You may not have heard of Tivoli Audio, but it's one of those companies that make a handful of high-end tabletop radios and other assorted audio products. From the Model One to the iPAL and the Music System, the company has specialized in simple radio-centric products that pair retro styling with an accomplished sound. And now the Tivoli product line is entering the 21st century with the NetWorks, a Wi-Fi radio that can access most Internet radio stations, podcasts, and many PC-based audio files. The NetWorks performs well, making it fairly easy for those who aren't tech savvy to dial up any online audio available the world over by genre or location. However, the unit is plagued with some curious design choices--specifically, rear-mounted controls and bottom-mounted jack packs--and an exorbitant price tag: $600 for the Internet-only model, or $50 extra for the NetWorks FM model (reviewed here) that also doubles as a standard FM radio. With plenty of competing models that handle the same basic functions available at less than a third of the price, the NetWorks is best suited for those who are willing to pay a steep premium for its superior sound quality, unique wooden finish, and relative ease of use.
You could be forgiven for mistaking the Tivoli Audio NetWorks for a bookshelf speaker since--if not for the front panel LCD screen--that's pretty much what it looks like. The NetWorks, which is 8.5 inches tall by 5.5 inches wide by 5 inches deep, will initially be available in three wood finishes--walnut, cherry, and wenge. (Tivoli usually expands color offerings over the lifespan of a product, so don't be surprised to see additional finish options in the months and years ahead).
Like most Tivoli products, the NetWorks is monaural, boasting a single 3.5-inch magnetically shielded speaker. Those looking for stereo separation will need to invest in an identically sized speaker add-on ($120), available in the same set of colors. A 3-inch, four-line LCD readout above the speaker is the only other thing on the front face of the NetWorks; it defaults to a clock when the unit's in standby mode.
The NetWorks includes a 20-button credit-card-size remote. You'll likely be using it almost exclusively, thanks to the ill-conceived control scheme on the NetWorks. The unit's topside has a multipurpose dial button that controls volume, mute/snooze (single tap), and power (when held down for a couple of seconds). Otherwise, all of the NetWorks' controls are found on its backside. It's not a lot--just a five-way directional pad for navigating menus, a source toggle button, and five preset keys that double as music transport controls (play/pause, forward, reverse)--but it's the only way to control the NetWorks without the remote. While we assume that Tivoli wanted to keep the unit as minimalist as possible, we really would've preferred these controls to be on the front or top. That's because navigating the Networks requires that you look at the LCD screen at the same time, which is impossible when you're facing the rear-mounted controls. It's frustrating because if you're near the Networks, it would be nice to spin a few dials to change the station--as you can on the Grace Wireless Internet Radio--instead of having to hunt for the remote or fumble around blindly on the backside of the radio.
The control situation was bad enough, but what really confounded us was the NetWorks' connectivity options. It's not that there's anything missing, it's where the inputs and outputs are located: With the exception of the USB port and headphone jack on the back panel, all of the jacks are on the unit's bottom side. While they're inset about 1.25 inches, that's not enough for most plugs to get full clearance. As a result, pretty much any cable you plug in--including Tivoli's own connector for the stereo speaker, for instance--get twisted and bent. While it didn't seem to put the NetWorks off balance, it's a poorly thought-out design choice, putting unnecessary stress on your cables and making it harder to hook things up.
As far as navigation and access are concerned, the Tivoli NetWorks is good, but not great. Using the directional buttons on the remote (or the annoying back-panel directional pad) lets you zip in and out of menus and folders, but the menu system could stand to be a bit more straightforward and intuitive. Likewise, dedicated page up/down buttons would've been nice for scrolling through long lists of songs or stations. And the LCD readout is fine, but we've seen brighter and sharper ones on other products--again, at this price, you should be getting the best.
The NetWorks' primary mission is to play digital audio. It can play most Internet radio stations (MP3, WMA, or RealAudio sources) and podcasts, as well as stream most standard audio file formats from computers on your home network (or a flash drive plugged into its USB port). A standard auxiliary line-in jack lets the NetWorks double as a speaker for any audio source with a headphone jack.
It's worth reiterating that there are actually multiple versions of the NetWorks. In addition to the $600 standard model, there's a $650 version that adds support for over-the-air FM radio (if your local stations aren't broadcasting online, or you're out of Wi-Fi range). The third iteration is a European-only model that offers support for over-the-air DAB broadcasts (the continent's digital radio standard). Tivoli will also be bundling the NetWorks and NetWorks FM with the matching stereo speaker, for those who don't want to be bothered with buying them separately. And we won't bother dinging the NetWorks for the lack of a battery, since Tivoli's hinted that a portable version will be coming at some point in the future (it'll probably look more like the SongBook).