Wi-Fi radios would seem to be a perfect bedside companion, but surprisingly few of them are designed to work as an alarm clock. The Acoustic Research ARIR200 is one of a few that is designed to (at least try to) wake you up in the morning, with a big snooze button on top and easy access to the alarm via buttons on the top. In addition, the ARIR200 is packed with many features not seen even on more expensive radios, including the ability to record stations to its internal memory, Slacker streaming, and weather updates--all for a very reasonable street price of about $100. So why the halfhearted praise? Unfortunately we ran into some connectivity problems (although only at the office) and the ARIR200 tends to emit a hissing sound that's annoying even at this price. We were also disappointed that Acoustic Research didn't throw in dual alarm functionality, especially because it's available on the competing Aluratek Internet Radio. The Acoustic Research ARIR200 doesn't have any deal-breaking flaws and the price is right, but a few critical improvements would have made us like it a lot more.
The exterior design of a product is always subjective, but we'd be surprised if anyone considered the ARIR200 better than average. It has an unusual trapezoidal shape that tapers toward the top, and the majority of the unit is covered in glossy black plastic that attracts fingerprints very easily. That's more of a problem than usual, since you're likely to be groping the ARIR200 in a sleepy daze to hit the snooze button. Aside from smudges, there's no denying that the ARIR200 has a "cheap" look and feel, but it's worth noting that it doesn't affect the usability of the product.
Like the competing Aluratek Internet Radio, the ARIR200 is designed to function as an alarm clock, rather than a Wi-Fi radio with alarm functionality as an afterthought. On top of the unit there's a big snooze button, and there's a handy "alarm" button for quickly setting the alarm. The silver wheel on the far right is for volume. We also appreciated the easy access buttons that bring up weather and change sources.
The rest of the controls are on the front panel. Buttons line the display on both sides, with the handy home button on the upper right-hand corner. Below the display is a directional pad for navigating the menus. Although the directional pad works fine, we tend to find that knob-based navigation is faster on devices like these.
The ARIR200 is technically a Wi-Fi radio, but to us its design really makes it feel more like an alarm clock with a Wi-Fi radio as a bonus. That's why we were a little disappointed that the ARIR200 only offers relatively basic alarm functionality. The best part is that you can set your alarm to go off to a variety of sources, like an Internet radio or Slacker station. However, there's no dual alarm functionality and you can't set alarms to reoccur on a specific schedule--for instance, only on the weekdays. The competing Aluratek Internet Radio offers dual alarms.
Particularly useful for an alarm clock is the ARIR200's weather feature, which uses the WeatherBug service. Press the weather button once to get today's forecast and once more to get a three-day forecast. There's a strange note in the manual that the ARIR200 comes with "complimentary four-year weather, on-demand subscription from WeatherBug." Yes, four years is a long time, but we still feel a little uneasy that the weather feature will stop working eventually, especially since we tend to use alarm clocks for decades.
Like every Wi-Fi radio, the ARIR200 can access thousands of Internet radio stations available for free online. If you can't stand what's available on AM/FM (neither can we) and don't want to pay for satellite radio (neither do we), there's plenty of great stations available online for just about everybody.
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.