Asus is well-known for making PC parts and laptops, but the Asus Internet Radio (also known as the Asus Air) is the first home audio product we've seen from the company. The Air is part of a small wave of Internet radios (also known as Wi-Fi radios) hitting the U.S. market, building on the growing popularity of the product category in Europe. From the spec sheet, the Air looks impressive with a solid connectivity package, including line-in, line-out, and Ethernet jack. Unfortunately, our excitement largely ended as soon as we actually our hands on the product, as it has a cheap feel compared with the competition and--the biggest problem of all--its sound leaves a lot to be desired. And while the Air's $200 price tag used to be a fairly competitive price, it's just about average now. If you really need the Asus' feature set and can live with subpar sound, it might be a worthwhile purchase, but most buyers will be better off with alternatives like the Grace Wireless Internet Radio and the Sony VGF-WA1.
The Asus Air is available in black or brown ("wood") finishes. Unlike most glossy black products, our review sample was surprisingly resistant to fingerprint smudges. The left half of the front panel is dominated by a black speaker grille, which houses the single speaker. The right half features a brass-colored metal faceplate, which gives it a refined look that we found attractive. Toward the top is an LCD screen, and below are five buttons for setting presets, followed by a directional pad and the volume knob. While the Air looks pretty attractive from afar, much of the charm evaporates once you lay your hands on it. The knobs and buttons look like they match the metal faceplate, but they're actually made of a thin plastic that feels low-rent.
Turn on the unit, and the LCD treats you to an old-school splash screen: it starts off all white and slowly reveals the Asus logo--think early video game graphics. The screen also feels a bit clumsy during navigation, as every time you make another selection, the screen animates the new menu coming in from the right. It feels sluggish and looks silly. You'll also notice that when the station names scroll across the screen, there's a strobelike look to it--again, it just looks a bit cheap.
The design of the actual menus is decent, but lacking in some crucial areas. We found the genre filters to be lackluster--for example, we went to the "Indie Rock" category and only found five stations. We know there are more indie-rock stations available when searching by location, so the genre filter just isn't doing its job. On the competing Grace Wireless Internet Radio, we found 80 stations in the indie-rock genre. We had better luck with the locations filters, which allowed you to find stations by country or state--great if you're looking for a specific station, but not very useful if you don't know what kind of music they play.
The Asus Air's included remote matches the style of the main unit, with the brass color filling up the background. The button layout is decent, with a clearly offset directional pad, number buttons, and some separate buttons for functions like favorites, alarm and sleep. The major blunder is the horizontal positioning of the volume buttons at the top of the remote, which isn't intuitive. They deserve their own space. But just the inclusion of a remote at all is a step up over the similar Grace Wireless Internet Radio, so we can't complain too much.
The main feature of the Asus Air is its ability to tune into thousands of Internet radio streams that are freely available on the Web. Internet radio hasn't been that popular in the U.S., but that's too bad, because while your local AM/FM might be lame and satellite radio costs money, you're bound to find something you like on the thousands of free stations available on an Internet radio. Web radio offers online simulcasts of many of the world's broadcast stations (including many of the HD Radio stations you can't get on standard analog radios), as well as a wealth of Internet-only streams; in other words, even the most eclectic music and talk radio fans can find something worth tuning in to.
The Asus Air gets streaming audio from the Internet via your home's broadband connection over your Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet network. The radio has a built-in 802.11g wireless, but it'll also interface with slower 802.11b and faster 802.11n networks. It's compatible with both WEP and WPA security, and we had no problem logging into our WPA network--although entering the network key is a bit tiresome using the directional pad (luckily you only have to do it once).
In terms of connectivity, the Asus Air delivers total flexibility. On the back panel, there's a line-in jack so you can easily connect external devices (like an iPod). There's also a line-out jack, if you want to connect it to, say, your home theater system. We also appreciated the inclusion of an Ethernet jack for those who don't want to deal with a less-reliable Wi-Fi connection, although we're guessing most people won't have Ethernet access where they want to use the Air. Tech geeks will also notice that the Wi-Fi antenna is removable, so you can swap in your own third-party antenna to try and get better performance. Rounding out the rest of the connectivity is a headphone jack conveniently located on the front panel.
While there are only five preset buttons on the front, that's actually a little deceptive. You can "favorite" more than five stations (Asus claims up to 250), and you can pull them up using the "favorites" menu. This is a nice advantage over the Grace Wireless Internet Radio, which only has five presets (although you can get around that limitation by bookmarking favorites on the online Reciva service, which is accessible through the radio).
The radio has clock, alarm, and sleep functionality. When the unit is turned off, it brightly displays the time in large letters, which is great for glancing at it across the room. The alarm can be set to play back a standard beep, a preset melody, or tune into the last station you were listening to. Of course, there's no snooze button or other alarm niceties, so we doubt many will use it as their main alarm clock. The sleep functionality works as you'd expect, with the your time limit options limited to 15, 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes--plenty, in our opinion.
While the Asus Air is pretty well-featured for a Wi-Fi radio, there are some missing features that buyers will want to take note of. Unlike the Grace Wireless Internet Radio, the Air can't pull music off a networked PC (although the Grace wasn't flawless with this functionality). We also really liked the Sony VGF-WA1's built-in lithium battery--allowing you to carry it around your house, wherever you have a Wi-Fi signal--and the Asus Air is limited to traditional power. Still, even with these drawbacks, the Air has a solid feature set that is by far its strong suit.
Sound quality might not be as important on a tabletop radio, but it's still a major concern. But before we start talking about sound quality, let's get some caveats out of the way. First, remember that Internet radio is compressed by nature (sometimes rather severely), so no matter how good the radio is, it's not exactly a "hi-fi" experience. Secondly, keep in mind that the Asus Air is a tabletop radio and sounds like one--don't expect the same sound you get out of a real component-based sound system. And lastly, like many tabletop radios, the Asus Air is limited to mono sound.
Even with those lowered expectations, the Air's sound is uninspiring. We had the Grace Wireless Internet Radio on hand, and we were able to put the Air and the Grace head-to-head. While audio comparisons can often be subtle, this one wasn't--the Grace sounded considerably fuller than the thin and tinny Air. Once we cranked the volume past the halfway point, we'd occasionally hear buzzing and rattling from the speaker. While we're guessing most listeners could put up with thin sound, the occasional buzzing really killed our listening experience. Sure, at times, the Air could actually sound OK, but once we switched over to the Grace the difference was instantly noticeable and preferable.
Wi-Fi connectivity wasn't as strong as we would have liked, either. We had the Air set up in the same environment as the Grace Wireless Internet Radio, and we found it to be a bit less reliable. There would be times when the signal strength meter said we had full strength signal, but it still said "connecting" and wouldn't play any music. We found the trick to be to force the Air to reconnect using the configuration menu, but that was annoying. Once it started playing though, it was mostly glitch free, although there were a few cases where the Air had to "rebuffer." You can adjust the amount of buffer the Air uses in the setup menu--we stuck with the standard 4-second buffer--but you can go up to 8 seconds if you consistently run into problems.
If you really don't care about sound quality or mostly listen to talk, you probably won't mind the Air's sonic shortcomings, but we think most people will be better off with the better-sounding (but less-featured) Grace Wireless Internet Radio or the portable Sony VGF-WA1. As much as we liked the Air's feature set, ultimately we just didn't enjoy listening to it as much as the better-sounding alternatives.