the device outside the home or office.
-Convenient remote-browse, select and control your music from across the room using the remote control
-Access local weather and 5-day forecast
-Large full color display
-Product dimensions: 6.3” x 12.4” x 3.5”
-Giftbox weight: 4 lbs

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