One of the unique features of the ARIR200 is its capability to record content, using its 512MB internal memory. We haven't seen this functionality on other Wi-Fi radios and perhaps for good reason; we didn't find ourselves using it very much during our testing. With so many ways to get access to music these days--from Rhapsody to LaLa to iTunes--the idea of recording songs off the radio just isn't as appealing as it was in 1980s with cassettes.
The ARIR200 is also one of the few Wi-Fi radios we've tested with access to the Slacker streaming music service. The basic service is free (after you sign up for an account) and you can choose from a large variety of genre-based radio stations. This is a contrast to the many other radios that offer Pandora; luckily, it's easy to try out both services online, so you can see which better fits your tastes.
Also somewhat unique on the ARIR200 is the fact that it includes both AM and FM tuners. As much as we like to rail on the current state of terrestrial radio, we actually did appreciate the functionality on the ARIR200. There is still some content that you can't get via Internet radio, most notably sports broadcasts. Likewise, if your Internet connection is flaky, you'll still be able to get your local stations.
The back panel contains some additional connectivity, including an Ethernet port, a headphone jack, and a USB port. The USB port can be used with USB memory drive filled with MP3, WMA, or Real Audio files; unfortunately that means songs purchased from iTunes (the AAC format) won't work. There's also a battery compartment in the bottom; the batteries act as a backup in case you lose power. If you're looking for compatibility with your iPod, Acoustic Research also offers the step-up ARIR600i ($200 list price), which adds an iPod dock to the ARIR200's feature set.
As essentially a souped-up alarm clock, we didn't have high expectations for the ARIR200's sound quality. We played through a bunch of music styles, and while nothing wowed us, it never sounded awful either. There's very little bass and the sound isn't particularly detailed, but it's fine for casual listening in a bedroom. Overall, the sound quality was a little better than we were expecting, given the low-rent styling, but it's still nothing to get excited about.
While the sound quality is passable, we did notice that the ARIR200 emits a hissing sound in between tracks or when paused. To be fair, it's not that loud and when music is playing it covers it up, but it's hard to accept when other radios we test don't have the issue at all.
Our initial experience streaming music with the ARIR200 was disappointing. We had the ARIR200 set up in our CNET testing facilities and the ARIR200 had difficulty connecting to our network, wired or wirelessly. The few times when it actually connected to the Internet, music playback was unacceptably choppy, rarely getting more than 10 seconds into a song before buffering. Our corporate network certainly isn't exactly like a home network, but we had no issues connecting any of the other Wi-Fi radios we had on hand, not to mention other devices we had running off Wi-Fi. And the fact that the ARIR200 wouldn't connect via a wired connection was even more confusing; we've never had that problem before.
Testing the radio in a more traditional home environment was much better. We didn't run into any of the connectivity or buffering problems present in the office. That doesn't give us a definitive statement on the ARIR200's reliability, but since other radios we've tested haven't had a problem in either location, we'd at least make sure you have the option to return the ARIR200 in case it doesn't work for you.